As a fierce afternoon sun finally begins to dip, work on the Ananda Temple begins again. The heat here in Bagan, 200 kilometres south of Mandalay, in central Myanmar, is stifling. Still slightly groggy from a much-needed afternoon siesta, I wander into the main temple compound through the cool, porticoed entrance.
Recently awakened from their own collective slumber, teams of local labourers saunter from the shadows armed with buckets and brushes. Two Indian archaeologists, decked out in shirts and traditional longyi, walk slowly around the temple's exterior, deep in conversation as they inspect bamboo scaffolding that clings to the weathered walls like a series of flimsy matchstick towers.
On my first afternoon in Bagan I've arranged to visit an Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) team that has been based in Ananda's grounds since 2012. Restoring the temple to its former glory, the team is surveying, repairing and uncovering secrets in one of Myanmar's oldest and most important religious structures.
"This heat reminds me of home," says a perspiring Amalesh Roy as he proffers a clammy hand. "Still, it's better than the weather I had when I was studying back in England."
Despite the heat, frequent power cuts and the occasional flash flood, Roy is clearly happy with his current assignment. He and I sip freshly squeezed mango juice beside the temple's reflecting pool as we watch other members of the ASI team direct the cleaning of the temple's exterior walls.
"Of course, Bagan isn't as well known yet as Cambodia's Angkor Wat or China's Terracotta Army," says Roy. "As Myanmar opens up, though, it will be. You've got over 2,000 temples, monasteries and pagodas crammed into an area of 40 square kilometres. This is one of southeast Asia's most significant sites, from a cultural and archaeological viewpoint. For me, being able to work here at Ananda is a dream come true."
While Bagan is undoubtedly one of the world's greatest archaeological wonders, its relatively low profile means it has yet to attract throngs of sightseers. Indeed, if you wander around one of the more remote temples here, you may just have the entire place to yourself. The setting for all this majestic culture is sublime - a verdant plain, partly covered in stands of palm and tamarind, held in a bend of the languid Irrawaddy and framed by the hazy, silver-grey hues of faraway cordilleras.
TEMPLE TO AN EMPIRE
As we take in a curry and a puppet show at the ever-popular Nanda Restaurant that night, local guide Nay Myo Ko tells me a little more about Bagan's history.
"Bagan was founded as a fortified settlement in 849, but it didn't really expand until King Anawrahta came to power in the 11th century," says Ko. "Under Anawrahta's rule Bagan rose to become the centre of a mighty Burmese empire. During its height, the city boasted 10,000 Buddhist temples and pagodas. There may only be fraction of these left, but what remains is still awe-inspiring."
For my long weekend in Bagan I've chosen to stay in the city's archaeological zone. Home to many of the main temples, stretches of old city wall, a museum, a reconstructed palace and a range of restaurants and shops, this treasure trove of sights also contains most of the best hotels.
The following day after breakfast I hail a horse-drawn cart and head back to the Ananda Temple for a more leisurely look over this impressive building. With its glittering hti (central spire) , Ananda dominates the skyline as we approach. Located east of Bagan's city walls, this magnificently ornate structure is a symmetrical masterpiece of early Burmese architecture.
For me, the highlight of Ananda's heavily frescoed interior is its quartet of massive standing Buddhas, each facing one of the four points of the compass. "It's highly unlikely that these Buddhas date back more than a few hundred years," says Ko. "However, they have a powerful presence. The way they're hidden from view until you get close still takes my breath away."
The next stop on our tour is the unrestored Dhammayangyi, a massive, 12th-century temple that lies close to Ananda. Resembling a squat Egyptian pyramid, this leviathan is famous for its sheer size and mysterious, blocked-up passageways.
After lunch and a succession of smaller temples, our cart arrives at Shwesandaw, Bagan's most famous sunset spot. This graceful white pagoda boasts five terraces and a cylindrical stupa, whimsically topped off with a bejewelled umbrella.
From the pink hues of dawn to the golden glow of dusk, Bagan has taken on different personalities throughout the day. With the dying sun illuminating myriad cupolas and spires in every direction, it's easy to see why Marco Polo was so enchanted when he passed through here in the 13th century. Eight hundred years later, Polo's so-called "gilded city" is still worthy of the highest accolades.
In addition to its temples and museums, Bagan's daily market at Nyaung U is also a must-see. Attracting people from the city and neighbouring countryside, this colourful bazaar offers a cornucopia of produce — everything from fish and fruit to rice and rattan.
The following morning Nay Myo Ko and I perch on low stools outside a market stall, enjoying Ko's favourite breakfast of rice pancakes and tea leaf salad. Groups of women and children flow past us, their faces painted in thanaka, a white cosmetic paste made from ground tree bark. As an introduction to Burmese culture, Bagan has been a revelation, and I'm sorry to be leaving so soon. Famous British author and one-time resident Rudyard Kipling summed things up nicely when he wrote: "This is Burma. It will be quite unlike any land you know about."
Way to go
Air Asia flies daily from Hong Kong to Yangon from about HK$2,000. Air Bagan flies daily from Yangon to Bagan (and back) from about US$120 (one way).
Where to stay
- The Hotel @ Tharabar Gate An upmarket hotel set in lush gardens overlooking the famous Ananda Temple. Colonial-style rooms, spa and pool. tharabargate.com
- Thiripitsaya Sanctuary Resort Myanmese-style luxury on the banks of the Irrawaddy River. Features cooking classes, spa and pool. thiripyitsaya-resort.com
Perhaps the best way to appreciate the sheer scale of Bagan's majestic archaeology is to take an early morning hot air balloon trip with local outfit Balloons over Bagan. Flights typically start at sunrise and last about an hour. Prices include hotel transfer and a light champagne breakfast. Some of the profits go towards local community projects. easternsafaris.com