It’s hard to comprehend the sheer will that went into building the temples of Bagan over a 200-year period starting in the 11th century. Bagan is the apex of the Myanmar temple aesthetic that values quantity—without forsaking quality—which can also be seen at Sagaing Hill near Mandalay and Inn Dein at Inle Lake.
But taking in more than 4,000 art-filled temples in a 26-square-mile area quickly leads to temple overload. The cure for my wife and me was biking the dusty trails and making genuine, endearing encounters with locals—there was the aged monk who showed us around his monastery and introduced us to pupils; the girls who gave us an impromptu tour of their home in the middle of a cluster of temples; the guy who helped with a flat tire, then biked well out of his way to help get us to our hotel.
One tangible takeaway of that hospitality is a piece of unlikely art from a sand painter. The nearby Irrawaddy River provides sand that is glued onto canvases used by these painters of Bagan, who demonstrate their craft for tourists on the floor of the ancient temples. Unlike some who are pushy, one guy never asked us to buy his art—in fact, he never showed it to us. Wanting only to practice his English, the young man showed us around his temple, pointing out ancient paintings he used for inspiration and the outstanding vista from the upper level. Then, on the spot, he sketched us a quick postcard so we would remember Bagan. As if we could forget.