When I landed at the Bagan airport on the morning of my one day in the ancient city, there was only one thing on my mind: Seeing the sunset.
I have been staring at a photo of the setting Southeast Asian sun over the ruins on my desktop background for over a year — before I even realized where the photo had been taken (I knew embarrassingly little about Myanmar before I got here). I’ve stalked the moment deep into the depths of strangers’ Instagram accounts and knew before I got to Bagan exactly where I wanted to be when it happened (the Shwesandaw Pagoda) and exactly what time I needed to be there (5:50pm, so I had enough time to climb the steps).
A few things I found out when I arrieved: Bagan is an hour flight North of Yangon, and the climate is (somehow) 10 degrees hotter. It was the nation’s capital from the 11th to 13th centuries and is now an active archeological site. In fact, when you leave the airport, there is an enormous sign demanding that “TOURISTS MUST PAY $10 FEE TO ENTER CITY,” which I kind of loved. Back in the day, there were supposedly over 10,000 religious monuments, though now its estimated that only 2,600 remain.
“Only” is kind of a misnomer, though, because literally everywhere you look there is some sort of insane Pagoda within 40 feet of you. They range from ancient-looking brown to gold glided to over the top mirrored, and each one of them is straight-up stunning in its own way. So obviously, seeing all of them together, against the backdrop of a setting sun? Top-5-on-the-bucket-list level amazing, on par with seeing the Northern Lights and climbing to the top of the pyramids.
“OK, but only if we’re done in time to see the sunset,” I reminded the tour guide every time she suggested anything throughout the day. She was very patient with me, but even I knew I was being annoying
But as we went through the activities that I was initially only sort-of into — two pagodas, lunch at a local restaurant, the Bagan market, a local village — Something happened. Throughout the day, the city slowly became more to me than just a prime location for an Instagram shoot.
The more time I spent in Bagan, the more I realized just how special the city and its people really are. At the Pagodas, we watched hundreds of people lay out food not only as offerings to Buddha, but as donations to the hungry. Nearly everyone we passed (including a monk) asked to take a picture together, and everyone was constantly telling me how young and beautiful I was (which, obviously, I loved). At the market, my mom and I really, really had to pee, so the owner of one of the shops took us too her house to use the bathroom. The amount of warmth, openness and genuine goodness I experienced from the people of Bagan was like nothing I had ever witnessed before.
When it came time for sunset, I felt pretty ridiculous that I had initially written off everything else about the incredible, historic city that I grew to love so quickly… But I’m not gonna lie — I was still absolutely pumped to see it and get an Instagram photo. I’m a millennial, sue me.
We pulled up to the Pagoda just as the sun was starting to go down, and as soon as my mom saw the insane looking steps required to get to the top, she issued a prompt “hell, no” and decided she was fine watching it from the ground. I was on my own.
Turns out, she was right. The steps were treacherous, and as someone who is very, very afraid of heights I was terrified as I ascended them by myself. Locals — including monks — pushed past me, and it took me 25 minutes to get to the top of the 70-something steps. By the end of it, I was crawling on my hands and knees. When I finally got there, I stayed on my hands and knees because I was too scared to stand up. There were hundreds of people, and I was 100% convinced that I was going to get pushed off and be written up in The Daily Mail as “GIRL FALLS OFF OF ANCIENT RUIN TRYING TO TAKE SELFIES.” Little Burmese girls were pointing, laughing and taking pictures of me while I tried to get photos from my mom’s iPad while posted up on the ground. It wasn’t my most shining moment.
Finally, I manage to crawl over to a quiet corner at the back of the Pagoda and parked myself safely on an inside ledge. As I sat there, alone at the top of this zillion-year-old piece of architecture, I had one of those “holy shit, I’m so grateful” moments. All of a sudden, it really wasn’t about the picture — it was about the moment. There I was, by myself, seeing something that I had dreamed about for so, so long. I thought back to the times I stared at that picture on my desktop in my NYC apartment, trying to figure out WTF I was doing with my life and how I was ever going to find any meaning, and finally felt like I’d found it. I was a little confused about why there were no balloons like there were on my background, but didn’t care that much because I was busy having an epiphany.
It was in that moment that I decided I wanted to dedicate this year to this blog, travel writing and sharing the incredible things that I’m seeing in this world with people willing to read about them. For the last two months, I’ve felt a little bit lost in my work, and not as fulfilled by the same things I was doing before I left New York. I realized how special this experience is (which I’ve known all along, but this time it really hit me hard), and how important it is that I don’t waste a single second of it. Myanmar inspired the hell out of me, which means I’ll be writing for this blog every day (you may have noticed that the verticals are now completely different to reflect this change, and are about much more than just beauty treatments) and I plan to pour my blood, sweat, and tears into growing myself as a travel journalist. Thank God I survived the hands-and-knees trek back down the stairs to live to tell the story.
Also, as it turns out… The picture on my computer background was apparently taken at sunrise, when the balloons launch over the ruins. Whoops.
… This photo was taken the next morning, when I dragged my mom out of bed at 5am to watch the balloons launch from the viewing tower at the Aureum Palace. Thankfully, it had an elevator.