When we arrived in Bagan, my friend Tin Win wandered over to a horse-cart driver for a talk and a betel chew. We hired him to take us around to look at the temples and soon were riding along the dusty plains strewn with crumbling ancient stupas, passing numerous jumbled heaps of bricks in the overgrown grass. The villagers lived among the ruins scattered over the plains. The setting was other-worldly—a lost Buddhist civilization of gilded stupa spires, of temples made of brick and stucco
We rode along a rutted track. The clip-clopping hooves resounded on the dry path. Goats were grazing nearby. The sun was already hot. The cart driver shoved a plug of betel under his top lip as we passed a bell-shaped stupa crowned with a gilded hti.
“We stop here?” the driver asked, slowing down in front of a crumbling temple with its perforated stone windows and a lotus-bud sikharta. We hopped out, clambered up the moss-covered steps to the entrance and took sanctuary in the cool darkness. On the walls were bas-reliefs of ogresses and Makara sea creatures. I groped my way through a cavernous chamber, chirping bats fluttering past me in the dark.
We crouched through a stooped corridor to a vaulted chamber where Tin Win used a strong flashlight to look at the ceiling paintings of celestial dancers and the half-lion, half-dragon chinthe. A gilded Buddha stood in an arched recess.
In an alcove was a headless statue, gaudily painted, and detailed engravings with lotus-flower motifs. With the flashlight, we made out a stone inscription in ancient Sanskrit.
When we came out of the temple the driver was squatting in the dust by the horse-cart, his mouth frothed red with betel juice, beside him a splatter of betel in the sand. Tin Win said something in Burmese to him and the driver handed him a quid of betel nut wrapped in a lime-coated leaf. Tin Win liked chewing betel nut for the warm, mild buzz it gave.