BAGAN, MYANMAR—Just behind Somingyi, I spotted a new edifice going up. The souvenir salesman and I wandered over to watch a crew rebuild a small cube temple leveled by an earthquake. The construction techniques looked like what might have been used for the original temples here -- bamboo ladder and scaffold, a pot of lime for mortar and bricks a-flying. The hurler was a skinny young woman in a straw hat who in another land might have a future on the softball mound. In the wilting sun, she flung brick after brick to a worker 12 feet up.
I asked who was funding the job and was told, a private benefactor. Donors to Buddhist sites can win spiritual merit, a motivation that spurs contributions.
KINGLY ONE-UPMANSHIPIn a country that is 90% Buddhist, Bagan is a prime destination for the faithful, who arrive on jammed, decrepit mini-buses with pilgrims stacked on the roof like luggage. All Burmese try to visit the site at least once in their lives. The heart of the most revered temples is Old Bagan, home of the imperial capital, abandoned after it was overrun by the Mongols in the late 13th century.
Of the hundreds of spires suspended in the haze of Old Bagan, Ananda Pahto stands out. The day before my bike expedition, I explored the majestic whitewashed structure, topped by an ornate, gilded steeple. It was built in 1105 in the prime of temple construction, which exploded after the Bamar king Anawrahta defeated the southern Mon armies in 1057 and united most of modern-day Myanmar under his rule at Bagan.
Anawrahta went on a building tear, using the slave labor of conquered armies to raise Buddhist structures. Maybe that explains the proliferation of temples -- free labor. My guide that day didn't think so. He believed it was all about ego, a popular motive for the monumental works of ancient developers, from Egypt to Mayan realms.
"The kings tried to outdo each other and show their power," he said.
Anawrahta's successor, Kyanzittha, topped him by commissioning Ananda. Inside its giant teak doors and walls several feet thick, 20-foot golden Buddhas towered under soaring arches. Each stood in the teaching posture, arms outstretched, stylized in the Indian fashion, with long ears and transparent robe.
Bagan's smorgasbord of sacred architecture contains Shwezigon, an imposing golden mountain that is the Taj Mahal of zedis. As I emerged from a shaded arcade into the sunlight torching Shwezigon, the blast of gold from the temple was blinding. The conical dome glowed above three staggered terraces, with ledges striped in burgundy, altogether a marvel of symmetry and elegance. The structure was covered in gold leaf, re-rubbed on by hand in postage stamp-sized bits every four years.
The faithful padded clockwise in the Buddhist tradition around the gold pinnacle, stopping at shrines and altars to pray -- for happiness, health or good grades. A group of country girls dropped to kneel on the tile of an open-air temple. Lifting hands in prayer until thumbs touched foreheads, each bent forward to the ground in full prostration. Prayer is one of the few realms where Burmese are allowed to express themselves in this Orwellian land.
Atop the steep, Mayan-like Shwesandaw temple, still open to rooftop viewing (others have been closed to funnel people to the government tower), I took in one of the most haunting horizons in antiquity. Spires tickling the twilight in all directions celebrated a Buddhist message lost on centuries of leaders: freedom, through enlightenment, compassion and egolessness.
A FAMILY COOLDOWNBack on the bike, I realized it was almost noon, "the time of silent feet," as George Orwell called it, when humans head for any scrap of shade to escape the barbecue. I followed my friend, the souvenir salesman, to a poor but tidy village where the homes are made traditionally from bamboo and girls pull pails of water by rope from cement wells.
I found his family under an awning etching lacquered bowls. Many families in the village are artisans -- in this case, the fourth generation of artists, said my friend's father, his teeth stained red by betel nut. A craftsman carved while four girls painted bowls. I asked them why there were so many temples in their backyard, but no one knew.
"It's a blessing," my friend said.
After a cooldown with this typically sweet Burmese family, I rode back into the broiler. I quickly bumped into one of the most beloved temples in Bagan -- Manuha Paya, a moldering structure named after the Mon king who was defeated and imprisoned by Anawrahta. According to legend, the Burmese ruler allowed Manuha to design his own temple, and the prisoner took advantage of it, creating a commentary on his captivity. Three giant seated Buddhas and a reclining statue are stuffed into cramped rooms, heads scraping the ceiling, shoulders jammed wall to wall.
I watched as a group of the faithful -- old men with shopping bags, mothers with children, pilgrims -- silently did devotions at the foot of a boxed-in Buddha. Perhaps some were offering what I was told is the most popular prayer at this temple, one that speaks to a Buddhist legacy more enduring than the architectural exploits of kings and generals: the wish for freedom.