Bagan, Burma (Myanmar)
Bagan (formerly Pagan) | Myanmar
Known as the city of pagodas, Bagan is one of the richest archeological sites in Asia and the main tourist attraction in Myanmar. Originally, over thirteen thousand religious sites were built on the large plain, and today, through all the ravages of time, about 2,200 of them are still standing. The river Ayeyarwady has washed away much of the original structures and many temples were destroyed by plundering thieves. But those that remain rise out of the dusty plain majestically and especially sunrise is considered a magical time. Since the temperatures are sweltering hot during the day and cold during the night, early in the morning tendrils of mists weave through the temples and trees early in the morning, giving the site that famous mythical look.
A Brief History Of Bagan
Bagan was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan from the 9th to the 13th centuries. This kingdom was the first to unify the area that is now Myanmar, establishing the Burmese culture and ethnicity, as well as Theravada Buddhism, in the region. Over this period of rule, as the city and kingdom grew in influence and stature, over 10,000 temples were built on the plains surrounding the capital next to the Irrawaddy River.
After Mongol invasions eventually led to the fall of the Kingdom of Pagan, the city was reduced to a small settlement, never to recover its former glories. The area did, however, remain a destination for Buddhist pilgrimage. A few hundred temples were added between the 13th and 20th centuries, but the huge amount of earthquake damage over the years means that only 2200 temples remain, in varying states of repair.
Indeed, over the last 500 years many of the existing temples have been renovated – a process that, continuing to this day, has yielded mixed results. It is said to be due to the government’s insensitive ‘updates’ in the 1990s (including a golf course and modern watch tower) that Bagan has not attained UNESCO World Heritage site status, although it is once again being considered. But the area is large enough, and there remains so much of what is original still to see, that none of this stops the temples of Bagan being a unique wonder to behold.
Exploring The Temples
Every one of the 2200 plus temples, stupas and pagodas has its own unique story to tell, and many can be freely explored – inside and out. The most spectacular time to see the temples is when the sun dramatically rises and falls over the plain at dawn or dusk.
There are several ways to explore Bagan:
Hire a bicycle. This is the cheapest way to get around, and also allows you the most freedom to do as you choose; the plain is too large to explore by foot, but getting around by bike allows you to get to most of the temples. Almost all hotels and guesthouses have them for hire, as do various restaurants and shops on the popular ‘Restaurant Row’ in Nyaung U. Prices are usually around K2000 per day.
You can hire an electric bike for around K8000 per day – though on the flat plains of Bagan, the advantages over a bicycle are minimal. Tourists are not allowed to use motorbikes in Bagan.
You can pick up a free tourist map showing you the main points of interest; although you are unlikely to get seriously lost, it is worth planning your trip in advance to make the most of your time. Bear in mind that it can get hot and dusty when cycling, particularly in the summer months, so you should take water with you. There are plenty of restaurants around the place to pick up refreshments.
Go on a horse and cart guided tour. This is many people’s favourite, and certainly the most romantic way to see the temples. Most drivers speak at least some English (it is worth checking before you agree the price), and will of course know good routes around the temples and some hidden gems. However, horses have to follow more well-trodden tracks than bicycles, so there are areas they cannot reach. Prices range from K15,000 to K25,000 for a day, depending on the season and where you hire the horse and cart from (New Bagan tends to be more expensive). Carts can be shared between two or, at most, three people.
Take an air conditioned taxi, if you want to avoid the heat and dust completely. This is naturally the most comfortable way to get around, and most drivers speak English. Cars will usually cost between $20 and $50 per day, depending on the season and how far you travel.
The most exotic and spectacular way to see the temples is to head to the sky for a hot air balloon trip. These cost around $275 per person, and offer a unique view of the plain and temples. Balloon tours can be booked here; you should always book well in advance, particularly at popular times of year such as Christmas and New year.