A mirage to your eyes and a true world wonder. I only hope the rest of the world does not discover the magic temples on the plains of Bagan.
Of course, this is a futile hope, and perhaps not a worthy sentiment at all. Bagan has been renowned for ages. Marco Polo is quoted, calling it “A gilded city, alive with tinkling bells and the swishing sound of monks’ robes”. He may have been here, but during the days I spent in Bagan there were far less monks than in Mandalay and Yangon.
This is #9 of twelve articles describing my 2013 visit to Myanmar. In addition there are 7 videos and a large picture album.
What there is to see
Indeed the “gilded city” is not so gilded anymore. Years of neglect and natural disasters have had serious consequences on the majority of temples and religious monuments from the 11th to 13th centuries. According to an article the official count by the end of the 13th century was 4,446. By 1901 surveys found 2,157 monuments still standing and identifiable. According to resident Burmese archaeologist U Aung Kyaing, the last count was taken in 1978, when archaeologists found 2,230 identifiable sites. However, most contemporary references on the subject quote a figure of 2,217. These figures do not include brick mounds, which would give a total of nearly 4,000 separate visible sites. “
There is a huge variety of buildings across the plain of Bagan. The large majority of sites, be it temples, stupas (Buddhist religious monuments) and kyaungs (monasteries) are in their most basic shape, red bricks. Some are covered by white painted plaster. Occasionally stucco reliefs have survived and even multi-coloured murals. The murals in particular are in danger of disappearing altogether, judging from what I read up on and observed.
In Bagan we find some of the most amazing gilded buildings in all of Myanmar, and indeed the entire Buddhist world. The most prominent example is probably the Shwezigon Pagoda. It looks roughly like the Shwedagon in Yangon, completely covered by gold and even with relics inside of the former Prince Gautama himself. This pagoda dates back to 1102 and is recognised as the prototype of Burmese stupas.
Destruction and reconstruction
I could have been name-dropping quite a few of the great temples I visited, (and the ones I did not visit) but the reader would not be able to appreciate all the names. Let me just refer to other sources, like this one. In my opinion, the most fascinating buildings were the ones with basic red brick, particularly nice under a low sun.
The last big earthquake happened in 1975 (and again in 2016 after my visit). The 1975 quake was a disaster. Over the years after this the Myanmar authorities have tried to restore, not to say reconstruct the destroyed buildings. (Have a look at my picture in the slideshow below.) They did this the “Asian” way, not paying enough attention to the authenticity of the result. In short, they wanted to develop the buildings into something (slightly) new.
This was the cause of a conflict between Myanmar and the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, and the reason why Bagan was left out of the World Heritage List. For obvious reasons this conflict cannot go on for much longer, it has to be resolved. Bagan is a “must” to take care of future generations.
Inside the Kyat Kan Kyaung cave monastery. It was pitch dark, this light is from my flash and I was allowed to shoot the picture because there were no monks inside just then.
Finally, in 2019 Bagan became part of the World Heritage List. Read my article: World Heritage #1588 – Bagan
The city of Bagan, now Old Bagan, has no real city structure. It’s more of a village. It rests on the bank of the Ayeyarwaddy River, the mighty river flowing almost the entire north-south length of Myanmar. Old Bagan makes, along with the other riverside towns of Nyaung U to the east and New Bagan to the south, up the inhabited parts of the Bagan. In between this triangle and a bit further inland there is a large plain, covered by trees and cultivated by local peasants.
Paved roads connect the towns and the airport (making a square), and the outside world. The plain is dotted with ancient religious buildings by the thousands. Dirt roads criss-crosses this territory and some of the innermost temples are even possible to visit by car or minibus. There is hardly any public transportation between the towns, and nothing across the plain in between. Visitors rent bicycles (battery types have become increasingly popular) or a horse-cart for the day. Some even walk although I would suggest you will find the bicycle a lot more practical.
Bagan has no tuk-tuk kind of transportation, motorcycles are not allowed to take foreigners and you are basically left with having to rent a (quite expensive) private car with a driver if you want to make your visit comfortable. I had a bike one of the days, and a private chauffeur-driven car the other day. I would suppose the transportation issue (a hassle) is about to change as a matter of necessity as the number of tourists are due to explode over the next few years.
The hot-air balloons seen on a lot of photographs, are seasonal means of “transportation”. There were none in August, during my visit.
Most people seem to spend two or perhaps three days in Bagan. They all stand the risk of getting “pagodaed out”, tired of all the temples. My advice is to limit yourself to a handful of the larger ones, including the very few that are still open for climbing. This is perfect in the afternoon to get the sunset pictures you will have seen before arriving here. Then, have a look also at all the nice “naked” little stupas or temples, and not least the ruins. They are very charming. I was also lucky to get inside an underground monastery, where monks would come to meditate in total darkness.
My Myanmar travel map
If you have seen too much of the temples, there are a few other things to do while in Bagan. In the next article I’m looking into some of them.
This article is part of a series from Myanmar, describing my travels in August 2013. My visit is presented in ten chapters, a planning document and an article with some final impressions from a country which is included on just about everyone’s bucket list. Read all chapters:
THIS CHAPTER: (9) The Temples of Bagan