Bagan leaves you speechless. It’s a struggle for words to really do the place justice but I hope that the photos will at least scratch the surface of what this city filled with thousands of temples, pagodas and monasteries is really like. To be honest though, you just need to visit Bagan. It is without a doubt one of the only places I have ever visited that truly took my breath away.
Situated in the Mandalay region of Myanmar on the banks of the Ayeyarwady river, the ancient kingdom of Bagan dating back to the 9th century is home to over 10,000 religious monuments spread out over a vast region of 104 square kilometres of desert plains. This expansive archaeological zone is now the main draw for the growing tourism in Myanmar and with good reason. I haven’t made it to Angkor Wat yet, but many say it is at least on a par with the famous Cambodian wonder.
We stayed in the Old Bagan area where the original kingdom was formed and which is deemed to be the main site for exploration. There are no longer any locals living here since 1990 as they were turfed out by the government to make way for the development of the site as a tourist area and renovation works of the temples (they had suffered a lot of damage after an earthquake in 1975). Old Bagan has a few mid to top end hotels. We decided to stay here as the main temples would be in easier reach (and at $35 a night, the beautiful Hotel Thande was totally worth it!).
We chose to take it easy the first day and walk around Old Bagan. With temperatures reaching at least 35 degrees every day, we took our time and each temple offered cooling relief from the drain of the dry heat. I’m not going to pretend I’ve remembered every name of every temple – there were so many and the Burmese names were not exactly easy to get to grips with!
Having identified some temples further afield, the next morning we grabbed a couple of electric bikes, probably the most popular way transport method for tourists here. Quicker than walking and much more fun, at only 8,000 kyat ($8) for the day they were a bargain. I thought being a bike-lover I would have no problem on these – two wheels, two pedals, easy right? Well, almost. They were definitely more like a scooter than a bike, the pedals were pretty much obsolete! Once I’d got to grips with controlling the speed with my hand it was simple enough. My top tip would be stick to the main routes and avoid off the beaten track with deep sand – turns out bikes and sand don’t mix!
Every temple was unique in some way; some were huge boasting giant golden stupas, some were much smaller and more dilapidated but still with their own charm and each one had its own share of impressive buddha statues, stone carvings or wall paintings.
We were staying in Bagan for three nights and after two days of roaming around I was starting to feel a twinge of temple overkill. I love admiring the architecture, learning about the history and soaking up the tranquil atmosphere but there is a limit! Still with one more day to fill though we chose the lazy option of hiring a taxi to ferry us around the remaining sites we were keen on seeing. It wasn’t cheap ($35 for the day), but in terms of value it was worth it. We were kept cool in the blissful air-conditioning of the car and our friendly taxi driver acted as our guide and knew exactly where to take us. We even visited a local village which was the perfect break from temples, temples and more temples. I loved the opportunity to witness the everyday life of rural people. Although I was a bit gutted when we were led into a full blown tourist gift shop at the end of our tour by one of the villagers! You can’t blame them for wanting to make money off us though…
Busy hot days touring the temples were put to rest with mesmerising sunset views providing the perfect opportunity to take in some stunning panoramas. On our first evening we took a boat tour up the huge Ayeyarwady river where the banks were sprinkled with locals washing their clothes, showering and playing in the warmth of the fading sun. After jetting an hour upstream we floated back down to watch the sun disappear over the mountains in the distance. A gorgeous part of the day, I witnessed two more sunsets from the heights of the pagodas, sharing the atmosphere with other travellers who had clambered up to enjoy the breathtaking views. If you don’t mind the crowds, you can nestle in amongst the fellow admirers at Shwesandaw temple, famous for its expansive views over Bagan. Alternatively many people seek out quieter temples for a more private viewing. Either way I guarantee every step will be worth it when you reach the top!
Bagan certainly gave me a flavour of the rich history and culture Myanmar has to offer. With one night left back in Yangon, I knew I’d be returning to explore the more undiscovered sights of this fascinating country. Next stop, Vietnam!