Egypt has its Pyramids, Cambodia has its Angkor Wat, and Myanmar has its Bagan. In the Northeastern section of Myanmar is an area known as Bagan. Originally there were over 10,000 temples at this religious hub, but now there are less than 3000. The temples were built between the 9th and 13th century, when Bagan was capital of the Pagan Empire. It was the religious center of all Burma, and pilgrims would come to study here from as far away as India. The style of Buddhism that was practiced was a mix of Theravad and Mahayana Buddhism, with some other bits mixed in. I would love to explain what that means, but people spend their entire lives studying these things, and still can’t give me a simple explanation on what it means. The Pagan Empire collapsed in 1287 after a Mongol invasion that lasted 30 years. A few choice temples continued to be used, but over all the entire place was abandoned and left to ruin. The current government went in and did shoddy renovation recently, using modern materials with little effort to preserve or reproduce how they were originally. It lost its UNESCO status because of this, but it’s still really amazing place to go and see it.
It’s about a 9 to 10 hour bus ride on highways from Rangoon, making the trip pleasant enough for Myanmar. The train here takes 27 hours, it’s hot and torturous from what I hear, so if Anthony Bourdain wants to do that for his show, grand, but the bus is for me. Once you are let off at the bus station it’s up to you to make any necessary negotiations for transportation. We had no real knowledge of where we were, but using Trip Advisor we had booked ahead of time a place with a pool. There were horse drawn carts and one minivan taxi there. We tossed our bags in the van and started hitting up our driver with questions on what to do here. The sun was already on its way down in the sky, and it was smoldering hot here. In route we passed numerous temples, and our heads were whipping back and forth checking them out. They were everywhere, of all sizes and shapes. On paper you see the words “Over 3000 Pyramids” but until you are actually here, you cant really grasp how many that is. The entire land is peppered with them.
Our hotel, Kaday Aung Hotel, was at the end of a very dusty road, in a walled in compound. The first thing you see is a lovely tropical pool with a cascading waterfall. This is exactly what we wanted. Our room was a completely circular in design, odd in shape, with a futon mattress on an elevated section of the floor, but it was a huge room, and air-conditioned. First thing we did was jump in the pool and relax. It was so hot that you had to dip in every 10 minutes or so, other wise it just was not that comfy. The staff at the hotel were great, and really did everything they could to make sure we were comfy.
The next morning we were up at 5 am with rented bikes for our self guided tour of the temples. We did not get far because the bikes were broken, so we went back and got some new ones. Bagan is a hilly desert. They were not big hills, but still took a lot of effort to bike around. By 8 am it was already in the mid 90s, so we were pounding water like no tomorrow. Yvonne is a natural on the bike, but I am like a fish out of water. I still have no idea how to use gears, but these bikes did not come with them so it was no problem. Obviously with 3000 temples there was no chance we were going to hit them all, nor did we feel it was necessary. The larger temples were often similar in style, with four sides coming up like a pyramid to a flat roof. Some times they would have wings extending out. On the roof was a small domed temple. Others were simply small domed buildings. All of them had a lot of ornate peaks worked into the design. The inside of these were very small, sometimes with space only for one person. They had steep stairs to the top that were quiet dangerous if you did not go carefully. Even though it was the wrong part of the world, I still couldn’t get the image of heads being chopped off at the top and tossed down the stairs.
Some temples had shrines on the inside, where there might be a giant gold Buddha inside, or various other deities. But they were not original; most had the feel of giant, cheap plaster sculptures. On our bike ride we probably saw twenty or so temples, but by 11 am we were ready for lunch. We stopped and had a delicious chicken and rice dish on the side of the road, and then headed back for a dip in the pool. After that, we retreated in to our bungalow for a few hours siestas. It’s just too hot to do anything else. This would be our routine the entire time we were here.
After 4 pm or so we hired a cab to take us around to some other temples and catch a sunset. We climbed one temple and watched the sun slowly dip down in the west. It was an amazing site with all the temples silhouetted in the distance, with a giant fiery orb in the background. From looking around at the top, all you could see were temples dotting the landscape. It’s the best way to understand how huge this ancient capital was.
My only complaint about the whole place was the amount of litter everywhere. This is a National Archeology Park, yet no effort was made to manage all the trash. These temples are scattered all over, and between them are fields and scrub lands. All you see is plastic bags and trash caught up in the nettles. It seems to me if the Military wants to turn this into a major tourist attraction, then they should give more jobs to locals to keep the park up. Along those lines, they should also hire real archeologist who can reconstruct the temples how they were, and actually have information on them.
That night we went to a traditional puppet show at our hotel. This is really huge out here, and one puppeteer controls demons, horses, damsels, and warriors. It was a very impressive show. At the end he came out and explained how he made the puppets and allowed us to have a hand at working them.
The small town of Bagan was all relatively new looking because the military government forced all the people to move there when they made this area an Archeology Park. There was a lot of controversy over this, but in this country, the Military does pretty much what ever it wants to. The town did not have too much to do but there were some nice restaurants on a bluff over looking the Irrawaddy River. Plus there are a lot of craftsman who live here also, doing lacquerware. We stopped at one place and watched them work and learned their techniques; including the mixture of laqcuer resin with ash, woods, and clay and then lots of polishing, coloring, and polishing. Shop around because there is a lot of great work at all kinds of price ranges. The bigger the studio, the more locked in the prices.
The last day we were in Bagan I woke up before the sun and went for a walk to pick a spot to enjoy the sunrise. A dog ran out of a small shack barking like a berserker. The couple who lived there came out and gave me directions how to get off their land. They were very nice about it, but their place was in a field between two temples, and I think probably not a legal house either.
I did not have to walk far to find a beautiful spot with a few small temples in it. I found a nice place to sit without too many ants, pulled out my sketchpad, and did a drawing of a temple with the sun rising behind it. It was one of those moments best spent alone, pondering life while enjoying the beauty of it all. It was lovely, peaceful, and a great way to end my stay here.
This is a fascinating travelogue and I have thoroughly enjoyed your perspectives. I find myself often distracted by things like heat, and trash. (For example I couldn’t stand it in Greece, when tourists were allowed to climb all over the temple ruins in Lindos, and who knows, maybe even pocket some pieces?) I think it’s wonderful that you sketch what you see, even though you have a camera with you.
I thought you might find this interesting. Near the end you will see how tourist are taking souvenirs with them from the lake as they visit. Sadly people don’t realize they are stealing history. But still a really interesting read.
Michael: A wonderful story. Thanx. I was wondering do you ever do guided tours? I would luv to travel like U do-off the beaten path.
I would not feel comfortable taking money from people when I myself am just winging it. Its part of the fun. Now in a city like Philadelphia, where I live, I would have no problem giving people customized trips. I have hosted so many people from all over the world, that its second nature to cater visits for them.
Thanks for reading the blog. If you get a chance check out the https://michaelbencik.org/one-way-ticket-the-comic/
This is where I do my illustrated version of my trip. Everything from crazy experiences, legends, and funky food.
aah, bagan! beautiful! I was there a while ago and i don’t remember all the rubbish everywhere 😦
Your blog post reminded me of my trip there, cycling around and getting caught in the biggest monsoon rain ever! it was an unbelievable experience, to be in such an amazing place and experiencing the force of nature!
It really is an amazing place. The trash might have been worse where I was wandering off the beaten path. Rain, huh. When we were there we thought it was not even possible to rain there. We were begging for a little rain. lol. That must have been really fun though.