I’d seen photos of Bagan, one of Myanmar’s many ancient capitals, but it’s impossible for them to do justice or really prepare you for the extraordinary and unforgettable sight of thousands of temples stretching for miles in every direction.
As you travel along the paved roads and then turn off onto dusty tracks there are temples of all shapes and sizes, some grouped together like a family while others stand alone towering over the flat landscape. They look quite different to others I’ve seen too as the nearby Ayeyarwady River means access mud, so they are brick built rather than sandstone like Cambodia’s Angkor Wat.
Around 4,000 temples were built in Bagan between the 11th and 13th centuries and many have been restored or rebuilt thanks to money from Unesco and a Government donations programme. There’s been criticism of how some of the restoration work has been done, but considering they were built at a rate of knots originally I’m not sure they were perfectly constructed to start with.
The temples are spread over a few different areas, so some are in Old Bagan which you enter through Tharaba Gate, the only remaining gateway of a dozen originals that were entrances to what was once a walled city.
The most significant temple here is Thatbyinnyu Pahto as it’s the highest one in Bagan. It’s has three terraces ringed with spires and is whitewashed inside with tiles on the floor in front of each of the four Buddhas, while the rest is concrete slabs. I mention this because both of those options are better to walk on barefoot than bricks or stones, which is the case with lots of the temples. Shoes come off for every temple in Myanmar, so your feet soon have to toughen up and wearing sandals or flip flops is a much quicker option than trainers.
Just outside Tharaba Gate is Ananda Pahto which is regarded as the most beautiful temple in Bagan. A golden hpti (umbrella) sits on top of the whitewashed exterior which is how the temples were originally finished. Inside there are 1000 niches each containing a small Buddha inside and hundreds of glazed tiles.
The four main Buddhas that face each entrance are made from teak, which was covered in sap from an acacia tree and then gold leaf applied. Two are from the 11th century while the other two are replicas created after a fire destroyed the originals. It’s a busier temple than others in Bagan with traders lining the entrance corridors, but it’s one of the best preserved so is a must see.
Heading across to the Central Plain area there are lots of significant temples to visit. I’ll mention here that we got around by car and with a guide. You can hire bikes or a horse and cart, but the roads are pretty bumpy in places and with the intense heat it’s nice to jump into an air conditioned car for a while between temples. Having a guide is helpful too as with limited time and so much to see they can make sure you don’t miss the best bits and add local colour and personal perspective to what you can get from a guide book.
Our next stop was Pyathada Paya. As with most temples there’s a large Buddha inside each of the four entrances and these ones were made from brick and then painted. But more unusually it also has a fabulous and very large rooftop terrace offering great views across the plain. As well as a sea of temples we could also see land being burnt by farmers in preparation for growing crops like maize, sesame and millet
Getting up to the terrace is via a staircase that is pretty easy to climb, so as it’s also less busy than the most popular sunset viewing temple, Shwesandaw Paya, and I wasn’t too well at this stage of the trip, we decided to go back there later for sunset. Our guide got us there early so we had a prime spot sitting dangling our legs over the edge of the terrace with the temples laid out before us.
The sunset wasn’t the most spectacular we saw in Myanmar, but the experience was a great one, not least to see who else was there. We quite enjoyed listening to some travel oneupmanship among a few backpackers and then as we we’re leaving realised that even monks join the tourists for sunset from a temple.
Another temple well worth a visit is Sulamani Pahto which was built in the 12th century but has some wonderful 18th century frescoes, both of Buddha and local people. Unfortunately some were later covered in whitewash slapped on by local people who thought they became dirty after looking at them. Others were damaged by an earthquake so only part of them remain, but there is plenty worth seeing as well as some lovely carving and glazed tiles.
The outside of Sulamani was originally covered in white plaster made from palm sugar, the sap from acacia trees and mud. Now it’s back to brick and there were archaeologists working on site to restore and repair it. When we arrived at Bagan airport we paid a fee of K25,000/£14 to enter what’s known as the archeological zone and this evidently goes to Government archeology department to pay for this work.
Also in this area is Bagan’s biggest temple, the walled Dhammayangyi Pahto. It’s not particularly pretty or easy to walk on the small stones that cover the floor, but it is vast, has resident bats and mysterious sealed up inner corridors and Buddha shrines.
The stories are pretty dark too as apparently King Narathu built it to atone for murdering various members of his family. The King also insisted that the bricks were so tightly packed you couldn’t get a pin between them and if a worker failed they had their arms chopped off. On a lighter note there were also lots of hawkers at this one, handy if you’re in the market for a puppet or a sandstone painting.
Another good stopping off point is Myinkaba village which has Manuha Paya at the centre of it. This is named after a Mon King who was imprisoned there and to symbolise this there are some enormous Buddhas squeezed inside very small spaces. Three are seated and one reclining which I thought was the most impressive.
Myinkaba is also Bagan’s main village for lacquerware production. I expect every tourist gets taken to a lacquer workshop and you know going in that there’ll be a showroom at the end of it. But I find these places fascinating, not least because of the huge amount of work that goes into making items that sell for very little money.
The products are made from teak, bamboo or horsehair. Teak is for bigger pieces like furniture while horsehair is only used for drinking cups which are soft and bendy but work perfectly. Amazingly 18 layers of lacquer is applied to each item and after each layer it spends a week in the cellar to harden. After this they are carved by hand then dipped in coloured pigment which only stays in carved bits. So if more than one colour is being used this happens in multiple stages too.
There’s a huge range of lacquerware products which are made in Bagan and shipped off around Myanmar. One of the nicest we saw in use was later that day at lunch in the Queen restaurant in Wetkyi-in village. It’s a nice place with a big shady terrace and the local speciality comes out on a lovely lacquerware plate divided into sections. Rice goes in the middle, then curry, veg etc in the others.
Wetkyi-in is just along the main road from Nyaung U, which together with Old Bagan and New Bagan is one of the areas people tend to stay. We chose it because it has the biggest selection of places to eat and drink, albeit the latter is pretty limited as the bar scene is generally pretty undeveloped in Myanmar. It’s a nice, simple town with dirt roads and basic buildings, but easy to meander around with some nice little souvenir shops.
It also has the bustling Mani-Sithu market and while there are some tourist goods for sale, it’s mostly the province of local people. Many of them are selling produce laid out on cloths on floor which is grown on the island in the river where they live. It was colourful and interesting to see, but some of smells are a bit overpowering when you’re not feeling the best.
Our hotel on the other hand was a positive oasis. The Zfreeti was very spacious with lots of wood panelling, big rooms, a lovely swimming pool and a restaurant serving delicious butter fish. They even proactively offered us a breakfast box because we had an early flight out which it hadn’t even occurred to us to ask for.
Another huge plus for us in Bagan was our guide, who told us to call him Ah Ah. He was terribly earnest but very kind and thoughtful. After I’d had to spend most of the first day in bed he told me he’d prayed to Buddha that I’d feel better. And I did a bit, though I suspect it was the antibiotics I got in Mandalay a couple of days later that finally got me back in shape rather than Buddha.
We were amazed to find out Ah Ah was nearly 40 as he looked about 25. He’d studied and worked in finance but became a tour guide five years ago and said he preferred it. That might have been true, but there’s also the chance it’s because it’s better paid. I’d read that there’s a danger that because tourists tip the guides relatively heavily people are now moving from all sorts of professions including vital ones like medicine.
Each morning both he and our driver arrived in jumpers and jackets as this was their winter and they thought it was very cold. It was 33 degrees. They also both wore longyis as did all Burmese men and Ah Ah helpfully gave us a quick longyi lesson. It’s basically like a sarong but stitched so there’s no opening and its more like a long tube of material that you step into it. Men pull it together from both sides of waist and tie it at the front while women fold it to wear like a sarong. We asked if he ever wore trousers and he laughed and said he sometimes did when travelling as it was more suitable for climbing over people on a busy bus. We kind of wished we hadn’t asked.On the subject of longyis, it reminds me of a favourite story from our guide in Mandalay. We’d noticed that men’s longyis are darker muted colours while women’s are bright and beautiful. Our guide Man told us that the bigwigs in the outgoing military led government decided that the success of Democratic Party leader Aung San Suu Kyi was because she wears brightly coloured longyis so they started wearing them too. I’ve no idea if that’s really true, but I want it to be and it’s so absurd that it just might be.
Back to Bagan and I think I’ll leave it at those few highlights. As I said at the start it’s hard for photos to do it justice and I think the same is probably true of words too. It really is one of those places that has to be seen to be believed.
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