As I sat in my sojourn and absorbed the never ending panorama of flat, arid land, it felt as if some godly finger had suddenly pressed ‘pause’…
Eerily still and deafeningly quiet, I imagined the resonance of my heart beat, in perfect synchronicity to the horizon before me… a life line, interjected with the pyramidal form of each pulse.
Temples and stupas – from just a few metres to more than 60 metres in height – rose out of the dusty, orange lands in their hundreds and thousands… Sensing a new dawn of renewed hope, they were on the rise again to quell its turbulent history.
Jagged spires poked the Crayola blue sky above victoriously.
I am in Bagan, Myanmar (formerly Burma) and its recent emergence from the shadows has opened up a new doorway to explore what Marco Polo described as, “one of the finest sites in the world.”
Bagan indeed knocks you sideways, leaving you in awe and momentarily lost for words… When words finally register, you’re suddenly spouting adjectives in an attempt to describe this unforgettable treasure trove… bewildering, astounding, captivating, inspiring, mesmerising, evocative, haunting, epic…
The heat was relentless yet I had never felt so alive as I, an intrepid explorer, ‘discovered’ my ‘own’ temple, one after the next…
And there is only one way to capture the true mystery of these lands and that is on two wheels baby! Being on a bike means you’re free to explore the quieter and harder to reach temples, a dead certainty to avoid the coach loads of tourists.
It isn’t hard to find one… The two wheels rule these lands! Taking advantage of the influx of tourists, vendors have set up shop along the main road from Nyuang U to Old Bagan.
‘Do you know how to ride?’ the vendor asked me as I eyed up a nifty, orange electric bicycle.
I had drawn a small curious crowd around me and they watched me nervously as I sat astride it and tested my balance.
Pah! How difficult could this be? I had ridden a scooter in Thailand and Vietnam and admittedly, I may have come off it a couple of times, but nothing was going to deflate my Indiana Jones moment.
I revved on the accelerator and suddenly sped on to the wrong side of the road.
I heard their cries, ‘Wrong way! Wrong way!’ as a mini van swerved to miss me.
If I had mirrors on this sensitive contraption, I may have seen their horrified expressions as I raced away to discover these ancient lands.
During its pinnacle between the 11th and the 13th centuries, Bagan was a prosperous and cosmopolitan city. It’s been recorded that as many as 13,000 temples and stupas were built during its golden age.
When its patrons moved to newer cities however, its monuments were abandoned and left to the elements. Many temples were even ‘recycled’ to build different structures around the country.
Fortunately, in recognizing its importance, UNESCO placed the Bagan archeological zone ( an area of about 104 km2) on its list as a future World Heritage Site; and thanks to a joint venture with the government, 2000 stupas survive today.
It is a fraction of the original city, but despite this, it would still be an impossibility to see them all… For every temple I climbed, I saw hundreds more beckoning me… Each one, never the same… Each one seemed to whisper their own tale of centuries old ghosts…
I scanned the dusty piece of paper in my hand; a crumpled map that was no longer decipherable because of my frantic, excited scribbles… The Lonely Planet and other numerous sources had outlined the best archaeological sites to explore, but this information was all meaningless now. Long lost were my bearings. High on adventure and with the prospect of going where no man has gone before, I closed my eyes, pointed randomly to a spot on my map and sped away through the dusty plains in search of my next treasure.
I thought I had found it but my reverie was suddenly interrupted by the ‘vroom-vroom’ of a bus as it slipped and skidded along the sandy path towards me. Once the dust settled around this extrinsic piece of metal, I could see a hundred faces pressed against the glass, eyes wide in anticipation of more ancient mysteries to discover.
I was sat on top of a ‘temple-with-no-name’ – too small and humble to warrant a proper title. Absent of any decorative nuances, ‘2117’ was unremarkable compared to its big brothers – the Htilominlo, Dhammayangyi and Ananda – but it was ‘my’ temple, ‘my’ revelation… Well, up until a minute ago when it dawned on me that Bagan is not quite the hidden treasure trove I believed it to be.
Yes, Bagan’s allure is still in its infancy compared to celebrated Angkor Wat in Cambodia, but the big tour operators have already descended in to Myanmar, bringing with it its coloured banners and matching t-shirts.
One shouldn’t be so greedy though… With over 2000 shrines across an area of 104km2, there are plenty of other payas to seek refuge.
I clambered off the roof, back in to the cool, dark inner sanctum of its innards, down treacherous stairways until bare feet met sun baked slabs again. At the temple entrance, a moment of panic hit me as I searched for my shoes. Where did I leave them? Was it this entrance? Were they taken? If my shoes were here, they were now joined by a sea of footwear as new guests performed the usual ‘shoes-on, shoes-off’ ritual. Thankfully I was able to spot them and I could set off towards the next circled squiggle on my map.
The pre-warning of snakes rang in my ears as me and my e-bike went solo in to unknown territory. I had lost all sense of direction and turned back on myself a couple of times. The intrepid explorer weakened in me as I tried to recall the last time I had spotted someone; coupled with the foreboding prospect of running out of juice.
But a gilded sikhara winked at me in the distance now and like Pavlova’s dog, I raced towards the promise of something precious.
The sikhara I discovered, belonged to the Sulamani Pahto, the ‘Crowning Jewel’ of Bagan. Arguably Bagan’s most attractive and authentic Paya, the arduous journey down the sandy paths was certainly worth the effort.
A carpet of candles rolled itself towards the foot of a giant gilded Buddha. My eyes travelled from its feet, up along it’s mudra-set-hands and serene face, and towards the heavens where, in a ‘gasp-out-loud’ moment, I could see impressive frescoes adorning the vaulted ceiling above.
It was late afternoon and the sun’s rays crept in to the inner sanctum through the outer arches, streaking the walls and floors with a blinding light. Buddhist frescoes came alive and bounced off the walls in their warm hues of cinnamon, vermillion and burnt sienna.
I must have sat in one of the archways for longer than I had thought… The halls had emptied now as people made their way to their last and final stop of the day. The grand finale of the day was approaching – Sunset, with a capital ‘S’ – a breathtaking and unforgettable vision when temples transcend in to warm orange hues as the sun sinks below the horizon.
As it approaches, panic kicks in… Where do I go? Where can I avoid the crowds? Which is the best place to capture the iconic image we’ve seen in travel magazines?
Well, considered to be ‘off the beaten track’, only reachable by dirt roads, I felt sure my ultimate sunset spot would be at the Pythada Paya.
‘Everyone will be heading towards the ‘Shwesandaw’ I thought smugly, as I steered my e-bike on to one deserted dirt path to the next. Besides, the warning that this was snake territory would keep the adventure-wary away.
I didn’t feel so smug though as my bike continuously skidded along the loose track and I battled with my e-bike exhausted, sun-burnt and saddle-sored.
A horse drawn cart past me and then a mini bus ten minutes after that; a sign that the impending sunset was not to be experienced alone.
Sure enough, when I reached the Pythada, the area in front of the Paya was abuzz with sunset seekers. I almost turned away when hordes of coaches pulled on to the dirt track but there was no time… The burning orb was already making her way down towards the horizon…
I’m glad I stayed… The payas central location offered a view of hundreds, maybe thousands of temples; each one ablaze as the setting sun reflected brilliantly off them. But in the foreground, my oh my, hundreds of cattle could be seen making their journey home… A white smoke cloud emerged as they trampled through the loose ground, adding to the pervading mystery of these lands…
The symphony of bleeting composed by its herder resonated across the land and subdued even the noisiest spectator. It was sensory overload… An all too powerful experience to put in to words.
And then, as quickly as a dropping penny, the sun fell behind the now dusky pink mountain, creating epic silhouettes of bell shapes, spires and pyramids all around us. It was simply majestic… a sight to behold; a sight which captures the tranquillity, beauty and wonder of these Golden Lands…
Where to stay
Most of the hotels and guest houses are located in the main town of Nyuang U, not too far from the airport and within easy reach of the main sights of Old Bagan. I’d recommend staying here rather than Old Bagan itself as many of the restaurants, ATMs and shops make up the main bustle of life.
A one-off $20 fee to enter the archaeological sights is required for all foreigners. This is payable on exiting the airport, train and bus station. Bring this voucher with you at all times as some sights will insist on seeing it before allowing you to enter.
Ensure you bring enough of the local currency with you before arriving in to Nyuang U as many of the taxis, restaurants and stalls will only accept the local kyat. There are a few ATMs and Currency Exchange kiosks located in Nyuang U but it’s best not to hold any reliance on them.
Prepare to sizzle under Burma’s beating sun –
Bagan is at the heart of Myanmar’s driest zone so temperatures can reach a good 3-5 degrees higher than Yangon – as high as 45 degrees celsius, even during the winter months of November through to February. Avoid sun stroke by drinking plenty of fluids during the day. There are stalls outside the larger and more popular temples, so quench your thirst and take shelter in the shade while you can. Wear a hat, apply sunscreen to prevent sun burn, and as always make sure your shoulders and knees are covered.
During the hottest part of the day, break for lunch or nip back to your hotel room for a lazy nap. The key is to take things slowly.
Must-see Temples and Pagodas
Bagan is a plethora of ancient temples and payas covering 26sqm and it would be an impossibility to see them all. As it can be a mind-field choosing which ones to explore, here are my recommendations if you’re limited for time –
Shwezigon Paya Gilded entirely in gold leaf, the paya is believed to enshrine the sacred bones and teeth of Gautama Buddha. It’s a busy place all throughout the day, even with burning white slabs under bare feet, so if you still have the energy after a long day, go at night. It’s quite a sight to see the Paya lit up.
Htilominlo Temple The 150ft-high temple built in 1218, marks the spot where King Nantaungmya was chosen as Crown Prince among his four brothers. Legend has it that the five circled around a white umbrella and should the umbrella tilt and point towards one of the sons, that son would be the next King.
The gold gilded Buddhas and giant umbrellas are breath taking but most impressive is the original white stucco plaster. Intricately carved stucco depicts ogresses and mythological animals like Makara sea creatures.
Ananda Pahto One of the most preserved and revered temples in Bagan, this is one not to be missed. It can be seen from afar, distinguishable by its golden temple spires and gleaming white-washed walls. Inside the temple are four towering Buddhas, two set in a ‘teaching’ mudra position and the other two set with outstretched hands meaning ‘no fear’. While you’re there, explore the grounds – the architecture is stunning.
Tip: As one of the more impressive and more memorable temples, expect the crowds and the touts.
Dhammayangyi PahtoThe biggest temple in Bagan, this can be seen from the payas and pahtos that circle it. Look out for it, especially at sunrise as its pyramidal character and numerous turrets silhouetted against an orange sky make for some terrific photography.
As well as its impressive scale, it is most famous for its dark, mysterious passageways and macabre history. Built by King Narathu, after he murdered his own father, it is believed that masons were executed if a pin could be pushed between the bricks they laid. Perhaps his untimely death was his deserved karma… The temple was never completed as he was assassinated by Pateikkaya – an Indian king who sought revenge for his daughter’s murder under the hands of Narathu.
Sulamani Pahto Known as the ‘Crowning Jewel’ and set within lush grounds, it’s worth the arduous journey down the sandy paths to see the impressive Buddhist frescoes that adorn every single surface inside.
Apparently it’s good for sunset, but like many of the larger temples, it’s one that draws the crowds too. I’d recommend going during the day when the light inside is particularly striking. The sun’s rays creep in to the inner sanctums through the outer arches, washing the walls and frescoes in to warm hues of cinnamon orange, vermillion red and burnt sienna.
Shwesandaw Paya Named ‘Golden Holy Hair’ as it is believed to enshrine a Buddha hair relic, the architecture of the pagoda is unremarkable. However, it undoubtedly offers one of the best, if not THE best, views across Bagan. It is easy to spot by its white and gold bell shaped stupa and many steep steps that lead up to the terrace on its four sides.
Tip: As the second highest pagoda in Bagan and one of the few you can climb, it draws in mass coachloads at sunset. If you’re hoping to find your epiphany in solitude, go elsewhere!
Buledi Pahto or Temple 394 With a reputation for ‘Best for Sunrise’, it is also a hot spot for sunset seekers. It is less popular than some of the bigger well-known temples due to its precarious steep climb, lack of railings and lack of space. Probably not advisable for kids, senior citizens and those scared of heights!
Lawkaoushaung Temple Published as Bagan’s ‘Best kept secret’, (so secretive that I was unable to find it), it is meant to be great for both sunrise and sunset. You will have to find the little key holder who lives in a hut just behind the temple to enter.