BOUND FOR BAGAN!
After 3 days in Mandalay, it was time to head to Bagan. From the 9th to 13th centuries, Bagan was the capital of the Pagan Kingdom, the first kingdom that unified what would later become modern Myanmar. During the kingdom’s peak there were over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas, and monasteries in the town. The remains of more than 2,000 temples and pagodas still survive to the present day, spread across a vast area referred to as the Bagan Archaeological Zone. Far less developed than the similar ruins of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Bagan was the main attraction that drew us to Myanmar and we were very excited to catch our first glimpse of these ruins.
We looked at various options for travelling from Mandalay to Bagan*, eventually settling on hiring a private car to drive the distance as it was quicker, cost effective, and gave us the freedom to stop along the way for breaks and photo opportunities. Plus we love taking the opportunity to see the countryside and experience a little more of the real Myanmar.
*As both cities are on the Irrawaddy River, you can catch a ferry from one to the other. There are also buses that drive the 200km distance. Both forms of transport take about 7 hours however, and in the interest of expediency, we chose go by road.
The drive took 4 hours along roads that, whilst bumpy, were in pretty good repair. We passed through many villages and saw fields of sunflowers ready for harvesting (sunflower seed oil, peanut oil, and rapeseed/canola oil are all major agricultural products of this region). It’s currently th hot/dry season*, which means it’s also harvesting time for beans, peanuts, and chickpeas.
*Myanmar has 3 seasons:
• Wet season (May to September) – When the monsoon hits and 5,000mm (yes – 5m!) of rain falls in 5 months.
• Dry/cool season (October to February) – The best of Myanmar’s weather; temperatures are around 25-30oC, the landscape is verdant, and rain is minimal. Also peak tourist season.
• Dry/hot season (March and April) – Expect average temperatures of 35-45oC and hot, dusty conditions.
We knew the hot/dry season is not the ideal time of year to visit Myanmar, but it’s the time we had available and we figured seeing this beautiful country at its least favourable was better than not seeing it all! Plus, coming outside of peak tourist season has meant we’ve had very few queues to endure, little time lost to waiting, and very few crowds* to contend with. The downside is that it has been ridiculously, stupidly hot – especially from 2:00-4:00pm. Nothing a well planned afternoon siesta doesn’t address though!
*We had heard that the rising numbers of tourists definitely put a strain on the limited infrastructure in this nation, so the issues of peak tourist season can be worse than you might expect. In 2010, Myanmar had the least amount of tourist arrivals of any ASEAN country at just over 300,000 (in comparison, the same year Laos had 1.2 million tourists, and Thailand had 14 million). However, the number of tourists visiting Myanmar has increased rapidly with just over 1 million tourists visiting Myanmar in 2012; 5 million in 2015; and 8 million expected to visit in 2018.
Arriving in Bagan around lunchtime we checked into our hotel in New Bagan and headed straight out for a meal. We’ve chosen to stay in New Bagan* as this seems to offer the best balance of access to the Bagan Archaeological Zone (BAZ), good mid-range accommodation (our preference), and convenient access to lots of restaurants, shops, and facilities. What we quickly discovered is that, whilst Bagan’s archaeological sights promise wonder and awe, the townships around the BAZ aren’t much more than dusty villages!
*Bagan’s accommodation is split across three main areas: Nyaung U to the North-East of the BAZ, Old Bagan to the North-West and New Bagan to the South-West. Broadly speaking, Nyaung U has the bulk of the budget accommodation (i.e. think $10AUD/night, backpackers, and bunk beds), New Bagan has the mid-range digs (i.e. $40-$70AUD/night for a basic hotel room), and Old Bagan caters to the upmarket traveller (i.e. $200-$700AUD/night for palatial accommodation and all the Western delights you could desire).
Sated from lunch and BAZ ticket in hand, we set off to explore a couple of temples. The incredible thing about Bagan is that the ENTIRE city is filled with temples. Everywhere. They’re around every corner, alongside every road, tucked away behind housing and shop fronts and scattered across the vast arid plains. Small and nondescript, big and imposing, huge and magnificent – they are there. So the challenge for us was not seeing temples, but deciding which ones to see and how to get around* the vast BAZ.
*Essentially there are a few ways to explore the BAZ:
1. On foot – Not recommended given the distances between temples; the number of snakes (i.e. spitting cobras, pit vipers, and other such bities); and heat.
2. Hiring a bicycle – Given the time of year we forwent this option (we didn’t think it could be possible, but Bagan is even hotter than Mandalay!).
3. Hiring a scooter/motorbike – “No thanks,” said I.
4. Hiring a horse and cart – I vetoed this too; too dusty.
5. Hiring a car – Our top choice for (air conditioned) comfort, though certainly not the most authentic way of experiencing the BAZ.
We started with a visit to the Ananda Temple, which has been dubbed the “Westminster Abbey of Myanmar”. Built in 1105 AD during the reign of King Kyanzittha, the temple was apparently built after 8 Buddhist monks from India visited Bagan. They were granted an audience by King Kyanzittha and told the King about a legendary temple in the Himalaya mountains. They painted a vivid image for the King of a golden temple set against the white of a snowy landscape. The story and vision left the King very impressed and he decided to replicate the temple in Bagan (hence the colour of the temples). It is said that after the Ananda Temple was completed, the King had the architects executed, to make sure nothing like it could never be build again.
The temple was damaged in 1975 by and earthquake; however, it has been fully restored and in 1990, on the occasion of 900th anniversary of its construction, the temple was once again gilded with golden leaf. Anada Temple houses 4 standing Buddhas, each one facing the cardinal direction of East, North, West and South. These were also renovated in the 1990s.
We then went on to see Dhammayangyi Temple, the colossal pyramid-shaped temples which can be seen from anywhere in the temple plain.
Aside from its size, this temple is also famous as it’s believed to be haunted by the ghost of King Narathu, who had the temple built in 1170. Narathu became King of Bagan after murdering his father and his brother, and is theorised to have built this massive temple to gain merit and to compensate for murdering his father and brother. The King was later murdered himself and his ghost is believed to haunt the corridors of Dhammayangyi Temple.
The brick work of Dhammayangyi Temple was incredibly precise, thanks (apparently) to the fact that King Narathu had the laborers killed or their hands chopped off if the work was not done perfectly.
The Dhammayangyi temple was never fully completed – construction was probably halted right after the death of the King. Following numerous earthquakes over the past millenia, much of the temple’s interior has filled with fallen bricks and debris. We were still able to walk through the outer corridors of the temple and enjoy the quiet atmosphere within.
By this stage it was late afternoon, so we headed off to a nearby spot to watch the sunset over the plains and temples of Bagan. As the sun moved closer and closer to the horizon, the heat of the day faded and the colours turned to yelloe, orange, and red. As far as we could see, there was a sea of delicate spires and spiky acacia trees. It was just spectacular…
After just half a day here, we would definitely say that the temples of Bagan temples stand up there with Angkor Wat and the Great Pyramids of Giza for sheer archaeological wow factor. We are so grateful to have been able to see this incredible corner of the world!