Almost every tourist who visits Burma goes to view the temples of Bagan, the leftovers of the Bagan empire which unified and ruled the country in the 9th through 13th centuries and, in its piousness and prosperity, built over 10,000 temples across the Mandalay Region. Better than the temples of Angkor? SPOILER ALERT: yes I think so.
The flight on Air Bagan to Nyaung-U was kind of hilarious. When the staff finally arrived at the check-in counter at 5:15 AM, one hour before our scheduled flight takeoff, they simply looked at my printed confirmations without even checking our IDs or the manifest, giving us a sticker to wear and a boarding pass with all the info rubber stamped on it. Needless to say, they lacked computers. When it finally came time to board (not on time obviously lol), they notified us by having a person walk by with a sign that said W9-141, our flight number. The flight on the tiny ATR 72 was fine, though only half-full so I’m not sure why I paid so much. They brought us orangeade, tea and coffee and bread snacks. Air Bagan may be owned by a government crony but the service sure beat American Airlines’.
From the tiny Nyaung-U airport, we took a cab ride from a guy who spoke good English (he learned from his father, a headmaster) to Aung Mingalar Hotel. The girls with their painted yellow faces weren’t too friendly but they let us check in early. We picked out some rickety bikes and first stopped at a local restaurant nearby, enjoying some fried dough and Shan noodles, chewy noodles reddened by this spicy gelatinous sauce made of rice flour gel. The TV was showing the SEA Games in which small teams squared off at a badminton net but were kicking over a small ball as if in some combination of soccer, hackey sack and volleyball.
We were pretty disoriented after rising at 4 AM but started biking toward Bagan anyway, with no real idea of where we were going and no English signage. First we hazarded a stop at this strange amusement park built around some stupas, both gold and brick, probably not original, with Buddha spots for meditation but also loud music and a Ferris wheel. Then we turned down the first random dirt road that looked promising, and eventually encountered a brick temple complex with no one around, my feet in flip flops getting dusty. The temple was nothing special but it was cool wandering around the interiors of these deserted places.
Just a stone’s throw away a huge temple stood inviting us to explore. We tried to walk over there but found it was surrounded by tall plants. All of Bagan is quite dry, covered in tall grasses and cacti and strange trees. Some of them leave burrs all over you. We wandered down the dusty dirt paths with our bikes and encountered a field where women in longyi and straw hats were working, their big white oxen chewing the plants with airy green pods. One of them pointed down the road so we ventured that way and found the rectangular fortress we had seen people at the top of earlier.
A secret dark staircase led to the roof, where we caught our first glimpse of the sheer magnitude of Bagan’s plain of temples, with stupas dotting the green landscape as far as the eye could see. These ranged from big white ones with gilded spires to humble red brick ones restored inaccurately, some more rectangular and castle-like, some just a solid round stupa. Some were under construction, men on its levels working away. It was certainly a magnificent and unique sight, and super fun discovering it on our own.
Finally we found the old city walls marking the entrance to Old Bagan and we spent our two days in Bagan biking between all sorts of temples. Thatbinnyu, tall, white and castle-like. Shwesandaw, a big white pyramid with steep steps and an amazing 360 view of the plain of temples. Dhammayangyi, an imposing, mostly mortarless brick temple built by a ruthless king. You must always remove your shoes before entering a temple and walk clockwise around the stupa.
The most famous temple is Ananda Pahto. Ananda is huge and white with golden spires and features four gigantic teak Buddhas painted gold, as well as some original mural work and corridors filled with even more little seated Buddhas in rows of semicircles. The exterior was also quite impressive with its gilded spires and cool lion statues on the corners.
In another corner outside Old Bagan you can also see some decorative detail: The huge Htilominlo Pahto features ornate original carvings on the outside, while Upali Thein has original mural work, ranging from simplistic to depicting complex human scenes. In their heyday all of these temples would have been painted both exterior and interior; only now as a result of their haphazard restoration do many appear as red bricks.
In Bagan we encountered a fair number of peddlers, mainly trying to sell us sand paintings for $3, but there were only a fraction of the ones in Angkor and mostly not pushy. No one followed you around. Also, few of the peddlers were children. Well, one kid did try to sell me “postcards” that he had drawn himself on white paper with crayons, which made me laugh. Also contrasting with Angkor, in Bagan only a few white tourists were visiting the place. Most of the visitors were locals there to meditate before the statues of Buddha and give donations to build their merit.
During these days of temple exploration, besides the amazing Shan noodles we enjoyed more mohinga with wide noodles for 50 cents, fresh grilled fish, Dagon and Mandalay beers and even Tibetan pita cylinders stuffed with lamb and veg (at the restaurant Wonderful Tasty which I definitely recommend!).
The highlight of many people’s visits to Bagan is viewing the sunset. We managed to find a horse-drawn cart in Nyaung-U to take us to and from the Buledi temple for 8000 kyat. We climbed in the back of the buggy and found amusement in the slow clip-clop of the pony-sized horse and the driver’s guttural vocalizations trying to speed the creature up. As we traveled, the driver talked to various friends on the street, such as women carrying full baskets on their head. Arriving just in time for sunset, we scrambled up the fairly tall stupa, where a small crowd of other travelers had gathered, attempting to snag some sunset shots. The bright orange sun sank slowly in the rosy sky over the vast plain of temples. My favorite part was actually after sunset, when the stupas were silhouetted against the sky at dusk.
We also biked to the bank of the Irrewaddy River, where a mama dog led around five puppies and the father kept watch around a deserted bit of temple. Our goal was to find a boat to take us across the river to Tan Kyi, the gold-tipped pagoda one mountain visible from all over Bagan. When we did find the jetty in Old Bagan, a guy found us offering a ride before we even parked. He quoted K15,000 for a ride to and from the place, just as Lonely Planet said it would cost. One thing I found really pleasing about Burma is that nobody tries to rip you off, always giving you the “real” price for things! We got on the half hour boat ride across the vast river, the temples of Bagan growing smaller and smaller in our view.
The boat driver showed us the dirt road to Tan Kyi. To find the path, we first walked through a small village of wooden houses on stilts. Many of the houses had walls made of bamboo (or something) woven into interlocking rectangular patterns, something I had never seen before. I enjoyed this first glimpse at local life off the tourist track. The villagers smiled at us with a “mingalarba”, and some workers building a pavilion pointed us in the right direction when we made a wrong turn. At one point we encountered the railroad track snaking around the mountain, a natural gas pipeline and some basic drainage infrastructure. The hike up to Tan Kyi proved harder than we expected, with a couple hundred steps up to the pagoda. Sweating in the sunny heat, we regretted not wearing shorts (but I learned the hard way about attempting to wear shorts to temples!). The view from the top showed more Irrewaddy and dry mountain than temples, but we felt accomplished having made it to the top.
Our time in Bagan was a mystical adventure, with not too many tourists, full of special sights and moments of discovery. With not too much set up for visitors–for example, very few romanized signs–you had to figure it out on your own, often wandering through deserted temple complexes set among tall grasses and cacti. And so many Buddhas!