The Timeless Beauty of Bagan
“There are experiences of landscape that will always resist articulation, and of which words offer only a remote echo.”
– Robert Macfarlane –
I gawk at the faded murals, and feel a wild gallop in my chest. They are exquisite. As I lean in to study them, marveling at the fact that they are still here, after centuries of time seeping through them, the caretaker of the temple is lying on his back, in the middle of the floor with his eyes focused on the screen of his smart phone. The movie he is watching is as enchanting to him, as the murals are too me. What each one of us take for granted, the other embrace as something to be treasured. I am glad he is not in a hurry, as I dawdle, reluctant to leave this cavern of timeless beauty.
Back outside, I blink in the harsh light, and offer the giver of this special gift some money. He shakes his head. I frown, as hardly anyone ever declines a tip. Taken aback I insist, as I know that in some cultures it is obligatory to decline something the first time, but he, once again, decline with a smile and a wave, before he turns back towards his house nestling close to the temple.
The Winido Temple dates from the 13th century, and its faded murals include paintings of Jatakas, which is a collection of some 550 moral tales, describing the many reincarnations of Prince Siddhartha before he achieved enlightenment as the Buddha, as well as a footprint of the Buddha on the ceiling of the vault.
I have long dreamed of visiting Bagan. Images of pagodas, stupas and temples scattered across a flat landscape, with mist hovering low in the translucent light of twilight, have captured my imagination like so many before me. It is during sunrise and sunset that Bagan enchants one the most, but after a small earthquake in 2016, many of the once popular temples for watching sunrises and sunsets, are now closed to the public, as it has become too dangerous too climb. The government has started building berm-like viewing platforms, mostly oriented towards the sunset, but they are equally lovely for sunrises, as they give one a completely different sense of place, and are basically deserted.
The hot-air balloons on their morning flight have become a quintessential ingredient in capturing a sunrise during the dry season, and although they are an expensive indulgence ($300), they are hugely popular, and booked out months in advance. Even when you do secure a booking, you may have to prepare for disappointment, as they only fly when the weather conditions allow for it.
“From the 9th to the 13th century, Bagan was a grand capital where kings ruled and royals built pagodas believing that the construction of these sacred places would earn them merit in the next life. They must have had a lot to make up for because they built them by the thousands – soaring cathedral-like white pyramids, giant multi-terraced red brick monuments, on down to squat car-sized buildings barely big enough in which to stand up or turn around.”
– From: Burma: A Journey Across Time by Matt Sims –
With over 2000 ancient temples scattered across a lush, bucolic landscape that consists of open plains and farmland, Bagan exudes a strange pull on the soul. None of the individual temples enchanted me in the way the Angkor temples in Cambodia did, but collectively they mesmerize and charm.
Reaching top speeds of about 35 km/hour e-bikes or electric scooters are perfect for getting around the area, although cycling is a lovely alternative, especially early in the morning, when it is not too hot. Most of the time you will drive much slower than the top speed on winding, dusty tracks, and these little marvels will transport you quietly through the landscape, so that you can appreciate the silence, and sounds of daily life, constantly advancing and retreating. Even though the major temples are busy with tourists and worshippers alike, you will find many opportunities to be all alone, so take your time to linger and explore.
If you enjoy something a bit more physical, and would love to gain insight into the place and culture, have a look at the different cycling options with a local guide Grasshopper Adventures has on offer. I was the only participant, so by default, had a private morning of cycling, stories, exploration, and eating, which was simply wonderful.
There is much more than just the temples to imprison one’s senses, so explore the outdoor morning markets, where the local women do their daily shopping.
It is best not to rush through the landscape, but to take your time to notice the smaller nuances of life, like the many clay water pots offering thirsty travelers, cool water.
My visit coincided with the first full moon after the Bhuddist Lent, which meant that hundreds of pilgrims from all over Myanmar flocked to the main temples. Bagan holds an important place in the religious life of the Burmese, and it is important to remember this when visiting.
Although it is handy to have a general idea of where you are or want to go, it is far more fun to get lost on the dust roads and trails crisscrossing the plain. You will quickly learn to recognize the main temples, and orientate yourself accordingly, and even if you try, you cannot get so lost that you won’t be able to find your way back to one of the main roads.
Hotel accommodation in Bagan, especially in Old Bagan, can be quite expensive. I decided to splurge, while visiting Inle Lake, so settled for a small hotel in New Bagan. I loved the slight dilapidated feel of the Thurizza Hotel, where I stayed, although the bathroom was new, and the room large, light and spotlessly clean. The terrace at the top was a fantastic spot to bathe in the soft glow of sunset, best enjoyed with an ice-cold beer, while watching the swallows flit through the air. There are various small stupas in the area, so don’t think you have to be staying in Old Bagan to have that right on your doorstep.
I loved my stay in New Bagan, where the locals, who used to live in Old Bagan, have been resettled to, as the streets, apart from the main roads, are quiet and often deserted. Nyang U, where one finds most of the hotels and restaurants, is busy and congested, in comparison.
No matter where you decide to stay, though, make sure you spend time to watch life flow by over an ice-cold bottle of Mandalay or Myanmar beer. My favourite spot was under a tree at Bagan Kitchen on the main road (Kayay Street) passing through New Bagan, and although it was rather noisy, the beer was cold, the food good value for money, local and excellent, and the rhythm of life rushing past, intriguing.
There are many different ways to get to Bagan, and although I flew to Heho from Nyaung U, I chose to travel by boat from Mandalay to Bagan. Floating down the Irrawady on board the Panorama, was lovely. The trip included an excellent breakfast and lunch, as well as a short excursion to a local village along the way. Online booking was extremely easy.
Entrance to the Bagan Archaelogical Zone is 25,000 Kyat, and is valid for 5 days. It was easy to obtain, as my taxi driver simply stopped at the kiosk on the way to the hotel, and I didn’t even have to get out of the car.
Visited: November 2017