Imagine this: You discover a rip in the space-time continuum and suddenly you are in the 13th century and the world becomes a sepia canvas under the soft light of a foggy early morning. Nonplussed, you climb a tower and wow – at any one glance you can see tens, hundreds of pagodas and stupas. It almost feels as if you were a conqueror looking out over his empire.
Now, imagine feeling this way without actually discovering a time warp: that’s Bagan for you, in a nutshell.
Bagan Archaeological Zone
Government Fee at Checkpoint: K20,500 or US$20
Full-day tour via horse cart: K25,000
Full-day tour via car: K35,000
Mountain Bike: K2,000
Pick-up truck from Nyaung U: K500-K1,000
There are ~2,200 remaining temples in Bagan from ~10,000 during the height of the Pagan Kingdom from the 11th to 13th centuries. Although it is absolutely awe-inspiring when seen collectively from atop a temple, I have to say that you can count with your fingers the number of truly impressive temples, especially if you’ve been to the Angkor Complex in Cambodia. Aggravating the situation is the manner in which the temples, carvings and drawings have been preserved and restored. I’m no expert, but from what I have seen I could honestly say that they could do better. In fact, UNESCO has declared the restorations as unhistoric. As such, the Bagan Archaeological Zone is not a UNESCO World Heritage Site, sadly.
One of the best ways to see the Bagan temples is from a hot air balloon which starts just before sunrise. However, it seemed exorbitant at US$320-350 per person – practically my budget for the entire trip! As an alternative, we woke up very early and looked for a climbable temple (not all of them are). Of course, we got lost, walked for over an hour, almost gave up, AND THEN – we saw people on top of a temple! Ah, the madness that ensued as we ran toward it and tried to beat the sun to its own rising!
Now, to the individual temples. It’s not practical to memorize all that we went to (I didn’t even try) so I’ll just share the more remarkable ones.
At 170ft, Ananda Pahto is one of Bagan’s largest, most famous and most revered temples, with its golden corncob-ish stupa which you can recognize even from afar. There are standing Buddhas inside, and guides will tell you that there is a certain distance as you approach the Buddha at which it looks stern, but as you come closer, it starts to smile. I tried it for myself, but I can’t remember the outcome! Let me know, will you?
Just opposite the Ananda Pahto, Dhammayangyi Pahto is Bagan’s biggest and best preserved temple – but with a brutal background: it is said to have been built by King Narathu as reparation for the crimes he committed, including smothering his father and brother. It is also said that the bricks are fit together so tightly that even a pin couldn’t pass between bricks, and without the use of mortar! This came at a cost, however, as workers who failed to do it this way were allegedly amputated in the arm-sized grooves in the stones, which you can still see when entering from the west entrance.
Sulamani is one of the prettiest and is considered to have one of the best brickworks of Bagan’s temples. On a more personal note, I will also remember it as the place where we saw our ex-horse cart driver who ditched us mid-tour for some better-paying customers. Luckily, he is the exception rather than the rule, as all other Burmese people we met have been really friendly and helpful.
– If you only have a day in Bagan, best to stick to the Old Bagan area. If you have more than a day, there are also temples and nice views in the Myinkaba area.
– There are smaller but more interesting and better-preserved temples in the Nyaung U area, where you also get the chance to be escorted by a keyholder in what would seem to be a private tour of a “secret” temple (each temple has a keyholder assigned by the government, but you don’t get to experience the “opening of the gates” with the bigger temples as they are already always open to visitors)
– Bring a hat, sunscreen, and water – it can be torturously hot.
– Best times to view the Bagan temples are during sunrise and sunset (and be careful with the climb, some steps can be scarily steep and/or narrow).