The Temples of Bagan

The array of buildings in Bagan is impressive, there’s no denying that. Looking out over the landscape dotted with thousands of temples, pagodas and stupas takes your breath away. To me, this is the best part of Bagan, seeing it from an elevated viewpoint. When it’s dawn and hot air balloons are floating quietly past it’s even better.

Let me rewind. I had three days in Bagan and think that was the perfect amount of time: Day 1 for biking around the Old Bagan area and all the most popular temples, Day 2 for sunrise and an afternoon boat trip on the Ayeyarwaddy River (which will have its own post), Day 3 for the southern circuit of temples and New Bagan. It’s impossible to recount every single temple I saw, so instead I’m going to try to describe the overall experience of exploring Bagan and let the pictures speak for the specifics.

I set out on my 1,000 kyat/day bike with a strong feeling of anticipation. This was one of the most important sites in Myanmar and one of the reasons I wanted to come here. As I cycled past the first brick buildings I became giddy; my day was dedicated to riding a bike around in summer weather through an Archaeological Zone surrounded by temples. This was a great way to spend a day.

I was also happy to be alone; if somewhere looked interesting I went there, or if a tour bus full of camera-wielding octogenarians pulled up I could get out as fast as my legs would pedal. That was the best part about exploring on a bicycle: I had the freedom to stop anywhere I wanted to and as much (or as little) as I wanted to.

The first building that caught my attention enough to pull over – Htilominlo Temple – was huge and intricately carved. It was a good example of how elaborate the buildings Bagan could be. I did a slow circle around the temple, soaking in the beauty of what I was standing in front of and the fact that I had made it there. A kind woman showed me the way to a neighboring ruin that I could climb for a view of the area, which was good for orienting myself, before she led me to her shop and tried to sell me things. This was my introduction to the other side of Bagan: peddlers. People are set up at every major temple asking if you want to buy their clothing, paintings, postcards, books, or jewelry. I heard this is a recent addition since tourism has grown and wonder what it would have been like to visit before, when your approach to the temple was quiet instead of “please just looking.” (This is an interesting approach that’s used in Myanmar – instead of “would you like to look at my stuff” they say “please just looking yes?” which is true but you can’t say that or they try to sell you more.)

I continued on, making my way down the main road to Old Bagan and pulling over to explore a number of temples, from small ones I didn’t know the names of to big ones highlighted in my guidebook. The big ones certainly were big – I could see them from across the land so approaching them was almost daunting – and some were white, which was a nice contrast to the rest of the mostly brick structures. Old Bagan was much smaller than I anticipated. I biked from end to end with a stop to look at the river in probably an hour, which was good because I needed lunch. I tried another round of chicken curry and decided that it’s just not my meal. But for 1,000 kyat I wasn’t complaining. And I do still enjoy the colorful variety of little side dishes it comes with.

The afternoon was more of the same, checking off the main attraction temples on my way down to the one I would watch sunset from. I avoided the most popular sunset temple – Shwesandaw Pagoda – so I didn’t have to fight hundreds of tourists for a view. I did stop there though to see what all the fuss was about and have to admit that the view is fantastic. The one I chose instead – Pyathada Pagoda – was probably second most popular, but thanks to a huge rectangular platform there was enough room for all of us. Sunset honestly was a bit disappointing; it was great to see the expanse temples, as always, but the sun did the same performance as in Mandalay, disappearing behind hazy cloud cover that denied us a colorful sky.

Dawn was not disappointing though, quite the opposite. I got up at 5 am and so did my dormmate, so we decided to take on the task of finding the recommended stupa for dawn – Buledi – in the dark together. We biked through the barely-lit streets wearing our headlamps. At one point we heard a strange loud sound and then saw fire shoot up into the sky; it was where the hot air balloons launched from, but with just the noise and fire in the dark morning it was kind of spooky. Once we found the stupa (the little lights of other people’s flashlights on top helped us out) we climbed to the top in the light of our lamps, claimed an east-facing spot, and waited.

I love how the sky slowly starts to light up for sunrise. It’s a hopeful time of day, filled with anticipation as the rising sun approaches and breaks through the horizon line. A misty layer made the tops of the temples appear like they were floating as the sky went from black to blue. Shortly after the sun was up, it was the hot air balloons’ turn. They added a magical element to the scene. Watching these orbs float by, some close enough to our stupa that we could wave to the passengers, with the temples as their backdrop was the highlight of my visit to Bagan. It was gorgeous.

My last day was focused on the less popular temples further south. From the beginning I could feel that I was less enthusiastic than I had been on my first biking day but told myself that would change once I got out there. My first temple was a quiet one; no one there but me and the nice man who, on his day off from the Archaeological Museum, gave little tours and sold his paintings. He was delightful, telling me about the design and history of the temple, clarifying what made it a temple (temples you can climb up and go in, pagodas you just go in, stupas you just go up), and answering any other questions I had, like the different positions of Buddha. I gave in and bought my first real souvenir from him: one of his paintings of the Mynamar zodiac, with months and days of the week. There’s something fascinating to me about this importance on the day of the week you were born, something that I learned more about Yangon that made me even happier to have this souvenir. More on that later.

I cycled on happy with how the day had started but quickly started to lose steam. The next temples were in Myinkaba Village, which made them feel a little congested, and on the road to New Bagan. I still explored but with a little less energy, eventually stopping for a mediocre tourist lunch in New Bagan. I pushed through the heat and the dust to make it to my final stops, listening to my iPod as I cycled around to help make the ride a bit more enjoyable. What saved this day was that most of the temples I was seeing were known for their murals instead of their size. It was a good change from just walking up, down and around ruins. These had preserved images inside, and they weren’t just a few scattered paintings but whole walls covered with intricate art.

By the time I made it back to Nyaung-U I was exhausted and all templed-out. I didn’t mind that my 6 pm bus to Inle Lake caused me to miss my final sunset. Even with a strong interest in architectural history, I don’t think I could have visited any more temples. At some point they all start to blend together. At one point I overheard a foreigner who, when being convinced to walk into another pagoda, sarcastically summed up how I felt by the end of the day: “Let me guess, there’s four sides, and each side has another Buddha.”

Even so, Bagan is spectacular. It entirely deserves the praise it gets and is a must-see for anyone going to Myanmar, even if you just make it for a day – as long as that day includes sunrise.

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