Bagan, the ancient city of thousands of temples, is a stunning place beyond comparison and probably the reason to visit Myanmar.
A Rich History
Built over a period of 250 years around a thousand years ago, there were once about 10’000 temples, pagodas, stupas, and monasteries built of wood and/or stone. Most of them didn’t survive the course of time. Today, after a devastating earthquake in 1975, roughly 2200 structures are still standing (which is still an impressive figure!). Bagan was all about religion and its study; various Buddhist schools coexisted with Hindu beliefs and animist traditions. The structures represent different architectural styles and types of paintings, with one new style (new is not always better) added recently: attempted renovation by the military junta of Myanmar. Because of that, Bagan still hasn’t been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
What About Conservation?
Apart from that attempt at restoration (let’s call it that), apparently not much has been going on in Bagan in terms of conservation. The stairs to some temples’ roofs have been closed off but that’s probably more because of concerns that somebody could fall down (and cause bad publicity) than to protect the structures. Of the entrance fee of currently US$24 per person, only 2% go to the local community, 8% to the Myanmar Tourism Federation and 90% to the state. Nothing left for conservation, sorry.
Despite knowing all this, Bagan is well worth a visit. The place has that something that makes it unique and fascinating. We’re usually not people who stay in one and the same place for long but we just couldn’t get enough of Bagan.
There are three towns around the Bagan Archeological Zone: Nyaung U (the biggest town but furthest away from the big lot of structures), Old Bagan (the old settlement – inhabitants were forced out in the 1990s – and now the place where the most expensive hotels are), and New Bagan (small, likeable, and close to everything).
Probably the best way to get around is by e-bike. That’s not an electric bicycle, as we thought, but an electric scooter made in China. It’s fun and it’s cheap (but opt for a “big” one, they’re much better) and you can get around pretty fast and see (virtually) all of Bagan. Just start driving and stop at the temples you like, take the unpaved and sometimes sandy roads which are challenging but extremely fun to drive. Any road here leads to at least one temple (or pagoda or stupa but to simplify matters, let’s just call them temples).
Most temples can be climbed and offer great views over the plains. Also, most temples have at least one painter who will invariably ask you to look at (and then buy) one of his paintings. At others, the most visited ones where the buses can drive to, you’re greeted by a hoard of women and kids selling postcards, lacquerware, trousers, and other stuff. And all of them ask you where you’re from. “Switzerland” always gets the reply “good chocolate” so we tried out other countries – Finland is great, no one knows it (sorry, guys): “oh, nice. Far away”.
Choosing Your Sunset And Sunrise Temple
A popular activity is looking for the perfect sunset- and sunrise-temple. Ideally, it shouldn’t be crowded, look over as many other structures as possible, and, important for the sunrise-temple, not be too far away from your hotel. For sunset, we tried out three, one of them definitely a favorite. Not on the map, no name and no other people. The temple is beautiful from the inside too, with four golden Buddha statues and paintings. Apparently it’s almost never visited, everything’s crumbling and bats inhabit the place. After sunset, it’s best to stick around a bit longer and wait for the darkness; some temples are illuminated, which looks absolutely amazing.
After three full days of speeding from temple to temple and burning the soles of our feet climbing pagodas (you always need to take off your shoes), we needed some rest. Every tour operator, hotel, and place that rents out scooters wants to sell you a tour to Mt Popa, a monastery south of Bagan that sits on a volcanic plug. It looks good from a distance but, judging by the reviews on Tripadvisor, climbing up the steps to the monastery isn’t that great. A lot of monkeys live there and they’re always hungry, aggressive, and shit (pardon my French) on the steps. So thanks but no thanks, we’ll just hang around in New Bagan, either in our hotel room or at Black Rose restaurant, our favorite.
From Bagan we went to Mandalay. What a beautiful name (Rudyard Kipling even wrote a poem titled “Mandalay”) but to be honest, Mandalay is far from being a pretty city. Very far. It’s loud and dirty and it’s impossible to walk five meters in a straight line on the sidewalk (if such a thing even exists). You always have to dodge around parked cars and motorbikes, restaurants, holes, dogs, shops, or construction sites. So even though walking on the road is highly dangerous, it’s usually the only option.
A nice way to escape the city is climbing the Mandalay Hill. A temple sits on top of the hill and you can either drive up (boring) or walk up the stairs which is quite exhausting but rewarding and it got us a thumbs up from a monk.
The views from the top are great, you can see over the city, the palace, the huge Ayeryarwady river and to the mountains in the north and east. The locals call it the “international place” because a lot of “international people” (tourists) come here and you’re frequently asked to pose for pictures (even by the monks). Many young monks come here to practice their English. Three very shy boys started chatting with us, which was fun. Sometimes we had our difficulties understanding them but at least they practice, which is great. After a wonderful sunset they accompanied us back down – we’d have gotten lost without them!
Gold Leaf Pounding
In Mandalay there are several gold leaf pounding workshops (easy to find because you can hear the hammers pounding from far away) where the incredibly thin gold leafs that are put on Buddha statues as offerings are made. It’s a great lot of work and until today everything is made by hand, it’s really intriguing to watch and learn about how the leaves are made.