Nestled in the curve of the Ayeyarwaddy river is Bagan, a city of beauty and wonder founded in the 9th century with the name Pagan. The city only survived four centuries, however, but during the final two hundred years more than 10,000 pagodas, temples and monasteries were built, 2,200 of which are still standing today.
After a nine-hour overnight bus ride north from Yangon I arrived in Bagan, paid the US$20 archaeological park entrance fee every visitor must pay and was delivered to my hostel at 4am. Unable to get into my dorm, I hired e-bikes with an american girl I met on the bus and we headed out to see the sunrise at one of the more popular pagodas.
Tourists could once rent scooters in this region but the taxi lobby had them banned. Locals, however, found a way around this law by introducing e-bikes, which are simply electric scooters. Most don’t go fast, barely 20km/h, and don’t have a great range although they also don’t need gas. There are quicker ones, such as the one I rented, with speeds up to 45km/h. In a land as hot as Bagan, you really do want the wind flowing past to keep you cool whenever you can.
When we arrived at the stupa in the dark there were only a handful of people there. But as sunrise grew nearer more people arrived to climb the large and popular pagoda. The rising of the sun gives great views across the landscape, which is mostly flat and littered with short trees.
But you don’t really notice the vegetation as there are so many pagodas and temples scattered around, some merely twice my height, while others are massive structures covered in gold leaf that shine brilliantly in the sunshine. The amazing thing about this landscape is that no matter which way you look there are scattered pagodas. The vista is absolutely stunning, like nothing I’ve seen anywhere else in the world.
The Bagan Archaeological area is surrounded by a bitumen road. Then crisscrossing the plains and providing access to the pagodas are wide dirt tracks. It does pay to be a little careful on these dirt tracks as there is often areas of sand which can make riding sometimes a little tricky.
There are simply too many temples and pagodas to document and it took me a good two full days of exploring to get my fill. For some, however, like my american bus companion, one day was enough and she was off the very next morning. Crazy if you ask me as this place holds so many wonders.
Sunset is a popular time to head out with a group, find a pagoda to climb and enjoy the view. In fact, sitting on ancient stonework with new friends as darkness floods the lands, is one of the more amazing aspects of this area. It was something I did on each night of my stay.
When the darkness comes some of the larger stupas light up. For the rest they are simply dark silhouettes in the evening. There is beauty here even in the darkness where you can just sit and drink in the tranquility of Bagan and her surroundings.
Began doesn’t have a UNESCO site rating as it was rebuilt by the military without using the original bricks, but the feel of the original city is still here. The military built other things in the area such as a golf course and a viewing tower. While these were looked down upon by the locals, the best view can be gained from the watchtower which stands out on the plains like some dark spire reaching towards the sky.
The other way to get great views is via one of the balloon rides. These, however, do not operate in low season and cost a small fortune. But beyond this, low season is definitely a great time to come here, while it gets a little hot during the day, there are far less crowds.
But there is more to the region than just a field full of pagodas. A 90-minute journey away is Popa Mountain where a series of stupas was built atop a rocky mountain. There are some pretty great views from the top, but the taxi will usually stop before the mountain for views of the mountain itself. There are 777 steps to the top, which can be fairly strenuous but also involves avoiding hordes of thieving monkeys. They seemed sated of their thievery when we were there so we had little issue with them.
One day while exploring, I stopped at one of the handy map boards scattered around the plains and was approached by a local girl asking if I would like a tour of her village.
As it happened it was exactly what I was hoping for and was happy to be led around the village. I met her family and neighbours, and saw how they weave their cloth, lacquer their bowls and spin cotton. This is her grandmother spinning cotton while her mother rolls cigars just out of picture to the left. They visit gave me plenty of insights into tribal life in the village, which helped me to detail the villages I’ve created in the novel I recently wrote.
Overall, Bagan was an amazing place and I even extended my stay because I was enjoying the surroundings so much. I was even sad when I decided to move on but there were other places I wanted to see. There is something deeply spiritual about Bagan that gives you a deep sense of peace. No other place I have been to on this trip have had that effect. This has to be one of my favourite places in the world.
Next I head across Myanmar to Inle Lake and a spot of hiking.
The Lone Trail Wanderer