When I landed at the small airport in Bagan I could barely contain my excitement. I was a little closer to getting to know what would be one of the places that most impressed me when visiting Myanmar. The promise and expectations were huge. Visit the largest complex of Buddhist temples, stupas and monasteries in the world, more than 2000, recently named UNESCO Heritage Site.
The temples of Bagan are spread over an area of over 40 km², on the banks of the Ayeyarwady River, and were built in the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries, when the city was the capital of the First Burmese Empire. Why were so many built? It was one of the first questions I asked Tun Tun, our storytelling guide.
There are many explanations, but the main one was perhaps the importance of the city itself. The powerful kings and inhabitants of what was the capital of one of the largest Asian empires had temples built to honour Buddha, each larger and more spectacular than the last. So, they sprouted like mushrooms, giving birth to this magnificent complex.
Time was not an easy test of their resistance, over the centuries they have been plagued several times by earthquakes, the most recent occurring in 2016 when several important temples were badly damaged. Besides the earthquakes, the evolution of the centuries has reduced many structures to little more than rubble. Several were recovered as possible, given the country’s scarce resources, much to the dismay of UNESCO, which after several years of refusal finally granted them World Heritage status.
As soon as we unloaded our luggage, and following the recommendation of Myanmar tourism, “In Bagan leave only the marks of your footprints”, we took the electric scooter and start, zigzagging (it was the first time that we were driving a 2-wheel vehicle), visiting some of the nearest and best-known temples. Despite being the main reason why tourists visit Myanmar, the temples in Bagan were not full of tourists, and we were able to enjoy it with tranquillity, here and there making friends with the locals, people always with a smile to welcome and help us.
After an irresistible sunset on the banks of the Ayeyarwady and calm and restful night, we woke up ready for another day full of memories and emotions. Starting with Tun Tun, the guide that escorted us during the day. If it weren’t for one of the most grandiose places on the planet, he certainly would have managed to get us out of there with that idea. It was he who introduced us to Bagan and showed its temples, from the most touristic to the most secret, without a person around. He also introduced us to a local family whose business is still traditionally, producing the lacquered pieces, most famous here, showed us the best angles for each photo, the secret corners of some temples and took us on trails without anyone, except hundreds of white water buffalo and a view of the complex that left us speechless. In all places, a story accompanied by a simple drawing on a sheet of paper that enabled time travel.
We left the hotel early, went through the only door that still exists on the original wall that surrounded Bagan, in search of the monasteries, temples, shrines and stupas remaining from the former imperial capital. The best known is perhaps Ananda, the most revered by Burmese Buddhists and known for its four golden Buddhas and fantastic guardians, carved and painted on wood. The Shwezigon, with its huge golden dome and the Chayar tree that blooms all year round, it’s also a must-see, as the Sulamani, whose moral paintings are still magnificently preserved, and the Htilominlo, a triumphant temple whose central tower reaches 46 m height.
After the “celebrities” we follow less marked trails in the arid plain, paths that can only be covered by wagon, motorcycle or on foot. Everywhere, we find temples that rise from the ground, dusty from the sand of the centuries, creating a spectacular setting.
We ended the day at the top of a little-known temple with no tourists watching the sunset, and the warm light, intensifying the auburn tones of the hundreds of temples that spread around us, until we lose sight.
What you need to know:
To enter the Archaeological Zone of Bagan you must buy tickets that can be purchased on arrival at the airport, the pier for those arriving by boat, or at some larger temples. They are paid in US dollars and have a duration of 5 days.
To get around, the best are bicycles, horse carts or electric bicycles (e-bikes), which can be rented at any hotel. There are also taxis, but some temples are inaccessible by car, not to mention that they are the least sustainable option.