Day 2: Bagan

by - May 01, 2014

Bagan Temples at Sunset
During my last visit to South East Asia, I heard rumblings amongst my fellow backpackers that there was a region nearby that was stuffed full of spectacular temples - better even than Angkor Wat, which few people were able to get to.  With a packed schedule at the time and with travelling within Myanmar being such a potential ethical and logistical challenge,  I had to pass up the opportunity to get to Bagan, the region in question.  Three years later, on my second visit to South East Asia, I was able to make it happen.
The Shwezigon Pagoda, 
Karina is the first victim of the water festival
Having arrived the night before from Yangon to the wonderful Hotel Zfreeti, we would only really have one full day at the temples.  The ruins at Bagan are the remains of what was once one of the most significant empires in South East Asia, with some of the highest standards of living on the entire continent.  In the 11th to 13th century, around the time that William the Conqueror was  invading England, Bagan was the capital city of an empire that stretched across almost all of modern Myanmar.  Until it eventually fell to Mongol invasion, Bagan was truly one of the world’s great centres of Buddhist civilization.  The religion of the region played a decisive role in its make-up, as its people believed that by building stupas, pagodas and other religious buildings would atone for any negative karma that they had accrued.  Essentially, every time a wealthy person did a bad thing they could make up for it through an act of piety.  The nearby town of Nyaung-U, where we were staying, just to the north of the ruins, itself contained a pagoda - this one a more modern one named the Shwezigon Pagoda which is still used by locals.  It was our first taste of a Burmese religious site and it certainly didn’t disappoint - red robed monks and golden towers combined to produce an area of both peace and beauty.  Outside the gates however, the water festival (about which much more will be said later) was just beginning and as we made our way back to our waiting van we were ambushed by a group of young locals armed with water pistols.

Ruins at Bagan
From here, we headed south into the main area of ruins.  With only one day and with there being no stand out ‘must-see’ temple, we were happy to just make our way around the vast Bagan plain, stopping wherever we saw an interesting structure or vista.  We used the Lonely Planet maps to give us some structure however, dedicating the morning and early afternoon to so-called 'Old Bagan’ before moving to the 'newer’ region and the banks of the Irrawaddy around sunset.  Some of the temples had been renovated (with mixed results) after a combination of earthquakes and general decay had made some of the ruins unstable - this took nothing away from just how amazing the place was however.  In terms of practicalities, visitors to the temples are supposed to pay a $15 entrance fee for a ticket which lasts for five days.  This is loosely enforced however, though we got caught without a ticket at our final temple and had to pay up - in our defence, even if we had been aiming to buy the tickets there was nobody visibly selling them.  In the olden days, I would have done my best to avoid giving money to the government, but things are supposedly changing and it now feels like a small price to pay for the preservation of what is undoubtedly up there with the greatest monuments I have ever seen - more impressive than Angkor Wat and as good as any of the ruins of Ancient Egypt.  In terms of required time, I am very aware that we did not stay long enough to fully immerse ourselves (particularly as we were travelling in the van), but gave ourselves a good overview.  As a solo traveller with more time, it makes sense to travel by bike (pedal or motorised) to get around - both varieties of two-wheeled vehicle are available everywhere.  We stayed around the temples until sunset (and would be getting up the next day to watch the sunrise).

This is a difficult blog to write really, as the ruins of Bagan are best explored at a reasonably leisurely pace with no particular goal in mind - so its hard for me to list a comprehensive list of things that we did.  As a result, I will just let the pictures do the talking:

A temple on the banks of the Irrawaddy
A young monk and his friend on a wall at a temple beside the Irrawaddy River
Sunset over the ruins
Sunset over the ruins

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