Time Stands Still In Bagan
As our plane descended, I got my first glimpse of the famed Bagan temples dotted over the verdant plains of Myanmar. This ancient place rests in arms of mystical mountains, where the Irrawaddy river flows through.
Our group had seen some impressive temples in Yangon, but nothing would prepare us for the sheer audacity and scale in numbers of the temples in Bagan. We lost count. Temple, after temple, after temple. It is no wonder Bagan is one of the most revered archaeological sites in the world.
We had arrived in Bagan to experience the second part of our Floating journey in Myanmar led by author James Cannon Boyce.
Built by the Kings of Bagan
As we moved through the arrival gates we were met by the beaming face of our guide for the next three days. It felt like we knew each other already. Aung Ngwe is a professional tour guide and accompanied James during his first trip to Myanmar and is featured in Chapter 19 of the book. James and Aung Ngwe greeted each other like long-lost family. The Lu Soe Bo (“The King of the Naughty People” as Aung Ngwe had named James when they first met) was back.
On our way into the town Aung Ngwe began prepping us for our days. ahead. While I had done some pre-reading and had marvelled at photographs on the web of the city of temples, nothing had prepared me for the real-life view of these temples.
The temples were built from as early as the 9th century, when Bagan was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan. This was an abundant time in Burmese culture and ethnicity, when Theravada Buddhism developed. A period, which would see the kings of Bagan build thousands of temples, pagodas and stupas as testament to the religious devotion of their people. The shape and construction of each building is highly significant in Buddhism, with each component part taking on spiritual meaning.
The numbers of temples built over the centuries since are said to number anywhere between 3000 and 10 000 and are scattered across the plains and along the Irrawaddy River.
Earthquakes have destroyed many sites over the years. Indeed there was a large earthquake recently in 2016. While other temples were damaged by Kublai Khan and his invading Mongols.
Aung Ngwe explained that temples are still being discovered. However, there simply aren’t enough resources to identify and document them all adequately. I have heard and read several different opinions on how many temples have been accounted for, and it seems to be somewhere between 3000 – 4000 sites. Of concern is the structural damage to these temples, rendering some of them risky to visit. Clearly authorities have the challenge of balancing the desire to promote this unique tourist destination, ensure the safety of visitors, while still preserving the integrity of these ancient temples.
On Foot, By Motorcycle, Bicycle, Car or Horse Cart
Aung Ngwe told us that he was going to limit the time spent at more popular temples, so we could experience more of the smaller and lesser-known sites. This pleased the group’s sense of adventure.
As we drove through the town towards the temples, he also gave us the heads up on how to behave around the temples. I’ve included some tips at the end of this article.
Bagan is now made up of two parts. The Old Bagan, which is now the quieter part, then there is New Bagan, the site where all the inhabitants of Old Bagan were forcibly moved to in 1990, including Aung Ngwe’s family.
The entire temple site spans some 42 kilometres and is simply too big to explore on foot if you want to see a fair amount in a few days. Because of this, many visitors use taxi vans, cars, or opt for the electric motorbikes or bicycles that are available to rent(also a good cheaper option than cars or taxis) at hotels and key hiring points.
You can also explore the area by horse cart. It is a much slower, but rather quaint way to temple gaze.
The Temples Glow at Sunset
As soon as we freshened up, we headed for some of the temple sites that Aung Ngwe had selected for us. It was a warm afternoon. The heat of the sun had started to soften. As the day rolled by our visits to temples became tempered by a small breeze that took the edge off the long traveling day. Once inside them, the coolness of the spaces would settle us further. We saw frescos and relics that took our breath away. Turning each dark corner in a temple revealed a new gift. Maybe a Buddha, a faded fresco, or just simply a window looking out into the plains beyond. We were never disappointed.
The day came to a gentle rest as we sat on the steps of a small unassuming temple to watch the sun set towards the mountains. Basked in a beautiful warm glow of the setting sun, I felt truly blessed. Time stands still in Bagan.
It’s difficult to express what it felt like to sit and watch these majestic temples in the setting sun. Made of a rich red brick and reaching high into the sky, some with gold work on their spires, others not. So many different shapes and sizes, larger, smaller, a little humbler, but each with its own unique character.
By the end of the first day, we had covered a few temples and some included the more frequented temples of Ananda Pahto and the Shwesandaw. So called the “sunset” pagoda. So-called because it is the one (with Buledi) most visitors climb to watch the sunset. Or the Pyathada Paya, which is full of murals and statues of Buddha, which is popular among travellers as the climb is easy and the views amazing.
We looked at the famed Dhammayangyi Temple from a distance. We did not visit the temple, although it one is the largest of all the temples in Bagan and very impressive. The temple’s interior is bricked up, thus only the four porches and the outer corridors are accessible.
There are enough temples to explore that you don’t even have to see another soul if you don’t want to.
Balloons in Bagan
Before long I realised that I had made a serious error in judgement. When the trip was being planned early in the year, James had urged our group to book the Bagan balloon ride in advance. Given our group was on a tight budget, I had decided against the additional expense. However, as I sat and watched the sun go to bed I realised this had been a mistake. Our group had missed out on a once in a lifetime opportunity to float in the magic.
Giddy from temple gazing and feeling pretty hungry, we made our way to one of the best restaurants in all Bagan, and certainly a favourite with great reviews on Trip Advisor. Be Kind to Animals the Moon is a vegetarian restaurant and a unique experience. Set under some beautiful trees and decorated with lights, it has a light and joyful atmosphere. Apart from the delight of eating truly good food, it is also satisfying to know that we were supporting one of Myanmar’s few women entrepreneurs. The owner Zimma has a quiet and humble disposition that obviously hides her steely business skills and talent to create delicious food. Her restaurant is a landmark in Old Bagan and given her success there. she had recently launched in New Bagan as well.
A firm favourite would be the ginger salad (again); the tomato salad (again) and the Pennywort salad (again). I particularly loved the pineapple curry, served with coconut rice and sticky black rice. They also make many other great curries, fresh guacamole, chilled and hot soups. We tried mostly everything. Accompanied with freshly squeezed lime juice and the local beer, we couldn’t be happier (and healthier).
It had been an exciting and full day, but it was time to get to bed and sleep, so we could get an early start.
Some of us in the group decided to wake up before dawn broke to watch the balloons rising, even if we couldn’t ride in them. Also, my son Mikhail had his drone with him, so he would be able to get some amazing pictures. Speaking of this, there are strict rules around the use of drones in Myanmar. We heard that some tourists had recently been arrested for using a drone in an unauthorised area.
Carmen, Mikhail and I rose early and got out into the plains to watch the balloons rising. Balloons Over Bagan is a privately owned local company that offers these safe professional flights and as I said, I had made that mistake. When you go to Bagan, make sure you take that ride.
After breakfast, we hired some bicycles and set off. We got to marvel at the different frescos, patterns, the silent and most beautiful Buddha’s. and even some of the resident creatures like bats that lived in the temples and who squawked at us when Aung Ngwe shone his light up onto the ceilings. Although I’m not afraid of bats, it kind of put paid to the fantasy I had of sleeping in a temple one night – it seemed no one shared the same enthusiasm as me.
Having Aung Ngwe with us made all the difference to
our experience. The trip was planned well in advance of the current situation playing out in Myanmar, and it really drove home how important tourism is to local communities. One of the prerequisites of us traveling to this region was that we would support only small independently owned businesses. And that we would also support community projects which had a positive social impact and that were sensitive to preserving the heritage of the region.
We realised very early on that if you travel without a guide, you’ll miss details you cannot pick up from books or the internet.
Aung Ngwe’s passion for his work was obvious, and it helped that he speaks perfect English – which was not that common in our travels I might add. His name (Ngwe) means “silver” in Burmese. Aung Ngwe has a twin brother – also in the tourism business – who is named Aung Shwe or “gold”, as he was born first. It helps to have a guide with a good sense of humour and Aung Ngwe had us in stitches on many an occasion. We teased him about his elusive twin brother, saying perhaps it was a figment of imagination in the book.
After all, throughout our time we never the chance to meet him. We learned more about their childhood, and what it was like to grow up in Myanmar under military rule, the details of which are also included in Floating.
Some of the temples we visited didn’t have another soul in them, so often we had the special experience all to ourselves.
As we cycled, we got to see close up more of the day-to-day life of villagers. And while taking a break under some shady trees, we watched a beekeeper hunt for bees among the trees with his rudimentary equipment, just a long stick and a bag, followed faithfully by his two dogs.
Taking two or more days and using different forms of transport was the optimal way to explore the plain, as it gave us the best of all worlds. We also took a boat ride on the Irrawaddy River at sunset one evening, which gave us a peek into the lives of local fisherman and life from the river to shore.
We could have stayed in Bagan much longer as there is so much to experience, but we had limited time. Bagan is a jewel in the Myanmar crown. Travelers with a passion for Buddhist temples, pagodas and stupas will love Bagan, and should not miss it for anything and also take more time than we did.
The next evening, we stopped in at Sharky’s for dinner. This tickled my health interest particularly. Sharky’s is something of a legend in these parts. A very successful businessman (and snappy dresser) who returned to Myanmar twenty years after living in Switzerland, he opened his first award-winning restaurant in Yangon. The Sharky’s Bagan outlet has been created in an old cinema complex.
Mr Sharky – as he is known (it was a nickname given to him, due to the fact he had such shark like business skills) – started his career cleaning toilets He was proud to tell us that this is how he learned the importance of ensuring the highest hygiene and design standards in his own establishment. Seriously, his washrooms are the best I have ever visited at a restaurant anywhere.
He has a personal passion for organic food and eating and has pioneered the farm to table eating concept in Myanmar. His premises in his restaurant in Bagan are particularly innovative. Guests can tour their on-site vegetable and aromatic herb farm, which produces all of the restaurant’s fresh salad and herbs. They also have an on-site bakery, wine cellar and butchery. The food lived up to our expectations and became another great food memory in Myanmar.
The last morning in Bagan included a trip to Mount Popa. Mount Popa is a sacred mountain; Salay, about 35 kilometres from Bagan. An active religious centre from the 12th century that also has numerous colonial-era buildings. Built atop an extinct volcano, it offers breath taking sights of Bagan and the Myanmar countryside. Visitors must climb the 777 steps to the summit and indulge the monkeys along the way. I personally did not climb the steps as I was not able to, but I am told one clever monkey managed to outwit our lot and steal a bottle of water from Lu Soe Bo.
Then, we would return to the airport to catch our plane, a taxi and then a longboat up to our final destination in Inle Lake.
It was time to get moving again. Aung Ngwe had become a part of our intrepid group of travellers and we would miss his wisdom and sense of humour. As we approached our departure gate at the airport a very familiar smiling man walked up to our group. It was Aung Ngwe’s twin brother. The brother who was born first and so named Aung Shwe, or gold.
Our journey in Bagan was now complete.
Some Important Tips When Visiting Bagan
- Use a local guide. Firstly, it is really rewarding to all parties when you support small businesses and help local communities by traveling with consciously. You will also get much more out of the trip than if you try and do it on your own. Book early with a company or professional that has sufficient experience of working in the area.
- Respect their heritage. Dress appropriately. It’s warm, so it can be challenging. It is considered very disrespectful for women to wear shorts and t-shirts as this is considered as underwear. While some latitude may be given to men when it comes to dressing, women should cover most of their body, including their shoulders. Women may even be excluded from entering some temples depending on the nature of the temple. Hats must be removed before entering.
- Stick to authorised areas. Some temples are structurally unsound and you can place yourself at risk if you go “off piste” on them. Besides which, these are ancient monuments and deserve our respect.
- Shoes and socks must be removed before entering temples and homes.
- The steps to the upper terraces of most temples are very steep, with no handrails, and can be a challenge for even the most fittest and sure footed visitors.
- Do not shake hands with, or touch monks and nuns. A small bow is the most appropriate greeting with hands placed together at your heart center.
- Ensure you keep a fair amount of cash on hand. You won’t always find a working ATM and even card machines in hotels don’t work that well. We learned that lesson the hard way. This is a largely cash driven society.
- Tipping is not widespread, but keep small denomination (K50, K100 or K200) notes for donations in larger temples.
- Importantly, keep hydrated and carry bottled water with you all the time. I also carried sunscreen with me.
- We found the 3G coverage good in Bagan and Wi-Fi adequate. However if you need to be connected all the time, then buy a local sim card when you arrive. It is really helpful when there is no Wi-Fi.
Bagan is hot most of the year. The best time to visit is between November and February, Avoid March to May. Rainfall is highest in June and October. If you can, visit during a full moon as this is a popular time for local festivals.
For a full list of temples, as well as detailed descriptions, this site is helpful.
How to get there
Ensure your luggage is appropriate for traveling in this region. The airport at Yangon is modern and sophisticated, but the regional airports are adequate, if not basic. It rains, so your luggage may get wet as it leaves the airplane to the main terminal.
It can also be very dusty. Everything is done using manual labour and carried in the open on trailers with tractors. You will not find any plastic wrapping machines or sophisticated baggage services here to protect your luggage. We travelled with Samsonite hard case bags and our bags don’t just look great, they are also hard wearing, waterproof and lightweight. They were able to travel anywhere and under any weather conditions. I noted that many travellers, who had soft covered bags, carried additional water and dirt proof covers which they put on their bags at check-in.
Don’t miss my final blog in this series next week, at the peaceful Inle Lake, home to fish, birds, floating temples, gardens and villages and the end of our Floating journey with James Cannon Boyce.