Bagan, on Myanmar’s central plain, feels like the spiritual heart of the country. We land in a cloud of dust, the endless horizon curving up to greet us. Even early in the morning, the heat is intense this late in April. On our way to Old Bagan, we see a temple, then a second and then, as our eyes adjust, I realise that the many rounded, pointed shapes dotted all around us are all temples. They stretch all the way to the horizon.
Old Bagan v.s. New Bagan
We’ve chosen to stay in Old Bagan, closer to the temples and away from the shops of New Bagan. Although Old Bagan offers less infrastructure than New Bagan, where there are more shops and accommodation, Old Bagan drew us because of the proximity to the temples. I liked the idea of being able to access the temples ourselves, without a taxi or bus ride. There are plenty of hotels in Old Bagan, though these are older, less modern and pricier than their counterparts in New Bagan; there are also less budget options in Old Bagan, but what we spent in hotel accommodation costs, we saved in taxi expenses.
Getting around in Bagan
The best way to see Bagan’s temples is by bicycle. Early in the morning there is hardly any traffic, the air is still wonderfully cool and there is birdsong in the trees. All around us, the serene silhouettes of stupas sit, awaiting exploration. Armed only with a map and our trusty two wheels, we navigate the sandy, dusty tracks, cycling from one temple to the next, marvelling at carvings, climbing up for a panoramic view, watching the movement of the sun. Make sure that the brakes work, the seat is adjusted at a comfortable height and the tyres have been pumped before you set off.
By horse cart
A far more refined way of exploring the temples, we saw a few tourists travelling around by horse and cart in Bagan. There is the added bonus of a guide being able to explain the sights – though we managed quite well with local temple custodians and our guidebook – and the comfort of sitting in a cart as opposed to getting around on peddle power. Horse cart prices costs from about KY20,000 per day, but prices can be negotiated.
Hiring a taxi for the day to bring you around to the temples may be the fastest transport option, but given the quality of cars in Myanmar, it may not be the quickest. There are no paved roads within the plain itself, so there may be some temples where taxis cannot tread. The one taxi we took – a return ride from Old Bagan to New Bagan – had no air conditioning, which in the April heat, was very uncomfortable.
Temples of Bagan
There are so many temples in Bagan that the key to enjoying them is to have a strategic plan in order to avoid temple fatigue. The biggest and most beautiful temples like Ananda Pahto, Shwesandaw Paya and Dhammayangyi Pahto definitely deserve a visit, but the smaller temples, like Thabeik Hmauk, may also warrant a visit, if only to experience the solitude and awe of being in a temple by yourself, in the quiet dawn or twilight.
Topped by a distinctive gold hti, Ananda Pahto can be seen from miles around. This is one of the largest and most beautiful temples in Bagan, graceful and balanced. Four Buddha statues mark the cardinal directions, each one with slightly different mudras, or hand gestures. A helpful local guide took us around while we were in Ananda, pointing out that the Buddha statue changes its’ expression, depending on how close or far you stand away from it – a happy face for the visiting masses, who worshipped from the furthest corridor, a thoughtful expression for the nobility, who had use of the middle corridor, and for the monks, who used the corridor closest to the Buddha, a slightly sad expression.
The crowds come here for the sunsets, viewed from Shwesandaw’s roomy terrace – not all Bagan temples have a top floor terrace from which to view the changing of the light, so in real estate terms, this is hot property. This white paya remains graceful despite the throngs of people climbing all over it’s five levels. There are traces of terracotta carvings, though most of the originals have been obscured by overly enthusiastic restoration.
A colossal hulk on the plains of Bagan, Dhammayangyi is a walled temple, located close to Shwesandaw. Inside, the inner passageways have been bricked up, possibly as reinforcement to ensure the massive structure didn’t collapse, perhaps as payback to the cruel King Narathu, who built this temple and, legend has it, smothered his kinfolk to death. The walk around the temple itself affords fine views across the plains towards Sulamani Pahto, another must-see site.
Where did we stay?
There are quite a few accommodation choices in Bagan, both old and new; the trick is finding a place that offers good value. We stayed at the Bagan Thande Hotel, in a superior room. The A/C failed one night, but it took management only two hours to transfer us to another room. Their deluxe bungalows, located by the riverside are a better choice as they offer more modernity, better views and privacy.
What did we eat?
Cycling along in the impending dusk near Tharabar Gate, we gravitate towards the dim lights of some stalls set up by the road. This is Be Kind to Animals the Moon, a vegetarian restaurant serving imaginative flavours and best tomato salad I’ve ever had. Their lime and ginger tea, served chilled, is a welcome pick-me-up after a full day’s cycle out in the heat. Service is excellent, as is the food!
How did we dress?
Myanmar is a conservative majority Buddhist country, and when visiting temples, the knee to shoulder rule applies. Cover everything between these two points and take off all footwear before climbing up onto a paya or entering a temple. Loose, wide trousers, maxi skirts and simple tee shirts in a light, breathable fabric are all excellent choices to cope with the heat and dust of Bagan.