The final destination on our Irrawaddy flotilla steamer cruise was Bagan (sometimes spelled “Pagan,” always with the accent on the last syllable), an ancient city of thousands of Buddhist stupas and temples. Bagan rivals such sites as Angkor Wat in historical value and size. The 26 square miles of plains on the banks of the Irrawaddy River that comprise the Bagan Archeological Site contain over two thousand of these religious testaments to Buddhist belief that to build a temple or stupa is to earn merit. The temples date back to the 11th century and were built during the reign of the Bagan kings until their civilization was destroyed by earthquakes and Kublai Khan’s invading Mogols.
Many of the pagodas, stupas, and temples have been restored, but others crumble amidst the scrub brush, palms and tamarind trees of the plain. Everywhere we looked, we saw stupas and temples. At times, the wild-looking terrain would remind me of the rugged Texas Hill Country back home…except for the stupas. It’s surreal.
Bagan is one of, if not the, most popular destinations in Myamar. Although the country only opened to tourism in 2011, it’s made huge stride from articles I read from the first few years describing almost no visitors and decrying the abysmal state of the tourism, telephone and internet infrastructure. I was a little wistful for those who got to visit Bagan in the early days: It’s now well-served by hotels, souvenir vendors, tourist buses, taxis and horse-drawn coaches. (We’ve been surprised to find our T-Mobile internet service working well nearly everywhere in Myanmar we’ve been, including some of the smaller villages. Bagan service was strong.) Despite the growth of tourism, there’s still something appealingly less-jaded about Bagan and Myanmar in general than other Asian tourist hot spots.
Since Bagan is such a major destination with so much to see, our steamer cruise entailed two nights moored there. While I’m not usually a fan of organized tours, this week-long steamer cruise has been a great way to immerse ourselves in divergent slices of Myanmar before we strike out on our own again as we did in Yangon. With Bagan, it was nice to have our guide, Yen, to choose the sites we’d visit out of the huge selection available. We could spend weeks there and never see it all, nor would we want to. With so many smaller brick stupas, not every one merits a visit. With the larger pagodas, it was good to follow Yen’s lead. He clearly had a love of Bagan and chose wildly different places to visit, choosing one time a large cluster of crumbling temples that we had to ourselves saying it was his favorite as it was like Bagan used to be. It was shocking to hear him say that only 15 years ago ox carts were the primary mode of transportation.
We visited the large, elegant Ananda Phaya, circling the cool interior hallways which are ingeniously open to cooling breezes and light via various arched passages. Completed in 1105AD, Ananda Temple is said to be one of the most perfect in Bagan and it is spectacular.
Totally different is the small, pre-11th century Pahtothamya Temple with its serene original Buddha and extensive wall art. It was one of our favorite spots.
Later, we joined a large and growing group of tourists on a small rise to wait for sunset over the sea of stupas. David and I were lucky to nab a front row spot before the final bus-loads of tourists arrived. It was hot and the sun took a long time to set and I’m not sure the whole production was worth it or lived up to its hype. Oh well.
On our second morning, Yen asked if we were interested in visiting a local party, a unique event, not for tourists, but which we were fortunate to be in town for. He’d heard about the event the night before while visiting with locals and assured us we’d be welcome. We pulled up to a brightly lit archway to the sound of astoundingly loud music. Ah, Myanmar and its penchant for noise. We entered the archway to find a courtyard full of milling guests, a stairs to a two-story building to our left, and a covered tent-like area ahead where people picnicked on the ground in front of a stage where the band responsible for all the noise performed. As we walked past a large speaker, the singer hit a particularly strong note, so loud that it physically hurt. I really am beginning to believe everyone is hard of hearing around here!
As we stood behind the picnicking crowd, children began to arrive in elaborate costumes. Yen explained that the party was to celebrate a group of children who would be leaving to monasteries, something most Burmese do, although they are free to leave again if monastic life doesn’t suit. For the send-off party, the children are dressed as princes and princesses. After circling the crowd of family and friends, they took seats on a raised dais where a photographer arranged them for their portrait. The smallest, a little boy, made me laugh as he refused to relinquish the sandals of the “princess” sitting next to him. Not long afterwards, he was in tears and being comforted by his father. I was surprised at how young some of the children were and tried to imagine myself or my sons heading off from home at that age.
On our last day with our ship friends, we visited beautiful Shwezigon Temple, the inspiration for Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon that we loved so much. Built in 1086AD, 400 years before Shwedagon, Shwezigon is smaller but beautiful with its 140 foot golden stupa. It’s also a center of Nat worship, those good spirits of Buddhism that remind me of Christian angels.
Yen’s favorite pagoda, Tha Kya Pone (see top photo), feels like a lost ghost town of brick stupas, still lovely, but isolated and remote in a rugged wilderness of scrub brush. None of the frequent tourist stalls had set up nearby and only one boy followed us. Offering to sell his own postcard-sized artwork, he fell in step with me, calling himself “Picasso.” I’d heard the same pitch at the sunset viewing spot, but it is clever. I had no need or desire for souvenirs, but hated to hear him say he was “not lucky.” He accepted my small gift of his asking price, but the whole thing left me with mixed feelings. He wasn’t begging, but I didn’t want anything and I didn’t want to throw his artwork away.
We saw a lot of Bagan in our days there and there is still so much to see. The heat makes the going necessarily slow if you want to enjoy, not endure, the experience. That said, it was nowhere near as hot and humid as Angkor Wat..
There’s a 25,000 kyat (pronounced, more or less, as “chut”), about $16.70, charge per person to enter the Bagan Archeological Zone which is good for three days. This was included in the price of our steamer cruise although we knew nothing about them until our last day since all entrances were handled for us by Yen. Since we stayed an extra night at a hotel in Bagan after the cruise were given the tickets that had been purchased for us so we could walk around our hotel in Old Bagan without having to pay the fee again.