Southeast Asia, Part VI: Bagan, a Sea of Ancient Relics

I’d seen photos of this place for years: its ancient temple-tops peering out over the jungle canopy, fog burning off across the landscape, a sea of relics strewn across a massive plain, a centuries-old board game interrupted by the future. Like something out of an adventure movie, Bagan called to me.

And so it was that I travelled from Inle Lake to Bagan to start this leg of the journey.

I arrive in the evening (a far less traumatic taxi ride than the last), my taxi depositing me at the hotel, a gardened temple replica tucked behind a tour bus-filled street thronging with supping masses. A pit of dread lodges in my stomach as I hope my experience here wouldn’t be this, erm, crowded. The staff: doting; the room: miniscule. Luckily, I wasn’t planning on spending much time inside anyway.

Bagan is an ancient sacred Burmese city, named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the summer of 2018. That means protection and restoration (and the climbing of temples now prohibited), but it also means it’s not an under-the-radar destination anymore. I’m glad I’m seeing it now.

Essentially, the Bagan Archaeological Zone is a minefield of temples and stupas and pagodas and monasteries strewn across a 100 sq km area, encompassing over 3500 complexes built between the 11th and 13th centuries. In its day, there were over 4000, and by some estimates there are/were over 10,000 individual structures here.

My first day’s mission was to see some of the larger sites. I hired an e-bike and set off. You pay the equivalent of about $5 for a day’s rental of a silent scooter to shuttle you about Bagan. It’s necessary, I soon learn, as the place is enormous, and the air is hot and dry. If nothing else, the breeze is refreshing as the red dust nestles, well, everywhere!

I make it to the Shwezigon Paya early-ish, and the market is not yet in full swing. A pushy but not unfriendly woman points out a good place to park my scooter, and duly notes a good place to leave my shoes while I wander the site. She comments that I should come visit her shop in the market on my way out. Similar to Shwedagon in Yangon, this paya is thronged with tourists even at this early hour, so once I’m done, I bee-line it out of there to get to some of the other sites before the mobs do. The experience walking through the gallery on the way out of the pagoda made me feel not unlike a piece of meat: vendors, like dogs, drooling and nipping at me to get me to buy something; some more rabid than others.

Annoyed by the time I get to the door where I left my shoes, I was verging on incensed when I realised they weren’t there. The lady at the shop has them I was informed. My shoes are being held ransom I thought. After gathering my shoes from the woman, at the risk of being hexed for not making a purchase, I hastily make my way out of there.

I was not enjoying Bagan at all as yet.

The thing about Bagan is that there is a temple of some sort pretty much every 20 feet. So I head down the main road towards Old Bagan, joining the melange of motorbikes, horse-drawn buggies, taxis and e-scooters going my way. In the process, I found some pretty amazing sites. I also tracked down the only Hindu temple in Bagan, which is also said to be the oldest here, built in the 10th or 11th century. It is a temple to Vishnu and houses statues and wall paintings not only of Vishnu, but also of Brahma, Shiva and Ganesha.

I spend the rest of the day alternately cursing tour buses (and their occupants) and gaping wide-mouthed at the temples large and small, as I maneuver around the sites on my e-bike. It is really no wonder they’re here (the tourists, that is), but the crowds also make for a less-than wonderful experience. The afternoon wanes, and in trying to escape the throngs and hawkers and sleazy tour mongers (want to see the sunset? … want to buy this [trinket/bauble/blanket/hat/postcard/painting]?…want to go to a secret spot to climb a temple?), I finally find a hilltop from which to watch the sunset (empty when I arrive but full as the sun dips below the horizon).

I end the day not overly impressed with the Bagan experience thus far, while being simultaneously floored by the architectural wonders around me.

My goal for Day 2 is to avoid the swarms and visit only sites that have no parking lots, no tourist buses, no mobs of people milling about. Before I embark on this mission, my morning starts with one of the 2 or 3 splurgiest things I’ve ever done: a hot air balloon ride over Bagan.

It was a surreal hour, beginning as the sun came up, and ending with us landed in a field, drinking a glass of champagne (as one does).

Hedonistic as it was, the flight really helped put the scale of this place into perspective! Each temple, pagoda, stupa, or monastery feels like it ought to be an historic site on its own, so seeing this (collective) wonder from above was just an amazing experience. Highly recommended!

I spend the rest of the day scooting around the city, taking interesting-looking and/or less-travelled dirt roads (one even led me into someone’s yard!!), then wandering down bramble-lined paths among and between the ancient structures… I explored large temples and small, even stumbled upon a spectacular monastic complex hiding in plain sight.

This day ended with me feeling fuller, and more fulfilled, than I did the day before. I even took in a traditional puppet show at dinner.

In a nutshell, I spent two very long but very different days amongst these ruins at Bagan, seeing the well-known and the, well, not-so-much. Some of the sites clearly generated something like magnetism for me, drawing me in through their stone archways and ancient doors. And some made me want to forget that I’d ever been there. There is certainly energy afoot, and it’s not surprising that each of the structures calls to different people differently: what I find fascinating might be a dull pile of old brick to the next wanderer-by; the ghosts of each temple chanting centuries of silence to those who listen carefully.

I said goodbye to Bagan before dawn this morning and boarded a boat to Mandalay, hoping one day to be back.


Read More: [Part I] [Part II] [Part III] [Part IV] [Part V]

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