Bagan: Exploring Temples in the Myanmar Plains
A 9-hour overnight bus ride from Yangon brought us to Bagan. The overnight buses on our trip so far have been pleasant and handy. Not only do we save a full day of travel, but we also save a night’s cost of a hostel. This particular bus ride cost 18,000 Kyatts, or $18. After several overnight buses, we’ve become used to them. We usually become pretty tired the following day but getting to sleep earlier is an easy cure for that.
Bagan is one of Myanmar’s biggest draws. With over two thousand Buddhist temples scattered over the countryside, who wouldn’t be intrigued? The rural-ish area is split into three different parts, Old Bagan, New Bagan, and Nyuang-U. New Bagan is about 3km south of Old Bagan, and Nyuang-U is about 3km east of Old Bagan. Because the bus station and most of the hotels are in Nyuang-U, we chose to stay there. Bicycles, as usual, are a cheap and easy way to get around. We paid just 1,500 Kyatts ($1.50) per day for three days to rent bicycles. It was the perfect way to explore both the main temples and the temples off the beaten track along the dirt roads. To enter the main temples, we were charged 15,000 Kyatts ($15) for a five-day pass.
Temples of Bagan
From the 9th century to the 13th century, Bagan was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan, then the ruler of a big portion of what is now Myanmar. In this time period, the entire region became unified with one religion, Theravada Buddhism. Bagan was built up over these years, especially between the 11th and 13th centuries, with temples, pagodas, and monasteries. The area had over 10,000 of these in its heyday before the fall of the kingdom in 1297 AD. Today, about 2,000 temples and pagodas still stand, making it an incredible place to visit.
There are eight or ten temples that most people will visit, including the Ananda Temple, the Dhammayangyi Temple, and the Htilominlo Temple. Both the insides and outsides of many of these main temples are in great shape, especially for being about 1,000 years old. Outside of these main temples, it’s fun just to bike around on the dirt roads and exploring smaller temples. At one point, we found a temple surrounded by smaller pagodas with nobody else in sight. It was so quiet that it was actually pretty creepy to go inside. Inside, just past the Buddha statue and on the right, I found a small stairway leading up to the roof. From the roof, we had the place to ourselves without all the noise and all the people at many other temples. And we could literally see over a hundred temples and pagodas spread out on the Bagan plains.
The Shwesandaw Pagoda is a popular place to watch the sunset over the Irrewaddy River and the mountains to the west of Bagan. As the sun goes down, the sandy and dry desert to the east changes color to a bright orange. And the bright sun over the temples to the west is a perfect backdrop for pictures. The pagoda became very crowded at sunset, so we went a bit early to get a spot facing west. It was so good that we ended up going on consecutive nights.
Some of my favorite temples were the quiet, smaller ones. Being completely alone inside of a Buddhist temple, which shows its age by its look and its musty smell, gives an entirely different feel, taking in the silence and tranquility like the locals have been doing for a thousand years.
Bagan truly is one-of-a-kind. Independently visiting these ancient temples is exciting and interesting, and it kept me busy for almost three full days. There is nothing quite like looking over the plains at hundreds of Buddhist temples which were built so long ago. It’s hard to imagine what Myanmar was like in the 11th century and how much the country and the world has changed since then. But Bagan definitely had a huge impact on changing the history of Myanmar, shaping it into the Buddhist country that it still is today.