Beautiful Bagan

Where to begin with beautiful Bagan? After a couple of days exploring Yangon it was time to take the short flight to this fascinating archaeological site teeming with temples. Before I get to Bagan though I should just mention the getting there. From Yangon the easiest way to is to take a short flight which takes about ninety minutes. The check-in and flight itself is definitely as much a part of the trip to enjoy as obviously being in Bagan is, with hand written boarding passes, coloured stickers for everyone to identify which flight you are on and old fashioned looking paper luggage tags on the checked bags. Not forgetting after the tagging (at the airport in Bagan) your checked bags being wheeled away on trolley's to be loaded on to your flight.

We did, as many do when visiting Bagan, and booked a guide and driver to take us around a few of the temples. Our visit was only brief, we flew up to Bagan early in the morning and returned to Yangon the following evening and if time had allowed we could easily have spent longer than that there. There are a lot of temples (over 3000) so obviously we were never going to see them all but touring a few with an expert and incredibly knowledgeable guide did mean we got the most out of our brief time there. Plus using a guide with a driver meant we got regular air con breaks, were able to get around to more of the sites and didn't have any of the stress of trying to work out where we should be going, particularly as we only had such a short time there. Our friend who lives in Yangon had returned to Bagan just a few days before we did with one of her friends and gave us the recommendation for the guide. It was therefore an incredibly last minute booking on our part with him but luckily he was available and, as we knew he would be given he was recommended by our friend, was utterly fantastic (drop me a line if you'd like his contact details to check his availability to book your own tour).

Shwezigon pagoda

According to the Burmese chronicles, detailed writings about the monarchy of Myanmar with parts dating from the 1280s, Bagan was founded in the second century AD. Historians believe though that the city was founded in the mid to late 9th century. From then until the 13th century Bagan was the capital of the Pagan Kingdom. The Kingdom of Pagan was the first kingdom to unify the regions that would later become modern day Myanmar. During that time Bagan's wealthy rulers and subjects built over 10,000 religious monuments including stupas, small temples and monasteries. Bagan became a centre for religious and secular study, attracting monks and students from far and wide. The Pagan Empire eventually collapsed in 1287 due to repeated Mongol invasions. These invasions of present day Myanmar were a serious of military conflicts between Kublai Khan's Yuan dynasty and the Pagan empire which took place between 1277 and 1287. As a result of these invasions Bagan was reduced to a small town losing its prominence and ceasing to be the capital in December 1297. Post its demise a handful of religious monuments continued to be built and it remained a place of pilgrimage but with this only focused on a handful of the temples many of its lesser ones fell into disrepair with some disappearing altogether over time. Bagan is also located in an earthquake prone area so further temples have been damaged or lost at various times as a result of quake damage.

With two not quite full days there we knew we were going to busy but it was definitely worth it. As I mentioned we landed in Bagan early morning and with our luggage soon offloaded and wheeled across the airfield for all the passengers to collect we were meeting our guide in no time to begin our tour. The immediately very handy part of picking up a pre-booked guide and car meant we could stow our luggage conveniently in the boot, as we were never going to be able to check in to our hotel that early, and then not have to worry about it again until later. 

In order to visit the Bagan Archaeological Zone tourists are required to pay an entrance fee which is currently 25,000 kyats, arriving at the airport meant we could pay there and our guide helped us sort that out with no fuss. The entrance fee covers a one week visit, at a couple of the larger popular temples we had to show evidence we'd paid but for the most no one checked, but make sure you carry your proof of payment with you just in case.

Before we got to the temples we made a brief stop at a local market to get an idea of the types of local produce sold here. The variety was amazing and there were fruit and vegetables that I had no clue what they were but again with our guide there he was able to tell us and explain what some of the less well known items were typically used for and what dishes they may feature in. Here I also got the opportunity to have traditional thanaka cosmetic paste applied to my face. The paste is made from ground bark mixed with a small amount of water on a circular slate slab. It is commonly seen applied to the faces and sometimes arms of women and girls and has been used by Burmese women for over 2000 years. It is applied to the face in attractive designs and apart from its cosmetic side it also gives a cooling sensation to the skin and provides protection from sunburn. When it's applied to the skin it feels wonderfully cool and does keep you that way afterwards, whilst the rest of me got reasonably warm at various points in the day my face stayed remarkably cool. I kept it on for most of the day and I actually forgot about it until I arrived at the hotel later and caught sight of myself in a mirror. Having kept so cool all day I can totally see the benefits of using it.

This sign at our first temple complex made me chuckle

Although, as I said, our visit to Bagan was brief we did fit quite a few temples in. I'm not sure I could mention them all here and with some of the smaller ones I don't know that I could even tell you with confidence their names. So with that in mind I'm just going to mention some of those we visited. The first of these being the Shwezigon pagoda. This beautifully photogenic golden stupa's (see the photos above) original construction began during the reign of King Anawrahta, the founder of the Pagan dynasty, and was completed in 1102 AD during the reign of his son.

According to legend the king selected the site for this pagoda by sending a white elephant with a relic of the Buddha attached to it to roam freely declaring that wherever the elephant stopped would be the site. The elephant stopped on a dune where, as stated it would be the pagoda was later built, earning it the name Shwezigon pagoda which means 'golden pagoda on a dune' in Burmese. Like many other pagodas in the region this one has been damaged by earthquakes over the centuries since it was built and has been renovated several times.

Just a small amount of the huge lunch we enjoyed at our lunch stop (Golden Myanmar Food) on day one of our visit to Bagan

One of our next stops was the Myazedi pagoda close to the Gubyaukgyi temple which we also visited. The Gubyaukgyi temple itself is pretty special as it contains a number of well preserved frescoes on its interior walls, some of the oldest original paintings to be found in Bagan. However the Myazedi temple is also very special as this is where a stone pillar inscribed with writings dedicated to King Kyansittha, the son of King Anawrahta (mentioned above) who continued the social, economic and cultural reforms that were begun by his father, are written. The writings on this pillar, known as the Myazedi inscription, are the oldest surviving stone inscription of four languages, Burmese, Pyu, Mon and Pali. The primary importance of this stone is that the inscriptions on it allowed for the deciphering of the written Pyu language, an extinct language which was mainly spoken in what is now Myanmar in the first millennium CE. As our guide told us, this pillar's importance in helping to understand and translate the Pyu language has been compared to that of the Rosetta stone.

One of the most beautiful temples we visited was the Ananda temple built in 1105 AD. It's immediately striking with its bright white exterior contrasting with all the other temples we'd visited beforehand. The name of the temple is derived from the Venerable Ananda who was a cousin of the Buddha. One of the the loveliest things about this temple is the unique features on one of the Buddhas. If you stand close to him he appears to look a little sad but move further away and his expression changes as if he were serenely smiling down on everyone. Can you see in the photo below?

Sunset over some of the many temples in Bagan, if you are lucky and get a good one, is well worth seeing. Our final stop on our first day before heading back to our hotel, we'd already checked in a little earlier in the afternoon and had a short break before heading out again, was the perfect spot for seeing the sunset over the temples. It's worth noting this particular spot is a well known place for sunset views so get there in good time to grab a decent place to view it. Luckily having a guide ensured we did just that and got all the good tips for seeing this at its best. Unfortunately we probably didn't get one of the best sunsets that evening but nonetheless it was a lovely end to a wonderful day and if you blocked out the chatting all around you from some of the other visitors the view was delightful. 

After that it was back to our hotel for a meal and a good nights rest, as we dined we listened to the frogs etc. and reflected on an amazing day. One thing to note is that Bagan is not like some similar places in other parts of South East Asia, there is no nightlife as such so don't expect crazy nights out after a day exploring the temples. Simply just go and enjoy the amazing history and take the opportunity to relax and recharge in the evening.

The following morning, and with our hotel being close to the Ayeyarwady river, we were woken early by the sounds of the fishing boats heading out for the day. After spotting a few of the many hot air balloons that take tourists for early morning tours over the temples and a good breakfast we met our guide and driver once more and headed off to the Dhammayazika pagoda. This pagoda was built in 1196, is circular in design and built from brick with terra cotta tiles on its terraces illustrating scenes from the Jataka. The Jataka being a body of literature from India concerning the previous births of Buddha in both human and animal form.

A couple of the many terra cotta tiles at the temple depicting the Jataka stories

The majority of temples we'd visited up until that point were ones on the thoroughly well beaten track of visitors to Bagan. The next ones though were much more rural and we and our guide were, on the whole, the only ones there. This collection of stupas is close to the agricultural village of Minnanthu which produces sesame and peanut oil. Just before we arrived at these temples we stopped besides some of the nearby peanut fields and got to see a little of the produce straight from the field.

The temples here are incredibly peaceful and visitor free. As our guide told us, it was entirely possible that we were the first visitors that day to these which made them even more special. I don't think I could tell you the names now of any of the temples we saw there but perhaps that's actually a nice thing. This was also the place where I was really grateful to be wearing trousers as the grass is quite overgrown in parts and the area around these far more wild than the other temple complexes had been. So sun cream and mosquito spray are a particularly good idea in this part of Bagan.

We had one final stop before lunch which was at the Hsin Phyu Shin Monastic complex, another quieter spot on our tour. It was built by King Hsinbyushin also known as King Thihathu in the 14th century. The complex is pretty big and was a place of study for Buddhist student monks. After that it was time for one final lunch stop at the lovely The Village House restaurant which gave us some nice views of a couple of nearby stupas as we ate. I loved this peaceful little spot and the food (another absolute feast of Burmese delights) was delicious.

Lunch time view

A little part of our extensive lunch

Following a leisurely lunch it was time to head back to the hotel to collect our bags and make our way to the airport for our flight back to Yangon. Bagan was amazing and with our flying visit we barely scratched the surface of it but what a fantastic introduction we had to it thanks, very much so, to our amazing guide. 

Some things to note before you head there, Bagan is one of the hottest places in the country so ensure you go prepared with plenty of water, sun cream and mosquito repellent. As with all Buddhist temples ensure you dress appropriately and respectfully. I would recommend light trousers, especially if you are heading to some of the more rural pagodas to at least protect you a little from mosquito bites as well as making it a lot easier to explore. Likewise flip flops or sandals are the best bet for your feet as you will need to remove your shoes before entering any temple complexes and they are a lot easier to slip on and off. Whilst you can explore the temples under your own steam, hiring bikes etc. if you are only there for a fleeting visit a knowledgeable guide and driver is, in my opinion, the way to go to ensure you get the most from your time. We were very happy to go where the guide recommended but equally if we'd had a specific interest or particular temples we really wanted to see he would have been happy to help plan a tour that took that into consideration too. Hopefully (all the more so now) we'll be able to return to Bagan again at some stage and see some more of this wonderful place.


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