Bagan

Bagan is an area in the Central region of Myanmar.

Understand

Bagan, also spelled Pagan, on the banks of the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River, is home to the largest and densest concentration of Buddhist temples, pagodas, stupas and ruins in the world, many dating from the 11th and 12th centuries. The shape and construction of each building is highly significant in Buddhism with each component taking on spiritual meaning.

When comparing this immense archaeological site to other archaeological gems of Southeast Asia, the Angkor sites, an analogy with food is apt: savouring the Angkor sites is like a Chinese Lauriat banquet where the temples are presented in grand and exquisite servings and takes a long time (about 10 to 15 minutes) to get from one to the next. Bagan is served up Spanish tapas-style, in small bite size servings, often in frequent intervals and near to each other.

What makes the temples look romantic is the process of graceful ageing. There are no windbreaks and occasional whirlwinds spawn loose dust particles that sandblast the temples. This has eroded the stucco coatings of the temples to reveal the underlying bricks, reddish, and golden brown when bathed in sunlight.

Erosion is a significant threat to this area, not only the wind chipping away the buildings' parging, but also water from the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River threatens the riverbanks. Strong river currents have already washed away half of the area of Old Bagan. It used to be a rectangular-shaped piece of enclave protected by a perimeter wall. Now the remaining triangular eastern half is exposed to the river.

History

Bagan became powerful in the mid-9th century under King Anawratha, who unified Burma under Theravada Buddhism. It is estimated that as many as 13,000 temples and stupas once stood on this 42km2 plain in central Myanmar, and Marco Polo once described Bagan as a "gilded city alive with tinkling bells and the swishing sounds of monks' robes". Approximately 2,200 remnants remain today, in various states of disrepair. Some are large and well maintained, such as the Ananda Pahto, others are small tumbledown relics in the middle of overgrown grass. All sites are considered sacred, so when visiting, be respectful. Remove footwear and socks before entering or stepping onto them.

Bagan's golden age ended in 1287 when the kingdom and its capital city was invaded and sacked by the Mongols. Its population was reduced to a village that remained among the ruins of the once larger city. In 1998, this village and its inhabitants were forcibly relocated a few kilometres to the south of Bagan, forming "New Bagan" where you will find accommodation in its handful of cheap, quaint, clean hotels, and religious centres.

Despite the majesty and importance of Bagan, UNESCO did not include it on its World Heritage Site, because it says some temples were rebuilt in an un-historic fashion. Nonetheless, the site is perhaps as impressive as the pyramids of Egypt: a dry, vast open landscape dominated entirely by votive architecture.

Get in

When entering Bagan you will be taken to a ticket booth where you present your passport and purchase a USD20 ticket to the whole archaeological site valid for 4 days before dropping you off at your hotel. This pass may be needed for accommodation as hotels and hostels may need to record the ticket number when you check in, in theory. Reports have been made that they DO NOT use the money for the site, and that the money goes directly in the governments pockets. The best would be to keep your ticket and give it to other travelers when you leave Bagan. There are some ways to avoid paying for this ticket (including getting it from other travelers, arriving by boat, making the best joke ever etc...)

Staff at the ticket booths sell pirated copies of George Orwell's Burmese Days for around USD5, though if you negotiate you can get them down to USD1.

Maps are also sold for one thousand kyat (MYK1,000). Don't buy one. They are available free from big hotels if you pass by and ask for one even if you are not a guest.

By plane

You can fly to Bagan from Yangon on Air Mandalay, Air Bagan, Asian Wings or Myanmar Airways. There are winter and summer season prices. Air Mandalay and Air Bagan also fly from Mandalay.

From the airport to New Bagan takes about 15–20 minutes by car, and usually this will cost around MYK7,000-10,000. Most mid-range and luxury hotels will provide free pickup from the airport. Nyaung Oo is the closest town to the airport, only a few kilometres away, and has mostly budget accommodation.

By train

Most train routes in Myanmar are fairly nice; however, when going on the Mandalay-Bagan route expect the train to be incredibly crowded. You will also have limited room to store your stuff, as well as cramped, uncomfortable sitting conditions. There have been reports of a night train to Bagan with lots of room and foot room in the 1st class carriage for USD10, although it may be waiting in Neverland during the low season.

By bus

Comfortable bus links from Mandalay are available for MYK8,000 one way (6–7h). Night buses to Yangon leave in the afternoon and arrive early in the morning, MYK18,000, 13 hr. There is one day bus that departs Bagan at 09:00. Prices can be as high as MYK18,000, but should be no more than MYK15,000 booked directly or through your hotel. Try to buy directly at the bus station. You can get Yangon to Bagan for MYK13,000, so you should be able to get the same price for Bagan to Yangon.

Air conditioned buses are available from Nyangshwe (Inle Lake) for around MYK14,000 and take 9 hr. The same buses go from Kalaw as well, 7 hr.

By boat

A daily "express" ferry service runs down the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) from Mandalay to Bagan taking about 9 hr (or something like 30km/hr). A one-way ticket is USD45. It is more of a slow pleasure cruise than a rush express trip thanks to the priceless river views and fresh air, the glimpse of country life with locals waving at you, acknowledging your presence unobtrusively, and the overall soothing and relaxing atmosphere detached from misery and distant from poverty. The RV Shwe Keinnery runs daily, leaving the Gawwein jetty in Mandalay at 07:00, arriving in Bagan at 17:00.

A (very) slow ferry covers the same route frequently and costs USD15. Takes from 14-17 hr, but is a great opportunity to mix with the locals. Plastic chairs are available to rent on board. Otherwise, bring something to sit on and a cover for the early hours (leaves around 05:00) and evening. Locals will be grateful to share theirs if you ask or if they see you shivering.

Get around

See

All temple signs are written in Burmese. Only a few are in English, and if they are, it's written on the back of the sign.

The three basic building blocks of typical Bagan temples are stupa, block base, and vestibule. With a little practice, you can deconstruct the structures into their basic elements.

The simplest structure starts with a stupa shaped like a chess pawn. It caches a tiny sacred piece of human remains, relics of the Buddha, or a simple commemorative votive piece. Some stupas have a single pierced niche housing a Buddha icon, which can be viewed by the devotee from the outside. As complexity kicked in, the niches became bigger and no longer fit in the stupa, so a cube block base was introduced to accommodate the enlarged niche which eventually became a cell. With the cube block casing the cell now fully defined, the stupa became its topping. Then, the cube's cell's entrance developed a vestibule, while the cell increased to two (back to back), eventually completing all the sides, one for each cardinal compass point (north-south-east-west), and eventually as it became bigger, a dark claustrophobic ambulatory connected all four cells. Becoming more articulate and intricate, the cube's top taper into two to three tiers and are decorated with smaller corner spires on each while the vestibule protruded further and further out, the doorways decorated with pediments, some with upturned, others with downturned, teeth-like decoration. In others, the tiers became prominent to resemble a stepped pyramid. Meanwhile the stupa became more elaborate as moldings multiplied and sets of tiers and niches were introduced. From a simple gourd-shaped stupa, it evolved into a complex structure. Nobody can be expected to visit more than 20 of these structures, let alone all 2,000.

Important temples

Other

Do

Hot air balloons over Bagan

Buy

Bagan offers lacquerware, cloth paintings, T-shirts, and other handicrafts. It is considered "friendly" to grant a customer 10% off, but it is common for initial prices to be double what you can get with bargaining. If you haggle, remember to keep it friendly.

There are several ATM's in Nyaung Oo and new Bagan.

Eat

There are many places to eat in Old Bagan serving the traditional Burmese dishes, especially noodle soup. Some of the buffets are excellent; for about USD1.50 you can eat to your heart's content from dozens of different traditional dishes.

At the south end of Bagan-Nyaung Oo Rd. where a dirt road leads to Ananda Temple, there are alfresco restaurants lining this road serving complete budget meals. A meal priced at MYK1,600 consists of rice with the main dish, two bite sizes of beef, pork, or two small chicken pieces, or about a dozen smelt pieces, plus clear broth and 4 small plates of appetizer-veggies, beans, salads, pickled veggies. There are also tourist restaurants in this area, some of which are good and all of which have high prices.

"Restaurant Row" (Thi Ri Pyitsaya 4) in Nyaung Oo has a string of restaurants catering to tourists, most of which are quite good.

Sleep

Most accommodation nowadays are found in New Bagan or Nyaung Oo. In Old Bagan, only some government-involved, luxury hotels remain. The best temples are located along the northern stretch of Nyaung Oo Rd. or at Nyaung Oo township and downwards before you arrive in Old Bagan. This is a good place to stay, starting from Thante Hotel to the north to about a half a kilometre south of the Bus Terminal. It is especially helpful for those on a tight-budget to be based in this area.

Hotel guests sometimes have no control of switching TV channels in the bedrooms. To change channels, one must go down and ask at reception. Their explanation is that their hotel is just licensed by the government to view a limited two-channel “slot” at a single time. It is expensive to maintain more than two “slots” for the channels to put in.

Stay safe

Go next

From Bagan, you can do a day trip to visit Mt. Popa. This attraction is a temple on a cliff. You walk the stairs up, about 100 m), although barefoot as the place is considered holy. The stairs are not very clean because of the presence of large numbers of monkeys. The views from the top are good. Pick-up trucks can be organised by your hotel, or at the market in Nyaung U. Don't pay more than MYK6,000 return (probably even that is too much, haggle!), locals pay around 1,000 one way.

Local (non air-con) bus to Monywa costs MYK3,000 at the bus station (that's the locals price, haggle!), at hotels they charge you about MYK5,000. They can pick you up along the main road. The bus starts at 07:30 and takes about 3–4 hours, including several stops.

There are several daily buses to Kalaw/Inle. costs around MYK12,000 and takes around 8 hours to Kalaw and a few more to reach Inle. The bus should pick you up from your hotel in Nyaun U. The ride up into the hills to Kalaw is steep and scenic, and the road quality is normal for Myanmar.

The bus to Mandalay leaves at 08:30 and costs MYK7,500.

Bus to Meiktila costs MYK5,000.


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