Time Out: Bagan

Last Christmas we took a short holiday to Bagan. Bagan (sometimes spelled Pagan — the leading consonant sound in Myanmar is between a P and a B) is a unique and well trodden tourist site in Myanmar, known for its 4,000 or so temples dotting a plain of around 25 square miles. The residents of the area, as I understand it, were moved off the plain by the government some time ago, and after settling in the village of Old Bagan were subsequently relocated New Bagan, which is located farther from the main cluster of temples. The town of Nyaung U sprang up around the airport, and now appears to be the most modernized and bustling of the three settlements.

Most of the temples were built in the 11th and 12th century. A Mongol invasion coincided with a general decline in the area, and decades of neglect were followed by a major earthquake in 1975. In the 1990s and 2000s a major restoration program was conducted, with the help of UNESCO, and many experts subsequently criticized the techniques and authenticity of the resulting structures.

It was because of this last observation that I was skeptical and had low expectations for our visit. We decided to take the boat down the Ayeyarwady from Mandalay. Expats here had prepped me for low expectations here, too. The trip would be a boring waste of time by some accounts, with nothing much to see and even less to do over the nine hour journey. My experience was quite the opposite of this, though. I found the slow boat soothing, and the lack of distractions relaxing. The simple scenes of river life, and even long stretches of relative nothingness, were peaceful, calming, and centering to me.

I’d also been warned with the old saw, “You’ve seen one pagoda, you’ve seen them all.”  But this also proved wrong for me in Bagan. There were many idiosyncratic features  to the various structures, in fact. Although many contained versions of the typical seated Buddha, here we also found huge standing Buddha images, a massive reclining Buddha, and one temple with twin Buddhas. There was an old Hindu shrine, temples with dark interiors lit only by stone cut-outs in the thick walls, and one with historic wall paintings illuminated only by the flashlights of the guides. Here I crept around the square passageways carefully, in my obligatory bare feet, stooping over due the squealing and wingbeats of unseen bats close by overhead.

Another part of the appeal of Bagan was being outside the temples, roving around the plain on e-bikes, or just taking in the scene from a vantage point atop one of the larger structures. That’s because the flat, dusty plain, covered with twisted trees and scrubby vegetation, dotted with innumerable stupas and pagodas as far as the eye could see, small and large, similar but in endless variation, was such an inspiring scene. Even from the window and balcony of our hotel room we could enjoy such a view. In fact, a big part of the appeal of the whole experience was this gentle, countryside feel, with the insects chirping at night and the birds singing in the morning, or looking out at the green field dotted with red brick stupas over coffee each morning. This proved an amazing contrast to loud, buzzing Mandalay, a city that, while not really that big, seems to never sleep.

In the end it was hard to imagine a better spot for a relaxing holiday. Whether the temples had been properly restored or not, whether hawkers were too aggressive or not, with their sales pitches for postcards, paintings, and handicrafts, whether the restaurants or the hotel were quite up to the latest standards or not — it was a thoroughly enjoyable two days in Bagan, and I look forward to visiting again, as we only scratched the surface. The only real disappointments were a side trip to Mount Popa on the third day of our trip, and the nauseating van ride back to Mandalay (next time I’ll take the boat in both directions or fly). But I’ll cover those in another post. Meanwhile, I’ve whittled down the 355 photos I took to a selection of forty-eight, which are presented in chronological order below.

P1060136Departing Mandalay

P1060143Arriving in Bagan

P1060162View from our Hotel Room






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