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Inspiring Temples of Bagan Myanmar

Under its former name, which was spelt as Pagan, you would imagine that the citizens were a bunch of heathens with little or no religion, but nothing could be further from the truth from those who lived in Bagan during its heyday from the 9th to 13th centuries.

In those days, Bagan was the biggest city in the country we now know as Myanmar, or Burma.  In fact it was a very religious city.  Staunchly Buddhist, whose citizens built over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries.  Of course, time is a great leveller, and now only about 3,800remain.  They are still very impressive, and very much worth visiting.

Bagan is situated on the eastern bank of the mighty Ayeryarwady (Irrawaddy) River, almost in the middle of the country.   It is 290 kilometres (180 mi) southwest of Mandalay and 700 kilometres (430 mi) north of another former capital, Yangon.

Bagan is Myanmar’s ancient capital, and it is like no other place I’ve ever visited. There are probably more Buddhist pagoda’s here per square kilometre than anywhere else in the world. Many more than you can easily comprehend. The temples don’t seem to be built in any logical sequence, so it is very difficult for the casual visitor to estimate the number.

To call Bagan a “town” gives the wrong impression: it is more of a “place”.

Old Bagan, as it is now known, was first established in the 9th century and used to be well populated, but once the military junta, which ruled Myanmar for several decades, realised Bagan’s tourism potential most of the residents were moved a few kilometres away to New Bagan as a means of supposedly preserving the historic sites.  This new village is quite a laidback tourist town that is filled with restaurants, hotels, lacquerware factories, ATM’s and ebike rental places. I visited during the off season when few other tourists were around, so local business was not brisk, but you could tell that New Bagan would really buzz during peak season.

These magnificent monuments cover a large area measuring 13 kilometres by eight kilometres.  It was originally established as a walled city, with twelve gates and a moat, by King Pyinbya in 849.   It grew to become the capital of the Pagan Empire for about 250 years, and it was during this period that many of the buildings were constructed by the adherents of Theravada Buddhism.

There are a great number of important temples which are open to visitors, but in order to get a better understanding of the history and the meanings of the various temples I hired local drivers to show me around. 

My reasoning was because very few of the pagodas are signposted. There are a couple of main roads that have been asphalted, but mostly the site is criss-crossed by unmarked dirt tracks, so good local knowledge is needed in order to find many of the pagodas. Hiring local drivers was quite cheap, and I do like to support the local economy. These drivers have spent their whole lives in Bagan, and they know how to find temples that are pure gems. 

In many instances, I was the only westerner to be found wandering around.  Yet, there were hundreds of Burmese also visiting whilst I was there. 

The one thing I was not fully prepared for was that each pagoda is still an active place of worship, and that means removing shoes when entering.  I had done some research beforehand so knew that showing knees at temples was shunned. I had taken both long trousers and shorts that extended to well below the knee.  I also knew that in order to enter a temple I would have to remove shoes.  I wore Crocs because they are very light, waterproof and easily removed.  However, I had assumed that each pagoda would have marble floors that would be easy to walk.  That was true for the pagodas I’d visited in Yangon and Mandalay, but the Bagan temples are so numerous, and so ancient, and those smooth walking surfaces had been trodden so often over the centuries that, either from lack of maintenance or earthquake activity, many surfaces were more like broken brick than smooth marble.

There is so much detail to be seen at each place.  Some pagodas are very grand, and quite ornate with remarkably cool interiors, a true retreat from the clinging heat outside. All show signs of age, especially as inside plaster has deteriorated and wall and ceiling paintings have become quite faint. 

I could easily detect the locals’ excitement as they entered each temple, in fact they exhibited palpable joy at the experience of visiting a new site.  I grasped that each temple, and indeed each Buddha within, held much significance although I couldn’t hope to understand the basis for it.

I was truly enchanted by the town as it is a destination like no other I have visited. My feet may have suffered a little, but my mind expanded at the audacity of human initiative on display there.  My feet soon recovered from their ordeal, but my memories keep taking me back to Bagan; a place where time has stood still.

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