There are places that are slow-burners. Places that don’t seem to register with you when you first arrive there – but, then, after a while you start to figure them out and you realise why they mean something special to you after all. And usually, that happens when it’s time to leave for somewhere else!
Bagan was different.
The people we met, the wonderful staff at our guest house and, of course, the incredibly evocative temples and stupas of this historic ancient city, dazzled us from the moment we arrived. And that particular moment was at Bagan bus station at 05:30 following the overnight bus journey from Yangon – all 12 hours of it.
Our guest house owner had sent her brother to pick us up in his truck-cum-taxi and we were soon scuttled off in the back on the short journey to the village of Nuang-U and our accommodation for the next three nights – Saw Nyein San Guest House. We’ve been lucky enough to stay with some wonderful, yet simple guest houses and homestays, but Saw Nyein San was right up there with the very best of them. For a country where tourism is still fairly new, owner Nyein’s natural warmth and attentiveness put some other hosts we’ve encountered in other countries to shame.
Tourists come to Bagan mainly for one thing, though – to explore the amazing 2500+ temples and stupas that are dotted around the countryside. I’d seen plenty of photographs of them, of course, but nothing can quite prepare you for the scene that unfolds before you when you first climb the aged steps of a 900-year-old temple and gaze out over a 360-degree panorama of magnificent beauty. It really was one of those “wow” moments that makes the sometimes hard work of travelling all so worth it.
Bagan has been on the tourist map for a number of years, even before Myanmar (or Burma), opened up its borders for independent travel. I’m sure that it’s already changed a lot in the past five or ten years or so but, to be honest, it still seems fairly low-key, albeit we did visit in mid-October, before the main tourist season of November to March.
Our approach was to, first of all, take a half-day taxi tour around the main temples of Bagan and follow it up with a day and half of exploring the area on “e-bikes” (electric-powered scooters), which seemed to work perfectly.
First on our tour was the magnificent Ananda Temple, built in 1091 and filled with stone sculptures, wood carvings, mural paintings etc. Best of all, the natural light, which adorns the otherwise dark corridors, also illuminates the four centrepiece Standing Buddhas. These aren’t just your standard Buddha statues, though. Although two of them were rebuilt around 200 years ago, the north and south facing statues are original and have a unique feature that is mesmerising to look at. As you view them from the closest point, the facial expression is stern. Then as you move backwards to view it from a different eye level, the expression becomes a smile. And finally, as you move further towards the rear of the chamber you see the smile turn into a huge grin!
Just as impressive was Bagan’s largest temple, Dhammayangyi – so big that you easily spend your time just wandering around the maze of corridors and take in the sheer scale of it – and of course appreciate further examples of Buddha statues, this time, seated.
Touring around in an air-conditioned taxi was certainly a good way of escaping the searing 36 degrees heat outside, but to be honest we loved the freedom that riding around on our e-scooter gave us. By doing so we were able to just cruise around the countryside, passing temple after temple and stupa after stupa, occasionally stopping to have a look around with barely any other tourists around. I also went “off-piste” for a few hours along some sandy tracks, using my feet as “stabilisers”. As a result, I felt as if I had this very special place to myself, the only sound being the occasional chirp of a bird, and the scenes filled with glorious green corn fields, sandstone temples and blue sky.
The temples themselves do attract a number of locals who either want to be guides or who want to sell you some of their wares. It’s certainly not as “in your face” as we experienced in Indonesia and Thailand, but as tourism increases here I’m sure it will escalate. However, it’s such a poor country that it’s difficult to begrudge anyone here trying to at least earn some money from western tourists. At one site Nicky bought a book by Aung San Suu Kyi from a young girl with a make-shift table – it was after sunset and it was her first sale of the day. The sheer joy and gratitude on her face said everything we needed to know about what it meant to her.
We also met a number of young children who were trying to sell us crudely drawn “postcards”. To be fair they were not persistent, but when we asked why they weren’t in school one did admit that his family couldn’t afford the $200 per year fees – so he had to try and sell to tourists to raise the money instead. Whether that was true or not it was difficult not to warm to them.
As you can imagine the whole place is just a photographer’s dream. As the light changes during the course of the day, the temples and pagodas take on a different look as shadows replace previously sunlit profiles and the greens of the Bagan Plain shift through their full range of hues. But the times of day that really bring out the best of this incredible area are just before sunrise and just after sunset.
There are certain viewing points for each of these spectacles that attract tour buses of people. I can only imagine that during the peak season they do get extremely crowded – but in mid-October, they were merely a little busy. With our e-bikes, however, we were able to find more of the less-visited temples, where we were joined by just a sprinkling of both western and eastern tourists, some armed with cameras the size of a small country.
Sunrise involved getting up at 4:45 am and jumping on our e-bike in the early-morning dark to the lovely Shwesandaw Pagoda. As the sun began to make its ascent towards the horizon we watched as the morning mist revealed itself, enveloping the many temples, pagodas and stupas in the distance. Then as the sun continued to rise, the first of sixteen hot air balloons took flight to our left, its passengers paying a not insignificant $350+ for the privilege. Strangely, hardly anybody on the pagoda viewing point spoke, so serene was the spectacle. The photos we took really don’t do it the justice it deserved…
Sunset, as you might expect, was a different matter. Our viewing point of choice, this time, was on top of an unnamed pagoda near to Sulamani Temple. The steps up to the viewing area were seriously steep, but once there the view made it more than worthwhile. Again we were joined by the sunrise/sunset paparazzi, although again the numbers were fairly discreet. But when the sun went down and the temples and pagodas became silhouetted against the pink-gold-blue hues of the sky, there wasn’t a place in the world we’d rather have been.
After three nights in this wonderful place we left Bagan for the boat journey to Mandalay, sad to leave, but with a promise to ourselves to return one day soon. We discovered that the hype surrounding Bagan was most definitely for a good reason. But, with the relaxation of travelling restrictions around Myanmar, there’s bound to be a large influx of tourists to this region within a matter of a few years. If you want to savour what we did you need to think about going soon.
Just take the best camera and lens you’ve got.
- 19 Things We Learned After Visiting Myanmar
- How To Explore Myanmar In 28 Days
- The Boat From Bagan To Mandalay
- All Aboard The First Class Train To Hsipaw
…or visit our Myanmar page.
What did you think? Have you seen the temples of Bagan? If so, do you have any recommendations you’d like to share? Or maybe you’re planning on visiting Bagan soon? Either way, we’d love to hear from you so please add your comments below.
Hi, we’re Ian and Nicky, an English couple on a voyage of discovery around the world, and this blog is designed to reflect what we see, think and do. Actually, we’d like to think it also provides information, entertainment and inspiration for other “mature” travellers, too. So please feel free to pour yourself a glass of something suitably chilled and take a look around.