Aside from Shwe Dagon Pagoda in Yangon, Bagan is probably the most recognizable location in all of Myanmar. Bagan was the capitol city of the ancient Pagan Empire, in existence about a millennium ago. After spending a couple days in Mandalay I took a bus to Bagan several hours to the south.
The modern settlements of Bagan (collectively the three towns of Old Bagan, New Bagan, and Nyaung U) where people eat and sleep exist as the terminal to explore the Bagan that was; a mystical, exotic scattering of commanding pagodas and temples spread across the intermittent plains and groves of trees. The more modern towns pale in comparison to the vast distribution of these ancient structures on the plains next to the Irrawaddy River. This, is the attraction of Bagan. Some are only the size of a small tree, blending into the sometimes dense underbrush, only to be discovered by someone wandering around on foot. Some of them dominate the landscape, acting as landmarks for movement throughout the entire area and everything around.
No two pagodas or temples are alike. Each one has its own distinct personality, each one in a different state of arrested decay. Architectural styles differ greatly, some pagodas resembling the tapering stupas of Yangon like Sule and Shwe Dagon pagoda. The temples are just as varied, with some resembling a ziggurat-like pyramid while others seem far more closely related to Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Every one of them is uniquely beautiful and a part of the wider attraction that is the entirety of Bagan.
Bagan is best done using up all of the low angle light of the day. You’ve got to commit. I was awake by 430am and on my rented bike by 445 to make sure I beat the sun over the horizon. It’s no secret that low angle light makes for some of the best photography opportunities, and I didn’t want to let any of it go to waste.
Like the sandstone cliffs of Petra in Jordan, the low light accentuated all colors to their extremes.
Not long after taking the above photo I passed by a small family homestead. Papa was thirty feet up a palm harvesting palm wine courtesy of his very, very sketchy bamboo ladder.
My favorite part of the whole experience, like Mandalay, were the moments of normal life tucked within the greater spectacle of Bagan. The man harvesting palm wine, the farmers plowing and planting the open fields between groves of trees or pagodas. Life continues as it has for hundreds of years. Many farmers were working the morning I was out, commanding their oxen in a powerful and balanced act of tilling the field to make way for a new season’s crop. As deserted as Bagan sometimes felt simply because of its size, it is very much a living place. Among those groves lived many families and they took cues only from the land and the position of the religious monuments and trees as to how they should live their lives.
I said hello to one farmer and then sat and watched him for probably fifteen or twenty minutes. He didn’t mind my presence at all but I’m sure he wondered why a foreigner was so intently enjoying the spectacle. I did make sure to show him my camera before I took any photos and he nodded in approval.
After visiting the Sulamani Temple and watching the farmer I visited the towering Ananda Temple. It was my favorite of all Bagan. Unlike the red brick facade of most of the temples, Ananda was bright white with the only exception being its central spire of bright red and gold. The temple had four large wings to enter through, and each side housed a massive thirty foot golden Buddha.
I couldn’t believe I was one of maybe four people at Ananda when I visited. It was the kind of religious monument that many countries would have loved to praise and advertise as their national jewel, and I only had to share the space with a few locals and maybe a single other tourist.
I wandered around for maybe an hour more after visiting Ananda, but by 10am the midday heat of Bagan was already threatening. I went back to my lodging and didn’t come out to explore again until nearly 4 pm. The worst of the heat was behind me at that point and I used the last few day light hours to explore a few more of the major temples and pagodas I hadn’t yet seen.
Bagan was an almost other worldly place. I thought when viewed as a collective idea it was one of the most impressive architectural wonders of the world, on par with anything that I have yet seen, and much of it more than a millennium old. The landscape worked in perfect harmony to accentuate the grandeur of each pagoda and temple, the flat expanses in almost every direction giving way only to distant mountains for minimal perspective. Trees struggled to stand above thirty feet and were scattered evenly enough that even the small pagodas were often visible, and the towering temples commanded presence above everything else.
How it isn’t yet a UNESCO World Heritage site owes to either some political dispute or decision on behalf of the government of Myanmar to reject such a title. As attractions go however, no title, whether bestowed or not, defines, adds to, or retracts the incomparable beauty of Bagan.