I bounce up and down in my seat as my yellow Chinese e-bike speeds over the bumpy and narrow dirt path. I try to keep my eyes on the large brown pagoda in the distance while also minding the thorny plants on either side of my bare legs. I soon encounter a dead end and am forced to turn my bike around.
After backtracking and finding an alternate path, I realize that I’ve lost sight of my destination. Luckily, a minute or so later, the temple finally reappears in the distance. But is that really the same one? I shrug and ride over anyway.
Parking my bike under a nearby tree, I climb the steps of the ancient structure and take in my surroundings. On all sides of me are other large pagodas with a seemingly endless number of smaller ones stretching all the way out to the horizon. This is a beautiful yet strange sight unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. Overcome with both astonishment and confusion, I can’t help but wonder: who built all this and why?
Myanmar's Affluent Ancient Capital
Bagan was the ancient capital of the Kingdom of Pagan, a precursor to what would become modern-day Myanmar. The 26 square mile area is home to over 2,000 pagodas and temples, many of them built from the 11th to 13th centuries. Astonishingly, that amount is down from the over 10,000 that once decorated the landscape at the kingdom’s peak. At various points over the last 700 years, the other 8,000 religious structures were either destroyed by invading armies or natural disasters – the latter still plaguing the region to this day.
But why were so many temples built in the first place? There doesn’t seem to be a definitive answer, but the region was home to a number of competing religions when the Pagan Kingdom rose to prominence. Anawrahta, the first ruler of Pagan, was the one responsible for making Theravada Buddhism the dominant religion in his kingdom, as opposed to Hinduism or Mahayana Buddhism. Perhaps the thousands of Theravada temples were a way of marking the territory for the kingdom’s preferred sect.
The history of Pagan is long and complex, but during its heyday it was one of the most powerful empires in all of Southeast Asia. And just like any large kingdom, it was involved in its fair share of wars and violence. One theory concerning the staggering amount of temples in the area is that Anawrahta, as well as later kings, would construct new pagodas as a means of repentance.
Tragedies of The Ananda Temple
Just as recently as August 2016, a major earthquake struck Bagan which damaged hundreds of temples. Many of the larger temples are still under repair. The wooden scaffolding now covering some of the structures is one of the few reminders to visitors that they’re really still in the 21st century.
One of the major temples damaged in 2016 was the Ananda Temple. Built in the early 12th century, the Ananda Temple is known for its collection of four giant standing Buddhas. The temple had to be restored after an earthquake back in 1975, and is currently undergoing restoration after the more recent disaster. Walking around the structure, I’m amazed by the three golden statues I get a chance to see, and can only assume that the 4th one covered in scaffolding is just as magnificent.
Earthquakes aside, the Ananda Temple has been associated with tragedy from the get-go. The temple was built by four architect monks who based the design on another temple they’d visited in the Himalayas. They succeeded in making an accurate replica, only to be murdered for their efforts. King Kyanzittha, the ruler at the time, wanted to make sure that no other temples like Ananda would ever be built in his kingdom.
Bagan and The UNESCO Controversy
As easy as it is to believe you’re cruising through an immaculately preserved town, the truth is that there’s been much controversy surrounding Bagan’s reconstruction and preservation efforts.
Myanmar’s military government was long accused of using brand new building materials or coming up with completely new designs when “reconstructing” many of Bagan’s damaged pagodas. One of these temples was even dedicated to military dictator General Than Shwe. As a result of these supposed alterations and recreations, Bagan has yet to be granted UNESCO world heritage status, despite repeated applications.
The good news is that for the average visitor that’s not an expert on 11th century Burmese architecture, these supposed alterations are pretty much impossible to detect. I’ve travelled to other world famous structures that one could easily tell were rebuilt with modern materials, but it’s hardly an issue in Bagan.
As Myanmar has finally returned to civilian rule and the country is no longer the pariah state it once was, more opportunities for cooperation with international groups is now possible. A closer eye can now be kept on Bagan’s temples and their potential reconstruction, should another major earthquake strike in the near future.
Exploring Bagan's Small Pagodas
Somewhere in the Old Bagan area, I ride back to the main road before turning onto a smaller path I haven’t ridden down before. I pass a group of three or four smaller pagodas and I can’t help myself from stopping and peeking at what’s inside.
The larger of the temples, I discover, is locked. Just as I’m about to give up and head on elsewhere, I hear a woman’s voice call from somewhere in the distance. I can’t understand her but I see her approaching with what looks like a key.
'With so many temples to explore, no two people's visits to the region are going to be the same'
Inside this old pagoda is a large, orange-robed reclining Buddha that stretches from one end to the other. There’s just enough space to walk around him on all sides. Not quite ready yet to go back out under the beating hot sun, I take my time inside. With literally thousands of pagodas out there, I wonder how many other adventurers will happen to come across this gem today.
Despite most of the smaller pagodas appearing so similar from the outside, each one contains a unique surprise. Though invariably containing at least one Buddha image, you never know quite which style you’re going to find.
There are standing Buddhas, seated Buddhas and reclining Buddhas. Some are white, some are gold and at least one’s even painted black. Some appear eerily lifelike while others look more like the results of a student art project.
What makes Bagan so special is the seemingly endless amount of opportunities for independent exploration and discovery. With so many temples to explore, no two people’s visits to the region are going to be the same.
Searching for The Perfect Sunset
Looking up at the sky, I realize it’s about time to find somewhere to catch the sunset. I head a little bit further west but can’t resist the temptation to stop and visit a massive temple I’m pretty sure I haven’t seen before. I soon find myself walking through the hallways of what’s known as Sulamani Temple, built in the early 12th century.
The entrance area is crowded with tourists, but it’s not long before I’m alone, walking through Sulamani’s dark, ancient corridors. I turn the corner and see a golden Buddha, illuminated by the late afternoon sun that’s shining in through an archway. I want more time to explore, but remember my plans for the sunset and decide to move on.
Shortly before my destination, I come across yet another large temple. This one’s shaped like a pyramid. I can’t resist going inside but promise myself ‘just one more.’
The Dhammayan Gyi Pagoda, in fact, happens to be the largest temple in all of Bagan. Constructed by King Narathu in the 1160’s, he supposedly built the structure to atone for brutally killing his own father and brother to secure his place on the throne.
By this time, I’ve probably seen thousands of Buddha images during my travels throughout Myanmar, but Dhammayan Gyi contains a first: a pair of twin Buddhas.
'People talk in hushed voices as camera shutters click from all directions. I try to count the pagodas in my line of vision but eventually give up.'
Just in time before the evening’s main event, I finally arrive at Shwesandaw Pagoda. Constructed by King Anawrahta in 1057, it’s now one of Bagan’s most popular sunset viewing spots.
A large crowd has already gathered, filling up each of the temple’s five terraces. I take a quick walk around each level, but unsurprisingly, there are no spots left to sit. Just as I’m about to give up, a security guard heads my way.
But he’s not interested in me. He’s there to talk to a bare-shouldered European girl who’s not in compliance with the temple’s dress code. “Do you have anything to cover up your shoulders with?” he asks. She thinks for a second before telling him that she does not. “Well, then you can’t be here. You have to leave,” he says, unsympathetically.
I feel bad for the girl for a second but quickly realize that it’s now my chance. Just after she gets up, I make sure to take the open spot. Now I can finally give my legs a rest as the sun begins to set.
Mesmerized by the spectacular site, people talk in hushed voices as camera shutters click from all directions. I try to count the pagodas in my line of vision but eventually give up.
Finally the spectacle is over, and the crowd disperses all at once, like at the ending credits of a film. I ride back to my hotel, saddened to realize that my time in Bagan is almost coming to an end.
I already know that I want to come back again soon. There are still thousands of more temples out there that I have yet to discover.
The Bagan area consists of three different towns: Old Bagan, New Bagan and Nyaung U. There are interesting sites in all three of them so it’s not particularly important which one you choose.
I stayed in Motel Zein in Nyaung U which was conveniently located and has excellent breakfast buffets.
The Bagan area is too spread out to explore on foot. Most people ride e-bikes, which can easily be rented from just about any hotel or even convenience stores.
The main road connecting the various towns of Bagan doesn’t see too much traffic, while there are plenty of narrow dirt roads in between the temples that get no traffic at all.
You could also hire a driver for a day who can take you around to the main temples.
Most people reach Bagan by either a train or bus from Yangon or Mandalay. Taking a boat ride from Mandalay to Bagan (as well as vice versa) is another very popular option.
Bagan is also accessible via Nyaung U airport.