It’s 8.30 am and the temperature is already over 30 degrees. But there’s a light breeze blowing that makes bicycling down the dirt road almost refreshing. Flanking the road and stretching into the distance a seemingly endless collage of pagodas squat majestically on the plain. A bullock cart emerges from behind the scrub and a teenage goat herder chastises his charges that are spending too much time on a particular bush. It’s 2015 but it could well be a thousand years ago.
This is Bagan, the original capital of the Burmese Empire. Here, close to three thousand ancient pagodas, temples and monasteries dot the 41 square kilometres of plains ringed by mountains on the east and the Ayeyarwady River on the west. Most of these historical monuments were built between the 11th and 13th Century. Each pagoda has a minimum of two Buddha statues inside, many of them obviously looking a little worn, but others truly magnificent. You need a torch to see the ancient script and paintings that adorn some of the walls, but there’s an overwhelming sense of serenity inside these pagodas and the gloom is a welcome relief from the beating sun outside.
With Burma, or Myanmar as it’s been since 1989, now openly encouraging tourism, international tourists are starting to discover the country and Bagan in particular. There is no “city” as such, just three main districts-Old Bagan, New Bagan and Nyuang Oo. If you’re imagining New Bagan as some sort of boutique mini metropolis think again. There’s still only one paved road and the only reason it’s called new is because this is where the government resettled the residents when they declared most of the area that is now called Old Bagan, an archaeological site. But even though it’s the Old Bagan area where most of the larger temples and pagodas lie, the whole 41 kilometres of dusty, scrub scattered plain is historically and visually mind blowing.
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Sightseeing is either done by bicycle or horse cart. Bicycle hire is around $4.00 for the day and a horse cart about $10. We did both and were lucky enough to get a horse owner named Booboo who spoke some basic English and could explain some of the historical significance of the architecture. Plus we got to visit his village and shared tea with his family. From Booboo we learnt for example that the Dhammayangyi Temple was built by King Narathu in 1163 to atone for his sins- and sins he had in abundance! He killed his father by suffocation and then assassinated his brother. After marrying a beautiful young Princess from Sri Lanka, he then had her executed because she had the temerity to ask him to wash his hands before dinner!
The largest structure in Bagan is the Ananda Temple and it towers above its immediate surroundings. Built in 1091, it’s 172 feet tall and contains four massive statues of Buddha. The locals regard the golden Shwezegon Pagoda as being the most beautiful architecturally and it’s easy to see why. Booboo says he still gazes in awe every time he approaches it.
Whichever hotel you choose in Bagan you’re in walking distance of a pagoda. We stayed on the outskirts of New Bagan in a 3 star hotel called the Kumudra. The service was excellent, the restaurant cosy and when lolling in the pool in the late afternoon I could lie back and look over a pagoda dotted orange horizon. An icy cold Mandalay beer topped it off perfectly.
But in many ways it’s the people of Bagan that make the visit so enjoyable. There’s nothing artificial, just an openness and eagerness to explain their customs and to learn about yours.
In Bagan – in fact in the whole of Myanmar – there are no ATM’s, no international mobile phone, the only currency you can exchange is American dollars and the internet moves at the pace of snail mail. But the people we met every day were happier and appeared more at ease with their lives than anyone in the west. Sure in the capital Yangon (Rangoon) the pace is more frenetic but it’s still laid back compared to Brisbane or Sydney. One strange anomaly of the country involves driving. When it changed the name to Myanmar, the Government also decreed that everyone should drive on the right instead of the left. ( Anything that reminded them of the days of the British Raj had to go!) This would have been fine except for the fact that 90% of the cars and buses on the road in 2011 are still right hand drive. Consequently passing on the few highways that exist is a dangerous endeavour!
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The local restaurants in Bagan are clean with a large variety of Burmese and Indian food and the prices are more than reasonable. There are no night clubs as such but to be honest, after a day exploring by bicycle and a few icy cold libations, it really doesn’t matter.
After three days of fascinating insights to civilisations long since gone, but somehow still very much in evidence, we left on the ferry for Mandalay. It was meant to be an eight hour trip but took 12. But hey! Who cared? We already knew we were in a time warp.
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