The Ancient Capital
A half day away from Mandalay lies the ancient city of Bagan, home to thousands of temples, pagodas, and stupas, all within a radius of a few dozen square miles. It’s also Myanmar’s biggest tourist draw, and for a damn good reason: the place is amazing!
Bagan was the former capital of the Pagan empire from 1047 AD to the late 1200’s. It was also the economic, political, and cultural center of the empire that spanned most of present day Myanmar. Religion was an extremely important part of daily life and in Bagan many schools of Buddhism were studied. If there was one thing the rich and powerful seemed to enjoy doing back then it was building temples, lots of them! Over 10,000 religious monuments were constructed in that frenetic time period. I can just see the teatime conversation between two wealthy Burmans now:
Hey Frank, whattya say you and I build our good pal Buddha another temple?
I dunno man, there’s like already 8,000 of them already out there…
But surely one more can’t hurt! We need Buddha to forget about all the money we’ve been extorting.
Hmmm, you’re probably right. I suppose you can’t really have too many temples can ya?
Of course not. Hell, I’ll go trick some peasants into working for us first thing tomorrow!
Niiice. Those peasants sure are dumb
Indeed. Well, this deserves a toast. To Booooodha!
You’re my boy Buddha! (glasses clink)
..... And another temple is born.
Those few centuries were certainly a good time to be living in Bagan. The city was rich in trade and education, which attracted monks and students from all around, places as far as India and present day Vietnam. Unfortunately it all came to an end when those damn Mongolians came to town and sacked the place in 1287, forever extinguishing its role as influential city.
Today over 2,000 of the religious monuments remain standing and draw in about 400,000 tourists per year (and rising). That sounds like a lot, but it’s really not much when you compare it to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the most famous example of temple building fervor, which draws in over 2 million people per year. While Angkor Wat is really cool, and certainly wins the grandeur contest, I’m going to give Bagan the nod as my favorite due to its more compact nature, as well as the ease in which you can find yourself alone amongst the smaller temples.
I arrived around noon and hopped on the back of a motorbike to find a place to stay. After three or four guesthouses I found one with an open bed in a 5 person dorm and quickly snatched it up. Bagan, being such a large tourist draw, can be difficult to find accommodation sometimes, especially if you’re getting in later in the evening. I rarely do dorms these days, but in this case I’ll take what I can get. As it turned out the other people in my dorm were French, which, when you get a few of them together, you can almost count on being dutifully ignored. I asked the guy at the reception for a good place to go for sunset and headed off to the recommended Shwesandaw Temple on a rented bike.
On both sides of the road I passed numerous temples of all sizes, glowing nicely in the late afternoon light. As I got close to the Shwesandaw temple it appeared that I certainly would not be alone. Tour buses, cars, horse drawn carriages, and motorbikes all jammed the small road leading to the temple. A traffic jam in Bagan… definitely not what I had pictured in my head. Walking up to the temple you could see that it was like a life form of its own, a sea of waving bodies and limbs, all jockeying for space on the sunlit side. I was a bit late for the party. I had brought my tripod, but there was no room to put it down, so I wedged myself in behind some middle aged English people that said the word ‘lovely’ twice per sentence. Ugh. I hate tourists.
Yes yes, I know I’m a tourist too, but not the kind I’m a referring to. There’s so many people who come for just a day or two and get shuttled around by tour bus or carriage to the all the major temples, take some crappy photos, check the place off their little lists, and move on. It’s an awful way to travel in my opinion, but that’s the usual modus operandi I guess. Anyway I found it hard to enjoy myself smashed in with the horde, even though the sun setting over the pagodas was very nice. Then people clapped and cheered when it was over. Gross. Who claps for a sunset?? Why would you even think to clap for a sunset in the first place? I’m pretty sure the sun doesn’t need any validation on how it looks or doesn’t look going over the horizon. I guess a weak sunset should be met with a chorus of boo’s as well! In a perfect world, when that first guy started clapping, everyone else would have promptly turned around and gave him the ‘dude, wtf?’ look, and he would have shrunk meagerly back into place. But no. They all joined in. Maybe if I wasn’t a cynical asshole I would have too. Instead I got out of there as quick as I could and vowed not to go back.
So how do you avoid all the tourists in Bagan? It’s easy! Rent a bike or e-bike and wake up early! The sunrises are spectacular. The sun cuts through the morning mists while hot air balloons float across the temple filled skyline. And there’s almost no people around either! After sunrise you can take your bike through the dirt tracks around some of the smaller temples while the soft morning light shines through and you will have the place completely to yourself. By far my favorite part of Bagan was the first few hours of the morning! Being the photography nut that I am I woke up at 5:30 every day to find a new place for the sunrise, which I admit is a bit excessive for most people, but I think everyone should wake up early for at least one sunrise in Bagan. The only problem really is the bicycles themselves. They’re all one speed street bikes, which don’t agree with the sandy, rocky back-roads. Not to mentions the seats! One day on those bike seats is enough to make anyone resort to basically anything else. And then there’s the dust! Unless you’re traveling in some sort of bubble suit, after a long day in Bagan you will be coated in a healthy layer of grime, guaranteed. You just have to embrace the dirt. It’s those dusty earthen roads that give it that old, timeless feel to begin with.
Anyway I really did enjoy my time in Bagan. It’s probably the most beautiful man made place I’ve ever seen, so hopefully my photos reflect that!