Sprawled across an arid flood plain of the Irrawaddy River in central Myanmar stands Bagan, one of the most remarkable archeological sites in Southeast Asia. The architectural masterpieces built here between the 11th and 13th centuries rank on par with other awe-inspiring religious monuments such as Cambodia’s Angkor Wat and Indonesia’s Borobodur.
Amazingly, in the 40sqkm of country that stretches back from the river, over 2,000 Buddhist pagodas are still standing and a further 2,000 are in ruins! As the capital of the country at the time, Bagan must have once also been home to thousands of secular buildings such as palaces and houses. However, because they were constructed of wood, they have all long since rotted away, just leaving a landscape covered in brick pagodas and temples.
The mighty Bagan Empire weakened over time and it is thought that Mongol invaders plundered and overran the city at the end of the 13th century. This once-great capital was then abandoned, but still remains as a magnificent memorial to a spectacular Buddhist renaissance.
Most tourists arrive at Bagan by air from Yangon, but a far more tranquil mode of transport is by river from Mandalay. We journeyed on the lovely old M.V. Pandaw, a vessel that once belonged to the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company (IFC). Before WWII, this company operated over 650 such boats on the rivers of Myanmar, which was then the British colony of Burma. The whole IFC fleet was deliberately scuttled when the Japanese invaded Burma in the 1940s, but some boats, the Pandaw amongst them, have since been re-furbished.
With 20 passengers and an attentive crew, this splendid ‘old queen of the waterways’ steamed serenely down river from Mandalay, past the picturesque gold-clad temples of Sagaing before calling at Yandabo. This riverside village is famous for its pottery and has a charming ancient teak wood temple. Later, after passing the Irrawaddy’s confluence with the Chidwin River, we enjoyed a rickshaw ride through the dusty town of Pakokku to see the daily market and try our hand at ‘hand-rolling’ a Burma Cheroot. These legendary small cigars were once eagerly smoked by our parents’ generation!
The early-morning arrival at Bagan was a memorable visual experience with dozens of Buddhist temples and pagodas stretching back from the riverbank. Over the next three days, we visited around 20 of the best temples with our knowledgeable guide. The most popular were near the river, but equally interesting were the less visited pagodas far away over the plain.
It is easy to become completely ‘templed-out’ after a day of exploration in Bagan’s torrid heat, so our guide wisely moved at a relaxed pace. He ensured that our enjoyment of this architectural extravaganza was heightened by visiting a local village, the annual full moon festival celebrations, craft workshops and, perhaps most importantly, somewhere to sip cool refreshing Mandalay Beer!
Various transport options were on offer for navigating the bumpy, dusty tracks between temples. Youngsters preferred bicycles or trishaws, but the more mature wisely chose a car or a leisurely horse and cart. Even hot-air balloons now fly tourists over Bagan – at a price!
The majestic Ananda Temple in the Old City of Bagan is the finest, largest and most revered. This graceful structure has everything – sublime architectural lines, stone sculptures, glazed plaques, terracotta figures and intricate woodcarving. Its name is probably derived from the Sanscrit word ‘Anand’ meaning very beautiful. Our visit was fortunate to coincide with the annual full moon festival, so there were monks melodiously chanting day and night with thousands of happy people in attendance. We even witnessed a colorful novice monk initiation procession led by bullock carts.
Shwezigon Pagoda is a little further north. It has one of the city’s oldest stupas, boasts an elegant gilded zedi that towers over the site and is an important home to the nats. These nats are part of a cult of pre-Buddhist spirit worship, which is still practised throughout Myanmar.
Back in the 12th century, the then Burmese monarch officially endorsed the presence of 37 nats in this pagoda. Lifelike figures of all of them are on display and we were warned not to jest about them, as they were capable of all sorts of mischief – good, bad and really nasty. Even devout Buddhists will attend nat séances where these troublesome spirits sometimes completely take over the bodies of trance-dancing mediums!
The lofty cylindrical dome of Lawkananda Pagoda dominates the skyline in New Bagan to the south of the old city. The pagoda contains venerated white marble Buddha statues and houses an important Buddha tooth relic. It is close to the river and the perfect place to view the Irrawaddy sunset. At the height of Bagan’s power, boats used to anchor by this important monastery.
The nearby Manuha Temple is also quite special and rather unusual as it contains four Buddha images each crammed into very small places. There are three sitting images and one enormous 30m long reclining Buddha lying in the death position. This cramped posture is said to represent stress and extreme lack of comfort.
However, this reclining figure has a smile on his face, perhaps showing that only death would be a release from severe suffering.
Further away from the main tourist centre, it is essential to employ a guide for exploration of any pagoda ruins. This is not just to learn more about their history, but also to ensure that there are no serpents lurking in their dark interiors. Myanmar’s dry zones have many species of poisonous snakes that have an irritating habit of setting up home in Bagan’s ruined temples!
With a horse and cart as transport, we spent a quiet and peaceful late afternoon viewing some of the more remote and smaller pagodas. An added bonus of this, our final excursion, was the opportunity to meet some of our guide’s family and friends – charming people with giggling inquisitive children.
Marco Polo was probably the first person from the western world to visit Bagan in 1298. He said of the city: “The King caused these towers to be erected to commemorate his magnificence and for the good of the soul; and really they do form one of the finest sights in the world, so exquisitely finished are they, so splendid and costly. And when they are lit up by the sun, they shine most brilliantly and are visible from a vast distance”.
Over 700 years later, visitors to this astonishing site extol the wonders of ‘Beautiful Buddhist Bagan’ in just the same way.
By Nigel Wright
Nigel Wright and his wife Sue moved to Portugal 15 years ago and live near Guia. They lived and worked in the Far East and Middle East during the 1980s and 90s, and although now retired, still continue to travel and seek out new cultural experiences. His other interests include tennis, gardening and photography.