There aren’t many places I’ve been that are as awe-inspiring as the ancient city of Bagan. It stands its ground next to wonders of the world like Macchu Picchu and Angkor Wat, but it’s no where near as famous. This means you can explore the ancient 12th century temples, which sit in the middle of lush and wild green fields, with hardly anyone else around. I’m sure someday soon this will all change, especially with Myanmar’s new openness to tourists, but at the moment it still feels like an unspoilt hidden gem.
We travelled from Yangon to Bagan, in the Mandalay region of central Myanmar, by overnight bus. Our time in Myanmar was limited (about 10 days) so we didn’t want to waste a whole day travelling. The journey was about as good as an overnight bus can be. I unfortunately had someone across the aisle from me being sick for quite a lot of the journey, which didn’t do much to quash my travel sickness! After a few hours uncomfortable sleep, we arrived in Bagan in the early hours of the morning. We stepped off the bus and were greeted by about thirty taxi drivers all shouting at us, offering to take us to the old town, where our hostel was. The bus terminal is inconveniently out of the town, so you have no choice but to pay the expensive (for Myanmar, anyway) taxi fares to get you there. The sun was only just coming up, and we were very keen to get to our hostel for a shower and a nap.
After a much-needed rest it was time to explore. Toby and I went for a long walk around the nearest temples. It was a beautiful evening and the sun was at that low point in the sky where it turns everything a brilliant gold colour. The nearby temples were a deep terracotta orange, so looked amazing when lit up by the setting sun. We had a good explore of the area, and the next day we retraced our steps, but this time by bicycle.
We spent the two full days of our time in Bagan cycling around the temples, which were spread out over about a six mile radius. The sun was bright and strong, and made for fabulous photos. As I said, it wasn’t very busy, so cycling along deserted dusty tracks with ancient orange temples one either side of us was idyllic.
Unfortunately, we arrived under a fortnight after Bagan had been struck by a strong earthquake, reducing some of the shrines to rubble and leaving scars on the sides of even the mightiest temples. Some temples were already draped in tarpaulins and skeletal bamboo scaffolding with workers scurrying like busy ants all over them. We were joined at one temple by a team of surveyors who were flying a drone over the temple’s stricken dome. Unesco refuses to list Bagan as a World Heritage site because it believes some renovations and reconstructions made by the Burmese military have compromised the site’s architectural integrity. With the country now opening up to the world, Unesco is now assisting in the temples’ restoration and one day perhaps Bagan will join Machu Picchu and Angkor Wat as a world Heritage site. It really deserves to be!
Despite the earthquake, most temples suffered little to no damage, so our exploration wasn’t hindered. One afternoon we headed to the Bulethi pagoda, which was meant to be one of the best for sunsets. If you took off your shoes you were allowed to climb up the outside, which had steps, in order to get up high and see all the surrounding temples. We scrambled up the narrow steps and settled on an even narrower ledge about half way up. I’m sure in a few years this won’t be allowed at all, as it can’t be good for the preservation of the bricks. We were reluctant, as we didn’t want to damage the outside of the beautiful red brick temple, but we were encouraged by the tourism board staff and park keepers. It offered amazing views and the sunset was beautiful.
In the evenings we ventured into the little town, which consisted of two streets. There were quite a few restaurants, with really friendly staff and excellent food. One restaurant in particular, bizarrely called Wetherspoons, did the most fantastic burgers. Although not traditional Burmese food, they used really nice ingredients, and even made a really tasty veggie burger too! The Burmese Wetherspoons is infinitely better than the British!
In the evenings the small town seemed quite busy; it was hard to believe that all those people were also out exploring the temples during the day like we were. That’s what’s so good about the temples being really spread out; it spreads the tourists out too.
I would recommend Bagan to anyone. There aren’t many words to describe how incredible a place it is. I’d go back in a heartbeat and I just hope it doesn’t become too touristy. Part of me wants everyone to experience how beautiful it is, but part of me wants it to stay exactly how it is now; it needn’t change a thing.