Bagan is the reason some people go to Myanmar and it’s unquestionably beautiful. Ancient temples dot the arid plains of the former capital of the Kingdom of Pagan near the Irawaddy River dating back to the 9th century. As with our post about Angkor Wat, I’m not going into the history, architecture, or much detail about the temples of Bagan. I have neither the expertise nor authority to do so and prefer to leave such discussion to those who do. But, opinionated people that we are, we will share our impressions of one of Mynamar’s biggest tourist attractions.
We arrived in Bagan late in the afternoon and went straight away to the temples. Despite the time of day, the heat was oppressive and our energy was low so admittedly, we weren’t the most attentive tourists. But we were the only tourists at Laymyathnar (also spelled Leimyethna) and when vendors saw us approaching, they hastily spread their t-shirts and trinkets, hoping for a sale. This would become a trend for us: watching locals scurry about upon learning Westerners had arrived, desperate to make a few bucks. Having dutifully looked around and asked our guide a few questions, we headed to a temple he spelled for me as “Thitsarwaddy” to wait for sunset. My research leads me to believe it was Tayok Pye, built in the 13th century. Whatever temple it was, we all wondered how much a visit there will be different in a few more years.
It is standard practice in Myanmar to remove one’s shoes at the entrance to a temple – not the entrance to the inside, tiled part where a Buddha statue sits but at the outer entrance, where dirt paths and hot stones are waiting for non-calloused feet to be scratched and burned. Dutifully, we left our shoes at the entrance before exploring the temple. So when we realized we could get all the way to the top level of this structure by climbing a narrow set of unlit stairs made of rock and loose dirt with a ceiling so low even I had to duck, Jen and I set off barefoot with our guide. Seeing all four sides of the temple required squeezing through a few small archways, at least one of which our guide was convinced we couldn’t get through.
There were no safety railings and I’m still surprised no barrier or person stopped us from going up the stairs. Regardless our own safety, I’d like the structure to be standing for future generations and with each tourist who scrambles around on that upper level, the likelihood of damage increases. Thinking about that as Jen and I had our fun left me feeling terribly conflicted, something I experienced time and again in Myanmar. I felt lucky to have the chance to explore as I did but knew the responsible thing would have been to refrain. I didn’t let that stop me that evening but as other tourists spotted us above, climbed up, and started clambering over those narrow archways on loose brick, I found myself wishing I’d taken the high road and stayed below.
Our only full day in Bagan was another scorcher. Unlike at Angkor Wat, the temples are all Buddhist so the carvings and images, while intricate and excellent, don’t have the variety in storytelling that makes it easy to spend hours at any number of Angkor Wat temples lost in the designs. Add in the insanely hot stones we had to walk on barefoot and the overwhelming number of aggressive sales people and four temples was all we could manage. While each was interesting, I’m only going to cover two of them.
The prototype for Yangon’s Shwedigon and many other Burmese pagodas and the primary religious site in town, Shwezigon Paya is big, gold, and surrounded by some of the more interesting sculptures I’ve seen related to the Buddha’s path to enlightenment.
I’m kicking myself for not spending more time at Ananda. Yes, it has a Buddha statue that looks different based on how far away one stands (is he smiling, scowling, or something in between?) but for me, it was the archways, corridors, carvings, and the little dioramas telling stories from the Buddha’s life that are most interesting.
Sadly, looking at anything outside for longer than a few seconds is a surefire way to burn the soles of your feet. Taking this photo sent the two of us and my mother scurrying back to the shade using a hop-run technique best left to the imagination.
Although the area is filled with beautiful places to stop and ogle the many pagodas and stupas, it’s also full of people desperately trying to sell things to Western tourists. Entrances to Shwesizon and Ananda are lined with shopping areas like this one.
While these vendors weren’t pushy, Bagan’s market is a different story. When our van pulled up, children and beggars swarmed, blocking our doors. Many of them followed us as we pushed our way out and into the market. It was heartbreaking and exhausting.
For us, the only really enjoyable part of the overcrowded market was having thanaka applied to our faces. Thanaka is a yellowish paste used by many people, primarily women and children, throughout Myanmar as a natural sunscreen, skin moisturizer, and cosmetic. The bark of a tree is ground into a fine powder and mixed with water to create a paste applied to the skin. The smell is surprisingly pleasant and it dries quickly. Although I can’t say I understand the cosmetic element, if it is an effective form of sun protection, it’s one I would adopt if it were easy to do so while traveling.
We also stopped at a lacquerware workshop, lacquerware being a major product of the area. It was an educational experience, not only because of the lesson we received from one of the owners about how it’s made, but because of our visit to the upstairs sweatshop where the work is done. These boys are working with a sticky, stinky residue in a hot room without fans or air conditioning. On the same floor, children and teenagers worked carving designs into bowls, vases, platters, chests, and everything else the shop sells. I’d never seen an artistic sweatshop before and to be honest, I hope I don’t see another.
We didn’t get to experience a hot air balloon over Bagan as the operators close in low season but I don’t doubt it would have been a wonderful way to soak in the area. What we did see, however, was very low-flying helicopters chopping their way above the ancient temples. Horrified, we asked our guide who might be in them. He didn’t have a clear answer but insinuated that it was government officials or their cronies, friends, or families. With that kind of potential for harm, I doubt our crawling around Tayok Pye matters even one iota to the longevity of the area’s treasures.
Bagan is beautiful. Many of the temples are worth exploring and if your feet are thick-skinned or you simply don’t mind having your soles singed, it’s worth taking the time to do so. I’d be curious to return in ten years time to see if the location for shoe-removal has changed (I’m doubting it will) whether the hawkers have backed off a bit, and if the area’s residents are more financially stable given the tourist dollars rolling in since tourism picked up. Have you been to Bagan? Has it changed in recent years? We’d love to hear your experiences in the comments!