Gallery: The crumbling Buddhist kingdom of Bagan, Myanmar

Gallery: The crumbling Buddhist kingdom of Bagan, Myanmar

Some of Asia's most gorgeous temples are also some of its least visited

After two years of exploring Southeast Asian temples, nothing stands out in my memory like the ruins of Bagan.

Formerly known as "Pagan," Bagan was founded in 849 AD and in only a few hundred years became the heart of a huge Buddhist kingdom.

Bagan was sacked in the 13th century, a casualty of the Mongol invasion. It's been in a state of slow decay ever since, succumbing to fire, earthquakes and looting.

All that remains today of King Aniruddha’s sprawling empire are the crumbling ruins stretched across the parched, flat plains of central Myanmar.

For those who find Cambodia’s Angkor too busy or the wats of Chiang Mai too shiny, Bagan is the perfect antidote.

My Journey

For seven days I wake up at dawn to explore the maze of temples by bicycle, with map in hand and almost no tourists in sight. The temples are filled with colorful frescoes, gilded Buddhas and a few Myanmar characters.

 

Break of Dawn in Bagan

Break of Dawn in BaganI’m not a morning person, but motivating myself to see these temples at dawn is no difficult task. My first choice: climbing Buledi to see the sunrise. I arrive in time to catch the outline of the temple in the morning light.

 

Balloon over Bagan

Htilominlo Paho at daybreakHtilominlo Paho at daybreak, with one of the many balloons that start to rise with the sun.

 

View from Buledi

View from BulediAtop Buledi -- patches of morning fog still lingering on the ground and the bright sky and outline of distant temples make for the perfect introduction to Bagan.

 

Attaboy!

Smiling Thanaka child
I find this Burmese child perched on the edge of Buledi. He's one of only a few not to try and sell me a painting or ask for coins; he merely waves at me and runs off down a dusty road.

 

A perfect contrast

Bagan templePart of what makes exploring Bagan so much fun is that the outside of a temple does not give any indication as to what is found inside its crumbling walls.

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Buddha Bagan

Buddha Bagan
I have no idea a chipped Buddha awaits inside, perfectly shadowed in the hallway. Because so few of the temples are written up in my guidebook, each one is a new adventure. Some contain Buddhas like this one, others frescoes on the ceilings and walls, slowly fading with time.

 

Somber Buddha is somber

Thatbyannyu PayaOthers were more ambitious, such as this huge, somber Buddha inside Thatbyannyu Paya.

 

Irrawaddy River

View of Ayeyardwaddy river This is a view of the Irrawaddy River from atop a temple in Old Bagan. Most of Bagan’s ruins cannot be climbed. Those that remain -- close to 2,500 temples of the initial 4,500 built by King Aniruddha -- are a mix of monasteries, small stupas and bigger temples. These ruins stretch over sandy fields until the plains end and the Irrawaddy River begins.

 

Goat encounter

A goatWhile I never tire of temple-hopping, I wish something could add more warmth to the ruins. Something with a big personality. And then, on my last sunset in Bagan, I run into this guy. Literally. I'm running toward a temple (#2101) that I have never seen before, and almost plow into this goat.

 

Goat herder

Bagan goat herder
Several photos later, a smiling goat herder appears to let me know that temple #2101 is climbable and he has the key. He unlocks the creaking iron gates and we both squeeze through the narrow stairways and clamber through a tiny entrance to the terrace.

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Thinking monk thoughts

Bagan monkAfter 15 minutes of watching the beginnings of a sunset with the goat herder, this monk climbs to the terrace and sits in solitude until it is nearly dark.

 

Beginnings of a sunset

Temple #2101From atop Temple #2101, looking toward the mountains and away from the Irrawaddy River.

 

Sunset over Bagan

Bagan sunsetAnd what a sunset it is.

 

Twilight over Bagan

Twilight over Bagan
I stay on the temple with the goat herder and monk until twilight, leaving only when the moon arrives.

 

My trusty steed

Myanmar bikeCouldn’t have done it without my trusty bicycle.

 

Where to stay

Golden Village Inn (off Restaurant Row; doubles at US$12) or New Heaven (off Restaurant Row; doubles at $8)

 

Where to Eat

In Nyaung U: Aroma 2 (Restaurant Row, halfway down) for Indian food; the teahouse across the street from Aroma 2 for cheap and delicious naan and samosas. In Old Bagan, the Be Kind to Animals restaurant makes the best eggplant dish I’ve ever tasted (off Bagan-Nyaung U road near Ananda Paho)

 

What to read

"The River of Lost Footsteps," by Thant Myint-U. A comprehensive, well-written account of Myanmar’s sprawling history.

How to get there

Regular buses run from Mandalay to Bagan (8-10 hours; 9,000 kyat) or overnight from Yangon (15-plus hours; 18,000 kyat). You can also fly to Bagan from Yangon or Mandalay.

Outside of dry season, slow boats and a fast ferry ply the Irrawaddy River from Bagan to Mandalay several times per week.

Take caution

Myanmar can be a difficult place to navigate due to political concerns. Check the latest travel news concerning the country before traveling.

Jodi Ettenberg is a former corporate lawyer and current world traveler with a weakness for marshmallows, volcanoes and street eats.
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