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Bagan: the land of magnificent pagodas and ancient temples

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Many of the structures in the Burmese city were built more than a thousand years ago.

A magnificent pagoda in Bagan, Myanmar.
A magnificent pagoda in Bagan, Myanmar.

BAGAN (Myanmar): Southeast Asian countries have always been fascinating because of their cultural and religious evolution. Also called Indo-China, it is one of the fastest growing regions in the world. It includes countries such as Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar.

Over the years, I have had the pleasure of visiting all these countries. Most recently, I visited Bagan, the site of several thousand magnificent stupas, pagodas and temples, built more than 1,000 years ago. It is situated on the planes of interior Myanmar, erstwhile upper Burma.

Bagan, also known as Pagan, was the capital of Pagan Kingdom from the 9th to 13th century. The empire flourished for more than 300 years, and between 11th and 13th centuries, it was in its prime.

Most of the shrines were built during that time. It is located about 700 kilometers (about 435 miles) north of Yangon, the capital of Myanmar, and 300 kilometers (about 187 miles) southwest of Mandalay, the second largest city in Myanmar.

The Irrawaddy River, which flows all the way from the Himalayas in the north, bends around the Bagan area, before reaching Yangon and joining the Bay of Bengal.

From February to April, the weather is relatively hot as the temperature reaches up to 37 degree Celsius (98.6 Fahrenheit). Thereafter, from May till October, is the rainy season in Myanmar. Bagan receives less rainfall in comparison to coastal areas, as it is located east of the Rakhine Yoma mountain range.

The best time to visit Bagan is from the middle of October to the middle of February, when the temperature stays between 18 degree Celsius (around 65 Fahrenheit) to 30 degree Celsius (86 Fahrenheit).

There are flights to Bagan from Yangon and Mandalay. Bagan has a small airport located at Nyaung U, which is about 30 kilometers (about 19 miles) from the old town. However, it is more economical to fly to Mandalay from Bangkok’s DMK airport and take a four-hour minibus, or car ride to Bagan. One can also take a bus.

There is a regular bus service from Mandalay to Bagan; it’s roughly six-hour journey. Part of the road from Mandalay to Bagan is newly built highway and part is single lane road that runs through villages.

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A Bagan temple

Another option to reach Bagan is by train. There is a daily overnight train service from Yangon and daytime train service from Mandalay to Bagan. These are old railway lines and the trains move at a slow pace. During tourist season, one could also take a boat from Yangon to Bagan, which may take up to 14 hours.

The city is now divided into two parts, Old Bagan and New Bagan. Although the city has witnessed an increasing number of foreign tourists in recent years, the infrastructure is still inadequate.

Facilities such as well-laid-out roads, multi-cuisine restaurants, banks/ATM, convenient stores, expansive police and security service and organized local tours are essential for the growth of tourism. But they are bare minimum in Bagan.

However, the government is trying to improve the infrastructure, but expanding existing roads and constructing new ones. New hotels are also being built. Currently, there is one five-star hotel and several smaller hotels that can be rated three stars or below. However, backpackers’ lodge/hostels are in plenty around the old town area. With regard to cost, hotels are not expensive and, in general, people are very helpful. Most hotels provide free morning breakfast. Star hotels’ staff speaks English and can arrange for an English speaking driver to go around historical monument sites.

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It takes about three full days to go around the most prominent monument sites. There are over two thousand stupas and temple monuments in and around Bagan. Some of these historic places are big and fairly well maintained and functional for daily worship. One can find hundreds of such sites in the area for worship though some of them stand ruined.

On a clear day, during sunset, it is an amazing sight to watch these monuments from an elevated area. The tourists, however, may have to take a dusty unpaved route to reach these monuments as not all roads leading to these sites are paved. As most of the area surrounding the sites are leveled fields, and if one has energy and time, a bicycle ride to these fascinating sites would be exciting and rewarding. Hotels provide bicycles on rent and also give a local map that shows the routes to these monuments.

Considering that most of these edifices — stupas, temples, and monasteries — are built between 9th and 13th century, their design and architecture are unique and aesthetically beautiful. Some are even gold-plated.

From the beginning of the last millennium, Buddhism was the main religion and one can see different types of Buddha idols installed in pagodas. The most prominent pagodas and temples are Ananda Temple, Lawkananda Pagoda, Gawdawpalin Temple, Shwezigon Pagoda, Mingalazedi Pagoda and Dhammayazika Pagoda.

Stupas in Bagan, Myanmar
Stupas in Bagan, Myanmar

Interestingly, some of the architectural designs resemble that of Amaravati and Nagarjunagonda in Andhra Pradesh in South India.

Hot air balloon ride is another unique way of having a bird’s eye view of this vast collection of ancient and magnificently built pagodas and temples. The areal sights of these amazing structures during the sunrise are breathtaking. There are three hot balloon operators. Advanced booking is a must as tickets are sold out well in advance. The price may range from $70 to $100. Bagan’s archeological museum displays a variety of artifacts from the Pagan period, including the original Myazedi Stella inscriptions.

In general, people of the Bagan region are poor and dress casual wear with a loosely tied piece of cloth around the waist. Men wear longyi, and women wear sarong, also called htanain. As if a habit, natives are often seen chewing beetle leaves that make their mouth reddish. It is common among females to apply a kind of wooden paste, similar to sandalwood paste in color, on their cheeks to enhance their beauty.

People are also artistically inclined. One can see different varieties of oil paintings and water paintings displayed for sale at the temple premises. Tourists are offered a half-day training on the traditional way of high-quality lacquer wood polishing techniques. One can also visit a traditional village where women engage themselves in spinning and weaving of cotton, making wooden handicraft items and processing farm produce.

(R.K. Pillai, who is based in northern Virginia, has been in the forefront of information technology and business management for over 30 years both in India and United States.)