Bygone Bagan in Myanmar

After two days exploring Yangon, we departed for Bagan on Monday morning. Bagan is northwest of Yangon, in central Myanmar, on the Ayeyarwaddy river. There are just a couple flights each day, and it’s best to be on the first one because the others will be cancelled if they’re not full. We were in the air by 7:00 a.m., flying over pallid flatlands on the cusp between the dry and rainy season. As we descended toward the airport, I could see individual plots of land delineated by rows of palm trees — little tufts of green in a pale, sandy expanse. Any day now the rains would be coming, transforming Bagan into a community of small farms.

We landed at the airport, paid our $10 USD cash fee to enter the Bagan Archaeological Zone and walked out of the airport into the welcoming arms of taxi drivers. After agreeing on a price, we were on our way to the Thiripyitsaya Hotel (above) — $55 USD per night with breakfast included.

The Thiripyitsaya has a great, quiet location — at the end of a road next to the Ayeyarwaddy River, between old and new Bagan. Rooms are grouped in fours, in detached villas, and each is equipped with AC, refrigerator, safe, nice bathroom and veranda. In the rainy season, the Ayeyarwaddy river comes right up to the edge of the property but during our visit it was just a pale blue mirage in the distance.

It was noon when we decided to get out and explore. Rather than wait for our zealous taxi driver/tour guide who was returning at 3:30, we walked down the road to the horsecart drivers and negotiated a two-hour spin around Bagan (about $10 USD).

Naingshwe was our driver — a man of few words, but he did speak good English and knew the area well. I climbed into the front passenger seat next to him and Jay climbed into the open back of the carriage. With a couple shakes of the reins, we were off down the road in slow-motion travel around Bagan. I had a great, elevated view of the grand pagodas we were approaching, while Jay had a more entertaining view of life on the street and people who were passing us. Perfect.

Bagan has thousands of pagodas. It’s impossible to glance over the landscape without seeing at least a few in your immediate vicinity. Most of these are remnants from the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries when Bagan was the capital of the Pagan Empire. Many have been “restored” but the low quality of restoration has apparently hindered the area’s chance of be designated as a Unesco World Heritage Site. Bagan is also prone to earthquakes — a large quake in 1975 ruined some pagodas and left many others with large cracks.

We approached Thatbyinnyu Phaya, built around 1150 for King Sithu I. Thatbyinnyu means “the omniscient” and it’s the tallest temple in Bagan at nearly 200 feet.

What struck me almost immediately about the pagodas in Myanmar is their similarity to the Khmer temples in Cambodia. Thatbyinnyu Phaya, in particular, was built during the same years as Angkor Wat. Angkor temples have a square base with a quincunx of towers — a tower at each corner and a larger tower in the middle. Pagodas in Bagan also have a square base and a tall tower in the middle. Bagan’s pagodas spread across 40 square miles, and the Angkor temples spread across nearly 400 square miles. Even just their facades seem similar in decoration and style.

From the front entrance, a large hallway led all the way around the main level of the pagoda. At each side (north, south, east, west) sat an enormous Buddha statue — sometimes in gold, sometimes painted.

Back in the horsecart, Naingshwe led us to Ananda Phaya. The name and appearance of this pagoda was like an unsolved riddle in my mind during the whole three days we were in Bagan. I kept thinking of it as the “golden pineapple”. Alors! C’est ca! Ananda is suspiciously close to “ananas” which means pineapple in French. And does it not look a little like a golden pineapple? (Which symbolizes hospitality and wealth here in Asia, by the way.)

Ananda Phaya is simple and beautiful inside — tall, pointed arches and a massive standing Buddha facing each direction casting a golden glow over the whitewashed walls.

Back in the horsecart, we trotted off to our third pagoda — Sulamani Guphaya. Sulamani Guphaya is the most important pagoda of Bagan’s late period of monument building from 1170 – 1300. It has beautiful brick work, and has been called “the grandiloquent gesture of an empire at its meridian”.

The passageway leading around the base of Sulamani has several archways looking to the outside. It was certainly HOT and bright in Bagan, but the daily stratus cloud layer provided remarkable diffused light within and around the pagodas.

One more hop into the horsecart and we were off to the last temple. Pya-tha-da Pagoda was off the beaten path, down a long dirt road. We were the only people there, and Naingshwe showed us the staircase to the upper terrace. We hunched over and worked our way through the little archways to the top where a wide, hot brick terrace opened up in front of us. We could see silhouetted pagodas in every direction amidst dusty plains and distant mountain ranges. Walk like an Egyptian and pose like a pagoda… the view probably isn’t that different than it was 600 years ago.

In the late afternoon we traded the horsecart for a taxi — much less charming, including the driver. We began our second half of the day with a tour of the Shwezigon Pagoda, built in the 11th century and gilded in 1983. The Shwezigon pagoda has national importance in Myanmar as a temple of Theravada Buddhism, and hosts an annual festival during the month of Nadaw with attendees from all over the country.

With so many temples, it’s easy to let your eyes start glazing over as you visit one after another. Case in point — I can’t recall the name of the pagoda where this small shrine was located, but compared to the grander temples I loved the small scale, decorated walls and personal offerings surrounding the Buddha.

At the Mahabodhi pagoda, built in 1250 and modeled after a temple in India, we encountered a gregarious young woman who gave us a quick, laughing tour around the pagoda. This was followed by her trying to sell Jay a longyi — the traditional cloth worn by Burmese men. Me longyi long time!

Last stop for sunset! We hopped in the car and made our way to Shwesandaw pagoda. It’s a bit of a tourist trap at sunset since only a few pagodas have open upper terraces. We climbed the steps (remarkably like Chichen Itza) and awaited the sun’s drop behind the clouds. We moved to a quiet place along the north side and took a seat on the short stone wall for the last rays of light. Two monks took a seat next to us. It doesn’t matter who you are — seems everyone likes a good sunset.


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