Across the morning landscape, you can hear roosters serenading the dawn as a loudspeaker amplifies the chanting of Buddhist texts by a local monk. The eastern horizon slowly begins to glow the color of wildfire. Silhouetted are the taller pagodas as the mist and dew hang thick in the air, adding a layer of mystery to the ground. During those moments, it's easy to forget what century it is. When suddenly, breaking the ancient nostalgia, 20 bulbous shapes lift off from the ground into the air. Hot air balloons have become an iconic way to catch a bird's eye view of the grounds as well as adding to the soothing spectacle. The ancient beauty of Bagan best embodies the mystical charm of Myanmar.
In the ninth century, a new power rose to prominence in Myanmar and built the capital of their empire at a bend in the Ayeyarwady River. Through conquest over the next four hundred years, the leaders would capture not only land but also the surrounding regions most prized artisans. These craftsmen created one of the most beautiful and recognizable areas in Myanmar. At its height, Bagan is said to have had over 10,000 temples, pagodas, and shrines built across its forty-square-mile territory. The 2,000 that remain give a splendid glimpse back into an ancient time.
Besides the cities of Mandalay and Yangon, Bagan has the best infrastructure for a high volume of tourism. With plenty of places to stay and eat, it's easy to spend a day meandering around this archeological environment.
Before the 1990s, villages surrounded the many temples and pagodas. The government cleared the villagers and forced them into the area known as New Bagan. The effect is that the areas surrounding the temples are wide-open spaces covered by either farmland or natural foliage. As one ventures through the lush trees and grassy vegetation from pagoda to pagoda, it's easy to feel a bit like Indiana Jones.
Due to many earthquakes in the region, with the most recent in August 2016, many of the structures have been rebuilt. The government has faced criticism by many for not using traditional materials or building techniques. It's easy to recognize the patchwork and fixes that have been done, as they don't quite match in color or material with the rest of the structure. For this reason, Bagan has not been approved as a UNESCO world heritage site.
Upon entering what is known as the "Archeological Zone," visitors pay a fee of 25,000 Kyat ($18 USD). You must have this five-day pass with you at all times. The upfront fee is far more desirable because it allows you to roam freely from temple to temple without constantly having to wait in line and pay a fee.
Structures here have subtle architectural differences as they were constructed during different periods of the Bagan reign. Some of the most well known are grouped fairly close to each other. Ananda Temple, one of the holiest, houses four giant standing Buddhas and with a unique dual corridor structure. Gubyaukgyi Temple contains paintings from the 11th century that depict the Buddha's life. Although a flashlight is useful to see the fine details of the interior painted corridors, the architects specifically place windows in the thick walls that filter a soft light onto the large seated Buddha. While you’re here you’ll learn about the architectural nuances of each structure.
Foreigners can rent electric scooters, which are highly recommended. The wide-open area is best explored in small groups, as the majority of the temples are quite tiny and devoid of the large tour buses. Bicycles are also a popular way to navigate the narrow dirt roads.
Like most of Myanmar, the temperature can get quite hot during the day, especially under the sun. Drinking lots of water and finding shade whenever possible is the best way to keep from being overheated. Inside the temples, the air is quite pleasant. Due to the heavy wet dew, nights and mornings can become chilly, so an extra layer is recommended.
Beyond the almost infinite number of architectural and religious sites to visit are the craft makers, especially the lacquerware. During the Bagan era, Myanmar developed its own style of making the varnished bamboo plates and bowls. The multi-step process is quite fascinating to watch. Craftsmen start with a bamboo pole and end with an ornately painted bowl, cup, or serving tray. Lacquerware, beyond being beautiful, is also both lightweight and sturdy.