Bagan is probably one the most incredible religious sites in the world. From the 9th to the 13th century, the city was the capital of the Pagan Kingdom, the first kingdom that unified the regions that would later make up modern Myanmar. During the kingdom’s height between the 11th and 13th century, over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were constructed in the Bagan plains alone. More than 2,200 temples and pagodas have survived until today.
Bagan is very likely part of nearly every itinerary through Myanmar and for us it was definitely a major highlight. Sitting on a small (and very steep!) pagoda wall with a few other fellow travellers at 5.30 in the morning, witnessing the sunrise was truly spectacular and an experience we will probably never forget. In Bagan we mostly did what everybody else is doing here – we rented an eScooter and cruised around the sandy roads, exploring all the small and large pagodas! It was just such an incredible experience to drive around, stop wherever you want and explore…
So let us take you on a journey of a typical day as a tourist in this wonderful place! (Further down we have also included a few more notes and observations on Bagan.)
What an amazing way to start the day! We got up at around 5.00, got some tea, jumped on our eScooter and drove to one of the thousands of pagodas. The one you can see below was especially great – it was quit steep and everybody had to huddle together! The atmosphere up there was unforgettable, everybody was really awed by the sunrise!
It was also really cool to watch the hot air balloons rise – they gave the whole scene a unique and special touch 🙂
Enjoying the day
After getting some breakfast we spent the better part of the day on our small eScooter and explored the area. It is just so much fun to get lost in all the small pagodas… 🙂 Oh, and of course there is also good food and you can do a ton of souvenir shopping too!
Similar to the sunrises, the sunsets are an incredible spectacle to witness over the dusty plain! Everything turns orange and the pagodas start to glow in a very special light. Again we found ourselves a nice pagoda with a good sunset view and climbed it. This time with quite a few fellow tourists who had the same idea! To be honest, nearly as great as watching the sunset was taking in the whole spectacle of all the tourists taking out their big cameras and tripods! Oh, and of course you can do souvenir shopping here as well… 🙂
A day in Bagan is definitely a very special experience!
Some further notes and obersvations on Bagan:
Frankly, it is really quite unbelievable that you get to climb around the ancient pagodas as a tourist. There are no extra platforms or railings, just the plain old brickwork. Some are really quite steep, and sort of dangerous (especially in the dark), some have lose bricks, others some rain and earthquake damage and above all they are in effect active holy Buddhist sites where people come to worship. Many Burmese dream of visiting Bagan once in their lives, but have to wait until they can afford it. It is that important a site in Myanmar. There are several classifications and architectural periods in the buildings in Bagan, (which makes the whole visit fascinating for architecture buffs) that most other religious buildings in Myanmar are modeled on. The temples, pagodas and other structures on the plain were actually built by the royal and important families of old to stock up on merit for the next life, as well as to give the common people a livelihood in building, maintaining and caring for the pagodas and temples. Last year a lot were damaged by an earthquake and this year due to torrential rains some were off limits to visitors. The whole area is vast and a lot of restoration needs to be done. So we were a little shocked when we realized that only 10% of the hefty (for Myanmar) 15 Euro entrance fee actually goes to conservation. It might be more at the moment, because they are applying to be an UNESCO World Heritage Site but nobody seemed to really know.
Since the temples are active sites of worship, every visitor has to remove both shoes and socks to enter or climb the pagodas and temples. This makes for some cold feet at 4:45 in the morning sitting on a pagoda. It is, however, sort of liberating and exciting to walk through dark corridors in ancient brick temples barefoot. Somehow it makes you more connected to the place you are visiting. (Sometimes you miss your shoes when you have to navigate between pigeon and bat droppings).
Taking off your shoes in religious sites is really, really important in Myanmar. Failure to do so is an actual offense! Apparently, a few months ago a Russian woman was imprisoned because she had flat out refused to take off her shoes for 3 days in a row. When gently reprimanded she just ignored the caretakers. After some repeat pleas that she should just leave if she does not want to take off her shoes, she refused on principle and eventually got taken in by the police who fined her. Apparently she refused to pay so she went to jail for a little while, which just seems insane on her part. Despite the many signs that everyone (both men and women) has to cover their legs and shoulders when entering religious sites, which most people totally did, but we still saw a few tourists in short shorts and sleeveless tops or even topless running around Bagan. (Covering up a little really should not be a big deal for any visitor, but some people’s ignorance is incredible.) These rules are enforced, but not always strictly enough when it comes to tourists, despite being important to the Burmese people. This year the tourist numbers were fairly low, due to the Rakhine crisis, but the potential for local-foreign visitor conflicts is there, especially with ever more people coming in to visit Myanmar. Both shoes and shorts are issues that you should keep in mind when visiting the holy sites of Bagan.