IN BAGAN even a nondescript path off the main road can lead somewhere remarkable. That irresistible urge to see what’s around the bend, whether a famous large temple, or a cluster of unknown ones, is what makes exploring the area exciting. Here, riding a bicycle with Auie, the fellow solo traveler I met on a train in Yangon, we feel the adrenaline flowing as we take a turn in another fork in the road, pedaling into ancient history.
The views we are seeing might have also struck Marco Polo, who said that the temples are one of the finest sights in the world. But while it’s more probable that the explorer never reached the region and relied only on secondhand accounts, what is certain is that Bagan – with the world’s largest and densest concentration of Buddhist temples, pagodas, stupas and ruins, many dating from the 11th and 12th centuries – is a spectacular sight, even if many of the temples were reconstructed in a controversial manner.
I arrived in Bagan at four in the morning after ten hours on the road in an old bus. Upon reaching the bus station in the neighboring town in Nyaung U, I hire a tricycle to take me to a hotel. The driver offered to take me first to Buledi, a stupa with a pyramid base and steep steps leading to a narrow terrace that has become a popular spot to view the sunrise. We arrived there at 4 a.m. with just two other ladies, and I immediately grab my spot.
By 5 a.m., a small crowd had formed around as the sun cast its first rays, giving a glimpse of the temple-dotted plains of the surroundings. Like in most ancient temples, there’s a spirituality shrouding the place, especially with the golden light providing a mystical vibe. Unlike Borobudur and especially Angkor Wat, however, Bagan is not as crowded – for now.
I proceeded to the hotel after in Nyaung U, ate breakfast at a neighboring diner, and rested for a bit in my room. Remembering that Auie is still in Bagan, I sent her a message through Facebook Messenger.
“Are you still here in Bagan?”
“Yes, but I’m leaving at six in the evening.”
“What are your plans for today?”
“I’m checking out of my hotel then I’ll try to find something to do before I go to the bus station.”
“I’ll explore the temples after lunch. Do you want to go with me?”
SO AT 2:30, we meet in Ananda, one of the largest and best preserved temples in Bagan. Entering the place from the north entrance feels like going into a marketplace, with people squeezing themselves through a narrow hallway filled with souvenir stands. Yet emerging from there to the grounds, the crowds immediately disappears.
At the center of the compound is the temple itself. Said to have been built around 1105 by King Kyanzittha, the temple’s architectural style bridges the end of the Early Bagan period and the beginning of the Middle period. The Ananda is an elegant, symmetrical cross-shaped structure with a gilded top called sikhara, in the center. On top of the square central block are six receding terraces. In the center of the temple is a square room containing four large Buddha images, and a corridor that runs around the central room, the walls of which contain three rows of niches that enshrine Buddha images in different poses.
We then head east to the Dhammayangyi Temple, but not before coming across a narrow path that branches off the main dirt road. Eager to forge our own off-the-beaten path experience, I turn left and call Auie. She follows suit and soon we’re staring at a cluster of small temples at the end of the road. We’re the only ones there, and we take our time walking around the site.
About half an hour later, we’re in Dhammayangyi, the most massive structure in Bagan. Similar in style to the Ananda Temple, the Dhammayangyi was supposedly built by King Narathu, who, according to legend, murdered his father and brother, and executed one of his wives who was an Indian princess, and the temple was a way to atone for his sins. Supposedly, he also ordered the workers to fit the bricks together so tightly that not even a pin could pass through; otherwise, their arms were cut off.
Auie and I enter the temple’s cavernous halls. Almost all the entire innermost passage has been filled with brick rubble centuries ago. Three out of the four Buddha sanctums were also filled with bricks. The remaining western shrine features images of Gautama and Maitreya, the historical and future Buddhas. The interlocking, mortar-less brickwork at Dhammayangyi, best appreciated on the upper terraces, is said to rank as the finest in Bagan. However, the highest terraces and the hidden stairways leading to them are off-limits to visitors.
After Dhammayangyi, Auie has to go, so I’m on my own. My last stop is the Pyathada Temple, a 13th century structure with a open terrace that allows for a great sunset-viewing experience. Navigating the twisting dirt roads, I get lost when I make a wrong turn, but manage to find the way using Google Maps. But after about six hours of biking under the sun, combined with the general difficulty of pedaling on dirt roads, I’m starting to get exhausted. I stop by a stall and buy a large bottle of water before summoning the remaining energy I have and pedaling the last mile to get to Pyathada before the sun sets. Which I do.
The temple itself is not that large, perhaps because it was built during the reign of King Kyaswa , who disapproved forced labor to build his temples. I take my place on a lower tier and watch the colors of the plains slowly turn into warm hues. I just sit there, taking pictures, until all light drains out from the sky. I then make my way down with the crowds, and ride back to my hotel.
I START MY EXPLORATION of Bagan the next day by focusing on Old Bagan in the morning. I start at the Tharabar Gate, the main entryway at the east wall and the only one left of the old city built by King Pyinbya in the 9th century. Although most of the structure is ruined, stucco carvings of the ogres are still visible.
I pedal next to the Shwegugyi Temple, a small but elegant structure, notable for its fine stucco carvings and for the stone slabs in the inner wall. The temple was built by King Alaungsithu in 1131, and shows the transition from the Mon architectural style to a more distinctive Burmese. This design used more open doorways and windows for brighter indoors, as opposed to the Mon’s dark cloisters. Just south is the highest temple of Bagan, the Thatbyinnyu, which means “omniscience of the Buddha.” Also built by Alaungsithu, the temple also shows a transitional style.
Further east, near the terminal for ferries plying the Irrawady River, I come across the Buledi. The cylindrical stupa – its name translates as “gourd-shaped” is said to be the oldest in Bagan. It was completely destroyed during an earthquake in 1975, but has since been rebuilt.
After lunch I proceed to New Bagan, specifically in Myinkaba, a village famous for its traditional Mon-style lacquerware. Here, there are several family-run lacquerware workshops, where you can watch artisans at work. I visit the Manuha Temple, one of the oldest temples in Bagan, built in 1067 by the Mon King Manuha. The building contains three images of seated Buddhas and an image of Buddha entering Nirvana.
I return to Old Bagan at about two hours before sunset. I have one more stop to make – the Shwesandaw Pagoda, the most popular structure in Bagan to view the sunset. The corners of the pagoda’s five terraces were adorned with statues of Ganesha, the Hindu God with the elephant head. On the five terraces there used to be hundreds of terracotta plaques with depictions from several Jataka tales, the stories about the previous lives of the Buddha, though they have been lost.
Climbing the narrow, steep stairs on the western side of leads me to the base of the stupa, from where I have a good view of the plains of Bagan and its numerous temples. I get the thrill of being on top of the world with nobody but me and just a couple of strangers staring at this magnificent view until the hordes arrive for the sunset.