It’s February 2014, and the delightful meander down the Irrawaddy from Mandalay sees us arrive in Bagan, probably the numero uno tourist attraction in Burma.
From the 9th to 13th centuries, Bagan (or Pagan) was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan, the first kingdom to unify the regions that would later constitute modern Myanmar. And they were obviously a devout lot who liked a temple or two. During the kingdom’s height between the 11th and 13th centuries, they constructed over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries, of which the remains of over 2,200 survive today. Now that is a lot of temples.
Some of them, like Ananda Phato, are large, working temples, worthy of the acclaim. Some are more modest creations, but home to delightful carvings or bas-reliefs. And some are little more than a pile of bricks. Some restorations have been faithful to the original aesthetic. Others less so. Some lesser temples look like they were built yesterday, which, to all intents and purposes, they possibly were. But the combined effect, looking across the plains, is mesmerising.
Not surprisingly then the options for getting around this area of some forty square miles are bewildering. Car and driver, motorbike, pony and trap, on foot, hot-air balloon. And that is before you even consider a route. Being the independent travellers that we are we shall shun the use of a guide, and go by bicycle. We’ve a have a vague idea of where we’re going and will make the rest up as we go along. What could possibly go wrong?
We’ve no sooner left our hotel in Old Bagan, the Hotel at Tharabar Gate, than we are at…Tharabar Gate; the only surviving gate of the ancient city. Built in the 9th century it is remarkable only really for being very old.
A few turns of the pedals and we arrive at Ananda Pahto, one of Bagan’s best known and best preserved temples. It’s an elegant, symmetrical structure and its gold encrusted hti distinguishes it from so many other temples in the area. Its accessibility and prominence attracts as many hawkers as it does tourists whose presence takes some of the gloss of an otherwise splendid structure.
Next on the temple trail, and still in the area around old Bagan, is Nathlaung Kyaung, the only surviving Hindu temple in Bagan and partially destroyed in the 1975 earthquake; Thatbyinnya Phato, at 207 feet tall the highest temple in Bagan; and the rather uninspiring Gawdawpalin Pahto, one of the largest and most imposing Bagan temples.
But if Gawdawpalin Pahto is large and imposing, Dhammayangyi Pahto, in the Central Plain area, is just staggering. The biggest structure in Bagan, it has an allegedly macabre and murderous past. Apparently King Narathu built the temple to atone for having killed his father and brother, not to mention one of his wives, and is reported to have dictated that the brickwork fit together so tightly that even a pin couldn’t pass between any two bricks; workers unable to achieve this had their arms chopped off. Whether this is true is immaterial but the legend certainly adds to the atmosphere. It has undergone very little restoration, and is dark, gloomy, claustrophobic and oppressive. But it’s the sheer size and scale which make it so impressive.
Still in the Central Plain, we’ll visit Sulamani Pahto and Pyathada Paya (although to be honest I’m not 100% sure we actually find that one), before winding up the day at Buledi, which provides great sunset viewing slightly less crowded than the more accessible Shwesandaw. As the sun descends towards the horizon it turns the whole world a magnificent yellow, moving through the spectrum to a deep orange, a colour which has become, for me, synonymous with Burma.
But perhaps the most magnificent experience of all is the hot shower that comes at the end of six or seven hours pootling around on a bicycle in the heat and dust. Which is not surprising given that, retracing our route on a map will suggest that we have no future as tour guides. We’ve covered a sizeable area but perhaps not in the most logical sequence. Oh well.
Bagan so far has failed to throw at us any of the oddities that make Yangon so charming. However Trip Advisor’s number one recommendation for dining in the Bagan area is Weather Spoon’s (sic) in Nyaung U. The guy who runs it, and who hides his nerves behind a beguiling giggle, explains that he spent some time in Bristol, learning to be a hot-air balloon pilot (I didn’t realise Bristol was an international centre of hot-air balloon instruction?), and liked his local pub so much he decided to name his restaurant after it when he returned to Burma, never having completed his pilot’s licence incidentally. I’m not sure what JD Wetherspoon’s would make of the plagiarism. Or the spelling for that matter.
Mind you, if this place is the best restaurant in the area I’d question the demographic and economic profile of your average TripAdvisor user. The phrase “best restaurant in so-and-so” usually strikes fear into heart and wallet, but this place looks much the same as everywhere else, i.e. a bit dusty and worn down. All of which seems a little incompatible with the demographic profile of Myanmar’s tourists, which leaves me a little perplexed. You’d expect a few Brits to be wandering around reliving days of colonial yore, but they’re significantly outnumbered by Americans, Germans, Italians and particularly, French. And they all appear to be reasonably well-off and, well, old. Myanmar as a holiday destination for retirees? Not sure what this says about our good selves?
Day two in Bagan and I’ll be buggered if we’re using bicycles again. Today’s mode of transport is pony and trap. Cheesy perhaps, but more fun than sitting behind the tinted windows of a Japanese people carrier. And we’re heading to the Myinkaba area to avoid duplication of any of yesterday’s efforts.
Today’s temples include Mingalazedi Paya, Gubyaukgyi, Myazedi, Nan Paya, Abeyadna Pahto, and Nagayon. And these temples seem to have a different profile to those of the northern and central plain with the attraction being the interior paintings, murals and frescoes, niches and statuary, as opposed to the grander exteriors of t’others. If yesterday was about architecture, today is interior design.
Gubyaukgyi in particular contains no fewer than 547 well-preserved frescoes depicting various Jātakas, or stories of Buddha’s previous lives, dating from the year of its construction in 1113. The fact that it is lit only by daylight coming in through large perforated stone windows adds to its mysterious aura. Nan Paya’s central sanctuary contains four stone pillars of finely carved sandstone bas-relief figures of three-faced Brahma, and was allegedly once used as Manuha’s prison. Poking around in the darkness of Abeyadna Pahto reveals more frescos, now-empty niches carved into the walls, and a large, seated Buddha in the inner shrine.
In the village of Myinkaba, is the Manuha Paya temple, which looks modern but actually dates back to 1059. Home to three seated Buddhas and one reclining Buddha, it’s clearly a working temple and is a hive of activity, thronging with delightful, friendly and inquisitive children.
Whilst in Myinkaba village we stop to take a look in a handicraft shop which features a Kayan ‘long-neck’ woman working at a weaving machine. And wish we hadn’t. It’s an undignified exploitation of her culture and craft – a circus sideshow. For all we know she may be perfectly happy and may be earning more now than she’s ever done, but it just doesn’t seem right.
We finish off the day with sunset at Shwesandaw, the most accessible and therefore the most crowded of the sunset-viewing spots. And although we get there early, I’m ready to leave long before the sun has set – the sheer number of people, all greedily pushing and shoving for the best spot, is (almost) too much.
It’s an unedifying end to an otherwise enriching Bagan experience. I was keen to get to Myanmar before it changes too much. But if there is a point at which Myanmar moves from niche to mass tourism, the crowds at Shwesandaw suggest that point may have already passed.