The highlight for many first-time visitors to Burma, incredible Bagan forms the largest collection of Buddhist temples, monasteries, shrines and stupas in the world. More than 2,200 -- some say 3,000 -- ancient religious monuments stud a sandy, semi-desert plain, backing onto the Ayeyarwady River. The brick-red, gold and white spires and stupas rising out of a sun-baked, ochre landscape during dry season, or sea of green vegetation during monsoon, is not only one of Burma’s, but one of Southeast Asia’s, most evocative and memorable sights.
Set at the heart of Burma's dry zone, Bagan seems on first impression to be a particularly inhospitable spot to have developed a major urban centre. Though bordered on two sides by the wide Ayeyarwady River, the arid, scrub country, dotted with brick ruins interspersed with outcrops of cacti and gnarly acacias, is almost the polar opposite of the lush, jungle-clad stone monuments of Cambodia’s Angkor.
The two mediaeval metropolises are roughly speaking contemporaneous however and Bagan is considered to have been originally founded, on the site of a minor Pyu settlement, by the mid-11th century legendary King Anawrahta. Over the following 250 years, a series of kings and princes commissioned a mind-boggling number of temples, monasteries and stupas of stucco-covered brick. One archaeologist calculated that during the 13th century a new temple was undertaken on average every two weeks. Initial construction efforts began within the central walled city of Old Bagan, but soon monuments were popping up all across what in those days must have been a densely populated plain. As with Angkor, the extent of the monuments corresponds to the extent of the ancient city with gaps in-between being originally filled with wood and bamboo housing and municipal buildings.
Set just to the west of a major fault line -- Bagan was hit by a 6.8-magnitude quake in mid-2016 -- the area has always been subject to regular temblors and the alluvial sand that many of the monuments are built upon don't make for the best of foundations. The arrival of the marauding Mongols in the latter part of the 13th century was initially considered to have been responsible for a final cataclysmic downfall of Bagan, with some monuments said to have been demolished to construct fortifications. This theory however has now largely been dismissed by historians. Associated city states to the north appear to have coped pretty well with the invading hordes though a general weakening of Bagan’s power during the 13th and 14th centuries saw Shan lords make incursions onto the plains and the southern Mon cities reassert their independence. Perhaps with more clement climatic conditions and fertile land being important factors, political and economic power began to drift north to what is now Mandalayand south to Bago and Taungoo. Inva, or Ava, became the de facto new capital by the 14th century as Bagan’s power and importance declined gradually due to wear and tear and general lack of interest rather than any single major catastrophe. Bagan was no longer flavour of the month and new spires and chedis sprung up at Sagaing, Mingun and Ava instead.
With the capital -- and importantly, the temple's benefactors – having moved on, Bagan's monuments were largely left to the region’s brutal elements and they didn't fare well. Minor monuments in particular were totally abandoned though some of the grander affairs did remain active religious sites.
Bagan (then Pagan) became a part of the British Empire in 1885 and following the formal annexation of the country the temples fell under the care of the colonial Department of Archaeology run from then-Calcutta. Charges of looting of both murals and statuary have been levelled at foreign and local thieves during this period and, as with Angkor, much has sadly been lost forever. While some restoration work was undertaken during British rule it wasn't until a devastating earthquake in 1975 caused widespread serious damage that concerted attention was focussed on the neglected site.
A relationship with UNESCO developed and a number of sites most at risk were repaired. What started as cooperation however deteriorated in the face of an ill-considered and widely criticised rebuilding campaign in the early 1990s by the junta and UNESCO walked out. (The generals also thought it would be a good time to add a golf course, a highway, an eyesore of a viewing tower and relocate the residents from Old Bagan to New.) Anyone with a bit of spare cash could pay for local builders to renovate a pet temple to earn a few Buddhist brownie points. This orgy of amateur restoration gave results bearing little or no resemblance to the original monuments. The same is still going on at numerous other Burmese historical sites such as In Dein.
Some local officials do point out that the most important sites are active temples, not ruins, and ongoing work should therefore be seen as makeovers or additions rather than restoration. Others would say that with a hugely destructive earthquake on top of centuries of general weathering and erosion, bad restoration is better than none. Anyway, the experts had all gone home.
Nevertheless, Bagan remains an extremely impressive site today and with Burma’s international rehabilitation talks are fortunately on-going with UNESCO again. With such a vast number of sites it isn't difficult to find your own monuments to explore, away from the crowds, and while sunrise and sunset at popular temples can get busy a certain amount of thinking outside the box should bring quieter results.
We find the monuments taken individually can merge into each other after a while as basic designs are similar and the most remarkable aspect of the site are the overall vistas revealing the sheer number of temples stretching to the horizon. The number of monuments with access to upper levels is being constantly reduced for conservation reasons though and it can be tricky to find good vantage points. Bear in mind you don’t necessarily need to get up to a high level to obtain good views.
On the ground the rural setting with farms, villages, narrow lanes and everyday activity makes for a pleasant diversion and creates a fantastic patchwork to explore.
Bagan is hemmed in to the west and northwest by the Ayeyarwady River, with the temple sites scattered across a wide, flat and dusty plain to the east and southeast. The main towns line up along the riverbank with smaller farming communities dotted among the temples themselves. Furthest north is the principal town and commercial and administrative centre, Nyaung U, which also holds the majority of accommodation and restaurants. From here two parallel roads head southwest past Wet Kyi Inn village to Old Bagan. The older road, the Nyaung U to Bagan Road, more commonly known as Main Road, winds past buildings, hotels and temples as it runs parallel to the Ayeyarwaddy while a new, direct route slightly further inland, Anawrahta Road, cuts straight through the adjacent scrub avoiding the built up sections.
Residents of Old Bagan were relocated in 1990 to New Bagan, but as the area contains some of the most important ancient temples, as well as numerous sensitive archaeological sites, it is difficult to see what long-term alternatives were available. The upmarket resorts that had grown up around the old town were not surprisingly allowed to remain.
From the ancient city walls at Old Bagan the two routes merge and continue south through the handicraft village of Myinkaba and past numerous temple sites to New Bagan. Now a thriving settlement with its share of hotels and restaurants, dusty New Bagan doesn’t look particularly new. From here a sealed road leads northeast to meet the Nyaung U to Kyaukpadaung Highway – Bagan’s main access road - near the airport. Turning left at the T-junction a short stretch of highway takes you back to Nyaung U town and this irregular rectangle between the main roads encloses the majority of Bagan’s historical sites. Another recently upgraded highway heads north to a new bridge across the Ayeyarwaddy and the large town of Pakokku some one hour distant.
A few ancient stupas do extend north and south along the riverbanks and there’s an overflow south of the New Bagan airport road, but all the principal sites lie within this area. For visiting and description purposes they are then divided into the following areas: North Plain, along the riverbank between Nyaung U and Old Bagan; Old Bagan and environs; Myinkaba heading down to New Bagan; South Plain, north of the New Bagan to airport road; and the Central Plain between the south and Anawratha Road. A maze of sandy lanes and tracks lies in-between linking the various temples sites and villages across the plain.
The main bus station for the area is on the Nyaung U highway with the airport lying a kilometre off it to the north. The railway station is actually farther out than the airport – some three kilometres distant. The principal jetty for boats up the Ayeyarwaddy is also in Nyaung U.
Long, thin Nyaung U stretches from the jetty area southwest towards Old Bagan encompassing the village of Wet Kyi Inn; a total of around four kilometres. The small but busy town’s principal market, Mani Sithu, is on the roundabout 1.5 kilometres down from the jetty where Main Road branches off southwest and a left turn takes you up to a second junction where Anawrahta leads in the direction of Old Bagan and the main highway continues southeast past the airport turn-off to Kyaukpadaung, Mount Popa and eventually Meiktila.
Main Road is officially named Lanmadaw but you’ll much more often see just Main Road written. Many of the town’s residential streets lie between these two parallel roads including Restaurant Row, with other hotels, guesthouses and eateries dotted along Main Road as far as the market. A further clutch of accommodation and cafes can be found to the west around Wet Kyi Inn. Ancient temples are rare in Nyaung U itself with the town’s most important archaeological site being the highly prestigious Shwezigon and its gold stupa, located down a side street by the river.
Though ATMs are quite liberally scattered through town, and many larger resorts have their own, most banks are placed at the market end of Main and Anawrahta Streets. Travel agents, e-bike and bicycle rental shops are ubiquitous. Police are by the market, a new post office is on Anawrahta Road while the closest decent hospital is an hour away in Pakokku.
There’s not much to see or visit in Nyaung U Town, with the obvious exception of Shwezigon, but it's worth wandering down to the main market, Mani Sithu. Though there are a few souvenir stalls these days it does still have the feel of a local market. Take a stroll along the road to the west side of the market ,which takes you down to the jetty and contains many of Nyaung U’s best examples of older buildings.
Old Bagan town layout and features
With most residents having been moved to New Bagan, the old town these days is small and compact. The only sprawling to be done is by the handful of large, upmarket resorts situated on the town’s edges. Sited on a bend in the wide Ayeyarwaddy, high brick walls form the east and south sides of the old city and contained within are the ruins of the palace, museum and some of Bagan’s major temple sites such as the spectacular Gawdawpalin Pahto. Other significant temples such as Ananda are found just outside the city by Tharabar Gate. There was probably quite a bit more of the old city in former times as the passing Ayeyarwaddy has eroded substantial chunks of land over the centuries.
A large dusty yard/carpark outside of the same gate is also where you’ll find most of Old Bagan’s eating options, dotted among souvenir stalls. The two main roads merge just past the south gate and lead 1.5 kilometres down to Myinkaba, famous for its lacquerware. There are cafes and local tea-shops and several sandy tracks leading east make the small village, already surrounded by temples, a good starting point for cycling expeditions into the central and southern plains.
New Bagan town layout and features
The dusty, mainly unsealed lanes lined with wooden houses don’t look very new so don’t go thinking concrete housing developments. The town is laid out more on a grid pattern though, around a T-junction where the Old Bagan Road, continuing south to the remote subsidiary site of Salay, is bisected by the new highway east to the airport. A stretch west from the spanking new morning market building, and circling the Eight Faces Paya, is the location of many of the town’s cafes, restaurants and several guesthouses. Again this is known as Main Street though the official name is Khayae Pin.
To the west of the old road a string of over-priced restaurants have terraces looking out over the river while many midrange hotels and small resorts are built aside unsealed Myat Lay Street in the southeast sector of town.
This busy town around 45 minutes north of Nyaung U on the right bank of the Ayeyarwaddy doesn’t currently feature in Bagan guides but if the government has its way it will do soon. Tiny Nyaung U airport can’t be expanded for obvious reasons and something has to be done about the proliferation of hotels and resorts within the sensitive archaeological zone. According to rumours there are plans to construct a new, larger airport and hotel zone at Pakokku. It’s a much bigger town with better infrastructure and medical facilities so that could make sense. Being shipped in and out of Bagan twice a day would be a shame but with projected tourist numbers (they claim 7.5 million for 2017!) the current situation is certainly untenable.
By Mark Ord.
Last updated on 12th September, 2016.