The temple plains of Bagan are probably Myanmar’s most famous site, and for me this was a trip I’d been looking forward to since entering the country.
The Kingdom of Bagan was at its height between the 11th and 13th centuries. During this time, the Kings sanctioned the construction of over 4000 pagodas, in an area of land approximately 12km square. The Bagan empire ended around the year 1287 as the Mongols gradually took over the land, and subsequently many pagodas deteriorated after abandonment. Over the years, many earthquakes have added to the ruins but today, over 2000 pagodas still remain.
I arrived in the middle of the night on another thrilling night bus and found a place to sleep for a few more hours in the town of Nyaung U which lies a few km north of Old Bagan and the temple plains. I’d been comtemplating heading straight out to try to see the sunrise over the numerous pagodas which I’ve been assured is a spectacular sight, however, given my recent lack of success with sunrises due to heavy cloud, and the fact that it was raining at the time, I decided this time to give it a miss.
The easiest way to get around the temple plains is to hire an e-bike – a converted bicycle with an electric motor slapped on wherever it will fit. These looked about as safe and reliable as they actually were (not very). But riding these bikes into the plains for the first time was remarkable. The first pagodas you see are tiny, the number you see gradually builds as does their size, and before you know it you are completed surrounded with vast stupas rising out of the ground in every direction that you look.
Most of the pagodas are quite small – maybe one or two storeys in height, and with a stupa on top of that. But the larger ones are truly breathtaking (from the outside anyway, the insides are largely dull and uninspiring). Many have been dated by archaeologists, and you can see the progression of their construction skills as they moved through the years, with the later ones boasting impressive arches, brickwork and intricate design details.
You can only get to the top of a few pagodas (and there is also a newly built tower which is part of a hotel complex which you can pay further for the privilege to go up) but the views from the top are like nothing else you’ll ever see.
Over the days, we had a few (expected) failed sunset viewings and a few (expected) problems with the e-bikes – these involved pedalling halfway home, and breaking down twice on the outskirts of town trying to go out on my third and final day. There were times with (expected) heavy rain which would last for hours and hours, the only things to do in town were to drink beer and play a few card games. But despite these minor negatives, Bagan lived up to everything I hoped that it would be, and I think in time to come I will return in the dry season when the famous balloon rides over the temple plains are in operation, to see this incredible sight from a whole new angle.