Myanmar was one of the place that I have been looking forward to visiting for a long time. In doing my research before we left, I read what I thought at the time to be a pretty wild claim: namely that the pagodas in Bagan rivalled those in Ankor Wat in Cambodia.
For those who may not know, Ankor Wat is the name of the world famous ruins in Cambodia. Angkor Wat, or in Khmer អង្គរវត្ត, (thanks Wikipedia!) is a temple complex in Cambodia and the largest religious monument in the world, with the site measuring 402 acres in total. Unlike most Khmer temples, Angkor Wat is oriented to the west rather than the east.
Ankot Was is arguably the best-known temple in Asia, if not the world. As such, the claim that Began rivals Ankor Wat seemed unlikely to me when I first read it. Travelling throughout South East Asia we have become used to reading the inflated claims of certain tourist attractions. For example, I must have eaten in 20 restaurants which claim to be the “best in the world.” Without exception, they were all average.
Bagan, however, really did live up to its claims. The Bagan Archaeological Zone, defined as the 13 x 8 km area centred around Old Bagan, located in the centre west part of Myanmar. Within this area, there were originally around 2500 pagodas dating back to around 1100. Following years of bombing in the second world war, and a number of earthquakes, a number of these were damaged or destroyed, These days there are about 1000 left standing or in various states of being repaired. These vary in size from the size of a garden shed to huge multi-story pagodas as large as any temple in South East Asia.
Build of red brick, the smaller pagodas are scattered almost at random across the landscape. Within the area there are also at least larger pagodas, which were thought to have originally be relic chambers.
Within each pagoda, both large and small, there is a buddha statue, used for worship and to make offerings too. Inside each one sits a huge stone Buddha, used for worship. Sadly, many of these have had their heads destroyed. But not for the same reasons that a lot of religious icons were destroyed in Europe in the Middle Ages. In Myanmar, the families who built these pagodas often hid gold and gems inside the heads for safe keeping. Over the next 800 years, bandit and thieves often broke open Buddha images to search for these hidden treasures.
During our time in Bagan, we were able to visit a number of these larger pagodas including Dhammayangyi Temple, Dhammayazika Pagoda, and Gawdawpalin Temple. At this stage in our trip, we have been in South East Asia for about 9 months and have visited Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka, Thailand and Cambodia, Indonesia and Laos, but those in Myanmar were different. From the architecture to the interior, the Pagodas in Myanmar were different. The whole of Myanmar feels truly authentic and even as touristy as Bagan can be, it remains underdeveloped.
Many of the pagodas are found in empty fields and yet still more are dotted throughout the small villages. We went on a horse drawn carriage ride through one of the villages and saw dozens of the smaller pagodas built by ancient families from the Bagan area, most of which are still in use.
Hot air balloons
This was undoubtedly one of the highlights of out whole trip. Having woken up at 5 am, Emily and I took the moped out and drove until we got lost. As the sun started to come up, a local pointed out one of the pagodas with a room you were allowed to watch the sunrise on.
And then, as the sun came up on our private viewing gallery, a steady stream of hot air balloons too silently to the sky. The filed up into the air one after another before floating off across the horizon and slowly filling the sky.
It was honestly one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen and all without another person in sight. I even had the foresight to take an amazing time-lapse of the whole thing on my GoPro. You can check that out here.
Conclusion: I must admit that when I first heard the claims about Bagan, I was somewhat sceptical but having visited this place has won me over entirely. Looking back on my trip, I think Bagan was my favourite place in the whole of Myanmar. Whilst there is no single temple or pagoda that competes with Ankor Wat in scale, the cumulative effect of the hundreds of pagodas dotting the landscape is truly awe inspiring. Another thing that contributes to the feel of this place is that, for the most part, you are free to explore the temples scattered across the countryside on your own. By renting an electric moped, anyone can legally drive in Bagan giving you the freedom to spend as long, or as little, time exploring as you like. We were here for 4 days, but I could easily have spent weeks exploring and photographing this amazing place!
In my opinion, Bagan well deserves its tital as a rival to Ankor Wat.