Bagan: The Land of Pagodas

When we talked about visiting Burma, Bagan, the ancient land known for thousands of pagodas built between 11th to 13th centuries, would always come up. Burma as a civilization owes much of its culture, religion and heritage to Bagan. It was 20 years ago when I first visited Bagan and being too young, I hardly recalled about the trip except some images of the pagodas. It became my obsession or mission if you like, to rediscover this once glorious land.

I went there mentally prepared; after seeing what happened to Siem Reap when Angkor Wat became a top travel destination, I expect that Bagan would have fallen down the same path. Yes, it has became a lot more touristy than what I remembered yet it retained much of its charms (I can’t say how long this will last). All food establishments are meant for the tourists, selling a mixture of cuisine nothing authenticate but still pleasant tasting.

Before I share my pleasant discoveries, I will rant out my disappointments first.

  • First, if there is one thing that displeased me the most, it would be that I saw many tourists not paying respect to the local customs. It is considered rude to wear footwear on the pagoda ground or inappropriate clothing (i.e., short pants). Yes, it could be either an innocent mistake or just being ignorant but almost all of them were accompanied by local tour guides. I guess no tour guides would remind for the fear of offending their ‘dear customers’.
  • Second, I saw tourists copying poses to replicate the Buddha statues behind. I don’t understand why they considered this fun, I am sure if I do the same thing in a Church, there will be people who felt insulted, right? We travel to be wiser, be more appreciative of different culture, so why behave badly?
  • Third, the questionable restoration works done – Bagan is an earthquake-prone region. Over the past 100 years, two major earthquakes caused heavy damages to the temples. So, the government decided to rebuild them; not restore and preserve mind you, a standard design was approved and all small pagodas were rebuilt based on that design. If you see uniforming looking pagodas in Bagan, well, they were probably rebuilt the past ten years or so; you will find a serial number for each pagoda. With all these done, UENSCO refused Bagan to be registered a world heritage site and I reckon that it will never be one given the fact that the damages are irreversible.

Having said these disappointments, Bagan was amazing and we had a great time there.

Manuha Phaya was probably one of my favourite; it was built by an exiled king conquered during Bagan era, large Buddha statues were built inside small halls to describe how confined he felt as an exiled king.

Shwezigon Pagoda
Shwezigon pagoda
A closeup view of Shwezigon pagoda
A closeup view of Shwezigon pagoda

Shwezigon pagoda, built by the King Anawrahta, the founder of Bagan empire, located out of the main archaeological zone but it was worth visiting. The gold painting seem worn out from the harsh weather exposing red paint underneath and it has a very unique charm about this pagoda.

Shwezigon Pagoda
Guardian lion at the corner of the Shwezigon pagoda

Initially, I intended to skip Lawkanandar pagoda as it was a bit too further out but it was a good thing we made the trip there for we got the chance to see a great unobstructed view of Irrawaddy river. Seems like domestic tourists visit this pagoda, so we had a peaceful visit overall.

View of Irrawaddy river from Lawkanandar pagoda
View of Irrawaddy river from Lawkanandar pagoda

As the sun slowly goes down, the land turned magical with the herds from nearby villages made the way back through the dry plains, the sun casting long silhouettes of the pagodas as far as our eyes can see. I was never a fan of sunset or sunrise but Bagan was different: probably the first time I felt truly grateful and lucky to see this view. A postcard view really was a postcard view; no photos can do justice to how the sunset looks like in Bagan.

Sunset View of Bagan
Sunset view of Bagan with pagodas all around the land

I had high expectation on Ananda pagoda, built by King Kyansittha. It was a historically significant pagoda famous for its beautiful white color because almost all of the pagodas in Bagan has the original brown brick color except for Ananda pagoda.

Ananda pagoda was almost unrecognizable as there was a massive rebuilding work going on there, new concrete cement was being plastered over and some buildings were reconstructed – this is not restoring but destroying.

If an archaeological site can be restored in this way, why not reconstruct a new one from stretch somewhere more accessible for people to visit. Well, the temple stopped smelling of bats or pigeons, that’s one good thing.

The standing buddha of Ananda pagoda
The standing buddha of Ananda pagoda

Next, we moved on to Dharma Yan Gyi, the largest pagoda built in Bagan era. Sadly, numerous bats still call this their home and when we went into the inner sanctum, the floor was littered with bat droppings. It looked very much neglected but I was glad to see that the locals still visit to worship or offer fresh flowers at the alters.

Dhamma Yan Gyi Pagoda
Two buddha statues at Dhamma Yan Gyi pagoda

It was unnerving walking around in Dhamma Yan Gyi under hundreds of bats and pigeons but it was a beautiful pagoda filled with very unique-looking statues and wall paintings.

One amazing find was Upali Thein, a small unassuming building that we stopped by. The wall paintings there were probably the best preserved among all Bagan pagoda, showing the story scenes where the past 28 buddhas cut off their earthly ties to meditate for enlightenment or the battle scenes where the buddha fought against various obstacles on their journey to enlightenment. Yes, in Burmese (or perhaps Theravada) Buddhism, there were 28 buddha in the past with Gautama Siddhartha being the 28th. (My history may be a bit off, treat this with suspicion)

Upali Thein
Buddha statue at Upali Thein

Among all the pagodas that we visited, Sulamani pagoda was the most memorable as it has the best wall paintings left of all Bagan. Many of these paintings were breathtakingly beautiful but yet at the same time, it was devastating to think that the pagodas in Bagan would have looked like this back in their days but now there is little traces left. Once day, Sulamani might follow suit – either due to the accelerated decay from all the visitors or questionable restoration methods.

Sulamani pagoda
Sulamani pagoda
Inner sanctum of Sulamani pagoda with reclining buddha painting on the wall
Inner sanctum of Sulamani pagoda with reclining buddha painting on the wall
Wall Painting of Sulamani Pagoda
Wall Painting of Sulamani Pagoda

Shwesandaw pagoda, probably was the highest point in Bagan offering unobstructed view and nowadays, better known as sunset pagoda because everybody go there to see sunset. We were recommended by a local friend to Pya That Gyi instead, so we had our sunset viewing there and only went to Shwesandaw the next day.

View of Bagan from Shwesandaw Pagoda
View of Bagan from Shwesandaw Pagoda with Thatbyinnyu as the largest pagoda
View of Bagan from Shwesandaw Pagoda
View of Bagan from Shwesandaw Pagoda with Dharma Yan Gyi as the largest pagoda

I am not really sure if I will visit Bagan again; but being located in Burma, the changes of me visiting Bagan is a lot higher. I missed out some places but overall, I felt that my trip is complete and I had a sense of closure that I got to see the places that I have been wanting to. I was very tempted by hot-air balloon ride but it was too expensive, maybe I will consider this the next time.



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