When anyone thinks of Myanmar, they picture the golden sunrise over the stupa dotted landscape. The golden hue of the morning light broken only by the thousands of hot air balloon silhouettes in the sky. This is often one of the main reasons tourists drag themselves from the comforts of their beds and find the best vantage point for sunrise. But things have changed in Bagan. The droves of tourists who have shown little respect for the sacred sites in preference to gaining that iconic photo has resulted in the community shutting down the stupas to the public. In fact finding an elevated spot to watch the sunrise is quite a challenge. For us, we had arranged an electric bike to cruise around on for the morning from a shop near the hostel. After researching blogs, and official sites, we had the name of three stupas that we were allowed to visit for sunrise. However, in the morning, we were disappointed to find that they were closed. It was only when we found a local who said he could take us to a spot he knew that we just said...’plot twist’ and went on an early morning adventure. He guided us to an unmarked building which belonged to his family. That is what he said. But in reality, i think he may have just chained up a site and claimed it as his own. This is what locals do here now. Wait for tourists and guide them to sites to watch the sunrise...for a small fee. It is what it is. At least they protect the property from vandalism. We climbed to the roof of this building via a narrow staircase and watched the magic of Mother Nature unfold. While there were no balloons in the air, due to it being off season, the colours were magnificent.
Starting the day so early does gives you plenty of time to explore the pagodas before the extreme heat of the midday sun. So having a plan for which pagodas you intend on visiting is wise. You see, Bagan archeological site has some 4000 pagodas to visit in just a 20 mile square radius. There are so many, that you can get, well ‘pagoda’d out’. Similarly to the churches of Europe, the pagodas can all start to look the same. Researching which ones you would like to see can be difficult too, as many of the pagodas have not been named. They are just registered as a serial number. However, the larger ones are well documented. My three favourites are Ananda Temple, Sulamani Temple and Dhammayangyi Temple. The Ananda Temple is beautifully designed on both the exterior and interior. Externally, the building is in the shape of a cross with a central golden pagoda. Within, the simple square corridor is the home to Four Buddhas adorned with gold leaf, each facing a specific direction to represent attainment of the state of Nirvana. Walking through these corridors is otherworldly. The combination of the shadows and the escaping light from the vaulted windows and entrance ways only enhance the mystical impression of the Buddha statues.
Sulamani Temple on the other hand is a red-brick canvas for some of the most impressive frescos in Myanmar. Drawing the biggest crowds in the high season, for us, we were practically the only people there. The silence broken only briefly by the sound of the hawkers selling their wares outside.
Dhammayangyi Temple would probably be my most favourite, not just because it is home the best double Buddha but because of the mythical tales that are associated with it. The pyramid like structure was built by King Narathu, also referred to as the tyrant king. Locally, the temple is believed to be haunted with the King Narathu’s sins, which include the ruthless murder of his father, queen and brother. It was believed he commenced building the temple to atone for his sins but never saw it’s completion as he was assassinated prior to completion.
I always love finding out the stories about places. Having a local guide or a monk explain the mystery behind the bricks and mortar brings the place to life. And Bagan has a lot of storytellers available....for the right price.
Bagan is definitely set up for the tourist trade. It is home to some of the finest restaurants with cuisines from all over the world. You can shop til your hearts content or get moulded into a zen like state at a spa. But be warned, this place is a hot ticket item in the high and low season, and the weather is, at times, like walking on the surface of the sun. But what it lacks for in temperate environment, it made up for in mysterious but serene architecture, and friendly locals.