Your plan or my plan?” asked Zew Min, our horse cart driver, after seeing the map in my hand that I had secured from my hotel lobby. We were standing at the hotel gate, and Ruby, his horse, was nodding inexplicably as if eavesdropping on our conversation. Min has been driving horse carts around Bagan for a decade now and I entrust my day to him gladly. “Yours,” I said, and we hopped on to his blue-painted cart, jolting Ruby from the reverie that had prompted her head-bobbing. She understands it is time for her work-day to begin and gallops away ever so slightly.
Riding on a horse cart might be a bland, touristy thing to do, but I would like nothing more than to drive tourism revenue directly into a local’s wallet — in this case Min’s dusty blue shirt pocket. So I had checked with the hotel if they could arrange for a horse cart as soon as I checked in, and Min appeared at the hotel gate at 8 in the morning. Min belonged resolutely to the pan-chewing, longyi-wearing clique of Burmese men — and though he is somewhat monosyllabic and painfully rigid, he is nevertheless sweet-natured.
As battery powered e-bikes flood the Myanmar market and find their way to Bagan, more tourists are opting for this cheaper alternative to get around the temple complexes. They only cost half as much as hiring a cart for a day and are faster. Min doesn’t feel threatened though. “I won’t look for another job. I like doing this, and this is what I will do,” he said with the same conviction that perhaps King Anawartha’s successor Kyansittha had when he commissioned many of the stupas standing in the flatlands of Bagan.
Bagan is an ancient city and its existence was noted by Chinese travellers as early as 1225 CE. Decades of military rule had isolated Myanmar from the rest of the world and these structures remained somewhat a mystery while Angkor Wat in Cambodia hogged all the limelight. That is, until Myanmar opened for tourism in 2011 after the military dictatorship partially came to an end. Since the floodgates of tourism opened, Bagan has started receiving millions of tourists each year to gape at these architectural marvels that have stood here for centuries.
The wind-eroded structures are framed by the Irrawaddy River and craggy peaks. Monsoons bring in greenery and the interspersing pieces of land between these structures are still used for cultivation. You often see people tending to their crop, in their slouch hats, with these beautiful structures as their backdrop. This being a seismic zone, tremblors are not uncommon. The devastating earthquake of 1975 destroyed many of these structures. However, a staggering 2,230 of these pagodas, temples, monasteries and cave pagodas remain, according to a 1993 census conducted by the Department of Archaeology. These structures are scattered across 40 square kilometres and evoke an image of surreal mysticism. Details are patchy, but inscriptions found in various temple complexes suggest that the oldest structures were constructed in the late 11th century.
As we pulled out of the hotel’s gate and onto the street, Bagan was already waking up to the cadence of the cloudy morning. Located in the central plains, Bagan is hot most of the year, and rains in November are unseasonal. Cycle shops were being opened, women with their tanaka-streaked cheeks set about the day on their motorbikes while alms-seeking little monks walked up and down the streets with their silver bowls.
We rode on as temples and pagodas rose on either side of the road. The first day, we explored the lesser-known structures such as Lawka Chanthar Paya, Tha Gyar Hit Paya, Tha Gyar Pone Paya and the Chatu Mukha temple complex. Next, we moved on to the temples of greater significance such as the graceful Ananda Paya, the hulking structure of Dhammayan Gyi that houses double Buddha images and the Sulamuni (‘Crowning Jewel’) Temple.
The government’s attempts at restoring some of these structures have been appallingly insensitive. Ananda Paya is considered one of the finest structures of the Irrawaddy plains, but its eastern corridor looks like there was an attempt to refurbish the structure with concrete, ruining the antiquity of the Paya. An almost brand new, whitewashed corridor now stands in place of what was once a crumbling structure. Looking at it, I am reminded of Suketu Mehta’s observations in his book Maximum City on the reconstruction of pillars in the Elephanta Island by the ASI. He lamented the imprecise, inelegant reconstruction of the pillars and called them “wonky.” “What we could do so exquisitely in this country a thousand years ago we can’t even attempt today,” he had observed.
The hoary beauty of Ananda Paya, however, is a sight to behold, with standing Buddha images fringing the stupa on four sides — Konagamana to the east, Gautama to the west, Kassapa to the south and Kakusandha to the north. Ancient plaques depict Gautama Buddha’s biography in Ananda Paya.
We proceed next to Dhammayan Gyi, south of Ananda Paya. The construction of Dhammayan Gyi is believed to have commenced in 1166 by King Narathu in an attempt to outshine the beauty of Ananda Paya as well as the magnificent Thatbyinnyu temples. Narathu did not live to fulfill his dream; he was assassinated before the structure was finished. This incomplete structure, though celebrated for its fine brickwork, remains as an exercise in extraordinary architectural vanity.
As tourists trickle into Bagan, the local dependence on tourism revenue has increased drastically. As a result, a visit to any of the structures is incomplete without hovering vendors looking to peddle their wares. This included souvenirs such as t-shirts, postcards, sand paintings on cloth, tiny statues of the Buddha and lions and lacquer-ware bangles. Myanmar’s nonexistent child labour laws do not seem to care about the hordes of children employed in these businesses.
To make a quick buck, there was also another attempt afoot by enterprising children. “Where you come from?” a little boy asked me. He showed me his currency collection from different parts of the world and then asked me if I have any Indian currency to add to the rest. He had a ten rupee note but he wanted one of a higher denomination. This encounter was repeated more than a few times at many of the pagodas.
We end the day at Sulamani, the beatific temple completed in 1183 by King Narapati Sithu. Surrounded by greenery and an unpaved pathway leading up to it, Sulamani has on its walls charming paintings of elephants, monks, monkeys and celestial beings. There are scenes from the Buddha’s life here as well, like the one in which he is seen enjoying his morning meal.
Towards the end of day one, we realised that we had visited just half of the ruins, and the entire complex of Old Bagan, boasting magnificent structures like Thatbyinnyu, was still left. So we hired Min for a second day and he gladly accepted. But before we concluded the day, Min took us to Pu Buliti, a little-known temple, for a sunset view. Bagan’s sublime sunsets are overwhelmingly stunning and there are hardly any structures left in the town that are left unscaled for a good view. Despite Min’s assurances, Pu Buliti turned out to be brimming with tourists and I squeezed in with them. More than enjoying the sunset itself, the tourists seemed interested in taking arbitrary pictures with their various devices. To add to the frenzy, there was also a Thai photographer who was using a drone to catch the sunset — prompting others to take pictures of the drone instead of the sunset.
The next day, we set out early for some birdwatching, among the thickets that encircle the ruins. We spot chestnut headed bee-eaters, jungle babblers and bushchats, but even with dense vegetation, birds are hard to come by. The bird density across Myanmar during my travels was dismally low. Bagan though proves slightly different. “In Bagan, there is life everywhere,” Min said, as he watched me excitedly point to my travel companion whenever a new bird was spotted along the way.
The Old Bagan complex houses the majestic Thatbinnyu temple, perhaps the only other temple that matches the scale of Ananda. Thatbinnyu is the tallest in the plains — a 210 ft structure that is believed to be an incomplete temple built by the unfortunate king Alaung Sithu, who was assassinated by his son before the structure was completed. Given its height, Thatbyinnyu can be seen from most of Bagan. The grand archways, beautiful pediments, the elegant onion dome and the crown with a golden umbrella make this imposing structure a graceful presence in the Bagan plain.
We weave in and out of Myinpya Gu temple, the Mahabodhi temple, the Shwehti Sang pagoda and Saw Hla Whan Pagoda, but it’s in the Abeyadana Temple, located off the beaten track, that we see a pronounced Indian influence. Here, the wall paintings depict Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva and even Rama.
But for a couple of sand painting sellers and a lone tourist who sat on the steps leading to the temple with her guidebook, the temple was empty. There were no lights inside, as a way of protecting the ancient wall paintings. The sunlight filtered through its cool exterior walls and we used our phone’s flashlight to peer at the beautiful images.
As time drew closer for us to conclude the trip, I suggested to Min that we take a boat trip on the Irrawaddy — a sunset cruise as it were. Fishing boats were moored on the banks of Irrawady, where yet another pagoda, the egg-shaped Bu Paya, stood, taking tourists on short one hour rides to catch the sunset. Ruby has had a tiring day shuttling us back and forth between the monuments she looked like she could do with some rest.
We hired a boat, climbed to the upper deck and set sail into the murky waters of the Irrawaddy. As a purple orange sun went down, throwing its iridescent glow on the monuments, I saw boats carrying passengers inch closer for a different view of the sunset. Drinks were being served on the upper decks of some boats. The light slowly faded and the scene turned into a silhouette with the backdrop of the setting Bagan sun.
As Ruby galloped with renewed strength, perhaps looking forward to her feeding time, we passed temples and pagodas slowly fading into the inky-blue darkness. I couldn’t help but feel that Min and Ruby were lucky to be a part of this incredible past that still lives on in Bagan. Clearly, none of the kings who built these structures thought much about the Buddhist notion of impermanence, for they wanted to defeat time with these architectural marvels. Centuries later, they stand carved in stone in the plains, invoking stories of loss and grief with unaccomplished wonderment.
Getting there: There are no direct flights from India to Myanmar. Hopping flights via Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur are available from Thai Airways (round trip: about Rs 37,998) and Malaysia Airlines (round trip: about Rs 32,763) respectively. Bagan can be reached by taking an overnight bus from Yangon (Rs 800-Rs 1200). You could fly from Yangon to Nyaung U, Bagan’s airport,for Rs 8,199 (round trip).
Visa: Myanmar has introduced e-visa for travellers at www.evisa.moip.gov.mm/. It costs $50 and the visa approval letter is sent to you in a week.
Currency: 100 Myanmar Kyatt=Rs 6. There are ATMs, but it is always better to carry crisp, new US dollars and get them exchanged at Yangon.
Where to stay: Bagan Thande Hotel ($150 for deluxe rooms with breakfast, www.hotelbaganthande.com), located on the riverside in Old Bagan, dates back to 1922 and radiates an air of oldworld charm. Mid-range options include the Areindmar Hotel ($70 with breakfast; www.areindmarhotel.com), and Blue Bird Hotel ($85 including breakfast; www.bluebirdbagan.com). There are plenty of budget options like Bagan Central Hotel ($40 with breakfast; +95-61-65265) and Kumudara Hotel ($38 with breakfast; www.kumudara-bagan.com). All hotels provide wi-fi.
Getting around: Horse carts are popular, but you could also opt for motorbikes and bicycles. Your hotel will arrange any of these modes of travel, but you could also walk around the street and find better deals.
What to see & do: Visit as many temples as you can, especially Ananda Paya and Thatbinnyu, but if you’re all templed-out, take a break and visit a lacquerware workshop. The one on Chauk Road called Mya Thit Sar conducts tours of its workshop. The lacquerware handicrafts certainly make for interesting souvenirs.