Bagan looms large in the Burmese imagination. It was here on these dusty plains, by a particularly lazy bend in the Irrawaddy River, that the idea of a unified Burmese kingdom – from the central river valley in Upper Burma, to the Shan highlands in the north, to the delta regions by the Gulf of Martaban, and down along the Tenasserim coast by the Andaman Sea – first became a reality. The street outside my hostel in Yangon was named after the founder of the medieval Pagan Empire, a general-prince named Anawrahta, who elevated a minor principality in Upper Burma into a regional power, starting in the year 1044. For nearly 250 years, the city prospered, as men of great wealth and knowledge traveled from across India and Southeast Asia to take part in Anawrahta’s cosmopolitan metropolis. Bagan’s rulers, flush with wealth and power, went on an incredible building spree, erecting monumental structures that dominated the cityscape and the surrounding countryside – over 10,000 temples, stupas, and monasteries at its peak.
A series of regional insurrections in the mid-13th century severely shook the empire, and an invasion by the Mongols in the late 13th century broke it for good. Its former territories dissolved into smaller petty kingdoms, and it would take another couple centuries before they would be reunited again under a single power. The capital city of Bagan, once home to 200,000 people, was reduced to a small, insignificant town, known only for the thousands of empty monuments to a kingdom long gone.
Over the centuries, many of the structures fell into disrepair – laid low by earthquakes and the exposure to the elements – though there have been attempts at restoration. In the 1990s, the military government launched an ambitious tourism project to beautify and reinforce the existing temples, with little to no regard for style and materials continuity. Experts decried the careless efforts, but it seems to have worked. Bagan’s remaining 2,200 structures is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, tourist draw in Myanmar, and the days of it being the best kept secret in Southeast Asia are long gone.
At the end of December, four weeks into my internship, Ashley flew down from Hong Kong so we could spend the last weekend of 2016 together in Bagan. She only had Friday to Monday off, though, so we really didn’t have much time. The plan was to meet in Yangon on Friday night, fly out early the next morning to Bagan, spend the rest of Saturday, Sunday, and Monday morning there, and then fly back to Yangon in the afternoon, where she would catch her evening return flight to Hong Kong.
After reuniting late Friday evening in the crowded arrivals hall, we were back at Yangon International Airport at 5 the next morning, in order to catch our 6:10 flight to Bagan. The tiny Yangon Airways plane sputtered across Lower Burma and the Irrawaddy River Valley for the next hour, and, as we approached the central plains, the sun began to peek over the eastern hills, and a smattering of hot air balloons ascended into the pre-dawn skies. The long shadows of ancient monuments stretched across the landscape below us, growing larger as we descended and touched down at Nyaung U Airport.
Bagan is split up into three main settlements: New Bagan, Old Bagan, and Nyaung-U. These three towns are spread out along a bend in the Irrawaddy River, with many of the temples and stupas either in the towns themselves, or scattered around the large plain to the east of the towns. Ashley and I stayed in New Bagan, at My Bagan Residence by Amata, and we were pretty happy with it. The room was clean and spacious, the pool area was quiet, the breakfast was better than expected, and the staff were exceedingly helpful. Location-wise, I don’t think it had any advantages or disadvantages in terms of proximity to the temples, but there aren’t as many food options as in the other towns.
After checking in, the front desk helped us hire a driver to take us over to Old Bagan for lunch. The Moon Vegetarian Restaurant is a local favourite, and its ginger honey lime juice came highly recommended. After lunch, we wandered over to the nearby Ananda Temple, one of the oldest and most celebrated structures in Bagan. A mixture of Mon and Indian architectural styles, it is often referred to as the Westminster Abbey of Burma, and is said to have been built by eight monks from the Himalayas at the beginning of the 12th century. The king at the time, Kyanzittha, had the monks executed after the building was complete, in order to prevent the monks, or anyone else, from reproducing the design. From Ananda Temple, we walked over to Thatbyinnyu Temple, the tallest structure in Bagan, and one of the first with two stories. Built in the mid-12th century by King Alaungsithu, the name refers to the omniscience of Buddha, sometimes expressed as “knowing thoroughly and seeing widely” – an apt description for the towering temple. There was quite a crowd at Thatbyinnyu, however, and we skipped going inside.
Not far from Thatbyinnyu stands Mahazedi Pagoda, a brick structure with considerably less maintenance and upkeep than the first two temples. Tufts of grass crowned the top of the pagoda, and cracked brickwork could be seen tracing shadowed lines across the facade. Ashley and I followed some local youths up the steep staircase, after removing our shoes, and were treated to a great view of the surrounding countryside. We lingered on the quiet pagoda for a few minutes longer, before calling the driver to pick us up. The afternoon hours had passed by quickly, and we needed to get a move on if we wanted to find a place to watch the last sunset of 2016.
The classic image of Bagan is an endless array of temples, silhouetted in the golden light of the sunset (or the sunrise), stretching out across a vast plain into the distant horizon. There are already fantastic online guides and blogs with recommendations on where to catch the best sunrises and sunsets based on the view, the crowd, ease of accessibility, and other relevant factors, so I won’t get into that here. We did do a bit of research beforehand, but we weren’t too bothered about finding the absolute best location – any spot with a halfway-decent view would do. It goes without saying that a temple on the eastern side of the plain is better for sunset watching, and vice versa.
We asked our driver if he had any suggestions as well, and he mentioned Pyathetgyi Pagoda, also known as Pya-Tha-Da Paya. It’s a temple that popped up in a few of the lists we consulted before our trip, known for its clear views across the plain, but also its popularity with larger tour groups. We decided to go for it anyway, knowing that, by this time in the late afternoon, people were already starting to gather and stake out positions on temple terraces and rooftops. It’s a good thing we left when we did, too, managing to get there just ahead of the crowd. We found a spot at the very front of Pyathetgyi’s wide terrace, watching as the approaching convoy of buses and minivans threw up great clouds of dust and smoke.
Sunsets in Bagan are proof that there is still magic in this world. As the sun completed its daily traverse of the heavens, a warm light fell on the land before us, and the crowd grew silent – the local Burmese families sharing snacks along the wall, the chattering Chinese tour groups armed with extendable selfie sticks, the stoic Koreans behind us with their high-end cameras and lenses, and the daredevil Westerners perched on the higher temple towers. When the last of the sun’s rays disappeared from behind a wall of low hills, we applauded, unironically, eager to usher out the last of 2016 – and hoping for better days in 2017. Ashley and I waited for the larger tour buses to clear out before making our way back down to the parking lot. We had an excellent meal at Sanon, a restaurant that trains and employs disadvantaged youths, before heading back to our hotel to get some rest.
Our car pulled to a stop in front of a dark pagoda, the gated entrance locked and manned by an unseen family of guardians. It was still only half past 5 in the morning, and we paused for a moment, unsure if the pagoda was open yet – or if it was open to the public at all. As we stepped out of the vehicle, however, a figure emerged from the shadows, showing us his keys and opening the gate for us. We followed him inside, paying him a small gratuity, before climbing up a narrow set of stone stairs with headlamps, feeling our way up with our hands and feet, until we emerged onto the chilly terrace of Low Ka Oushang Pagoda.
The pagoda, located along the main road connecting New Bagan and Old Bagan, looks out eastward across the ancient plain, and Ashley and I settled in to a spot against the wall at the front edge of the terrace. We were the second couple to arrive, but over the next 30 to 45 minutes, small groups of twos and threes gathered on the steps and on the platform around us, a lonely congregation waiting for the first sunrise of 2017. When the tropical sun finally burst over the eastern hills, we welcomed the new year with a chorus of camera clicks, hushed conversations, and the scrabble of bare feet on cold stone. Hot air balloons rose up in unison with the hundreds of pilgrims gathered on temple rooftops across the plain, floating towards the sun across the hazy blue skies.
The rest of the morning was a proper blur. Bleary and fatigued from getting up early for the sunrise, we sat half-asleep in the backseat as our driver drove us around Bagan. We went in and out of countless temples and pagodas, each with their own unique style and backstory – the aforementioned Ananda and Thatbyinnyu temples; the Indian-style Mahabodhi Temple, inspired by the famous temple of the same name in India; the serene grounds of the Mimalaung Kyaung; the gourd-shaped Bupaya Pagoda by the muddy banks of the Irrawaddy, the oldest in Bagan; the towering Gawdawpalin Temple, built by King Narapatisithu in the golden age of the Pagan Empire after being struck blind for declaring himself greater than his ancestors; the auspicious Htilominlo Temple, built by King Nandaungmya in the very spot where a white umbrella tilted towards him, choosing him as the future king over his four brothers; and the immense Dhammayangyi Temple, started by King Narathu but forever left incomplete after his assassination by officers of an Indian king, disguised as eight Brahman astrologers. We called it a day in the early afternoon, popping in for a quick lunch at Weather Spoon’s, a small joint in Nyaung-U on every list of top places to eat in Bagan, before passing out in our hotel room.
We caught the sunset that night at Thitsawadi Temple, along the southern boundary of the plain. Built in the 14th century, after the decline of the Pagan Empire, the structure is one of the few monuments in Bagan with three stories. It was a much smaller crowd than at Pyathetgyi the previous afternoon, perched leisurely along the rough ledges of the stone walls, legs dangling over thin air and dust. The sky soon took on its now familiar Bagan hues – the distant monuments, trees, and hills filtered though a golden screen. A layer of exhaust and smoke lifted into the air, like gold dust, the ghosts of pilgrimages past and present crisscrossing the temple valley.
Ashley and I lingered longer than most, until we were the only ones left on the temple. We had a bit of trouble finding the stairs back down to the ground floor in the growing darkness, and there was the unmistakable chirping of bats coming from below. After feeling our way down the narrow staircase, we made a quick dash around the corner – away from the bats – and out the front entrance into the abandoned courtyard. Our headlamps cast wide shadows across the face of Thitsawadi as we scanned the pitch blackness around us for any signs of our driver. The distant crunch of tires over pebbles perked our ears, and, soon enough, twin headlights pierced the night in front of us, with the promise of comfortable seats and air conditioning.
We spent the next morning by the pool, before packing up and heading to the airport for our afternoon flight back to Yangon. There were a few hours in between our Bagan flight and Ashley’s return leg to Hong Kong, so we headed into town to kill some time. I showed her around town – my hostel, the downtown landmarks, my favourite restaurants – before eating at Gringos Chilangos, a Mexican restaurant by the old Secretariat. An odd choice, I know, but it actually is the best Mexican food I’ve ever had in my life. A few hours later, Ashley was in the air back to Hong Kong. A week later, I was back at Yangon International Airport, boarding my own flight back home. Three days after that, we were on a plane over the East China Sea.