In deciding to add Myanmar to my south-east Asian travel itinerary, I had no idea what to expect. (Itinerary being an extremely loose term considering my spontaneously disorganised travel method of waiting till the last possible minute to instinctively decide where to go next.)
And perhaps this was the beauty of discovering a new place with so few expectations.
From the first moments of exploring Yangon I was struck with that feeling that makes travel so exciting for those of us addicted to the unknown, the curiosity that makes you want to taste, explore, see and interact with everything and everyone you can.
In coming to Myanmar, I was most excited to see and experience the ancient temples of Bagan, the image of the vast plain dotted with thousands of temples and pagodas burned into my brain, perhaps the most synonymous with Myanmar’s history and cultural memory.
Myanmar itself was a place of great contrasts and grandeur- the number of pagodas you will see all over the country may seem a little excessive, especially in contrast to some of the poverty you will undoubtedly see.
But the sheer number of pagodas throughout the country and the reverence shown also contribute to the feeling that you are in a deeply spiritual place.
Bagan as a historical architectural site still functions in a sense, in the same way it did all those hundreds of years ago, a place of meditation and prayer.
If you are not impressed by the individual temples, you cannot help but be in awe of the sheer number of them and the feeling that comes with exploring on your own, stepping back in time as you enter at your leisure.
Less iconic in image but aspects that I often found even more beautiful than the exteriors were the Buddhist frescoes within the various temples and monasteries. Be prepared to see more Buddha depictions and pagodas than you’ve seen in your life when visiting Myanmar.
The frescoes took my breath away and you feel like you’re entering the times of the Bagan kings when enclosed by the painted walls and ceilings.
An icon of Burmese culture and history, a visit to Bagan will give truth to the nickname given to Myanmar as the “land of a thousand temples.” To simplify the history of a region that has been in use for centuries: in the 11th century King Anawrahta was heavily influenced by the countries current religion, Theravada Buddhism and thus decided to construct thousands of religious monuments to symbolise this shift.
What followed in the next century was Myanmar’s “golden age of temple building.” It is estimated that in this period Bagan consisted of over 4,000 temples, around 2,000 of which remain in good condition today.
How to See Bagan
The best way to see the temples is to rent an e-bike, an electronically powered moped and to simply drive around exploring. The most famous thing to do here is to wake up for the sunrise or to watch the sunset going over the plains, most popularly from one of the temples or pagodas.
You’ll find that there are certain viewing points from the main temples that are recommended over others- and yes expect that there will be lots of tourists. If this truly was the best view this wouldn’t bother me but my goodness it’s difficult to relax when you have 15 people clustered around trying to sell you things.
I had been in Asia for around 5 months at this point and had some techniques, my mother was like a selling magnet who felt singlehandedly responsible for encouraging the economy of Myanmar…
Another option is to inevitably be stopped by a young local guy on a motorbike who will take you to ‘the best sunset spot in Bagan.’ This has become somewhat of an industry and after he has shown you how to get to this magical spot he will help you up the temple, take a few photos and afterwards refuse to take any money or tip for helping you- instead he will insist on showing you his traditional sand paintings. – And this is how we ended up with several sand paintings of Buddhist monks.. 6 in total I believe. Did we need that many of them? Absolutely not, but we appreciate them nevertheless.
The views really were amazing. I tell my sand-painting story because I believe you can also find your own perfect sunset viewing spot if you’re really looking for one, but if you need someone to come pick you up for sunrise there are several locals who are more than happy to help you.
I hope these pictures inspire you to check out Myanmar and Bagan, I unfortunately had some issues with my good camera and so did the best I could with my terrible phone but nevertheless this iconic heritage site is one of the most spectacular, diverse and vast I have ever seen.