Slow travel to Bagan, Myanmar
The story of scorched soil and red earth
Madhurima Chakraborty, 01-12-2021
Located at the heart of the central highlands of Myanmar, Bagan is an ancient temple town. A UNESCO World Heritage site, and albeit the most important stop of the pilgrim circuit of Southeast Asia, Bagan is an intriguing case study unfolding eternal devotion at the backdrop of harsh terrain.
Although Bagan is quickly developing as a tourist magnet with news of her ethereal sunsets spreading across the travel communities, her way of living a slow-paced life remains ingrained at the heart of her inhabitants. Timeless folk songs resonate by the banks of the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River. Buddhist pagodas of myriad shapes and sizes stand mute, filled with stories from yesteryears. It is in Bagan, one may find the elusive sense of peace as the starlit night sky paves way for a day awashed in sun rays!
Ever since the legendary chef Anthony Bourdain made that iconic narrow-gauge train journey to Bagan, it has been on everyone’s bucket list to experience the whimsical, slow-paced locomotive carriage. Previously, the Burmese royal families preferred to sail down the course of Irrawaddy from Mandalay to the banks of Bagan. The traditional boats look like a massive peacock with the upper deck allowing premier seats from where you can witness the idyllic Burmese rural life pass by! For the fastest route to Bagan, trust the J J Bus service which connects all the major cities of the country. You may also fly to Nyaung-U airport from where a quick 20 minute taxi ride will take you to the town!
To choose a place of stay in Bagan, you must consider the following areas: Nyuang-U, Old Bagan, New Bagan and the Central Plains. Central Plains is the closest to the numerous pagodas. Old Bagan is a budget-friendly habitat closer to the local village. New Bagan has been exclusively developed keeping in mind the international tourists. At night, New Bagan is abuzz with quaint cafes and restaurants serving delectable Shan cuisine!
Things to do in Bagan
The world looks Martian at Bagan. In all her entirety, the red earth, the scorched soil, the arid air, Bagan feels otherworldly. To top it all, the magical golden hour dawns at Bagan painting the countless old pagodas and temples in myriad tints of blushing crimson and orange. And you will know that you waited to witness this magic hour for all your life! Tracts of mule carts run past the still life here!
You may spend all your time at Bagan by chasing the ethereal sunsets and experiencing the numerous old pagodas safeguarding the intangible cultural heritage from another era. To add more thrills to your Bagan adventure, fly away on a hot air balloon to touch the Bagan sky at the crack of dawn! It is one of the expensive experiences but ain’t there anything like flying like a bird and watching the first rays of light creates magical layers! In the evening, sail through the river Irrawaddy as the sky turns bright red and shades of purple with the setting sun! You should plan for at least three nights stay at Bagan. If you are a history enthusiast, you may stay longer.
The word Bagan is derived from an ancient Pali word, meaning scorched earth. Some 3,000 or more Buddhist pagodas and temples adorn the land of Bagan. History had been kind to Bagan, once a sprawling capital famous for liberal studies on Buddhism. At the advent of world war, the capital crumbled and shrunk to a village. Bagan revived to the world stage with all her lost glory after UNESCO conferred her with the prized tag. However, Bagan had remained an enigma in the Buddhist pilgrim circuit. Millions would visit the temple town of Bagan from countries like Sri Lanka, India, Nepal, Thailand, China, Cambodia etc. and offer their worship.
Like the Indian old city of Varanasi and traders’ town of Stonetown in Zanzibar, Bagan came to prominence with the opulent royal family’s patronage. Most of the temples and pagodas were established by the wealthy tradesmen, noblemen from the king's court. Until recently, many of the temples were maintained by individual families and generally kept under locked keys.
To enter the Bagan archaeological site, as an international tourist you need to pay USD 20. Not exactly next to Bagan, but Mount Popa is an easy one day trip from the temple town if you love hiking. It is famous for an ancient monastery named Taung Kalat that stands erect on a rock on top of a hillock.
Among the numerous temples of Bagan, I remember the Anand temple particularly for its elaborate Buddha statues gleaming in striking golden hues. The Hti (pagoda top) of Ananda Pagoda is a sheer 52 metre high and presides over the Bagan plains. Also check out Sulamani Temple, Lawkannandar Temple, the Mon-styled Nanpaya Temple, 900 years old Thatbinnyu Temple. The temples are decked in beautiful murals depicting stories from the Buddha Jataka. It is impossible to visit all the temples and monasteries of Bagan, many of which date back to thousands of years. It is suggested you see some of them and soak in the ambience. The early morning scene of monks in burgundy robes (true to Mahayana Buddhism) visiting the nearby villages manifest a symbiotic relationship between the monasteries and the society.
The clay dolls in colourful cotton clothes are hung from an ancient Pipal tree that spreads its branches like an ancient umbrella. Incense sticks hypnotise the devotees with a blooming aroma. Stacks of lacquerware are piled up at the entrance alluring souvenir hungry tourists. Tracts of mule carts stir away a storm from the dirt roads. You may choose to explore Bagan by a horse-driven carriage like they did in the old times. For faster and more effective communication, renting a scooty is always an option.
What to eat in Bagan
For a lazy brunch experience, head to Sharky’s at Bagan. Their Christmas special cheese fondue is a mean dish that will keep you filled and occupied for the whole day. La Terezza prepares delectable pizza with freshly produced tomatoes from the region. Do not miss that!
However, trust the small eateries to blow your mind with surprising dishes bringing the aroma of the land. 7 Sisters are renowned for the squid curry they serve with piping hot rice. Black Bamboo is a beautiful cafe at Bagan where you may spend a romantic evening with your family!
For the love of street food, do not leave Bagan until you have tasted the shrimp fries sold by the hawkers on the banks of Irrawaddy every evening which sell like hot cakes among the locals!
Responsible travel guide to Bagan
Local residents of Bagan can hardly converse in English. With the UNESCO committee crowning Bagan the world heritage tag, directional boards have been put in place helping tourists to explore the ancient town. A trained local guide however will take you to places as it is too wide to explore for a stranger! Needless to say, the guide fee you pay directly contributes to the locals.
The sunlight is harsh at Bagan. Do apply some Thanaka powder before you step out in the sun as the locals do. Thanaka is a product of the bark of the Thanaka tree and acts as a natural sun guard.
Please be mindful of the money you spend as it should directly go to the hands of the locals for maximum impact. A smile will take you miles in Myanmar where English is not yet widely understood or spoken.
Climbing the ancient pagodas to view the iconic Bagan sunset was a thing to do however it has drawn a lot of criticism in recent times and rightly so. Firstly, these old monuments are timeless and priceless. With people climbing to shoot the setting sun in a rush to post the perfect picture postcard on social media has burdened these monuments with undue pressure. Some have collapsed entirely. Some are crumbling into pebbles. It is for the best interest of the legacy of Bagan and its intangible cultural heritage visitors must refrain from climbing atop the Bagan pagodas. Instead head towards Bagan tower for a decent view!
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