The ancient city of Bagan (Pagan) is Myanmar’s most popular cultural site, and although I found it a lot more touristic than Mandalay or Shan State, it still remains a highlight of my recent trip. In many ways, the temple complex is shrouded in mystery; there’s a lot to Bagan that the guidebooks don’t cover. Here are five hidden truths I learned on my four-day visit to Bagan in October 2015.
It’s All About the Details
I found it very difficult to get a feel for the overall scale of Bagan and the sheer number of structures that dot the area’s landscape. Every pagoda, temple and stupa is unique in its own way, but it’s still easy to get disoriented as you move through the pancake-flat landscape at ground level. I realised pretty quickly that the little details embedded in Bagan’s sacred structures are just as beautiful, if not more visually impressive, than the site as a whole.
There aren’t really any limits to where you can or can’t go, what you can or can’t photograph (or touch), so my advice is to try and absorb every change in texture, become attuned to every subtle wash of colour, notice the unlikely ephemera, and try to appreciate the intricate craftsmanship and architectural genius that went into the making of this mammoth creation.
For Many People, Bagan is Home
Most people think of Bagan as a religious and cultural site, but what I didn’t realise is that Bagan is also a community. Much like Angkor in Cambodia or Luang Prabang in Laos (which are incidentally Bagan’s two sister cities), people live, work and play amongst Bagan’s temples and have done so for generations. Old Bagan is technically off-limits to anyone wanting to build a permanent dwelling, but New Bagan and Nyaung U are home to many people, mostly ethnic Burmese, who moved in to take advantage of the tourist boom in the 1990s. Don’t be surprised if you notice corn fields skirting the stupas, cattle grazing behind huge temples, people working the fields, or laundry strung up in front of a pagoda.
Sunset is Overrated
Jockeying for a safe foothold on a tiny patch of westerly facing, crumbling rock is not my idea of a good time. Then again, neither is clambering to the top of a newly poured concrete staircase with an eager busload of tourists in toe. These are the two popular options available for watching the sun set over Bagan, and neither particularly appealed to me. We climbed a temple to watch the main event once, but I honestly thought it was overrated. (The sky was clear but on the evening we were there, the light diffused in a strange, unphotogenic way.) Better to climb up when the landscape is well-lit and you can have the 360-degree view all to yourself. (See here for more tips on taking a great photo in Bagan).
The Locals Know Best
Bagan is full of unofficial ‘tour guides’ whose primary job it is to await your arrival and guide you through a particular temple. These guides are invariably delightful and speak fantastic broken English. In exchange for their company and a few tidbits of information, most expect to receive some tea money – or for you to buy something they are selling – as reimbursement. Not knowing about this custom in advance, I found it a little awkward at first, especially since I find it so hard to say no (let’s just say we went home with a few sand paintings in our backpacks). But honestly, we wouldn’t have seen half the cool things we saw in Bagan without these guides – like the little windows that perfectly frame the temple in the distance, or the secret staircase in the back, or the carved wooden doors hidden around the corner… Most people are quite genuine about wanting to share their knowledge with you and practice their English at the same time, so the few kyat we parted with over the course of each day felt like money very well spent.
Bagan is Far From Perfect
Decaying stone and flaking frescoes are part and parcel of any site like Bagan – these are the things that make it so charming. But at the end of the day, I thought Bagan was noticeably neglected, and it’s a real shame that the site isn’t getting the attention it deserves. When I say it’s a shame, I don’t mean it’s a shame for tourists like me – we love all that crumbly, photogenic goodness (the piles of trash not so much). I think the real shame here is that part of Myanmar’s culture is slowly being eroded away, and what a tragedy it would be if the next generation inherited a watered-down, irreversibly damaged version of the site. Without getting into the politics of UNESCO’s toing and froing with Bagan, I think the international community should be doing more to support the proper conservation of one of Myanmar’s greatest cultural assets.
Bagan was full of surprises and unexpected discoveries, and for better or for worse, it will always be one of Myanmar’s top tourist attractions. Have you visited Bagan? What was something unexpected you learned during your time there?