Take me back to the pagodas of Bagan
Bagan is famous for its thousands of pagodas dotting the dusty sunbaked landscape, small and large, humble and imposing, maintained and decrepit. Despite the sheer quantity of pagodas, there is no getting pagoda-ed out in Bagan. Each one is a surprise, every one an experience. As we scooted around Bagan on ebikes, bouncing along dirt roads boasting tyre marks pressed into the earth by past intrepid adventurers, I couldn’t help but think of myself as a Lara Croft-esque-type figure, in search of pagodas unexplored and long forgotten. This isn’t a reality, unfortunately, as you’re going to find other tourists and fellow adventurers wherever you venture; but, with that being said, we were never sure what we would find in each temple. Pious followers offering their daily prayers? Hidden narrow staircases leasing up to panoramic rooftops? Cobwebs and bird poop? Local Burmese setting up shop and selling their wares? Only time would tell.
One of my favourite moments in Bagan was waking up pre-dawn, navigating dirt roads in the dark on ebikes with torches in hand, searching for concealed turnoffs. We were the first to arrive at the temple Ta wet hpaya, and it felt slightly eerie to enter an unfamiliar place, sweeping the torchlight over shadows and searching for hidden stairwells that would lead us up to the open rooftop. It’s exactly the kind of thing mums warn you against doing, but after making our way up a narrow staircase, scrambling onto crumbling ledges and then waiting for the daily show that continues to spellbind and captivate hopeless romantics and hard cynics alike…it’s exactly the kind of moment you’ll want to have over and over again.
Times are a’changin’
It might surprise you to know that Bagan is not a UNESCO-listed heritage zone due to reasons pertaining to questionable management practices of the monuments (including the decision to build concrete pagodas on the ruins of the ancient original monuments by Burmese officials back in the 1990s). However, another bid has been put in to have the archaeological zone listed as a UNESCO heritage site, which means that Bagan may very well become UNESCO-listed as early as 2019.
What does this mean, exactly? Well, there will most definitely be stricter rules around how tourists can access the archaeological sites and the activity of ‘temple climbing’ may soon be a thing of the past. Currently, visitors are essentially given free rein to roam around and explore as they wish, and scrambling onto crumbling rooftop to witness an epic sunrise/sunset or two is the favourite pastime of most who venture here. Even when we there at the end of 2017 (yes, yes, I realise we’re in the middle of 2018 now, you don’t need to guilt-trip me), some of the temples that we had read about as being popular sunrise/sunset viewing spots were closed for renovations following damage sustained from the 2016 earthquake, and I suspect that when they do open again they won’t be accessible in quite the same way. While I do think it’s important to preserve monuments of the past, at the same time I can’t help but feel selfish and glad that I was able to indulge my inner adventurer as I scrambled up ancient rooftops in the dark before the crack of dawn, waiting for the world to wake. I don’t mean to romanticise it…but, well, it is one of those moments that I won’t ever forget.
You say pagoda, I say…temple?
First thing’s first, let’s get the semantics down.
Pagoda is the generic term for both a stupa and a temple.
Temples are pagodas that has at least one entrance, so you can enter.
Stupas are pagodas with no entrance, so you can’t enter.
Voila! Easy peasy.
The best pagodas in Bagan (don’t miss them!)
When you’re being presented with a map of all of the pagodas in Bagan, you’ll instantly feel overwhelmed. Where do you even begin? In my opinion, the best way to tackle the pagodas is to ride around and stop at your heart’s content. Nervous about having a lack of a plan? Here are some of the best pagodas in Bagan to get you started.
Ta wet hpaya
This was by far my favourite temple, so much so that we came here twice: once for sunrise and once for sunset. Located past the Sulamani Temple, this temple is often touted as a ‘secret temple’; however, it seems like there are a few people in on the secret (or at least reading the same blogs). Still, Ta wet hpaya is definitely not as crowded as some of the other temples and there was a real feeling of respect and awe as everyone sat perched on the ledges of the rooftop, eagerly waiting for the star (literally) of the show to razzle and dazzle us all.
Bulethi is an impressive stupa to take in from the ground level and even more fun to climb. The stairs are steep and narrow and there will probably be a few times when you’ll be climbing with both hands and feet; however, you’ll be duly rewarded once you reach the top.
Oak kyaung gyi monastery
Oak kyaung gyi is a popular place to watch the sunset with its flat open rooftop, so you’ll need to arrive early to stake out a prime viewing spot. Despite its popularity, its location in the middle of a field does make it feel more secluded than some of the other temples.
Across the road from Law ka ou shaung
Law ka ou shaun is another popular spot for sunset viewing, but I was more taken with the other smaller stupas (see photo below) surrounding it which afford the same fantastic views without the masses of people.
- Taung Guni (south): this was the first temple from which we watched the sunset and it was crowded – I’m talking, tour buses lined up along the road. We were also late to arrive so all of the prime positions were already taken. The view was exceptional but I much preferred the other quieter temples. Taung Guni (north) is also located next-door, but it was closed for repairs when we were there.
- Dhammayangyi: as the largest temple complex in Bagan, the Dhammayangyi structure dominates the skyline. Its architecture is impressive, and I loved the intricate brickwork of the entryways and windows.
- Sulamani: another large and imposing temple, Sulamani also boasts magnificent frescoes.
- Pyathadar: this temple is known for its open entrance where a large Buddha statue is visible from the outside. It used to be a popular spot for watching sunrise as the hot air balloons get quite close; however, the rooftop was closed off when we were there.
- Dhammayazika: is a 5-sided temple, located near New Bagan, where visitors can walk around the perimeter. Temple 863 (not sure if this is its actual name, but that’s what it’s called on Google Maps) next-door is a popular sunrise viewing spot.
- Get to your chosen pagoda early if you’re looking to secure a good viewing spot for sunset or sunrise – give yourself at least an hour before at the very least if you’re heading to a popular spot.
- Start your pagoda-hopping early because it gets hot during the day, making the middle of the day the perfect time to fit in a siesta/pool time.
- Be aware that some temples are closed for repairs following the damage done by the 2016 earthquake.
- Bring a torch in the morning when you’re riding around in the dark and to navigate through dark temples.
- Dress respectfully when visiting pagodas and keep your shoulders and legs covered.
- Beware of scams, particularly in the larger temples. On our first day, as we rode into Shwezigon Pagoda, a person waved us into a parking bay and immediately brought us into the market hall where we were given brooches as ‘gifts’, told to take off our shoes and to come back to buy a souvenir once we had finished looking at the temple. This all literally happened within a few minutes and we didn’t think anything of it until we came back out and were essentially forced to sit down and buy trinkets to get our shoes back. It’s all part of the experience, I suppose, but just be aware!
- Most importantly, enjoy the experience and see as many pagodas as you can – happy adventuring!
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