Stepping Back in Time
The overnight bus journey took 9 hours to get us to Bagan, however I need to give commendation to JJ express. The bus seat were more comfy than most budget airlines and they also provided passengers with blankets, a snack and a drink. We got into Bagan at 5am and the only options to get to the hotel was either by horse and cart or by taxi. We did not consider the horse cart option as we felt that it was unethical and unfair on horses. As for taxi, there were clear signs at the bus station stating the fairs to different locations however we were unable to find taxi drivers willing to accept those prices. Our hotel was in New Bagan and it should have cost us 7000 Kyat but were only able to get a taxi to hotel for 10000 Kyat, the reason for this could that the taxi drivers knew that there were no other modes of transport at that time in the morning. Drivers also try to entice tourists with a sunrise trip before driving you to your destination for 20000 Kyat, but do take note that at 5am the sun will have already begun rising so there Isn't any point. Before you enter Bagan after leaving the bus station there will be a check point. At the checkpoint, all tourists are required to pay $20 USD to enter Bagan due to it being an archaeological zone. You could also pay in Kyat but value depends on the exchange rate of the day. You will be issued with a ticket that lasts for 5 days; remember to bring the ticket along with you while you explore Bagan as there may be ad hoc ticket checks at certain temples.
Between the 9th and 13th centuries, Bagan was the capital of the Pagan kingdom that unified the region that would be later become modern Myanmar. During its reign as the capital over 10000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were being constructed in Bagan. At the present day there are roughly 2000 temples and pagodas that have survived. Wherever you stay (resorts, hotels or hostels) you will definitely find a temple almost right on your doorstep. Bagan is not big but you will require quite a bit of time to visit all the temples and pagodas. On our first day, we decided to grab some lunch and explore the temples near us. We made a decision to rent bicycles from the hotel that we were staying at, costing 2500 Kyat per bicycle. We were living in New Bagan and there were plenty of options for lunch and after a quick bite we went on our adventure to explore the temples. There was a slight problem, we did not get very far due to the sweltering heat of the summer that was averaging at 40° while we were in Bagan. We did manage to explore a few smaller and lesser know temples but had to call it quits and returned to the hotel due to the heat. There are a number of options you could utilise to explore Bagan, on foot, bicycles, electric scooters, horse and carts or by car. We observed that most tourist would rent an electric scooter or a car with driver. We went with the latter as the heat was unbearable, by 7am the temperature was already in the mid 30°s. Also the roads around Bagan are mainly dirt roads and is very dusty during the summer months. You will be able to book a car and driver through the hotel that you are staying at and if not there are plenty of car and bike hire shops dotted around. We paid for a full day excursion by car with a driver costing us 30000 Kyat.
Our journey started straight after breakfast at 8.30am and it took us from New Bagan to Old Bagan, to Nyaung-U and back to Old Bagan for sunset before returning to the hotel. You might ask how we decided which temples or pagodas to visit, as there are more than 2000 of them. We did do a bit of research on which temples and pagodas we want wanted to visit but our driver was also brilliant and took us to some obscure but interesting ones as well. It would be too long to go through all those that we have visited but here are a few highlight of some of them.
Thatbyinnyu Temple situated in Old Bagan is the highest temple of all the monuments. It was built in 1144AD and rises to the height of 61m.
Dhamayangyi Temple is the biggest temple in Bagan and was built in 1170 AD by King Narathu. The temple was never completed and although it displays some of the finest brickwork there were structural issues therefore the inner walkways and conclaves housing Buddha statues had to be bricked up to support the whole structure of the temple.
Up to today Ananda temple is one of the the most venerated temples in Bagan. The temple was built in 1091 AD and the true gem is what lies within the temple. When you enter this temple you will discover four huge Buddha statues in the standing position, each statues stands at 10 meters high.
Our driver took us to a place not listed on our maps known as Kyan Sit Thar Umin near Nat-htaung Monastery within Nyaung-U. Kyat Sit Thar Umin is a low brick building with long dark corridors but when the sun pierces through the windows at a certain angle, it is where you will find paintings on walls and ceiling that date back to the 11th - 13th century. It was amazing to see these paintings up close and the techniques used to decorate the surfaces.
The notable pagodas are Lawkanands Pagoda where you will be take in the views along the bank of Ayeyarwandy river of Bagan. Bu Paya Pagoda has a unique bell shaped dome built over diminishing terraces however the original pagoda was destroyed in the earthquake of 1975 and had to be fully rebuilt at the same location in 1976. Shwe Zi Gone Pagoda is believed to enshrine the frontal bone and tooth of Buddha and is therefore held in great veneration by the Buddhists in Myanmar.
In order to catch a panoramic view of Bagan there are only two options now due to the earthquake that happen in August 2016. The earthquake caused significant damage to many larger temples and pagodas. During our exploration of Bagan, there were still vast numbers of temples and pagodas under restoration, for this reason tourist are no longer allowed to go up larger temples and pagodas for a birds eye view over Bagan. The two exceptions are the Nan Myint Tower and Shwe San Dew Pagoda. Most people from Bagan thinks that the Nan Myint Tower is an eyesore and there is nothing much to do there except to get a panoramic view of Bagan but at a cost of $10 USD. As for Shew San Dew Pagoda there are no entrance fees but it does get very crowded during sunset as this where most tourist would gravitate towards to enjoy the sunset over Bagan. To get a good spot for photography do head there early and take precautions climbing up the steep and uneven stairs of the pagoda.
We took another bus by JJ express from Bagan back to Yangon as we were catching our next flight from Yangon. I cannot recommend JJ express enough. They provide a pick up from our hotel in Bagan and took us to the bus station and on arrival in Yangon, the provided a shuttle bus from the bus station to the airport. Myanmar will not remain in its current state for long once more tourist starts flogging in and the country opens up even more. I would recommend to anyone to visit Myanmar in next few year before it loses some of its charm.