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Bagan Rising: A Sacred Wonder in Myanmar

Article and photos by James Michael Dorsey

Bagan, Myanmar temple complex.
Bagan, Myanmar temple complex.

Over 1,000 ago, two of the greatest archeological wonders of the world began to rise almost simultaneously in Southeast Asia: One in the steaming jungles, the other on a sun baked plain. While the temple complex of Angkor Wat in Cambodia has become a magnate for tourists, its less showy cousin, in a land long shrouded in myth and legend, is slowly unveiling itself to the modern world. As the rising sun burns off the morning ground fog of Bagan, Myanmar, the spires of its 2,200 pagodas, temples, and monuments reach for the sky like spirits seeking answers while welcoming visitors to a land long closed to the outside world.

Old and new pagodas in Bagan.
Old and new pagodas rise to the sky.

To visitors riding hot air balloons that fill the air at first light, the vast plain resembles a giant chessboard eager to reveal ancient secrets of history and tell stories long untold.

The royal chronicles of Burma (Myanmar) trace the origins of Bagan to its first king, Thamaddarit in the 2nd century. However, it was not until 849 A.D. that the 34th king, Pyinbya established a walled city surrounded by a moat, while most scholarly records commence with the 42nd king, Amawrahta, who began construction on the architectural marvel left to us today.

Modern history offers evidence that king Amawrahta was taken by the teachings of an Indian monk named Shin Arahan and through him embraced Theravada Buddhism with a zeal that covers most of the country to this day. Theravada means, “Teaching of the Elders,” and is one of three main branches of Buddhism that originated in northern India and Nepal in the sixth century B.C., rapidly spreading throughout Southeast Asia. Theravada Buddhism is a personal religion that replaces deity worship with an emphasis on very strict self-control in order to release all attachment to the material world and achieve personal enlightenment. 

During the 33 years of Amawrahta’s prosperous reign (1044-1077 A.D.), his people believed in the acquisition of good karma through the construction of pagodas and temples. As the zeal of Buddhism gripped the land, the building boom reached its zenith and included over 10,000 monuments, of which some 2,200 still stand on the Eastern Shore of the Irrawaddy River in central Myanmar. Marco Polo once referred to Bagan as "a gilded city alive with tinkling bells and the swishing sounds of monks' robes."

Bagan, Myanmar temples and monuments.
Pagodas of Bagan

The wooden structures are long gone but the terra cotta bricks that provided materials for most of the edifices have withstood history well, especially in a land so prone to earthquakes. Most were plastered and painted long ago, but on this windswept plain erosion has stripped away the outer coatings, leaving behind an under skin of brick that brings to mind the pyramids of Egypt. The pagodas range in size from tiny garage-like structures to enormous multi-story fortresses, some gilded, while many still bear ancient hand painted images. Some are simple, decorative shells; others appear to have been personal chapels at one time, while others hold masterfully carved statuary. All of them draw you in.

Monumental temple in Bagan
A monumental temple with a silhouette somewhat like a pyramid.

While guided tours are available in Bagan, individuals may wander about at their leisure. Many visitors prefer to rent bicycles or motorbikes to take them through the plain that covers over 26 square miles, (42 km). Inside, a visitor may encounter a pilgrim lost in mystical communication. Alternatively, you might disturb the evening den of a packrat, who bolted at my entry.

Author riding through Bagan on motorbike.
Author riding through Bagan.

Remaining untouched by the religious fervor that permeates Bagan is impossible. Many pilgrims travel on their knees, prostrating themselves before images of the Buddha. Whispered mantras echo through ancient halls and tears of both joy and suffering flow freely from young and old. Saffroned robed monks may be spotted talking on their smartphones or photographing with their iPads, but their faith is no less powerful. History and whispered prayers mingle in the echoes of these ancient hallways.

The little shade on this barren plain results in days that can fry a visitors brain, but as sunset approaches, people gather on temple summits to watch the spires begin their transformation from terra cotta, to orange, and finally to a deep red, before merging with the purple stillness of the surrounding hills. In the fading light, dust clouds appear like billowing ghosts as herdsmen drive their livestock home for the evening. The air fills with the mantras of millions of cicadas chanting natures’ verses. If spirits still reside in this land, this is when you can sense them, as Buddhism has saturated Bagan like butter melted into toasted bread. Nighttime in Bagan is for contemplation and introspection, as the immensity of what one has seen during the day begins to settle and the history and power of personal faith washes over you.

Locals driving cattle through Bagan
Locals driving cattle through Bagan as evening approaches.

Bagan, Myanmar chessboard at sunset
Spirits seem omnipresent amid the many Pagodas at sunset.

This visitor chose a motorbike for the day and met local villagers selling homemade shirts while picnicking with their families. They directed me down dirt paths imprinted only by the hooves of cattle where I encountered rarely visited pagodas that imparted a sense of physical presence upon entering, something I cannot explain, yet whose actual power was beyond question. Perhaps it was the accumulation of faith deposited over centuries, or lingering bodhisattvas who have passed on their achievement of enlightenment to help wandering souls like mine find their path. Either way, I was touched by forces beyond my understanding and came away with a sense of peace difficult to achieve in city life. It is a rare place of power and beauty where an individual can wander in quiet solitude.

Time stops as you traverse this land and the only noise comes from within. No other religious site can rival Bagan in sheer size except for Angkor Wat in Cambodia, but Angkor is awash in people and like trying to find quiet in an anthill. Bagan is spacious and personal, drawing the visitor into the mystical.

Bagans’ golden era ended  with the Mongol invasion of 1287, reducing the vast plain to a mere village of survivors that largely disappeared from world radar until 1998 when the ruling military junta realized its potential for tourist dollars, then forcibly re-located the local population to its current location of “New Bagan” just outside the ancient gates. Surprisingly this unique setting has been refused UNESCO status as a World Heritage Site because many temples and pagodas have been re-furbished in a “non-traditional” manner according to their criteria for admittance.

The central plains of Myanmar, home to Bagan, are now sharing their many wonders with the outside world. Whether you seek history, mystical belief, incomparable architectural wonders, or simply a beautiful setting for personal contemplation, all roads lead to Bagan.

Editor's note: For practical tourist information on Bagan, visit Lonely Planet. As always, we encourage you to stay at local accommodations so the money will be more likely to flow through to the local economy rather than resort chains. You can find budget accommodations and other information that will help bring you closer to the local community in the Bagan section of the great website.

James Michael Dorsey is an explorer, award winning author, photographer, and lecturer. He has traveled extensively in 45 countries, mostly far off the beaten path. His main pursuit is visiting remote tribal cultures in Asia and Africa.

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