Temple trekking in Bagan
Zipping silently down a dusty road on my electric scooter, I notice an old sandstone pagoda rising up on the left of the road.
The pagoda must once have been magnificent, with intricate carvings lining the walls and round turrets reaching up towards the sky. But the building is now ancient, the carvings are slowly eroding into the background and the roofs are crumbling.
Rather than taking away from the affect, the decay only heightens my awe, with images of the bygone glory days winking at my imagination.
To my right, another pagoda begins to appear. Up in front I can see a few more, and dozens of others trail behind me.
There are over 6000 of these Buddhist ruins in the small town of Bagan, which makes it difficult to travel more than a few metres without running into another one.
Along with my partner and a friend, I had stumbled into the town bleary eyed and exhausted at 3am that morning, after riding a rickety bus for 12 hours.
However, as we have since come to think as typical of the people of Myanmar, our hotel welcomed us in and gave us a room so that we could get a few hours sleep before the morning, all free of charge and without a hint of inconvenience.
After a nap and a bite to eat, we hired our electric scooters through the hotel, and set off to explore the ruins.
Though English speaking guides are cheap and readily available, meandering through the streets at our own pace suited us well.
While riding along, the sheer quantity of pagodas we passed was incredible in itself, but whenever we noticed a particularly beautiful building, or needed a break from the scorching sun, we could simply pull over and wander inside.
The pagodas are all in varying states, with some left to crumble, and others having been restored to near new.
Some contain altars with statues of Buddha reaching right to the ceiling; some have interior walls that were once painstakingly painted with patterns and religious motifs, which are now faded and can only be seen with torchlight; and others are in full working order, with monks able to be observed inside, worshipping by candle light and the wafting smell of incense.
After spending a happy few hours getting our Indiana Jones on, we came across a large 5-star resort in the late afternoon, which appeared to be deserted.
One of the staff later confirmed that very few guests were staying there at present, but they hope the next few years will see a rapid rise in tourism.
After internal conflict and military rule closed the country’s borders for several decades, foreigners have only recently been allowed to enter Myanmar again.
Throughout that day we had only come across one other group of Westerners, but all around we had seen roads being constructed, new hotels, and guides offering their services – which gave the sense of a country on the verge of a boom.
This combination of factors make now an ideal time to visit this fascinating place: the streets are safe (though it’s true there are still a few conflict areas in the country, tourists are kept shielded from and are forbidden to enter such places), the infrastructure and amenities are all in place, but there’s still a chance to visit before it’s over run by tourists.
At the centre of the resort was a tall lookout tower, which was open to non-guests for a cost of $5.
As the town is located on flat plains and no other building is more than 2 storeys high, this small cost was well worth it for the unique view of thousands of pagodas stretching out past the horizon.
This proved a blissful spot to enjoy the sunset and a recap of the day over a cold drink, before heading back into town for dinner.
While there are a few restaurants in Bagan that serve Western food, the local dishes are delicious and ridiculously inexpensive, and I’d definitely recommend giving them a try. We chose a restaurant with a set menu so that we could sample a range of dishes, and we weren’t disappointed.
For less than $10 a head we feasted on plate after plate of curry and salad, bottomless rice, and a few bottles of ice-cold beer.
Among the tastiest dishes we tried were a slightly bitter tea leaf salad, a rich river fish curry, and perfectly cooked eggplant stew. Most meals are also followed up by complimentary slabs of pure palm sugar, which instantly became a guilty favourite.
After an exhausting day of temple trekking, we arrived back at the hotel shattered but exhilarated. Those who’ve spent time in Asia before may be used to running into pagodas wherever they go, but the massive scale of this place is what sets it apart, and makes it absolutely unlike anything you’ll see elsewhere.
While it’s possible to get a sense of this in just a single day visit, there are enough buildings to keep the budding archaeologist engaged for a week at least.
My impression of Bagan, and Myanmar as a whole, was of a unique and relatively untouched culture, and an exceptionally open and friendly people.
This makes the place, without a doubt, somewhere you should aim to spend time before it has a chance to change.