Temple-Hopping In Bagan, Myanmar
Bagan’s existence today seems to straddle two worlds: The spectacular ancient capital it once was and a dusty town heavily dependent on tourism.
The 2,200 Buddhist monuments found there today are iconic remnants of Bagan’s two century peak. From 1044 to 1297, Bagan was the cultural, economic, and political hub of the Pagan Empire. It was during this period that Bagan rulers and wealthy residents constructed over 10,000 religious monuments within this 40 sq. mile capital.
Take a moment and let that last sentence sink in.
There were approximately 1,000 stupas, 10,000 temples, and 3,000 monasteries. As the city become more prosperous and more populated (up to 200,000 people), it became the center for religious and secular studies. Until it was time to turn the reins over.
The Differences Between Stupas, Pagodas, Temples & Monasteries
Stupas are solid structures that can’t be entered. They were generally constructed to contain sacred Buddhist relics buried at the core or within the walls. There are five types of stupas and not all of them must contain a Buddhist artifact.
Pagodas originated as stupas but are tiered towers with a Chinese-style tiled roof and a spire topping the roof. Today, the word pagoda is typically used to describe a collection of Buddhist monuments or just a generic place of worship. In Myanmar, the word pagoda and stupa seem to be used interchangeably.
Temples have an open interior that can be entered, and display one or many Buddhist images to be worshipped. A temple is similar to a church.
Monasteries contain living quarters and meditation cells for monks.
Today, Bagan thrives because of tourism. But it’s because of those grandeur years that tourists from all over the world and around Myanmar descend on Bagan. And because of that, there’s this palpable energy in the atmosphere. A collective frenzy amongst tourists straddling electric scooters zipping in and out of dirt roads and between arrays of temples. Somehow the very thing I was hoping to avoid became a memorable feature.
It’s important for you to know that tourism was down by 30% this season. I only found this out after leaving Bagan. While we were there, my mom and I had noted the lack of tourists considering it was high season in the most popular Burmese town. This was great for everyone who was visiting, but not for the locals who heavily depend on tourism to survive.
So, it was this “right” amount of foreigners on our $5/day scooters, wearing floral printed pants manufactured solely for us that created this clandestine camaraderie. It was we who dotted the streets at 5:30 AM, searching for temples that still allowed visitors to climb up to the rooftop platforms to wait and watch the sun rise. Breaking the silence on these sleep-ridden mornings were our scooters and hushed whispers as we carefully found our way up the ageless stone staircases. Ducking to not knock our heads against the low arches, we arrived on the platforms in darkness. A quiet hello from one unseen face to another. Once we were settled in, we watched other headlights sprinkle across fields to other temples and listened to the musical rings of the scooter when the keys were pulled out.
Bagan’s sunrises are infamous. I had seen pictures of them without realizing it: a collection of uniquely-shaped temples silhouetted against the dawn palette. If you’re lucky enough, the highly-sought after combination of mist and smoke will hang in the air. And around 6:30 AM the hot air balloons slowly make their appearances, completing the shot everyone is after.
The evenings are similar to those mornings. Travelers dot the temple platforms, finding their spots to watch the nightfall. All eagerly waiting for the sunset that epitomizes Bagan.
I found out, after checking into our hotel, that as of December 2017 the Burmese government had prohibited access to the temple platforms. The main reasons are the preservation of temples and the safety of tourists. There were several incidents that led to this ban. The first incident, that some speculate triggered this rule, was when a Burmese company had their annual staff party atop a temple at the beginning of 2016. The company was seriously criticized for being disrespectful. But the ban had remained kind of lax until now. Then there was the 6.8-magnitude earthquake in August 2016 that heavily damaged hundreds of pagodas. Many of them were under repair during our visit. The issue of travelers being disrespectful and scaling the temples above the permitted platforms was another cause. And the last nail in the coffin might’ve been when an American girl died after falling 20 ft. off a pagoda while watching the sunset.
So, the incredible photos I had seen and hoped to make my own were harder to achieve due to the ban. Only a handful of temples were still open to visitors, hence the frenzied searches by travelers. Local families living nearby were the caretakers of specific temples; they were the ones who unlocked the gates pre-sunrise and lined the pitch-black staircases with candles in the evenings.
Today’s Bagan as many travelers know it will most likely undergo an even more radical change. In 2017, the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture submitted an application for Bagan to become a UNESCO world heritage site. According to this article, there are many requirements that have to be met in order to qualify. The first problem Bagan has to face are all the hotels, restaurants, and shops built in Old Bagan that interfere with the temples. These buildings must be relocated either to New Bagan or outside the archeological site. Six of these properties are hotels, which have an ancient religious monument on-site. The hotel we stayed at, The Hotel @ Tharabar Gate, was one of them. The second complaint UNESCO has is regarding the low-quality renovation work that has been done on the temples. These changes probably won’t be happening rapidly.
Despite Bagan being the most touristy town we visited (in addition to Ngapali), our experiences with fellow tourists were actually more pleasant than expected. Aside from one morning sharing an overly crowded balcony, the other times weren’t overwhelmingly packed. There were several occasions when we had a collection of temples all to ourselves. Bagan is also where, I think, a solo traveler could easily meet other travelers. My first morning, I met an Italian guy and after the sun was up we decided to visit another temple together on our scooters. I also ran into the same Irish guy and his friends twice another day. Bagan is a small town and we were all making our own adventures out of the same 2,000 temples.
It wasn’t until the last morning that a strange incident occurred and left a sour taste in our mouths. I hadn’t traded out my e-scooter that morning, unlike all the other days, and the battery was very low by the time my mom and I arrived Bulethi pagoda. In the 5 minutes we took to walk around the pagoda, our scooter wouldn’t turn on when we came back to it. We figured the battery had completely drained and I called the owner. Unfazed, he quickly arrived on a scooter. It wasn’t until he opened up the covered compartment (held closed by screws) under the driver’s feet that we realized the battery was gone. My mom and I were shocked. How did it get stolen in those 5 minutes we were away? The only theory we could come up with was that the two local guys who walked up shortly after we parked had stolen the batteries. But none of it made sense. The owner said this doesn’t happen often, but it has happened. He suspected that an out-of-towner who was in Bagan for the Ananda Pagoda Festival was most likely the thief. Logically he suggested we split the replacement cost 50/50 since neither of us knew who stole it. We thought about it, but it didn’t feel right to us. None of it sat well with us. There were multiple factors that made us feel like this was potentially a scam and we were being taken advantage of. We ended up refusing to cover the cost (he said it would be a couple hundred US dollars). Even now, I still question whether or not it was the right decision. Although the locals were goodhearted people, tourists are easily seen as cash cows. This a downside of traveling that I constantly struggle with.
Aside from that one incident, Bagan was safe and we rarely felt uncomfortable. There were many vendors around the pagodas. They’d display their goods at the temple entrances and sometimes along the balcony floors. One lady who spoke pretty good English gave me a mini-tour of a temple and then cleverly brought me back to her clothing stand. We did come across a few hawkers that got fairly persistent and aggressive. The longer we were in town, the more tiring it was to explain why we were saying no (a simple “no” was never good enough).
Despite my initial hesitations about Bagan and the moments of stress I was overcome with while I was there, it was a genuinely pleasant experience that I fondly reminisce about.
We were here from January 7 - 12, 2018.