Key information: Bagan
- Bagan is justly described as one of the architectural wonders of the world, over 4,000 Buddhist monuments spread over 16 square miles by the Irrawaddy river.
- Wander among the temples, stupas and other monuments that dot this at times dusty plain. Sit on the upper levels and survey the towers and pinnacles rising above the treetops.
- There are no set routes, rather visitors can either explore by themselves or walk with a local guide. Note, though, that walking is only one way to get about Bagan, and not unreasonably a minority sport.
- Walkopedia rating84.5
- Natural interest8
- Human interest18
- Negative points4
- Total rating84.5
- Note: Negs: the hateful regime and its effects.
- Length: Variable
- Maximum Altitude: N/A
- Level of Difficulty: Straightforward
Bagan (formerly Pagan) was one of the glories of Asia, described by Marco Polo as "one of the finest sights in the world", created in a 230-year-long bout of fervor for Thervada Buddhism, but it fell into steep decline at the end of the thirteenth century around the time of the arrival of the Mongols, and little happened for hundreds of years after.
More than 4,000 religious buildings, temples, pagodas, stupas, monasteries and halls, have survived the centuries and earthquakes, scattered over 40 sq km of plain by the Ayeyarwadi (Irrawaddy) river, and they form what has been justly described as one of the architectural wonders of the world. They range from Ananda and Thatbyinnyu, vast tower-temples yet intricate and beautiful, to the massive "evil temple" Dhammayangyi, to an endless array of distinctive, decaying stupas of all sizes.
Wandering around the area and discovering these buildings for yourself is exceptionally rewarding. You can soak up the history and the beauty of the area, contemplating that golden age, as you watch the colour changing on surrounding ruins from the upper storeys of a pagoda while the sun sets behind the hills over the Irrawaddy.
Everyone has their favourites, and Walkopedia went for the perfect forms of the stupas such as Mingalazedi and Smingyi, developed over the years to achieve sublime, apparently simple, beauty of form. We railed in Ruskinian manner against the debasing of the style with the growth of Bagan baroque, only to find that our darlings were actually some of the last stupas built.
Some important practicalities:
- with a huge site to cover, and at times overwhelming heat, walking is only one (and probably not the most practical) means of getting about: many hire bikes and some take a pony and trap, which frees you to view the passing marvels without the distraction of watching your way, and enables you to go a long way off piste with confidence. (And, as Mrs Walkopedia says, this must be one of the only places in the world where a visitor doesn't look a prat in such a vehicle (well, in 2013, at least).) To be honest, Walkopedia was a bit disappointed with the walking, as we came expecting to 'bag' a Top 100 walk, but it was not to be. That said, do spend some hours wandering on foot, as the slower pace (and inclination to sit about) does produce a different form of contemplation.
- Generally, especially during the hottest months, you are well advised to start early, take a break in the mid-day heat, and pick up again at (say) 4pm and explore until after sunset.
- you won't be able to get everywhere, unless you are here a long time. Be a bit selective, and go for quality of experience over temple-ticking. Do get off the roads, though, and even get a bit lost.
There are no set routes around these fabulous buildings, although there are various sites you certainly shouldn't miss.
Walkopedia only had a day and a half in Bagan, and did the following:
- first afternoon: walked in the area of Old Bagan, which has a heavier concentration of buildings great and intimate than elsewhere. Took in the Ananda outside the walks, sat on a lovely, large but unheralded, brick stupa for sundown (an anticlimax as we were there in early March, so the sun disappeared quietly into a dry-season haze without the colouring pyrotechnics we hoped for). The Lonely Planet has a good suggestion for a walking route, although we strayed off onto our own creation. (Be warned: this was dusty and hot, but magnificent.)
- next morning, early (for us, anyway): took at pony and trap southward, swinging back via the great temples/stupas of the central plain: Sulamani, Dhammayangi aad Shwesanadaw.
- that afternoon, the northern plain, including Htilominlo and sunset at lovely Budeli pagoda. (We went on the Shwesandaw for a second sundown, but were so appalled by the buses and throngs that we slid away)
To go or not: until recently, there were major issues with visiting Myanmar, as a result of the money and affirmation that the regime receives from visitors - with counter-arguments to the effect that money to the desperately poor locals and foreign contact is more important. These were well put in the 2009 Lonely Planet. But, with the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, the debate has for the time being changed; she cautiously welcomes visitors coming to Myanmar.
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