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Bagan

One of the greatest archeological sites of 9-13th centuries

Bagan_view_aw1

On the eastern bank of the Irrawaddy (Ayeyarwady River) you find thousands of pagodas on the plains. The kingdom of Bagan was founded in 849 and experienced its prime during 11-13th centuries. King Anawratha ascended the throne in 1044 and unified the region by conquering Mon and Pyu-city states of the south. Originally the inhabitants of Bagan were animists. Influences of Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism had arrived and by the time of King Anawratha, the transition to Theravada Buddhism took place. Capturing the Mon King Manuha, Anawratha was able to obtain the Theravada Tripitaka Buddhist scriptures for further learning. Along with King Manuha, thousands of Mon artisans and craftsmen were also captured who contributed to the building of thousands of pagodas- including some of the greatest during the reign of Anawratha- the Shwezigon:

Shwezigon Pagoda was built to enshrine one of four replicas of the Buddha’s tooth from Kandy in Sri Lanka. Construction began under King Anawratha and completed during the reign of King Kyanzittha (1084-1113).

 

The building of pagodas was a great act of making merit and it is said that over 10,000 pagodas were built-  with approx  2200 remaining today. This first Burmese kingdom was a great center of Buddhist studies along with astrology and alchemy with scholars, students and pilgrims coming  from India and all over Southeast Asia.

The Ananda Temple dates back to early 12th century built by King Kyanzittha (1084-1113) and is one of the best preserved temples of Bagan. The 1975 earthquake caused severe damages, but the Ananda Temple was totally restored. The entrance ways lead to four 9.5 meter standing Buddha images. Those facing north and south are original displaying the dhammacakra mudra, symbolizing the Buddha’s first sermon. You can notice the southern image with a face looking sad up close, but from a distance, you notice a smile.

Nearby Ananda is the Ok Kyaung – a brick monastery dating back to 12th century with beautiful murals that were later done in 18th century.

Another site in nearby Myinkaba village, is the Gubyauk-gyi with well preserved frescoes dating back to 12th century and is a must see in Bagan.

Although Kings Kyanzittha (1084-1113) and Alaungsithu (1113-1167) contributed to building more beautiful shrines, new internal conflicts arose, as well as Mongol invasions, and Bagan finally collapsed in 1287.

While new kingdoms were established in Upper Burma, Bagan remained inhabited by a small population of humans and continued to be a pilgrimage site to the main temples, with lesser temples falling into disrepair. Bagan was then also believed to be inhabited by nats– spirits who have met an unfortunate death. Certain nats, numbering 37- and some from pre-Buddhist times were officially endorsed for worship by the Bamar monarchy. The Shwezigon is home to one of many nat shrines around the country which come alive especially during their festival times.  One particular nat festival outside of Mandalay each year becomes quite a wild affair!
One of the shrines at the Shwezigon is dedicated to Mae Wana- the guardian nat of medicinal herbs. Mae Wana was the sister of the Mon King Manuha who left her palace to meditate on Mt. Popa outside of Bagan. She died there of a broken heart.  Other nats carry colorful stories which could be turned into very entertaining modern-day soap operas.

Later during the Konbaung dynasty of Upper Burma in the region of Mandalay ( 1752-1885), new renovations were commissioned to Bagan sites and some carried a taste for whitewashing structures and sadly also some of Bagan’s precious mural paintings.   Bagan also suffered from several earthquakes- a major one in 1975 and again in 2014 damaged hundreds of pagodas. During the 1990s, the military government began their own version of restorations which was met with criticism by art historians and preservationists. In more recent years, UNESCO has returned to work with the Bagan Archeological Department to conduct surveys for new restoration efforts.

Exploring Bagan:
Entrance ticket to the Bagan Archeological Zone is 25,000 Kyats – valid for 5 days. Approx USD 19 using the exchange rate of 1350 Kyats to 1 USD.  Best to pay in Kyats as exchange rates can vary.  Those on tour packages will have entrance fees normally included.  Entrance to the Archeological Museum in Old Bagan requires a separate ticket, however at USD 5.

You can spend a good three of four days in Bagan seeing the main sites and allowing time for exploring off the main paths.
Hotels will have good maps but it of course makes a huge difference to start with an introduction of the main sites with a knowlegeable local guide. It is also good to have a torch (flashlight) along to help see mural paintings.

Horsecart and Bicycle Exploring
Take a half-day or a full day hiring a horsecart exploring back paths and pagodas lost in time. Many of the horsecart drivers found in Old Bagan can speak some good English and some other European languages quite well. They know the terrain and often have good stories. Prices for the day can vary from K15,000-25,000 depending where you are going and it is very worthy to support this livelihood.
Bicycles and E-Bicycles are also available and may get further out to where horsecarts may not be able to go, but many of the back paths are sandy which can slow you down.
And it is important to take care in the heat and dust so do have sufficient drinking water on hand.

Art and Craft:
Many shops are found by the pagodas with some artisans offering some amazing treasures, so be prepared for temptation.  Bagan is also home to exquisite lacquerware and there are numerous workshops to visit around Myinkaba Village.  For higher end quality or simply appreciate the work they do, stop into  Golden Cuckoo.

Lotus Collection workshop does really beautiful work with lovely people. Find this place in New Bagan behind the Law Kanat Hotel.

Puppets are also wonderful to look for in all the shops and a dinner with traditional puppet show is highly recommended at the Nanda Restaurant.

The Moon:

The Moon is a lovely long-time established vegetarian oasis for lunch.  Located at the entrance to the Ananda Temple.  Look for the sign that says: Be Kind to Animals:
www.happycow.net/reviews/moon-vegetarian-restaurant-bagan-13803

Sunset and Sunrise:
For conservation reasons, especially since the last earthquake, tourists have not been able to climb up any of the pagodas like the popular Shwesandaw.  Some other special areas have been designated for sunset viewing so best check on updates when in Bagan.

For sunset it is also nice take a local boat out on the river.


Balloons Over Bagan:

Consider a special treat floating above the landscape for sunrise. Operating seasonally and also in other areas of Myanmar:
https://balloonsoverbagan.com/

 

Mt. Popa
With time permitting, venturing out to Mt. Popa is an interesting adventure to visit the abode of the nats. A 50 km drive from Bagan can be done in half-a day, or more feeling relaxed. Mt. Popa is an important pilgrimage site with a monastery atop an extinct volcano. 777 steps lead up to the monastery which offers a great view.  Along the way are several nat shrines and stalls selling all sorts of goods from flowers for offerings to food, fruits and coffee along the way. There are also around 7000 macaques which may become too friendly around your goods, so beware!
For those not feeling the energy to climb 777 steps, the main shrine to the 37 nats including Mae Wana is at the bottom of the steps leading up the mountain.

 

Accomodations:

Old Bagan:

Hotel @ Tharabar Gate-  also close to Ananda Temple.
http://www.tharabargate.com/

Luxury by the river:

Thiripyitsaya Resort:
http://www.thiripyitsaya-resort.com/

New Bagan:

Thazin Garden: a small hotel that was always my favorite. Hope it is still running well!
http://www.thazingarden.com/


Getting to Bagan is an easy flight from either Yangon, Heho or Mandalay. Bagan’s airport at Nyaung U is about 6km from Old Bagan.  Adventurers may enjoy the 17-hour train ride from Yangon, but it is great to cruise down the Irrawaddy to feel life on the river.  See more on River Journeys.


 

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Inle Lake  and  Pindaya and Kalaw
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