How long are you staying in Bagan for?” Khin asks me.
“Oh no, you can’t stay here two days. That’s not nearly enough time. You need three or four days at least to see it all.”
I’ve just met Khin, a tall, thin 23-year-old Burmese painter, and he’s absolutely right. No one should stay in Bagan, Myanmar for only two days. With more than 2,200 ancient Buddhist temples, monasteries and stupas sprinkled across an area of 26 square miles, it’s nothing short of a lie to say you’ve covered it all in just 48 hours. But two days is all I have, and armed with a map and a rented, old one-speed bike, I’m attempting to do just that.
It was about 4.30pm when I stumbled upon the impressive looking wall enclosing the temple of North Guni. I’ve interrupted my new friend’s routine. He comes here every day to sell his paintings to tourists.
“This is a good spot to watch the sunset,” Khin assures me. Business is slow today for the native of New Bagan. The small temple is empty except for the two of us.
He leads me up a steep set of brick stairs. We climb through a mess of steep staircases and narrow passageways and duck through several awkwardly low arches until we reach the top.
It’s whisper quiet, and the sun is sweeping quickly under the horizon, illuminating the thousands of temples spread out before me. Those in the distance are no bigger than the size of my thumbnail, and I watch tourists swarm the top of the nearby Dhammayangyi Pahto and relish in having my own spot after a long day.
All That Remains
Centuries ago, the now sleepy area of Bagan, was anything but quiet. Lying 118 miles south of Mandalay, it is estimated at the height of its power that the former capital was home to more than 4,000 Buddhist temples, stupas and pagodas.
My first stop this morning is the Shwezigon Paya — famous for its shrine to 37 natural Buddhist spirits called nats.
“Madame! Over here! Come look at my shop!”
But the souvenir hawkers and tourists overwhelm me as soon as I step foot in the temple, and I carve out my own path.
This is how Bagan works. Two thin, paved roads connect the three towns of Nyaung U, New Bagan and Old Bagan, but the majority of the temples lie in the central plain area connected by a spider web-like network of dirt roads, which makes getting off the literal beaten path quite easy.
I spend my afternoon in the unrestored, empty temples, walking through crumbling brick archways, climbing dusty staircases and admiring old, cracked Buddhist sculptures.
Bagan’s glory period lasted 230 years, from 1047 to 1287 and was kicked off when King Anawratha converted to Theravada Buddhism. Experts estimate that at the height of its power, construction began on a new temple every two weeks.
Beginning in the 13th century, the capital began to crumble. The Burmese believe the decline was the result of a Mongol invasion, however, this idea is still disputed by historians. Whatever the reason, Bagan stood abandoned and descended into years of neglect, erosion and looting and was struck by at least 16 major earthquakes between 1174 and 1975. Today, 2,217 temples remain, and people didn’t begin moving back until the height of British colonial rule during the mid-19th century.
At North Guni, the sun has set and Khin ushers me out of the temple. Darkness falls fast in this part of the country, and the unforgiving cold quickly sweeps the land.
I decide I’ll return tomorrow.
“I’ll be here,” he says, before we part ways on the dirt path.
I don’t know where I am until I see the sign for the Lawkananda Pagoda. It’s about ten in the morning, and I’ve biked about three miles from Nyaung U to New Bagan. The riverside pagoda is famous for possibly holding an ancient Buddha tooth relic, but I find I love sitting by the Irrawaddy River taking in the cool breeze and watching the fishermen. It’s mostly empty except for three elderly Burmese women praying and a couple of souvenir hawkers standing around the entrance.
Bagan is still a budget traveller’s dream. The only entrance fee is the VND210,000 admittance fee that is paid upon arrival, and backpackers can easily survive on less than VND420,000 a day. However, most of the interesting temples, like the Lawkananda Pagoda, are a hike away from budget friendly Nyaung U, where rooms of various quality go for VND126,000 to VND315,000. Closer to the action, room prices are priced around VND420,000 a night in New Bagan and upward from VND735,000 in Old Bagan.
But I don’t mind distance. Today, I’ve found that it’s only brought me to more interesting places and people, like Zu Zu.
The cute little Burmese girl in front of me looks no more than ten. She’s in a dark blue dress slowly eating a line of crabapples that she’s strung together herself. I was on my way back when two smaller temples caught my eye. I ask what they’re called.
“No name,” she says pointing to the Burmese numbers engraved on the side of one of the temples.
Zu Zu is 11. She lives in Old Bagan with her family in a two-room house just to the side of the small, nameless temples.
She leads me across the street to a temple sitting quietly in the shade where her father is a gatekeeper and takes me upstairs to the highlight on the second floor — a beautiful sculpture of the Buddha standing about 6ft tall, painted a striking crimson red color. She points to a large crack running right through the Buddha’s face from the massive earthquake that rocked the area in 1975.
Since 1995, almost 1,300 structures in Bagan have been rebuilt and 688 have received major repairs. Following the earthquake, UNESCO spent 15 years and US$1million on restoration efforts, but the government has recently undertaken most renovation projects.
I study the giant Buddha tracing the lines and cracks across his body before thanking the little girl for bringing me here. She just hands me a string of crabapples in return.
I’ve almost given up finding North Guni. The path leads me to one identical looking temple after another, and I begin to search for any spot to enjoy the sunset. I follow the horse carts full of tourists along the giant wall of the Dhammayangyi Pahto watching the sun’s descent like a ticking timer, when I see the familiar brick wall.
Khin is where I left him.
I watch my final sunset in Bagan. I leave early tomorrow on a bus before sunrise.
“That’s it,” I say to Khin.
“But it will come back tomorrow?” I ask.
He cracks a small smile at my bad joke before slinging his paintings over his shoulder, ready for the dark bike ride home.
“Yes,” he says. “Of course it will come back tomorrow.”