When I left nearly four years ago to travel, I wasn’t sure what pieces of the travel experience would most pique my interest … would it be the varied landscapes, the new foods and flavors, or perhaps new friends? In the intervening years, I learned that I am most engaged in my travel experience when I look for stories from friendly people willing to share a meal. In some places, however, the fascination truly lies deep within the history—often the living history—of a place.
The living legacy left in Bagan, Burma (Myanmar) was visible for miles when I entered the Bagan Archeological Zone, a region of the country with more than 2,200 temples and stupas remaining; the earliest of these structures date back to beginning of the 11th century. As Ana and I traveled through Burma, luck was with us that our visit aligned with the GotPassport family’s travels in Burma as well. The mother, A, is Burmese-American and has family still living in the country; when our visits coincided, they offered us the chance to travel with them on their pilgrimage to Bagan’s holy temples.
Starting in about 1044, Bagan’s wealthy rulers spent 250 years building up this ancient city. At the height of Bagan’s place in history as a seat of power in Southeast Asia, the city had more than 10,000 temples and 1,000 stupas. Building temples is a way for wealthy citizens to build merit, and for this reason temples both large and small were built and donated over the past century.
We spent a whirlwind two days from sunup to sundown visiting the holiest temples, and learning about why these temples are still today used in modern worship.Though renting bicycles is the most popular way for tourists to see navigate the dusty roads and fields of temples, we all drove around in the cushioned bed of a truck so that we could visit many of the temples spread over the 40-square miles of land within the ancient city.
The thing I found fascinating about the temples in Bagan, in contrast to other temple complexes in Southeast Asia (namely Angkor Wat, which I took Ana to see two months after Bagan), is the fact that many of the temples were reconstructed for modern use. There were plenty of crumbling, pumpkin-colored stupas contrasting the fields of dull grass burnt dry from the strong sun, but a great many of the holiest temples were modern places of worship with re-gilded exteriors, Buddha statues, and Nats.
Below I’d like to share a photo journey and the story of our days visiting the monasteries and stupas of ancient Bagan that form the country’s living history. Bagan is incredibly photogenic, so I’ve shared the highlights (21 photos and mini-stories!) from two full days below (sunrise to sunset), but there are more Bagan travel photos if you’re keen.
Our small group prepared for our first day at the ruins as dawn settled over the region; these monks passed our guesthouse in the early morning hours on their almsgiving walk through town. Giving alms is a daily ritual throughout most of Southeast Asia and the act of giving builds merit for the giver. Locals give rice and food into the bowls of the monks as they pass by homes and shops; in this way, they pay respect to the monks and connect to their spirituality.
The beautiful, gilded complex of temples and stupas at Shwezigon Pagoda attracted a handful of tourists in the dawn hours. The quiet energy humming through the temple captivated us. Sunrise hot-air balloons would have no doubt been a magical way to experience the first hours of lift shining over the 40 miles of temples, stupas and monasteries dotting the plains around Bagan, but we opted to stay on the ground this time.
These twin images side-by-side are an uncommon representation of Buddha. I have seen the Buddha depicted in hundreds of positions and facial expressions over the years, but these beatific smiles at Dhammayangyi Pahto temple shine with peace and happiness.
The stunning, cavernous hallways at Dhammayangyi Pahto temple. This is a highlight and a a beautiful temple.
The quite sunrise hours have given way to the tour buses by mid-morning, and locals and tourist alike mix and merge on the paths leading to Ananda Paya temple. Of note, and particularly interesting to the children in the group, was that this temple’s gilded top looks like a corn cob. :)
The Burmese are generous with water and basic necessities. There were many instances where they could have charged for water, but instead the active temples and monasteries offered up jugs, canisters, and containers filled and free so that no one should go thirsty on their pilgrimage–some temples had very steep hikes!
Ana and I posed for a shot together with the photogenic Thatbyinnyu Temple temple in the background.
Two doorways from two beautiful temples. The left is looking out at Thatbyinnyu Temple. The second one is the ornate entrance to the Hgnet Pyit Taung temple.
Different animals represent different days of the week in the Burmese zodiac. The week day of your birth dictates which station and animal you should visit at the temples. There are eight stations because Wednesday is split into two different animals. This creature is the tiger and represents Monday; it’s worth researching your day of birth before you travel through Burma so you can pay respect through their cultural beliefs to your zodiac animal.
A vendor sells bouquets of flowers to pilgrims making their way up Mt Popa to the Popa Taungkalat monastery.
You must have bare feet when entering any Buddhist temple. In this case, the sign is a reminder to the pilgrims hiking the stairs to the very top of the mountain that they must do so barefoot … while dodging monkeys!
The temple monkeys are aggressive and hungry; they pester the pilgrims slowly making their way up the 777 steps that are carved into the side of Mt. Popa, all leading to the Popa Taungkalat monastery.
Intricate paintings inside of Htilominlo Temple have survived the centuries. This was just one of the many frescoes lining the walls. The most delicate and intricate of the paintings in some of the other temples are only lit by flashlights and prohibit photography as a way to ensure future generations can witness the beautiful artwork.
The thanaka powder that the Burmese use on their faces actually comes from these sticks. They grind the thanaka on the stone, add water (or other creams in modern instances) and then apply to their skin for beauty, tradition, and skin protection.
On the side of the road a candy maker sells hand-rolled sour plum candies; although sweet candies from jaggery are popular all over the country, the sour plum flavor is unique to this region and it’s worth sampling some from many vendors as they come in varying levels of sour and sweet!
This young and eager boy was our impromptu tour guide through one of the temple complexes.
Buddha on the left is from the Manuha temple, and the right one is unique. This Buddha sits in the Taung Kalat monastery on Mount Popa — the Buddha statue is adorned with hundreds of tiny Buddha images.
The Irrawaddy River runs along Bupaya pagoda and provided a welcome and cool breeze in the hot, late afternoon sun. Ana and I learned a lot before we left for Burma about the effect that major rivers have on trade and development within the countries in Southeast Asia, so it was interesting for us to watch the slow pace of life on this section of the river.
As the day started to wind down, the pickup trucks began to ferry all the locals back to their homes just as we (Ana, A, M and I) rented a horsecart to take us to a sunset spot. Though tourists are common in Bagan, friendliness is an inherent part of Burmese culture and we got waves and smiles from every single passing truck.
Our second night in Bagan we picked a sunset spot that only had a handful of tourists sitting on the ledges. Because the trip back is in near darkness, tourists take the horse-drawn carts to and from the sunset spots.
The horse-carts give a bit of perspective on the size of these temples. Though some of the ruins are small stupas, others are massive temples that date back to the kings and rulers in the 10th and 11th centuries.
The hundreds of temples shift and change in the setting sun and allow for a different and beautiful sunset spot each night.
We perched on the ledge of the temple and watched the sun sink across the sky.
The last fragments of daylight left the sky and silhouetted the iconic temples.
Bagan was such a special stop on our trip. The temples were incredible and though they are not yet registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site (politics), this counts as a unique place in our cultural heritage.
Which photo struck you the most and why? Would you like to visit Bagan?