Though its glory has passed for over a thousand years, Old Bagan remains marvellous from a travellers' point of view.
It is 5am, and I'm driving in complete darkness, making my way to the Shwesandaw Pagoda.
A few horse carriages are already there when I arrive.
My colleague and I are guided through the darkness by flashlight, as we make our way to top of Shwesandaw Pagoda. It is among the few pagodas in Bagan which tourists are allowed to climb to admire the view.
"I'm sorry to bring you here. There is another pagoda, which offers a unique angle and an even better view, but due to cracks in the structure, it's unsafe to climb," our Myanmar guide explains.
A few tourists are already on the highest terrace, shivering in the morning breeze. Dawn lingers on the horizon, as crests of temples and pagodas gradually appear in the misty forest.
It is a picture that impresses visitors and pilgrims alike.
Located on the banks of the Irrawaddy River, Bagan is home to the largest and densest collection of Buddhist temples, pagodas, stupas and ruins in the world. This Buddhist architecture dates back to the 11-12th century. It is estimated that as many as 13,000 temples and stupas once stood on the 42km2 plain. Only 2,200 have survived.
Bagan became a central powerbase in the mid-9th century under King Anawratha, who unified Burma. Its golden age ended in 1287 when the kingdom was invaded and ransacked by the Mongols, and the city's population was reduced to that of a village. In 1998, people were relocated a few kilometres to the south of the ancient city, forming New Bagan town, where tourists can now enjoy cosy accommodation while exploring the ancient town.
It is not difficult to spend days in the field of pagodas, exploring one after another and witnessing the marvel of the Bagan empire. However, it is better to start an excursion in the early morning, with a short break in the afternoon when the weather is too hot.
The two pagodas that should not be missed are the Shwezigon and Ananda Phya.
It is best to begin a visit with Bagan's first pagoda, the Shwezigon. Built to celebrate the victory of King Anawratha and completed in 1102, the golden pagoda enshrines a bone and a tooth of the Lord Buddha.
Before the arrival of Buddhism, the Burmese believed in spirits, or nats. When the king built this Buddhist temple, he organised the first royal endorsement of the 37 spirits.
King Anawratha placed 37 figures representing the spirits on the lower terrace of the pagoda. Eventually the spirits were moved from the terraces to a small hall, southeast of the platform. The hall is now now an important shrine for Burmese pilgrims.
Another remarkable pagoda of Bagan is the Ananda Phaya, which is also considered the most beautiful.
The Ananda Phaya was built between 1090-1105 by the order of King Kyanzittha. According to legend, he was inspired by eight visiting Indian monks who told him about the legendary Nanadamula cave in the Himalayas. The temple was built to recreate the vision of this cave and reflect the endless wisdom of the Buddha. The Ananda Phaya itself is designed on a perfectly proportioned Greek cross plan with vestibules and gabled entrance porches, each topped with a stupa finial. On top, there are six terraces that rise pyramid-like to the central tower, which is around 50m above the ground, topped with a gilded Sikhara filial. The shape of this Sikhara is quite similar to a durian, but it is a beautiful, gigantic, gold, shimmering durian, in my eyes.
Stepping inside, visitors will be impressed by four gilded teak standing Buddhas, each around 10m tall, facing the four cardinal directions. They represent the Buddha who attained enlightenment. The Ananda Phaya is surrounded by an enclosing wall and four integrated arched gateways. The central cube contains two parallel walkways around the central core. There are over 80 instructional sandstone relief scenes in the outer corridor depicting the history of the Lord Buddha, from his birth until his enlightenment.
It may be hard to brave the strong sun of Bagan, but roaming the fields dotted with architecture and rich history makes you quickly forget the heat.
Air Bagan operates regular flights from Yangon and Chiang Mai to Bagan. Visit www.air-bagan.org.
About the author
- Writer: Peerawat Jariyasombat
Position: Travel Reporter