Volatile political situation and oppressive military junta aside, Myanmar has a remarkable cultural legacy to discover. For tourists who do venture to Burma, the ancient city of Bagan in lush Mandalay Division is usually a de facto first stop.
The Ayeyarwaddy River point of interest sits on a massive plateau, full of ancient monuments and temples. From the 11th to the 13th century, this phenomenal place was a prominent kingdom and nexus of religion, social interaction and culture.
For hundreds of years in fact, the Kingdom of Pagan (or Bagan) held sway in this part of the world. Architectural relics that remain hint at the halcyon grandeur of the ancient city. The city wall for one, was built at the behest King Pyinbya, who brought the capital to Bagan from Tampawaddy.
Thanks to documents and artifacts, historians have been able to paint a clearer picture of Bagan’s evolution from about the year 1000. The kingdom’s periods of peace and war, invasion and conflict, affluence and influence, mirror many throughout South Asia and Southeast Asia. What makes Bagan remarkable however, is the prodigious development of Theravada Buddhism as a bedrock belief system.
As a result, hundreds and hundreds of incredible pagodas and temples were built at about the same time as the early Dark Ages in Europe. Alas however, the Kingdom of Pagan fell at the end of the 13th century to Mongol invaders and internal strife. Indeed, Burma as a country fell apart as well and did not unify for another quarter millennium. The chaos was particularly hard on Bagan’s nonpareil architectural landscape (a sad lesson today’s military junta fail to learn, much to the dismay of UNESCO). Today, about 100 original monuments and worship sites remain.
The Bagan plateau contains nineteen villages, each with a different perspective on the 42 km2 ruins complex:
- Anurada (or Myinkaba)
- Nyaung U
Intrepid and hearty visitors will be able to cover a lot of ground in Bagan, though it may not be advisable to try to see it all in one day.
Each village has a different story to tell. From treasure trove excavation sites to frenetic marketplaces, serene temples to enormous banyan trees, the Bagan landscape is colorful and diverse.
Nyaung-U for example, is a modern village with rampant development, and plenty of markets and restaurants as a result. Unfortunately, archaeological research and conservation efforts prove difficult here because of the breakneck pace of construction. This however, is part of the Bagan and indeed, Myanmar experience.
The village of Taungba offers stellar views of the Tooth Relic Pagoda on Tuyin Mountain. The Phaya Hti Saung (or Hti Ta Hsaung) pagoda is 1 km to the northwest and is well worth a visit as well.
Special Events in Bagan
Special Bagan festivals draw a fair number of tourists every year. Ask the concierge at your hotel in Bagan about the local cultural events calendar.
The Ananda Tempel Festival, for one, is held in January or February of each year. The festival is held in and around the temple itself, near the full moon day of Pyatho. Hundreds of stalls and vendors bring their wares and locals from all around Myanmar flock to the village to purchase the fruits of the harvest and honor Buddha.
Other great annual festivals include the Lawkananda Pagoda Festival, Myazedi Pagoda Festival, Manuha Pagoda Festival and Shwezigon Pagoda Festival.
In time, one can only hope that Myanmar’s military junta realizes the inherent magnificence of Bagan and the complex of ancient monuments is rightfully restored as one of Asia’s best UNESCO World Heritage Sites.