The temple-strewn fields of Bagan have a similar effect as seeing the canals of Venice or the pyramids of Egypt for the first time. They make you long for the gift of a poet or the skill of a painter—anything to capture their otherworldliness. This effect is magnified when you’re lofting across the expanse in one of Balloons Over Bagan’s cranberry-colored hot-air confections, which rise at dawn and make the silent journey over temples, stupas and pagodas just as they cast off their misty shrouds and gleam in first light. But truly, they are stupendous at any hour of the day, from above or on the ground, one of the reasons why the ancient royal capital of Bagan, built by Burmese kings of the 11th and 12th centuries, should figure prominently in any traveler’s itinerary to Myanmar.
I recently spent three nights in Bagan, moored on the Road to Mandalay, the comfortable boat run by Belmond, which normally cruises up the Irrawaddy River to Mandalay but which lay docked during my visit, due to abnormally low water levels. The forced time-out was a blessing in disguise, as it allowed me and the small group I was traveling with, to explore in depth, as well as take several day trips in this rural area where most of the locals are farmers working on expanses of burnt, red soil.
Bagan, about a two-hour flight from Yangon, is divided into Old and New Bagan, the latter of which includes the fields littered with some 3,000 pagodas and temples. Some have names, parking lots, tourists who arrive in buses and vendors hawking lacquer and sarongs, while others are completely deserted. Two of the main ones to visit are the striking white Ananda Temple, with its four massive Buddhas carved out of teak, and the Shwesandaw Paya, a perfect perch from which to view the sunset (those with vertigo should steer clear). Incidentally, thanks to a new tourism initiative, there’s WiFi at the bigger temples, a somewhat comical merging of ancient and modern beliefs.
The real joy, especially if you have a few more days in Bagan, however, is exploring the many small and unnamed temples, housing Buddha sculptures, paintings and murals. Some of the most magnificent treasures are barely marked, like Lok Anteih Pann Temple, one of my favorites, in which a beautiful sitting Buddha presides over a small room covered floor-to-ceiling in colorful murals depicting his life. The old temple keeper handed us flashlights and encouraged us to explore the scenes. It felt like the part in The English Patient where Kip hoists Hana into the vaults of the deserted chapel, getting her close to the most exquisite of religious murals.
It remains to be seen if these treasures will always be this accessible and unchecked once a large number of tourists start arriving (in one abandoned monastery, our guide showed us an exquisite, museum-ripe stone urn dating from the 11th century, which literally just stood by itself in an empty space). But for now, one of the great pleasures is exploring on foot or bike and taking in the history, one pagoda, Buddha and gilded stupa at a time.
Bagan also holds several rustic villages whose homes are built of woven bamboo and whose residents farm or make crafts for a living. Burma’s ubiquitous lacquer ware comes from this area, and at the Ever Stand workshop, visitors can observe the meticulous production process and buy mementoes. As in most southeast Asian places, a market tour is fascinating to see locals shopping for the day (hardly anyone has a refrigerator), and you can also pick up such finds as bamboo baskets, linen shirts, woven bags and lacquerware.
The best place to stay in Bagan is the Road To Mandalay, but travelers who want to add a few days can also find recommended guest houses and family-owned hotels in town (contact our Bookings Team for help). The great advantage of the cruise run by Belmond is the fact that their team has been operating in Myanmar for many years; they have amazing guides and on-board lectures about local culture, and they also support a host of social initiatives, from mobile clinics to school building, which interested travelers can learn more about and even visit.
Between day trips to such places as Mount Popa, biking excursions, cooking classes and sunset cruising, you can easily spend three or even four nights in Bagan without getting bored. (It helps if you’re staying on Road to Mandalay, since an afternoon dip in the top-deck pool is a nice way to end a busy sightseeing day.) And even without a planned-out itinerary, it’s a place that still harbors small adventures.
During my trip, a woman from my group and I got lost one morning (pre-dawn), en route to Shwesandaw to watch the sunrise. As we were pouring over our pitiful map, a boy on a scooter pulled over. We recognized him as one of the vendors at a temple we had visited the day before. He waved hello and offered to drive slowly ahead to our destination. Midway there, though, he stopped. “There are always so many people at that temple,” he said when we had caught up. “Do you want one with no people?” Definitely, we replied, and we were off again. Two sudden turns and a dirt road later, we found ourselves climbing up a winding, pitch-dark staircase of a small, red-brick temple. Just as claustrophobia threatened to set in, the darkness gave way to a lofty viewing platform, the rising red sun centered as if it had been placed there by a mathematician. Our young friend smiled and said, “This is the best one. Better view than Shwesandaw.”
And so we sat there with him, giddy and barefoot, chatting about families and soccer, and watching as the light playfully teased the temples awake. And even though two days later, I drifted across the same scene in a hot air balloon, I know that this moment —small, private and precious—is the one that will stay with me.