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Bagan Visit, AV #15
Our curiosity about Bagan (AV #15) started when we first visited Angkor Wat (AV #7) back in 2010. Angkor Wat absolutely blew us away and we knew Bagan, another massive collection of temples situated just one-thousand short miles from Angkor Wat in Southeast Asia, would potentially stack up to be equally wondrous.
Last year, in early September, we took a break one afternoon from planning out the AV Trip in Chicago and caught a screening of the epic non-narrative film Samsara. The film contained several incredible scenes from Bagan, which left us dying to arrive and see this magical landscape with our own eyes.
Bagan InformationBagan is famous for being home to the largest and densest concentration of Buddhist temples and pagodas in the world. From the 9th to 13th centuries, Bagan was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan. During the kingdom’s height between the 11th and 13th centuries, over 10,000 Buddhist temples and pagodas were constructed in Bagan, of which 2,200 temples and pagodas still rise above the ground today.
The temples are so densely packed together, that you could rise up in the sky aboard a hot air balloon and be able to see all of the temples in the distance with your naked eye. Imagine for yourself just how incredible this landscape is. If churches, mosques or other religious structure are more common near your home, imagine a panorama with thousands of them in it. Pretty EPIC…right?
Here is a map showing where Bagan is located in Southeast Asia.
How We Saw Bagan
We stayed in the town of Bagan for three nights. This allowed us plenty of time to explore a good set of the temples and pagodas, without feeling too rushed. Of course, it is impossible to see everything, unless you move yourself to Bagan for a really long time!
Due to the mid-day heat and dust, we kept a schedule of viewing the area around sunrise and sunset. Of course this also helped yield far better pictures, which in turn meant everything looked better to our own eyes as we walked around during these times as well.
Lastly, we got around mainly by hired taxi. We preferred this over bikes and horses, because it helps you avoid the intense dust and heat. We were in Bagan to focus on seeing the temples – being miserably hot and dirty was not a requirement Besides, taxis are cheap by western standards.
If you happen to visit when the dust and heat are at a tolerable level, bikes and horses could certainly be an enjoyable way to explore. It’s all up to you!
Tips For Seeing Bagan
We were very happy with how we our visit to Bagan went and thus we recommend that you follow a similar plan. Stay in Bagan for three nights. Visit the temples for sunrise, take afternoon naps, and go back out in the late afternoon to enjoy the sunsets. Catching two sunrises and two sunsets over the course of three days would provide you an incredible view of Bagan.
Here are a few more tips for the perfect visit to Bagan:
- Go for sunrise. This is the best time to go.
- There are far less people at this time
- The weather is coolest
- The light is perfect for photography
- Go for sunset. This is the second best time.
- The weather is cooler than the day time, but will still be warm
- The light is great for photography
- You can view the lit up pagodas on the ride home
- Choose a car. Biking and horse carriage are not the best.
- Bagan is extremely dusty & hot, which makes open air transit uncomfortable
- The sites are relatively close to each other, but travel takes far longer by bike or horse carriage
- Biking in the dark, before sunrise and after sunset, is not advised as the roads can be busy and there are no bike paths
- Don’t forget to walk around inside of the temples.
- Take time to close your eyes and imagine what this place felt like thousands of years ago.
- Costs (from Mar, 2013)
- A private driver for the day can be reserved for less than 40,000 khat (~$47 USD)
- Entry for foreigners is $10 USD
- Our favorite temples/pagodas that you definitely should visit
- Bulethi (For sunset)
- Shwesandaw (For sunset)
- Pyathada (For sunrise)
So, what did we think of Bagan? Our feelings are really mixed on this ancient wonder. Yes the site of thousands of temples and pagodas dotting the landscape is incredible and unlike anything we have ever seen, but upon our departure there were unfortunately several cracks that we found in the foundation of Bagan’s #15 ranking.
First – Why is Bagan Great?
This is really simple. Nowhere else on the planet will you find such a dense collection of religious buildings. The view of this in 2013 is incredible and the thought of this area containing five times as many buildings almost 1,000 years back is mind boggling. Bagan is without a doubt one of the ancient wonders of the world and it is one of the most spectacular places we have ever visited.
Sounds like you love it…so what’s wrong?
Contentious preservation, current lack of significant architectural detail and the monotony of it’s endless brick buildings all put into question the #15 ranking.
What is Bagan today vs. yesterday?
Like much of the really old structures on the planet, the temples and pagodas of Bagan have been crippled over time by both natural and unnatural forces. Flooding, looting, war and a collection of earthquakes have ensured that our generation will never see the original Bagan that stood during the Pagan empire.
This is not unique to Bagan. Most historical structures look different today than they originally stood when they were first constructed. This is just a fact of life and as a constant attribute to most places, it generally does not play a factor into our enjoyment of visiting. However, Bagan is a little different than the average AbsoluteVisit.
Most historical wonders choose to either take a path of sitting in ruins or being rebuilt to closely resemble the original structure as possible. From our experience, both of these work well – sometimes it is great to see what a building looks like after thousands of years of decay and other times it is incredible to see what the masterpiece actually looked like back when it was living and breathing. Perhaps a mix of both ruins and rebuilt is best in our opinion.
Unfortunately Bagan has taken a different path. Neither left in ruins or properly rebuilt, Bagan has progressed down a rocky path of contentious construction over the past several decades. Today it is believed that close to 90% of the temples and pagodas have been rebuilt, many of which do not match their past structure from afar and certainly don’t look anywhere near authentic when viewed from up close.
While touring Bagan we found our brains constantly trying to insert an asterisk into every “wow” moment that we felt. Each time we had the thought of “I can’t believe this place existed a thousand years ago”, we became annoyingly distracted with the idea that the place we were viewing today, was not like the place in history that we so badly wanted to visit. It became very difficult for us to fall in love with Bagan like we did two-years back at Angkor Wat.
Everyone certainly has different opinions on this. Even our views continue to waver, but ultimately we think Bagan loses some “special” points because of the way the site has been managed. We do however encourage you to be very open with your opinion on this until you have a chance to visit Bagan and observe for yourself.
Here are a couple more general areas in which we found Bagan was lacking when ranked up against it’s Top 25 AV peers.
Bagan on a whole lacked the detailed artwork and inscriptions that accompanies so many of the world’s incredible wonders. There were a few reconstructed (or not?) areas that offered glimpses of detail that might have existed back in its prime, but unfortunately the detail is certainly missing today.
You can see some glimpses of detail in the three pictures below. Bear in mind that 99% of the temple walls were covered in the bare brick and not the ornate work you see in these images.
Bricks, Bricks & More Bricks
From a distance, looking at hundreds of temples and pagodas was incredible. However, over time you will find that all of the temples begin to blend into each other because of their similar construction. We both distinctively remember the names and details of several Angkor Wat temples. The same can not be said for Bagan.
Don’t let all of this dreary talk fool you into thinking Bagan is something that should be removed from your bucket list. Bagan is incredible – regardless of if today’s Bagan doesn’t exactly resemble the original Bagan. The view of the sun rising over hundreds of Buddhist temples and pagodas will simply take your breath away.
Sure we wish that Bagan was managed better as a historical wonder, but perhaps our view and the commonly vocalized view from those outside of Myanmar is too selfish. Bagan is a holy place, worshipped by living people and who are we to interfere with the evolution of their holy land.
We’re not prepared to demote Bagan to a lower spot on the list quite yet. We want to have time to let it all soak in and for our thoughts to become firm as we continue to travel to many more of the Top 100 Places in the world over the coming months.
In the mean time, we can without a doubt reaffirm that Bagan is one of the Top 50 Places in the world, we just need some additional travel and thinking to confirm the exact spot.
Lastly (or firstly for those of you who aren’t into reading!), here are some of our favorite photos we captured during our visit to Bagan. We hope you enjoy them.
Exploring Inside The TemplesWe were able to spend some time walking through the inside chambers of a few of the main temples. While the insides did not offer much that left you with that “wow” feeling, they did help bring to life the sleepy exteriors. They always were filled with locals actively praying, which really made Bagan feel less museumlike. The true wonder of Bagan is certainly not found inside of the temples, but it is absolutely necessary to explore the insides to really understand what Bagan is today.
Here are a few of our favorite photos we captured from inside the temples.
Shwezigon PagodaOn our second day in Bagan we drove to the edge of town and took a stroll around the Shwezigon Pagoda. At the time, neither of us were too interested in the place as it didn’t look remotely “Baganish” – seeing as it is not constructed of exposed red brick. Our photos from this temple turned out to be some of our best in Bagan and looking back on it, this temple was actually pretty cool. Don’t miss it on your visit!
Brad, Will and Our Best FriendsHere are a couple of pictures of us and our current best friends. Our cameras follow us everywhere we go and we’ve become quite attached to them (literally) as the trip approaches the end of its second month. We haven’t named them yet, but we’re open to any suggestions you leave in the comments
Bagan is definitely one of those places that requires 360 degree viewing. Pictures just don’t do this place justice. We tried our best to capture some of this ancient wonder on video. Hopefully this provides you with a more impactful view as you visit from home.