Story: Le Hong Lam
Photos: Trinh Le Minh, Nguyen Hoang Duy

Bagan is one of the most remarkable sites in the world, a city filled with stunning ancient temples and a pervasive feeling of its spiritual past.

Myanmar is no longer quite the undiscovered destination it was when the country first began to reopen to the world in 2010, but it remains an enticing destination that never ceases to amaze. Yangon is the most conspicuous example of an emerging Myanmar, as the entire city is studded with sizable construction works of high-rises and mushrooming residential areas. A symbol of Yangon is of course Shwedagon Pagoda, a gigantic Buddhist place of worship constructed over 2,500 years ago, which still stands proud witness to the country’s forgone golden era. The main stupa of Shwedagon rises 98 meters and is drenched in 30 tons of gold and countless diamonds.

I reached Shwedagon on a rainy afternoon just as the city started to light up. It can easily take an hour to stroll around this pagoda, and you can choose a corner to light candles, pour water over gilded Buddha statues or keep silence for prayers, as each moment perpetuates an inexorable calm from within.

However, it is Bagan that boasts the most Buddhist pagodas, stupas and relics in the world. Bagan is a living heritage site, in which thousands of places of worships and religious landmarks spanning millennia coexist with contemporary residences and a sacred air swirls all over. It is akin to Jerusalem, Kyoto or Luang Prabang, as ancient cities that tourism has failed to quiet the sense of the sacred.

The hotel I chose was located in New Bagan, a “boutique hotel” that had a swimming pool set in a lush green tropical garden, dining tables scattered on the courtyard and superb service. Gone were sweltering summer days when temperature was said to hit 40 to 42oC; Bagan in the late autumn was the best time to visit. The morning was 20oC, and sunnier midday just around 30oC. It was a good experience to hire an electric bike to roam sandy lanes or horse carts to travel around the ancient city Old Bagan.

I enjoyed entering temples and watching the locals bring out traditional handicrafts or paintings for sale. It was also a great fun to wear the traditional longyi dress and put a bit of thanaka powder on my face and play with the local children. The following day, my traveling companion and I hired a horse cart that parked in front of our hotel. The driver was Kosoe, 25 years old, who had spent seven years doing this job. Kosoe was also an amateur tour guide who explained to us the name and history of specific temples or pagodas we crossed. He also taught us the distinction between Paya (pagoda) and Pahto (temple). A Paya is inaccessible because it is simply a stupa, while a Pahto can be entered and hosts Buddha statues inside.

Marco Polo described Bagan as a “robust land of gold with echoes of pagoda bells and the swishes of monk cloaks,” Bagan is just 40 square kilometers wide and located on a lush green plateau surrounded by low mountains. During nearly 300 years of the Pagan Empire that reached its pinnacle between the 11th and 13th centuries as one of the two most prosperous reigns of Southeast Asia, rulers ordered the construction of over 10,000 temples, pagodas and shrines of all sizes, making it the largest religious compound in the world.

Sunrise and sunset are the two best moments to admire Bagan, as the city is draped in radiant gold when the sun glances off the red earthen brick walls of temples and pagodas. Visitors can take a hot-air balloon ride to view the thousands of temples down below. Or you can watch from popular viewing points, as I did, and take in the panorama of wonders bequeathed centuries ago.

The best place to admire these gems is perhaps Shwesandaw Paya, which offers an expansive view. Thousands of Buddhist temples and shrines mingle into the vast greenery of forests. The two finest temples in my sight were Ananda Pahto, the largest one and Thatbyinnyu Pahto, the tallest.

For a wider panorama of Bagan, you can board a canoe to cross Ayeyarwady River, stroll through Tan Kyi Village and climb to the peak of Tan Kyi Paya Mountain, where a giant golden Stupa was located at its height. It took approximately four hours to come and go on foot, but the view from this peak to Bagan is unrivalled, from the small village below to the unwinding river in sight, thousands of temples looming large in jungles and the mystical mountains on the background as the sun dies down.

Having set foot on various destinations on earth, Bagan really stole my heart, not only for its wonders that filled my eyes, but the sincere feelings of awe and respect that resonated in my soul.