Mysterious Myanmar – Discovering the flaming land of Bagan
We arrive at Bagan in the early afternoon, in the blazing heat. I start to feel what I have read about Bagan, the land of fire.
Text & photos: Le Thang
It takes us about 6 hours from Mandalay to Bagan by bus. There is a remarkable range of temperature in Myanmar. It is scorching hot in the mid-afternoon and becomes cold after the sun sets behind the horizon.
I wake up at 5a.m, whilst the night sky is still starry and the air cold. I have already investigated this destination in the previous afternoon, right after arriving here. Donning a scarf, I find my way to our rendezvous, with the burning dawn light beginning to play on the many layers of the sacred towers.
Bagan is about 150km from Mandalay in the Southwest. It is a dry land sitting on the east bank of Ayeyarwady river. From the 9th to 13th centuries, the city was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan with an area of 25 square miles. During the kingdom's height between the 11th and 13th centuries, about 13,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were constructed in the Bagan plains alone, of which the remains of over 2,500 temples and pagodas still survive to the present day. Mongol invasions in the 13th century and an earthquake in 1975 destroyed many of these splendid structures.
However, it is not my intention to look carefully for such information. I have traveled to Bagan to discover and capture as many photos of this mysterious landscape as possible. And now, I’m realizing my expectations.
Still dog-tired, I ascend to the highest floor of the temple, which is considered to be the best place for witnessing the sunrise in Bagan. I reach the top at dawn but it is crowded with visitors and photo hunters. Although I know that this location attracts many photographers, I am surprised at the sheer number. It is difficult for me to simply find a spot to wait.
The wait for the sunrise is long and quiet. All eyes are turned to the horizon and no conversation is exchanged to break the silence.
I have come to Bagan in a heady mood. Bagan is the most anticipated destination in my journey due to the stories I have read and photos that I have seen. As I muddle with these vague thoughts, successive flocks of birds fly through the red sky. I’m falling into the silence when the round sun appears from behind the ancient Dahmmayan Gyi Phaya temple. Admiring praise bursts forth in a multitude of different languages. Shortly after, a new sound replaces this - the sound of a host of cameras going off.
The sun rising over this unspoilt land is extraordinary. It is mysterious, grand and primal. The fingers of light spread through fields, over the glistening dew, on to every tower, finally filling all of Bagan. The morning fog is illuminated by the sunshine. For a moment, only leafy canopies and the spiers of the towers emerge. The layered view draws visitors’ gaze to the horizon.
I have seen many photos of Bagan and heard mention of the hot-air balloons flying on the flaming sky as part of Western tour services. I am not thinking of balloons , but of the sunrise and towers before me. Perhaps, I’m one of the more fortunate visitors to this land, because in the north, hidden in the morning fog, a procession of balloons appears. It is truly fabulous to see them in such a magical place for the first time in my life. It takes me a long time to count all the balloons as they float slowly to the central field around towers. They make us think of an invasion. It’s an invasion of wonders.
The sun rising over this unspoilt land is extraordinary. It is mysterious, grand and primal. The fingers of light spread through fields, over the glistening dew, on to every tower, finally filling all of Bagan.
The balloons start to spread out in the scene, to the wonderment of us standing in the temple. The mood becomes busier. Some balloons are flying high in the sky looking at the whole scene, whilst some are flying near the ground and passing close by towers. I do not know what the people in the balloons are seeing and feeling. Perhaps, they do not know that they are exploring a wonder and accidentally creating another wonder.
Hot air balloons over Bagan sky
Mesmerized by this new sight, the sun has been temporarily forgotten. However when the balloons fly to the central field, it makes itself known again. The entire space is filled with the sunbeams. Fog and dust from the nearby street spreads over the field.
I once saw a solar eclipse when I was young. I haven’t had any chance to see it again since then. Miraculously, now I have the opportunity to experience that feeling again thanks to the hot-air balloons in Bagan. I would never have imagiend a balloon could fly across the sun and hide it to create the solar eclipse in only 10 seconds.
I leave the tower and spend the day wandering through fields and down dusty streets to visit other temples. I stand in front of giant temples and observe tourist carriages and ox carts of various shapes and designs. As the sun sets on Ayeyarwady river, I travel to another temple, an ideal location, marked on the map, for witnessing the sunset. I stay there and contemplate the striking sunset behind the western mountain range. The sunset in Bagan is different from the sunrise. It is very thoughtful and quiet. I can see the regret of the others present as the sun finally falls down behind the mountain, as it is the sun that has brought the magic to the flaming land of holy towers.
The sunset in Bagan is different from the sunrise. It is very thoughtful and quiet. I can see the regret of the others present as the sun finally falls down behind the mountain, as it is the sun that has brought the magic to the flaming land of holy towers.
I leave the tower at dusk feeling that Bagan still has more mysteries to be revealed. Enormous and ancient pagodas, the blue Ayeyarwady river with the simple life of the local people in Myanmar, traditional lacquer villages and warm-hearted people of this landscape.
All this on the first day. Who knows what tomorrow will bring?
How to get to Bagan?
You can also take a boat on Ayeyarwady river from Mandalay to Bagan. Boats depart at 9:00a.m at 40USD and 5:00p.m at 10USD.
Getting around Bagan
In Bagan, you can travel by bike, electric bike, ox cart or carriage. The most convenient vehicle is electric bike at about 10USD/day. A normal bike is priced at 3USD/day.
Most foods in Myanmar are traditional. Some restaurants offer Western and Chinese dishes.
Bagan features various hotels and guesthouses at reasonable prices. The cheapest accommodation is priced at 35USD/night for two or three people. Alternatively, you can find a bed on the veranda floor for 7USD/night.
There are about 4000 pagodas in Bagan such as Shwezigon pagoda (built in the 11th century) in Nyaung U, Ananda temple (the 11th century), Thatbyinnyu (the 12th century), Shwegugyi (the 11th century) and Shwesandaw (the 11th century) – the best place to view the sunset in Old Bagan.
Other activities in Bagan include: Visiting lacquer workshops; going to local markets; having dinner at Nanda restaurant (one of the best restaurants in Bagan) (7-10USD) to view puppetry; visiting Popa peak, an ancient volcano – the birthplace of a Nat, who helps and support for local people, about 40km from Bagan.
- You are advised to take off your shoes and socks when visiting pagodas.
- When giving money, gifts or anything to other people, you should use your right hand or both hands to express your politeness.
- You should put on a pair of trousers and long sleeve shirts when visiting temples.
- To avoid trouble, do not take photos or film in religious buildings.
Read more Myanmar travel guide at here.