Bagan: Next Generation’s Angkor Wat

Bagan: Next Generation’s Angkor Wat

Twenty years ago you would be hard-pressed to hear of people planning travels to Angkor Wat.  Though the brutal reign of the Khmer Rouge had ended, the lack of stability and peace throughout the country limited it’s tourism industry.  As recently as 1997 only 200,000 people visited Cambodia, the same number now arrive monthly.  People coming to Cambodia generally do so to see Siem Reap and it’s most famous edifice Angkor Wat.  Just as Siem Reap climbed as a bucket list destination, so too will it’s sister city Bagan, Myanmar for the next generation.

Currently 350,000 visitors a year enter Myanmar, most of which will make a trip to the temples of Bagan.  Though most of the world hasn’t heard of Bagan yet, it is only a matter of time before the Southeast Asian tourist trail runs right through it.  Matching the Angkor’s ambition and devotion to Buddhism, the rulers of the Bagan Empire constructed a mind-boggling 4000 temples during the 10th-13th centuries.  Instead of scattering them around they built these temples in a very small area of 16 square miles of the hottest earth they could find.

Temples, temples, everywhere…

These temples are stylistically similar, but vary in size and grandeur.  Sadly much of the artistic touch of the empire has fallen victim to the centuries of neglect.  Paintings are worn, but still beautiful, while most of the carvings have fallen or were stolen.  Thankfully the government and foreign donors are undertaking large-scale restoration, repairs and refurbishment.  The work is needed, but the modern touch of neon lights and LED encircled Buddhas is probably not historically accurate.  Hopefully UNESCO wins their argument that the work should be preserving and restoring, rather than modernizing.

One of several Las Vegas-style entries to the larger temples.

Though getting to Bagan is easy, visiting the temples today is difficult.  Combining the unpaved, sandy, roads with the lack of tourist infrastructure leaves visitors two options to see the temples: horse carts or bicycle.  Shockingly, within seconds of arriving, we learned that I am deathly allergic to horses.  Though I have never owned or played with a My Little Pony, I have been much more exposed to them than real horses in my life, so I found my reaction surprisingly painful.  Needless to say, after a near death experience, biking was our only way around.  It would have been a fine option, but May in Myanmar is hot, it averaged 106-109 degrees F (41-43 C) while we were there.  With no shade or breeze, biking in the sun felt more like 120 degrees.  I have never felt such heat.

Even as the weather gave us a sampling of the depths of hell, the temples provided a heavenly respite from the sun.  Inside the cavernous halls of the large temples the stones were cold on your bare feet.  Stepping outside though, on the tiled floor, still barefooted per Buddhist tradition, was like walking on a griddle that would leave bacon nice and crispy.  Foot cooking included, a visit to Bagan is worth it to see one of the grand vestiges of a millenium ago.

IF YOU GO:

  1. Stay in Nyuang-U. It’s near to the temples, affordable, and has as much of a tourist scene as anywhere in Myanmar.
  2. There is an international airport. You could make this the starting or ending point of a trip to Myanmar with regular flights to Chiang Mai, Thailand.
  3. Pack a flashlight. The dark stairwells in temples and post-sunset ride home on the unlit roads will leave you wanting for light.
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Comments

» Hannah's Dad :
Jun 19, 2011

Matt, for some reason I thought you knew you were allergic to horses. Did you have anaphylaxis, and if so do you have epi pens? If not, do you need some?

thinkCHUA Reply:

OK, so I knew I was allergic to horses, but I didn’t realize how allergic I am. We aren’t traveling with an epi-pen, I downed two benedryls and took a long nap. It was a few hairy moments, but I knew getting away from the horses would make it better.

» business sms :
Feb 13, 2015

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» Ali :
Mar 19, 2015

Hello!

I’m planning a trip to Myanmar in early-June (though I am questioning my sanity after reading about the heat!).

I’ll be coming in from Chiang Mai and wanting to go straight to Bagan, however I am having a hard time finding flights. You mention above that there is a direct flight from Chiang Mai to Bagan- how/when/where did you book that?

Also, did you do the hot air balloon ride I keep seeing photos of? If so, any info you could provide on that would be great!

Thanks!!

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About the Author

thinkCHUA: Photographing and documenting the world on a 3 year round-the-world trip to help future travelers discover new places, travel longer and enjoy the world's great experiences.

About the Author
thinkCHUA: Photographing and documenting the world on a 3 year round-the-world trip to help future travelers discover new places, travel longer and enjoy the world's great experiences.
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