In researching our trip to Bagan I read a lot of different resources. Each of them dictated a specific list of which temples to visit and what order to see them in. We sortof took that advice, seeing most of what was on the lists. And having now done that myself the best advice I can give to others considering such a visit is to completely ignore the lists and guides. Take advantage of the details they offer about the history of the various temples they have information on but don’t consider them the complete story on what’s worth seeing. It turns out that some of the best moments we had at the temples came while visiting the temples which aren’t featured on any maps or guides.
It is not entirely clear why, over a 230 year period at the beginning of the last millennium, the kings of Bagan commissioned more than 4,000 temples to be built in the area. But, 800 years later, there they are. Some are tiny, barely large enough for the small Buddha inside. Others are huge, going up multiple stories and hosting giant icons covered in gold leaf. Some you can climb up on the outside and others are far out in the fields where getting to them is quite a schlep.
Another thing the guide books are big on is sunrise or sunset. To be fair, part of that is almost certainly tied to the fact that it gets quite hot mid-day on the plains and there is nothing in the way of shade available. Our experience at sunset, however, left a bit to be desired. Yes, the light was nice for some shots of the temples. But the sunset itself was rather disappointing. No clouds in the sky made for rather limited colors and virtually no drama in the sky which typically make for a great sunset. I got a few good shots playing with the color balance a bit but the overall experience left a bit to be desired. The part where we then had to get back to our hotel with our bikes on dark roads with no shoulders was also a bit unnerving.
There are two main roads heading south-west from Nyaung U, the town where the airport and most hotels and restaurants are located. Rather than following the suggested routes in the guide books we simply chose to explore the temples on the main road the first day and the second road the second day.
We were riding on the quite unspectacular bikes the hotel rented us and with minimal navigational issues – the roads are basically long and straight – we were able to stop where and when we wanted along the way, unbound by a "circuit" we were supposed to be on.
We absolutely saw some of the big name temples. Unfortunately, to me, it seems that the main reason they are special is because they are bigger. And bigger is not always better. As we wandered amongst the dusty plains between the smaller temples we had the ability to better appreciate the history of the area and to experience the sites without the big crowds. And that covers both other tourists and touts.
Visiting these spiritual sites is more impressive to me when it can be done without aggressive hawkers as you come and go. By skipping many of the listed sites we got to see much of the same beauty and avoid much of the hassle.
After two days of all pagodas all the time I was pretty much done with Bagan. I was actually ready to be done with temples in general for a while given that they were basically all we’d seen over the prior week, far exceeding my usual tolerance for such. But there were more sights to be seen and many of them involved more temples. Time to press on…
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