When you say Myanmar everybody will instantly think about Bagan. The countless Buddhist temples, famous for being depicted in all the travelers’ photos that venture there. And we have to admit that for us also Bagan is one of the top experiences in Asia.
But what makes Bagan so famous? Yeah, yeah, it’s that place with tons of temples, but at the same time, it hides details that conquer and fascinate us. The temples of Bagan didn’t appear overnight. It took over 250 years, starting with the 11th century, to build them. This was also the period when this region was the capital of the Pagan Empire. The Pagan Empire is well-known because it’s the one that managed to unite all the regions that today comprise Myanmar. And also because it incorporated as the main religion Theravada Buddhism. This lead to the building of over 10,000 religious monuments, including the temples that we see in Bagan today (unfortunately there are less than 2,500 standing).
“Why So Many Temples?”
The most frequent question heard wandering around Bagan was “How come there are so many temples?” Before talking about this, I remembered a funny answer we heard, a guide that smiled to his tourists and answered them: “How come Christians build so many churches?” But coming back to the temples in Bagan and their impressive number, they are connected to the Buddhist belief according to which what we do in life decides our fate after we die. Long story short, good deeds give you the chance to a better reincarnation. If not, chances are that you will die and reincarnate into something not that nice. And building temples is definitely one of the good deeds.
As such, the Kings made sure to build as many temples as they could. A way to ensure a favorable balance sheet, one that could eventually erase their sins acquired through wars. And the strange thing is that even the controversial military regime that dominated Myanmar starting with 1962 was a fan of good religious deeds and encouraged them. Thus, every now and then you can spot a new temple, full of gold and elements that surely won’t make you think of a country as poor as Myanmar is. But this might be the representation of a certain general’s hope to a successful reincarnation.
UNESCO’s Waiting List
Bagan has a well-deserved spot in the top of must-see places in South-East Asia together with Angkor Wat in Cambodia and with the Borobudur Temple in Indonesia. But unlike the ones mentioned, the temples in Bagan are not included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. This is because getting on the list depends on a number of criteria. And in Myanmar’s case, the restoration projects performed in a rather chaotic manner are amongst the reasons that still keep the Bagan temples on the waiting list. We got to witness with our own eyes what restoration sometimes means. Because you get to see floor tiles in places where they certainly shouldn’t be. Or you see a shred of concrete instead of bricks.
Best Moments of the Day in Bagan
But I don’t want to get you bored with all these details, let’s jump into action. And the real action in Bagan happens in two key moments of the day: the sunrise and the sunset. If you wander around the temples during the day there are high chances you will be the only tourist even at the famous temples. But for sure you won’t get this chance early in the morning or in the afternoon when the sun prepares its exit. Each tourist struggles to find that one temple that can provide a spectacular view but also a bit of privacy. We got to feel that it is really hard to discover such a place, but definitely not impossible. From all the sunrises and the sunsets we got to witness, we chose one for each to decide which moment is more amazing.
A Sunrise Surrounded With Balloons
When you look at a map of Bagan, a lot of the temples have signs either for sunrise or for sunset. But it is actually very hard to stumble upon a temple not offering a great view. As such, we focused our search for temples providing intimacy, where we wouldn’t be surrounded by tons of tourists. And we actually hit the jackpot with one sunrise when we were literally the only ones there.
We found that particular temple during a sunset but we thought that it could also be a good candidate for sunrise as well. We checked the map to see the route of the famous hot air balloons and it won us for the next day sunrise. As such, we reach our temple, pitch black, because we let our excitement rule over us and left the hotel much earlier than we should have. We park our electric motorbike and start sneaking in the temple as high as we can.
We weren’t expecting it to be so cold (it was mid-January). I didn’t think I will get to wear my down jacket here, but luckily I have it with me as it is really freezing. We wait and we wait. And all of a sudden we see a spot of light. And with it the first hot air balloon as well. Followed by another one and another one. And before we realize it we have tens of balloons flying in front of us, as in a march specifically made to take our breath away. I really cannot tell what impresses us most – how the temples in the huge field start to slowly take shape or the dance of the balloons between us and the sun. I actually think that everything combined gets to win us over.
It’s hard to say whether the sunrise in Bagan would be so spectacular without the flying balloons. Or I might be biased because of my fondness for sunsets. But thank God, there are still a lot of tourists eager to pay impressive sums (more than 300USD per person) and thus offering us a memorable view.
A Sunset’s Magical Spell
And then comes the sunset. For the sunset, we never managed to have a temple all to ourselves. But this didn’t make any less impressive the game of shadows in front of us. If during the sunrises we couldn’t get our eyes off the balloons, during the sunset we really didn’t know where to look. Because everywhere around you, the darkness starts to swallow the temples. And the contrast of lights and shadows is the one mesmerizing us. Out of all the sunsets in Bagan, our favorite one has to be the one spent on the Ta Wet Hpaya Temple.
We cannot say that we were lucky with the privacy issues. But we were sure lucky to get two young Buddhist monks playing around the temple. It’s impossible to not get photogenic shots with these guys around. They were actually enjoying the sunset as much as we were.
When we talk about Bagan, people ask us to recommend either the sunrise or the sunset. It is really hard to decide between them, you need to witness both, as many times as you can. Only then decide which one gets your vote. We will let the photos speak in our names and find a verdict in your eyes.