“There were 10,000 temples here,” said Thurain our guide. “Now there may be only 3000-4000.” That is still an impressive number of temples in a 26 sq. mile plain in the area known as Bagan in Central Myanmar. It was a short plane ride from Yangon to Nyaung U, the airport closest to Bagan by KBZ airlines.
On the first day, we reached our hotel, the lovely Thiripyitsaya Resort on the banks of the Ayerawaddy River. One of the best ways to explore Bagan is by bike. We eschewed the e-bikes in favor of the good old bicycles and peddled out into the warm afternoon. We were in a part known as Old Bagan which has a good mix of large temples and small neglected stupas surrounded by grass and trees.
We cycled around, stopping at any structure that caught our attention. Most of the stupas and temples were made out of red bricks. The stupas are closed structures that are supposed to house some Buddhist relic while the phatos or temples are shrines which hold several statues of the Buddha.
Though biking takes you close to the temples and allows for a leisurely exploration, one of the best ways to see Bagan is from a hot air balloon. We were lucky to get 3 seats with the Oriental Ballooning company due to the last minute cancellation. The balloon rides during the winter seasons are booked months in advance.
The next morning, we were picked up by a van at 5:30 AM and taken to the balloon port, a stretch of grassy land in the middle of a jungle. Miraculously, hot coffee and croissants appeared at our tables as we waited for the balloons to be prepared. Riding on a hot air balloon is quite easy provided you don’t have a fear of heights or closed spaces. Each basket attached to the hot air balloon could hold 12 people. Just before sunrise, we took off with our pilot Rick, an Australian with over 4000 balloon rides behind him. We were in good hands.
As the balloon rose up, powered by gusts of hot air, we could see the land sliding away from us. The sun came up in the East, its golden fingers slowly stroking the trees and the river and bringing the pagodas to life as a river of blue mist continued to dance its way through the land.
From 1500 ft. in the air, Bagan spread out beneath us like a magical land. I marveled at the number of temples in the small area. Rick pointed out the larger temples, the famous Sulamani, the large red brick structure of the Dhammayangyi and the golden top of the Shwezigone. We also saw a typical village in Bagan with small huts with corrugated iron roofs and enclosures for cows and goats.
After about 45 minutes, it was time for descent. Many of us wished we could have stayed up there for longer where it was so peaceful and pleasant. On the ground, we celebrated our successful journey with champagne and fresh fruits. Each of us received a certificate as proof that we indeed go up in the air.
After the experience, anything else in Bagan seemed like an anticlimax but we still had more exploring left to do, this time with a guide who would tell us the stories behind the temples. Thurain, our guide was a pleasant young man from the area wearing a checked longyi and a sun hat. The Bagan kings loved to build temples that showed their power and prestige.
Even ordinary people could build temples to earn merit and show their devotion. We first went to the Shwesandaw Pagoda which was built by King Anawhrata in 1057, the founder of the first Bagan Empire. After a steep climb on the red brick steps we reached the top level of the Pagoda. This pagoda is famous for its sunset views.
Then we went to Damayangyi built by King Narathu in the 12th century. This temple was a grim structure, smelling of bats and darkness. King Narathu was not a popular king. He killed his father and brother for the throne but was filled with regret later. He then built 2 Buddha statues, side by side, as atonement. The great pagoda that he built was not enough to atone for his many atrocities. He was killed by assassins three years after the work on the pagoda started. It was never finished. The pagoda ends in a step instead of a spire as a testimony to King Narathu’s abrupt end.
The temple was cool and dark providing shelter to many painters who spread out their sand art under Buddha's feet. Pictures of monks, many headed elephants and colorful birds were painted using a mixture of sand glue and colour, the only bright spots in this rather dingy temple. Outside the temple, was a menagerie of Burmese puppets, hanging from the trees. Puppetry is one of the traditional forms of entertainment in Myanmar, popular even today in most villages.
Another major temple is the Ananda Phato. It is, as its name suggests, a happier temple, reminiscent of many Hindu temples in India. We entered the temple through a narrow corridor which was flanked by small shops selling souvenirs. This temple was built by King Kyazitta in the 12th century, a time when the Bagan Empire was at its peak. The temple is built in the Greek Cross style with four large Buddha statues facing in each direction.
“There is a secret to one of the Buddhas, said our guide. In fact, when we stood at a little distance, the face of the Buddha seemed to have a benign smile. If we went closer, the expression seemed to become more serious, almost sad. “The ordinary people stand at a distance to see Lord Buddha and he is kind and merciful to them. But the monks come the closest and to them Buddha is solemn and serious reminding them of their duty as monks,” explained Thurain. There was a reason for everything, each hand gesture of the Buddha, each painting and each small shrine.