Myanmar > Bagan


25 March 2011


Our first pagoda visit is Shwezigon, a gilded bell-shape structure built 11th century — it became the prototype for other pagodas uniquely found in Myanmar. The base is a square facing north, south, east, west. The main entrance is always the one facing east, the sunrise.

In the yard there’s a smaller temple with the corn-cob style, and a much-later design of ornamented tiered roof. Shwezigon is the most sacred of the thousands of Bagan’s temples, designated Monument #1, and it’s 50m-tall Buddhist stupa.

There are people climbing Shwezigon pulling a long yellow (or maybe golden) cloth. There’s a high-ranking monk there and next to him, in a brown cloak, a lady. This is interesting because the guide tells me, (1) he has never seen common people being allowed to climb the sacred pagoda, and (2) that part of the pagoda should not be visited by a lady.

And spectators soon build up for this obviously momentous event.

I mingle and hear Thai being spoken among the crowd. That’s interesting.

Sure enough, soon after they wrapped the yellow cloth around the dome, somebody starts throwing money into the air — 200-baht notes! Everybody scrambles to chase the flying cash, adults and kids alike. Apparently many Thais make pilgrimages to sacred Buddhist shrines in Myanmar and this is probably a votive offering I’m witnessing.

Anyway, the excitement soon passes and in the yard, I see structures of the different eras of Myanmar culture. From 11th century all the way to 20th.

On the way out, a list of local miracles. This is common in any holy site of any faith — the intense desire to believe that each is sacredly special.

There’s also a small building in the compound telling the oft-repeated tale of how Prince Siddhartha Gautama left the palace in secret, and chanced upon an old man, a sick man, a corpse and an ascetic — which made him realise that everybody would become old, sick and dead. He became depressed and decided to become an ascetic to overcome it. The end-game is that he became the Enlightened One or the Buddha. Burmese Buddhism believes he’s the 4th Buddha, and the final (5th) Buddha will appear before the world ends. Sounds familiar ain’t it?

The Bagan area is littered with temples. As we take a short break in a village, I spot a pagoda. You can find small pagodas almost everywhere — they say there are altogether 3,100 temples here in the plain of Bagan, mostly built between 11th and 13th century.

With such intricate ornaments, this temple must have looked elegant 800 years ago. A kid on a bicycle suddenly appears, there’s a golden Buddha in there, he says. Do you want me to take you there for a look?, he offers. I politely decline as we have to leave soon, but I’m impressed with his English.

We move on, and stop at Htilominlo Temple. Built early-13th century, it’s 46m tall.

As usual with large temples, it has four entrances, each with its own Buddha. But the grandest one is reserved for the east entrance. I can discern the intricate pattern drawn on the walls and the ceiling, and can only imagine how beautiful it must have been in its heydays.

Enclosed tunnel-like corridors link one entrance to the next.

There are stone staircases inside the temple to access the upper floors, but any attempt to climb is not encouraged. The ’11th century’ bit is incorrect for this temple, but I then realise they use the same exact notice for other temples, which could be 11th century. So I guess they never bother to customise the ‘century’ according to the temple it’s placed in.

It’s common to find these stalls outside the major temples. Summer school holidays have just started so there are kids helping out parents to sell stuff. They speak good English, but their scripts sound similar — there must be a standard manual somewhere on how to entice visitors to part with their cash. One small girl tries her best to sell me some postcards but I decline. In desperation I suppose, she blurts out, sir, you are very handsome! — I fish a 1,000-kyat note out of my pocket for a stack of postcards.

Htilominlo is also famous for its intricately-carved flowery motifs on the exterior walls.

This relief at the corner features the guardian of the temple. I can never forget those large beady eyes and teeth.

Htilominlo done, I ask the guide if we can climb a pagoda for an aerial view. No problem he says, and soon we are at Bulethi Temple, not too far from the road via a narrow dusty path.

I’ve learnt how to read Burmese numbers and here is Monument #394.

It’s a steep 30m climb to the 3rd level — we have to virtually crawl up the steps.  A torrid noon, and the bricks are baking hot. Not good for our soles, but should be good for our souls, hahaha!

In the shade, we take a breather, but a guy soon appears trying to sell some paintings. I have no idea how he spotted us and how he got up here so fast. We politely decline his pitch.

Anyway, it is truly worth the effort and heat. Across the hot parched plain, we see temples upon temples upon temples. Come in winter and it should be greener with blue sky.

These temples were built between 11th and 13th century but Bagan had been the seat of the Myanmar Dynasty since the 2nd century. During that period, this whole area was a city of some 500,000 people. So instead of the brown fields we see now, the place was packed with buildings, houses, roads, and everything  people needed to live their daily lives. It was a huge bustling city, now no more.

This is the Bagan I first saw some 10 years ago in a picture. The seemingly endless peaks of the stupas rising from the ground are a sight to behold. This is better than Angkor Wat or Borobodur or Prambanan.

In every direction I look, there are temples … never-ending very ancient temples.

The demise of ancient Bagan happened at the end of the 13th century when the Mongols from China invaded. The royalty and people fled, the city destroyed, and only these hardy structures stood, till today.

From my vantage point, I can spot Gawdawpalin Temple, 11th century, more than 50m tall. Very impressive structure, which makes me think, in the 11th century what were the Europeans building?

In the distance, I see the largest temple in Bagan — the 12th century Dhammayangyi Temple. It’s a massive pyramidal structure which dominates the landscape.

The odd thing is, the Bagan pagodas are not in the Unesco World Heritage Site list, due to two main faults: (1) repair works were/are haphazardly done using modern material and technique (see bricks and white plaster on the temple ledge below), (2) the construction of prominent modern structures in the area (see the tower at the top-left corner). Of course not helped by the military govt’s who-cares attitude. What a huge pity.

I am so engrossed by the splendid view of the plain with my head busily thinking how the whole place would have been like, say 800 years ago, that I forget people are waiting for me some 30m below.

It’s getting very hot in the sun, so our Burmese friend takes us to the Irrawaddy river for lunch. Another mission fulfilled – the viewing of the famous river. The water is very clean (no wonder they can still catch so many butter-fish), the scenery splendid, and the obligatory riverbank stupa completes a perfect picture.

There’s a huge island in the middle of the river and I think there are vegetable plots there. This guy is probably taking his produce to the market.

The restaurant has exploited this scenic spot of the Irrawaddy very well. There’s a constant fresh breeze blowing and it’s pleasantly cool under the trees.

Enough of telling tales, I’m starving and we are having … butter-fish curry (which tastes almost like our ‘ikan patin’), lentil soup, brinjals, some vegies I can’t identify, condiments, local black coffee, excellent ambience — quiet a good lunch I must say.




  1. Wow…

    Nice pics and to see so many historic monuments. Took my breath away.

    Over 2 thousand year old and built over that period. So many history and stories amidst the building of each temple. Who, Why and How each of the temples were built. …….?

    Real pity that UNESCO had not declared it a World Heritage Site. Culture and History lost due to human ego.

    Now looking forward to going to Bagan after Yangon. And may have to spend more time there and shorten my days in Mandalay ! LOL …….

  2. Thanks, yes, Bagan was the highlight. They couldn’t get World Heritage Site status due to tech matters, as I wrote in the story. A huge pity, it’s more awesome than Angkor or Borobodur or Prambanan, if you ask me.

  3. Agreed with your statement ‘ it’s more awesome than Angkor or Borobodur or Prambanan’ just by look at your photos 🙂
    is there any entrance fee there?

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