Bagan, the ancient capital city of what is now Myanmar covers 40 square miles and is littered with temples and stupas built between the 11th and 13th Centuries. At one point there were over 10,000 buildings of worship in the area, and now there are around 2,000 left. There are three modern settlements that visitors can stay in, and the group and I were based in Nyaung U, the biggest of the three and located just outside the protected archeological area . From there there are many ways to explore the ancient city itself; balloon rides at sunrise, mopeds, donkey carts, push bikes, cars and coaches.
After having lunch and emotionally recovering from the train journey, a small group of us decided to form a gang and hire mopeds and have a look around. The scooters were electric, with a top speed of about 30mph. There were no helmets (sorry Mum) but the roads weren’t busy and we kept out of the way of any traffic. We bimbled around and found the Irrawaddy river, which we would be cruising up in a few days time, and had a look at some of the temples we came across as we tried to get our heads around the scale of the place.
The ruined buildings on the plains are connected by sandy tracks, and the ‘off-roading’ was a little challenging for the novice scooterers of the group. But exploring them made it a little easier to understand how this had once been a city, even though the wooden buildings that people lived and worked in disappeared long ago.
The next day the whole group had a guided cycle tour to visit some of the larger temples and to learn about the history of the place. The first temples in the city were commissioned by first great King of Burma, King Anawrahta, who is credited with bringing Theravada Buddhism to the country after being converted by a visiting monk. One of these first temples was Shwezigon Paya, a large gilt covered complex. It, like many of the larger temples that we saw, has been restored and adapted over the years, and is now so new and shiny that it’s hard to appreciate just how old it actually is.
One of the legends associated with Shwezigon is a love triangle story between King Anawrahta, Kyanzittha, his best warrior and future King, and a princess from the Mon Kingdom in the south east of modern day Burma. The story goes that shortly after commissioning Shwezigon Paya, King Anawrahta sent Kyanzittha on a royal mission to conquer the Mon Kingdom, but when he got there the Mon King offered his daughter as a gift to the King in order to avoid a war. Kyanzittha made the long journey back to Bagan with the Princess to deliver her to the King, but on the way they fell in love. When King Anawrahta found out, Kyanzittha was captured and sentenced to death by spear at the hands of the King. However, the King respected Kyanzittha as a warrior and did not want to kill him, so aimed his spear at the ropes binding Kyanzittha, and he was able to escape. He lived in hiding until King Anawrahta died, when he returned to take his place as King, and was finally able to marry the Princess. Shwezigon Paya was unfinished when King Anawrahta died, and as a mark of respect the new King Kyanzittha completed the temple.
We then cycled to Htilominlo temple and Ananda Phaya, which is said to have the best architecture of all of the temples, before going on to Dahmayan Gi, one of Bagan’s largest temples and one of the only ones left more or less in its original state. It was built by King Narathu, who killed his father and brother to take the throne and built the temple in atonement. After the temple was completed he died under mysterious circumstances, and it is thought that his tomb may be inside the temple. All of the entrances to the central section of the building have been completely bricked up and archeological research has not yet been able to find out what is inside. For this reason, it is considered an unlucky temple, and very little restoration work has been done, leaving it in more or less its original state.
Our final visit was to a white pyramid-shaped temple to watch the sunset. We got there about an hour before sunset to get a good spot on the top level, which was just as well as it turns out it’s an incredibly popular spot to watch the sun go down, as we realised as coaches and buses and minibuses rocked up. The place was packed by sunset; it definitely wasn’t the most relaxed sunset I’ve seen, but the view of the sun setting over the ancient city was very special.