As we landed into Bagan, we couldn’t help peer out the window of our Yangon Airways (whose motto is “You’re safe with us!”) flight to see what we’d been waiting for. A trip to Myanmar is really a trip to Bagan – it’s always on the itinerary, from your first time or your 50th. Like the great man-made structures of the world, e.g. the Taj Mahal, the Empire State Building, the Eiffel Tower, St. Peter’s, Bagan’s temples are a luxury to behold. The only difference is that there are over 2000 of them, built from the 9th to the 13th century, everyone of them distinctive.
The crux of your trip, as ours was, will be about seeing as many temples as you can, but Bagan has so many other luxurious Bits you don’t want to miss as well.
Here are my top 10 Best Bagan Bits:
Driving in from the airport, we were stymied by a city-wide parade blocking the streets. As we were going nowhere fast, our driver parked by the side of the road and we popped out to take some photos. We discovered that the festivities were in honor of several boys entering into the monastery for their studies. This was enough for the whole town to get gussied up and join the parade.
Not everyday do you bump into townsfolk decked out in day-glo colors, but most citizens, both sexes, wear the longyi, its colorful prints contrasting beautifully with the brown, dusty roads and ancient temples.
Boys and girls alike donned traditional costumes that glowed in the sun.
Why do foreign markets hold so much appeal for visitors? In a place like Bagan, it is about the only way to mingle with the locals. Busy getting on with their day-to-day chores, shopping, haggling, eating – paying us no mind so we feel like we might not be spotted as tourists…except for our cameras. The familiar, like garlic, eggplant, tomatoes, fish take on a different hue and the unknown, betel leaves, dried fish, mystery veggies opened our eyes to the possibilities of what we might be having for dinner.
Eggplant & Tomatoes
Garlic & Cauliflower
For the past two centuries, Bagan has been home to lacquerware and, at one point, there were over 200 workshops in this tiny village. Now plastic, glass and stainless steel are used, lacquer is mostly decorative, so the industry is reliant on the tourist trade. Your guide will invariably stop at one of the many shops for you to have a look. Embrace it and listen in – as the visit always includes a lesson on its history and how it’s made, which I found really interesting. Afterwards the guided tour, you just happened to have found yourself in the store, but prices are reasonable and you don’t have to buy. Some shops are better than others, so it’s worth it to do your research. We did and found that we were not disappointed. Tun/Moe Moe’s Family Lacquerware is the one I can highly recommend.
4. River View Restaurant
The food in Bagan was some of the best we had in Myanmar. The eponymous River View was our favorite. Our lunch was some of the most refined we had for the entire trip: fried local vegetables, several selections of the country’s famous salads including the Fermented Tea Leaf salad. The combination of soft, pickled tea leaves, peanuts and other crunchy bits, sesame seeds, fried garlic, those tiny dried shrimp and chopped tomatoes made it our favorite dish in Myanmar. Sitting in the shade watching the traffic cruise down the Irrawaddy while sipping Myanmar Beer was a luxury in of itself. The other restaurants in Bagan were equally as delicious and walking distance from our hotel: the Star Beam and (yes, it’s really called) Be Kind To Animals/The Moon.
I know we just talked about the restaurants on the river but the Irrawaddy gets a shout out by itself. Most of you will have taken a luxury cruise from Mandalay to Bagan down the country’s largest river. We did not as we just didn’t have the time, but highly recommend you do. Lined with temples and villages, it’s amazing to think that it’s still the country’s most important commercial waterway, linking China to Yangon. Of course, one can’t forget, it’s also one of the few rivers that’s the protagonist of its own poem, The Road to Mandalay.
Sunset is its own social gathering in Bagan. Somehow, the crowd all got the same telegram telling them to climb up the very steep steps of the Shwesandaw Pagoda at a certain time everyday. People cling on to the five terraces for dear life in order to see the sunset descend into the horizon. It’s the place to be and you have to experience it once during your stay. NB: Start making your way down before the sun is fully set to make sure you remain injury free.
The Sun Setting as Seen from Shwesandaw Pagoda
A must do and really it’s own Bit of Paradise, Balloons of Bagan is exactly what Montgolfier had in mind when inventing the balloon. As you ascend into the sky, the mist clears and the golden temples reflect the first rays of sun. As the sly begins to clear, everywhere you look temples spring to life. You truly feel safe with Balloons Over Bagan. They were the first company in town and have been lifting people up in the air since 1999. When you land, a champagne breakfast is waiting for you and the day has only just begun.
Filling Up the Balloons
Balloons Filling up the sky
8. Hotel at Tharabar Gate
Although there are many new hotels popping up all over town, you just can’t beat Hotel at Tharabar Gate, not only for its proximity to the temples and restaurants, but also for its lovely rooms and gardens. Nestled in Old Bagan, it has that perfect combination of luxury and authenticity that Best Bits demands. Step outside the gates and you are smack in the middle of everything making it so easy to grab a bike and pedal through the pagodas. Also, the ginger biscuits served with afternoon tea are not to be missed!
Shwe War Thein Handicrafts Shop sits almost right outside the hotel gates. It’s truly a treasure trove (a cliché but in this instance I had to use it!) of dust-covered local antique artifacts. Diving into the piles all around you makes a great adventure if you need a break from temple-visiting.
Although Myanmar was under Military Rule for many years and there is no official religion, most of its citizens practice Buddhism and have done so for a very long time. Thus, inside every temple sits at least one representation of the Enlightened One. Every statue is different, a testament to the ingenuity of the Burmese artisans. In his own words, remember: “Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without.”
A Selection of Buddhas
Of course you are here to see the temples and once there were 10,000! Over 2000 still survive, so you will never see every one of them, unless you stay in Bagan for a very long time. The highlights include the Dhammayangi, Nandawan, Hlo Min Lo, Ananda, and many, many, many others. You are bound to be overloaded, but enjoy the ones you see and know you can always return.
(More to about temples in my next post!)