Bagan is one of the most exciting places to visit in Myanmar. It can be said that if you have ever visited Myanmar and you didn’t stop at Bagan, then it wasn’t Myanmar you visited.
Although some of the more than 2,000 pagodas were built as early as the 9th century, Bagan has not been granted Unesco World Heritage site status.
Western tourists still make up the bulk of the total tourist arrivals in Bagan. Not many Malaysians visit Myanmar, probably because they are put off by the hassle to obtain a tourist visa (RM80), the only Asean member country that has this requirement.
The flight on Air KBZ from Yangon to Bagan, with a stopover in Heho, took about two hours (the direct return flight took only an hour).
Upon arrival at Nyaung-U airport, we were directed to a ticket desk to buy the mandatory Bagan Archaeological Zone ticket which costs 25,000 kyat (RM85) and is valid for five days. (Have the ticket ready for inspection when entering some pagodas.)
Our hotel was only about 20 minutes by taxi from the airport. The three-year-old hotel is located in a quiet and very peaceful corner of Nyaung-U and is only 200m from the restaurant street (Thiripyitsaya 4 street) and less than 100m from the main road (Anawrahta Road) that leads to Old Bagan, where the pagodas and temples are located.
We were in Bagan during the long Chinese New Year weekend in February last year. (The Myanmar New Year is in April.) The weather was pleasant but because February is a dry month, the whole place gets very dusty every time a motor vehicle goes on a dirt road. Even the tarred roads are covered in dust. But nobody seems to be bothered by the dust. We were the only ones wearing surgical face masks!
On our first evening in Bagan, we walked to Shwezigon Pagoda, about 900m from our hotel. The pagoda is a smaller version of the famous Shwedagon in Yangon. Construction of the pagoda was started by the founder of Bagan Empire (modern-day Myanmar) and completed in 1102 during the reign of his son, King Kyansittha, the greatest Myanmar king whose life stories are still retold in Myanmar’s cinema and theatre.
Early the next morning, before daybreak, we rented electric bicycles from the hotel and rode along Anawrahta Road to Bulethi Pagoda, less than 3km away, to watch the sunrise. (In Myanmar, traffic keeps to the right-hand side of the road even though most vehicles are right-hand-drive!) Riding the electric bicycle around Bagan was quite fun – it was easy to handle and could go up to a speed of 30kph but the saddle was not so comfortable for travelling over longer distances. The E-bikes (electric scooters) are more comfortable.
We arrived at Bulethi well before sunrise at 6.45am. There were fewer than 10 people on the pagoda. The moment the red ball emerged from behind the misty (or hazy?) mountains, there was complete silence as everyone was busy taking photos with their smartphones or cameras. With the tops of the stupas all over the landscape, it was sheer magic. As the sun rose higher, we spotted a few hot-air balloons drifting towards the pagoda. It was my best sunrise experience.
After that, we rode across the road to Htilominlo Pagoda, built in 1211 by a king to commemorate his selection as crown prince among his five brothers. The selection was determined by the white royal umbrella, stuck in the ground, which tilted towards him!
After breakfast at our hotel, we went to Shwezigon Pagoda again because the best time to take photos of pagodas and temples in Bagan is in the morning as the façade of most pagodas and temples face east.
Later in the afternoon, we hired a car to take us to see the other sights – Ananda Temple (a 12th century temple regarded as the holiest temple in Bagan), the 849 CE Tharabar Gate (the only gate remaining, of the 12 city wall gates), Bupaya Pagoda by the Irrawaddy River (built by Pyusawhti in 162 CE to commemorate his good fortune of being chosen as the son-in-law and heir to the throne of Pagan kingdom), Manuha Temple (a small temple crammed with huge Buddha statues, built in 1102 by the King of Thaton, who was held captive in Bagan, to express his frustration at captivity) and finally to Shwesandaw, the most popular pagoda for watching the sunrise and sunset in Bagan.
As expected, the pagoda was packed with tourists who came by the bus loads, in taxis, in private cars, on horse carts, on E-bikes and on electric bicycles. It was here that we encountered officials checking the Bagan Archaeological Zone tickets. Unfortunately, the sunset was not as spectacular as the sunrise at Bulethi due to dark clouds blanketing the western sky.