Most travellers who go to Myanmar (Burma) will visit Inlay Lake, the country’s capital city Yangon, and Bagan. If you type “Myanmar” into a Google image search, 90 percent of the photographs you’ll see will be of the sun rising over Bagan’s four thousand ancient Buddhist temples and the smoky dessert plains that surround them. The Bagan Archaeological Site is comparable to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, but is not nearly as well known, and not nearly as crowded. Since recent changes in Myanmar’s political system and the removal of economic sanctions, tourists are flooding into the country like never before. According to locals and ex-pats in Myanmar there has already been a significant influx of travelers in the country over just the past two years. If Myanmar, and specifically popular destinations like Bagan interest you, now is the time to go. If you manage to make it there soon while much of the plain is still left untouched by tourism and many of the temples are left empty, here’s the best way to witness Bagan:
There are four thousand temples of varying shapes and sizes spread out throughout the plain of Bagan and it’s impossible to see all of them, but if you want to have the most authentic and magical experience of these ancient buildings stick to the smaller ones. The larger temples are certainly worthy sights to behold. Most house at least four massive gold Buddha statues, ancient drawings on the inside walls, and sometimes staircases on the outside of the temple that reach amazing heights for watching the sun rise or set. But these temples also receive the vast majority of the tourist activity while the other three thousand, nine hundred, and ninety smaller temples are left standing empty, decrepit, and spooky as if nobody has stepped inside since they were built in the 11th century.
Rent an electric bike or a bicycle in one of the touristy towns Nyaung U (pronounced nee-ow-oo), New Bagan, or Old Bagan for about $8 US per day. Weave your way through the untouched local towns and along the small dusty streets that snake between ancient temples and strange cactus. The smaller temples will almost always have a Buddha statue inside, and may also have a small collection of incense and candles if it’s a temple that is sometimes visited by local Buddhists. Some of these “small” temples will be the size of a Beverly Hills mansion, and have two or three stories connected by pitch-black staircases so tight you’ll have to hunch over to make your way up to the next floor. Watch for bats, and bring a flashlight or a candle. You’ll emerge onto a roof top, sometimes with plants growing out from between it’s thousand year old bricks, and since the plain is flat you won’t need to get too high up to have a stunning view of the surrounding temples. Then go to one of the small local towns and find a tea shop set up on palm mats for deep fried snacks and all-you-can-drink tea. In the late afternoon, make your way to your favorite medium-sized temple for sunset. You’ll avoid the distraction of people chatting and setting up tripods to take photographs at the large temples, and enjoy peace and quiet as you witness one of the most magical sights in Myanmar.
The authorities in Bagan are in the process of figuring out how to make profit off of the influx of travelers. One of the things they’ve done is introduced a visitor’s card that lasts five days and costs $25 US or roughly 25,000 kyats (pronounced “chat”), Myanmar’s local currency. However this card is only very rarely required to enter temples and security guards don’t seem to care if your card is expired. In other words, it’s really not necessary to have one. There’s no sure way to avoid paying for this card because you receive it upon entrance into the Bagan area, but if you arrive on a bus before 5 am it’s likely that there won’t be an officer at your entrance booth and you may be able to get in without paying. If you’re a budget traveler, 25 bucks is a lot of money. It’s worth a try to avoid this unnecessary cost.
If you’re really adventurous (and really cheap), try hunkering down in one of the many small temples left open and a little ways away from the road. The word on the street is that sleeping in temples is legal. In fact a Buddhist monk in Yangon even suggested this option. However, keep in mind that the locals find it a bit weird to see travellers sleeping in temples because they assume that we’re rich and can afford any hotel we want, so try to stay on the down low. The temples are sometimes dirty, and the floors are always cold and hard but if you have a thin mat and sleeping bag you’ll do great. Even a cheap fleece blanket from the Old Bagan Market will do just fine. Sleeping in temples is spooky and may feel like a violation of sacred space at first, but according to many Buddhist monks it’s actually a way of paying tribute to the Buddha. If you leave some candles for the temple’s next guest, clean up after yourself, and especially if you do a short meditation, you will not be misusing the temple. Why not try out using a temple in the way it was intended to be used? That is, for meditation.
The temples of the Bagan Archaeological Site are some of the most unique and beautiful ancient structures in the world. They can be likened to the Egyptian pyramids or Aztec tombs, except that they remain unknown to most of the world. The time to go to Bagan is now, before tourism takes over even more. Experience these amazing sights while they’re raw and yours for the taking.