As I sat on a high ledge of the 734-year-old Mingalarzedi Temple, looking out over the hundreds of ancient temples around Bagan, I wondered how long it would take a visitor to see them all. Archaeologists say there once were about 5,000 temples, but earthquakes, decay and long-ago looters have destroyed more than half of them. Still, that's a lot of temples to explore in this 16-square-mile archaeological treasure trove.
We visited Myanmar in February 2010 and, yes, I did feel a twinge of guilt when booking the trip. The country, formerly called Burma, has been at the top of the boycott list since pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi called on travelers to avoid visiting her country, explaining that tourism helped support the military dictatorship and not the people. Recently, she has softened her stance, seeing that the 15-year-old boycott may have dissuaded visitors and accomplished little to democratize her country.
Myanmar was close to my home (until recently when we moved back to the States) in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and the sale airfare I found online was so cheap I couldn't help myself. Photographs of amazing temples, beautiful landscapes and people in colorful costumes got the better of my political conscience.
The fly time to the capital city of Yangon was only about three hours from Ho Chi Minh City, not including a stopover in Bangkok. My husband, Robin, son Kai and I landed about noon and checked into the Central Hotel, one of Yangon's least expensive tourist hotels at $35 a night, including breakfast. The one-hour flight to Bagan was scheduled for the next day. After a short rest, we met a guide in the lobby who took us on a half-day tour of Yangon and several of its impressive sites.
The Shwedagon Pagoda, a 2,500-year-old Buddhist temple, was built to enshrine relics, including, some say, eight hairs from Buddha's head. Over the centuries, monarchs built the central stupa, a tall bell-shaped dome (tourists cannot enter it), up to its present height of 320 feet and adorned it with 8,600 bricks covered with gold plates and nearly 80,000 diamonds and other precious stones. It's simply dazzling. At night, the golden stupa is lighted, giving the otherwise colorless city a beautiful focal point.
The second important historic site is the Sule Pagoda, which is more than 2,000 years old and half the size of Shwedagon. It too has plenty of gold and glitter to ooh and aah at. The third worthwhile stop is the Chaukhtatgyi Pagoda, which houses a 230-foot-long reclining Buddha, built in 1966. Buddha's feet are covered with artful mosaic tiles that represent 108 (a sacred number in Buddhism) characteristics of the holy master.
Knowing that Bagan and its 2,000-plus temples were to be the highlight of our five-day trip, it was hard to wait until the next morning to board the flight to this west-central Myanmar town. Bagan was founded in AD 108, but only began to flourish during the time of King Anawrahta, who reigned from 1044-1077. It was the capital of Myanmar until 1287, when Kublai Khan and his cronies ran amok and sent the first empire fleeing, never to return.
It was hard to get an accurate answer about how many temples and stupas were built. From various sources, we heard anywhere from 2,000 to 1 million. The likeliest number, in a UNESCO report in 1993, is that there once were about 5,000, but due to ruin or destruction, 2,230 remain standing in Bagan. An earthquake in 1975 destroyed many of those, including the most ancient, the Bupaya Pagoda from the third century, which was rebuilt on the same spot. Bagan's temples and the tourist revenue they generate are the lifeblood of this town, so workers, many of them recruited from the military, quickly rebuilt or repaired much of the damage from that 6.5 quake.
"Look, so many pagodas in Bagan," said our driver, Tun. "If you built a pagoda, your sins would be forgiven. The bigger the sin, the bigger the pagoda," he explained on our way to our first temple after picking us up at the tiny Bagan airport. The structures range in size from 3 feet high to the tallest, the 17-story Thatbyinnyu, to the largest, the Dhammayangyi Temple, which was built in the 12th century by a ruler with a guilty conscience: He smothered his ailing father, who was the king, and then killed his older brother so he could be the ruler.
Our first stop, at the Mingalarzedi Temple, offered the best preview of what makes Bagan so special. Several hundred steep steps up, visitors can walk around its highest terrace for a 360-degree view of temples and stupas as far as the eye can see. Some are made of interlocking, mortarless red bricks, like the one we were standing on. Others are made of sandstone with their tops painted gold or silver. Architectural styles are reminiscent of India's with intricate carvings, while others follow a Mon kingdom (pre-Burmese people) design — square with four entrances and an interior of dark, windowless corridors. A seated Buddha statue is usually placed at each entrance in the temple.
We got back into the car and headed for the Gubyaukgyi Temple, dating from 1113, where colorful frescoes were painted to help teach people about Buddha's life. Some have been restored to their original vibrant colors by UNESCO.
Our next stop was the gorgeous and gilded Shwezigon, a smaller version of Yangon's Shwedagon Pagoda, with a central stupa and numerous surrounding shrines. King Anawrahta started it, but it was completed by King Kyanzittha about 1090 and is popular for pilgrimages.
After several more temple visits and a stop at a lacquerware store — a well-honed craft in Myanmar — we settled into a simple 10-room hotel where we were the only guests. Before turning in, we looked up at the moonless night sky, which was sparkling with zillions of stars. There were no city lights to mar the view.
The next two days were filled with 20 more temple visits. It sounds like a lot, but we met a German tourist who had been in Bagan for a month and was on his 500th temple. We drove to the Mahabodhi Temple, which is my favorite because of the hundreds of tiny niches carved into the spires, each containing a different Buddha figure.
As a treat for Kai, 9, we had Tun drive on without us to the next temple while we hired a horse and cart and rode to the monstrous Dhammayangyi Temple, where the king who built it was also assassinated. Then, after seeing the late 12th century Gawdawpalin Temple, we stopped at the all-white Leimyethna, a one-story temple with faded murals dating from 1223. There were no guards, no souvenir vendors, no other tourists. Robin and Kai walked through it quickly and headed back to the car, while I lingered, wanting to experience alone the nearly 800-year-old temple. I sat cross-legged in front of a giant Buddha image, closed my eyes and just listened to the silence, broken only by the buzz of a passing bee. My 10 minutes alone in the temple was a rare, heavenly experience.
We visited 25 temples in three days. Our eyes began to glaze over and the soles of our feet were rubbed raw by the temples' rough surfaces. Shoes aren't allowed in any temple; I wished we had brought socks. It was time to return to Yangon for one more overnight. We packed up and got to the airport early, but the best and cheapest souvenirs we'd seen in the country were in the airport lounge, so we had fun shopping for gifts.
We boarded the little 40-seat Air Bagan propeller plane. While passengers were still standing to put away their hand luggage, the plane started down the runway. People grabbed onto the seatbacks to steady themselves and quickly plopped into their seats. Then, just before takeoff, we all watched a local man take a stroll on the runway. A policeman ran after him and escorted him away. Finally off the ground safely, I looked out the window at the thousands of temples we hadn't explored. For another visit, I thought. And next time, I'll bring socks.