Bagan: Where Burma began

Thailand November 07, 2012 00:00

By Carleton Cole
Special to The

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Deep in the historic heartland of Myanmar, Bagan offers a stunning expanse of Buddhist temples and traditional village life


t’s just before sunset and many barefoot photographers are gingerly scaling the steep staircases up to the higher terraces of the multi-tiered Shwesandaw Pagoda in search of the best views of a land peppered with thousands of Buddhist temples. The structures embody the dawn of Myanmar culture and history.
The softening sunlight plays on the beauty of the temples’ features. Becoming more splendidly illuminated by the minute are the Ananda Temple (Bagan’s holiest), with its distinctive, gilded corncob-style finial; the “wedding cake” Thatbyinnyu Temple (Bagan’s tallest), topped with cascading golden spires; and the uniquely pyramidal and particularly eye-pleasing Dhammayangyi Temple (Bagan’s biggest).
With the world beginning to discover Myanmar, there’s no better way to appreciate its unique culture than visiting the area where it all began. Bagan was the template for future kingdoms and empires. It embodies the nation’s golden age and is home to the thickest conglomeration of temples in the Buddhist world.
From the mid-800s until the late 1200s, the societal and religious culture of Myanmar gelled in Bagan, the country’s first state, on the banks of the Ayeyarawaddy River. While the teakwood palaces disappeared long ago, many of the 4,000 early temples still stand, survivors of a 1975 earthquake that destroyed countless others. 
Making merit to ensure salvation became common at the height of the Bagan era a millennium ago. Theravada Buddhism spread and there was a boom in temple building on a vast, tree-laden plain. 
The once-bustling capital is now a medium-size village but, in its glory days, as Michael Aung-Thwin and Maitrii Aung-Thwin write in their new book “A History of Myanmar”: 
“Education was free, literacy widespread, culture sophisticated and religion resplendent. The most excellent figures, the best masters of the fine arts, the holiest shrines, the most highly revered monks and sacred relics, were all here.”
Visiting Thais will inevitably compare Bagan to what Ayutthaya might still look like had Burmese troops not levelled it in 1767. They might take heart in what one local man told me: “All Myanmar people know about what happened in Ayutthaya, but we’re not proud about it.”
Bagan is located in central Myanmar, a quick flight or smooth eight-hour bus ride from Yangon. A week’s pass to all temples within the Bagan Archaeological Zone costs US$10 (Bt300) and is readily available at hotels.
If the main temples get too crowded for you, rent a bicycle and ride the dirt trails off scenic Anawratha Road. You’ll share the landscape with only an occasional ox or shepherd or farmer tending his crops. There are many smaller but still impressive temples to enjoy. (Or, if you have money to burn, the really chic way to tour the area is by hot-air balloon, either at dusk or dawn.)
You’ll see people in traditional longyi sarongs and with yellow thanaka paste on their faces paying respects to the Buddha and nat spirits at holy sites. At the Shwezigon Pagoda in the town of Nyaung U, a series of rising terraces and the spire’s elegant bell shape have provided the prototype for Myanmar pagodas ever since its construction almost a millennium ago.
The Bagan area consists of the towns of Nyaung U and New Bagan and the temple-studded site of Old Bagan. 
New Bagan was created in 1990, when the villagers of the main town of what was Bagan (now also known as Old Bagan) were moved to the new town a few kilometres to the south, so that the temples within Bagan could be better preserved. The three areas are all connected by the Ayeyarawaddy, and all offer splendid, upscale riverside dining options for diners wanting a break from the simpler local curries and signature mohinga fish noodle soup, Myanmar’s national dish.
Even on the main roads of Nyaung U, the most interesting and authentic town in the area, Myanmar culture is alive and well. Streets teem with perhaps the most dynamic local institution after Buddhist temples: rustic teashops. Their character is as rich as the heavy doses of condensed milk that stains the strong, sweet tea orange. The mostly male clientele puff away on slender, olive cheroots.
Along the road to New Bagan, pocked with farmers driving ox carts, lies the village of Myinkaba, which keeps alive the timeless local art of lacquerware. The greater Bagan area has always been the centre of the country’s lacquerware industry. In workshops and in the front of their bamboo-and-thatch homes, craftsmen labour with hands stained black from the “natural plastic” obtained as sap from the lacquer tree. Over several months they apply coat after coat to frameworks of bamboo or woven horsehair to form cups, boxes and other items. Knife-wielding co-workers etch designs to complete the pieces.
If there is one place ideal for appreciating the many layers of Myanmar history and culture, it is surely Bagan.