Why Bagan in central Myanmar is serene bliss

Legendary as once being home to over 10,000 temples, Bagan in central Myanmar, with its calm and relaxed vibe, is perfect for a few days of serene bliss, says Raul Dias

As much as I love the hustle and bustle of cities, I had had enough of Yangon. Enough of the terrible traffic jams, enough of all that incessant honking and certainly enough of that sticky, muggy summer weather. Four days into my much anticipated, much-postponed trip to Myanmar and I was ready for some blissful solitude that a town like Bagan, nestled in the heart of the country, promised. And boy, did it live up to every single hyperbole I had heard about it!

An overnight, super comfortable, bus ride—with ‘business class seats’— from Yangon’s chaotic Aung Mingalar Highway Bus Station into sleepy Bagan’s Shwe Pyi Bus Station and there I was. Ready to take in all this legendary temple town had in store for me. But not before I was made to cough up the 25,000-kyat (Rs 1,170) Bagan Archaeological Zone tax that all foreigners must pay when entering the town.

Thatbyinnyu Temple

Temple talk

Said to rival the mighty Angkor Wat complex of temples in Cambodia, it is said that there were over 10,000 temples in Bagan in ancient times. Unfortunately, the government removed a lot of the temples because they were heavily damaged by earthquakes and did restorations to the others. Pillaging and looting also contributed to their decline greatly. Today, Bagan is home to a little over 2,200 temples and pagodas in varying degrees of ruin. And while it is virtually impossible to visit all on your short stay in Bagan, there are a few that you simply cannot leave without visiting.

One of the first temples to be built in Bagan, the Ananda Temple is also one of its best preserved. With its dome very similar to the gopurams that can be found in South Indian temples, along with its Sanskrit name which means happiness, this one has a marked Indian influence about it.

Adjacent to the Ananda Temple, the dark and brooding Thatbyinnyu Temple is shaped like a cross and was built in the mid-12th century during the reign of King Alaungsithu. Visible from much of the Bagan plains with a height of just over 60 meters, this pagoda is one of the highest monuments of Bagan. And not to mention beautiful, in a sombre kind of way. The red brick Htilominlo Temple nearby is also worth a visit, though it was under heavy restoration and partially covered by scaffolding when I visited.

Ananda temple

Floating over

Picture this. You have just been roused out of your night’s sleep and taken to a field in the middle of nowhere in pitch darkness, all shivering and cold. Then a few minutes later you find yourself floating in the air as you feel the warm rays of the rising sun on your cheeks. Down below the wondrous sight of the myriad temples in the Bagan Archaeological Zone turning a golden hue is breathtaking. Yes, I’m waxing eloquent about a sunrise hot-air balloon ride over magical Bagan. Something you simply must try even if it means shelling out a princely sum of around $340 (depending on the season) for a 40-60 minutes’ flight.
E-biking at leisure

Though a bit far from Bagan’s tourist-centric areas of Old and New Bagan, the local village of Minnanthu is a great place to stop on a little round trip on your e-bike that you can hire from just about anywhere in the town, including most hotels. A few years ago, the government introduced these electric motorbikes that efficiently get you around Bagan in a very relaxed but more important, very silent way. Once at Minnanthu, find a villager who will be more than happy to show you around their village on a mini tour and see how they make their products and handicrafts that range from cotton clothing and cigars to wooden masks, fabric weaving and roasted, spicy peanuts.

Boats lines up on the banks of the Irrawaddy River

Eating with the locals

Speaking of food, I always believe that to truly immerse yourself in any place you visit, you’ve got to chow down with the locals for a meal. And in Bagan, the food does not get much better than what the locals eat themselves at the many eateries found around the city. Eat a simple rice and pork curry lunch at a makeshift street-side stall, sitting down at a rickety plastic table. Or perhaps, an elaborate dinner feast with Burmese dishes like mutton danbuak that’s like a biryani, grilled river fish and laphet thoke tea leaf salad at places like the famous Seven Sisters Restaurant, all washed down with a refreshing, ice-cold tamarind drink. Bagan has plenty of choices.

Cruisin’ along

Why not end your day with a relaxed, meandering river cruise along the placid waters of the Irrawaddy (Ayeyarwady) River? The cheap as chips $5 hour-long shared boat sunset cruise that departs from Old Bagan includes a welcome drink and a lovely ride in a traditional teak wood boat, making for a perfect sunset farewell to Bagan. Discover the magical view of places like the bell shaped Bupaya Pagoda as you gaze upon the river that will take you as far as Yangon. If you can tear yourself away from the lure of Bagan, that is!

Raul Dias is a Mumbai-based food and travel writer and restaurant reviewer. Follow Raul on Instagram @rauldias123

FACT FILE

Getting there

There are daily flights from Kolkata and New Delhi to Yangon on airlines like Air India and Myanmar Airways International. You can reach Bagan via bus or taxi from Yangon (9 hours). There are also daily 1.2 hours flights from Yangon. Indians are now eligible for an eVisa to Myanmar, but they must arrive via Yangon, Nay Pyi Taw or Mandalay airports.

When to visit

The best time to visit Bagan is between November and February. Bagan is hot most of the year but in these months, it is a pleasant 30 degrees. Avoid the summer, which runs from March to May.
Accommodation. Bagan has an excellent selection of hotels to choose from to suit all budgets and tastes. Some of the best are:
* The Hotel Umbra Bagan (www.thehotelumbrabagan.com)
* Bagan Thande Hotel (www.thandehotel.com/bagan)
* Temple View Bagan (www.facebook.com/templeviewhotel)