Bagan, located on the banks of the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River, is home to the largest and densest concentration of Buddhist temples, pagodas, stupas and ruins in the world with many dating from the 11th and 12th centuries. The shape and construction of each building is highly significant in Buddhism with each component part taking on spiritual meaning.
With regards to tour comparison between this immense archeological site and the other significant archeological gem of Southeast Asia, the Angkor sites, this analogy may be helpful:
Angkor ruins are like a Chinese Lauriat banquet where food is presented in spectacular servings with a suspenseful wait between items which are hidden beneath curtains of forests. On the other hand, Bagan is served in Spanish Tapas style, the ingredients exposed to the customer and shown in small bite-size servings, with the next attraction close and visible at hand, in shorter intervals.
Another analogy between Angkor and Bagan Sites when distinguishing temple structures is through their stupa and spire shapes.
Artichokes and corncobs = Angkor while gourds and durians (or pineapple) = Bagan.
An example is gourd for Shwezigon Pagoda and durian for Ananda, Thatbyinnyu, and Mahabodi Temples. In another way of imagining, Bagan temples are like topped with inverted ice cream cones.
What makes the temples look romantic is the process of graceful aging. For some reason, there are no windbreakers around as shown by the barren, desert-dry mountain range to the west past the river, spinning occasional micro twisters that spawn loose dust particles everywhere from the eroded earth to the structures. This phenomenon had peeled off so much the stucco coating of the temples to reveal the brick structural blocks with its rusty, reddish, and sometimes golden brown-like patina when hit by the sun's rays.
Erosion is a significant threat to this area, not only the wind chipping away the buildings' plastering but also water from the mighty Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River threatens the riverbanks. The strong river current has already washed away half of the area of Old Bagan. It used to be a rectangular-shaped piece of enclave protected by a perimeter wall. Now what remains is roughly the triangular eastern half part.
Other images of Bagan which make a lasting impression to tourists aside from the spire-fringed skyline; stupas sporting that tumbledown look yet crowned with glitter-studded golden miter-like sikaras; the ubiquitous pair of ferocious stone lions flanking a temple's door; the spiky and lacy eave fascia woodcarvings lining a monastery's ascending tiers of roofs; tall palmyras or toddy palms with willowy trunks, bougainvilleas, exotic cotton trees, and the likes bringing life to the arid landscape and abandoned ruins; squirrels playfully and acrobatically scampering on the walls and pediments of temples; horse drawn carriages lazily carrying drop-jawed tourists; sleepy moving grandfather's bullock carts grinding on a dust-choked trail; not to mention the garbage left around, stray dogs loitering, longyi clad men spitting betel chews in copious amounts everywhere, overgrown weeds and the pestering dust.
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Bagan became a central powerbase in the mid 9th century under King Anawratha, who unified Burma under Theravada Buddhism. It is estimated that as many as 13,000 temples and stupas once stood on this 42 sq km plain in central Myanmar, and Marco Polo once described Bagan as a "gilded city alive with tinkling bells and the swishing sounds of monks' robes". Approximately 2,200 remain today, in various states of disrepair. Some are large and well maintained, such as the Ananda Pahto, others are small tumbledown relics in the middle of overgrown grass. All sites are considered sacred, so when visiting, be respectful including removing shoes as well as socks before entering or stepping onto them.
Bagan's golden age ended in 1287 when the Kingdom and its capital city was invaded and sacked by the Mongols. Its population was reduced to a village that remained amongst the ruins of the once larger city. In 1998, this village and its inhabitants were forcibly relocated a few kilometers to the south of Bagan, forming "New Bagan" where you will find accommodation in its handful of cheap, quaint, clean hotels and religious centers.
Despite the majesty and importance of Bagan, UNESCO did not include it on its World Heritage Site, because it says some temples were rebuilt in an un-historic way. Nonetheless, the site is arguably as impressive as the Pyramids of Egypt: a dry, vast open landscape dominated entirely by votive architecture.
All temples in Bagan are considered sacred by the Burmese. Therefore you should dress modestly (cover your knees and shoulders). This dress code is also shown on many signs in front of bigger temples, but mostly ignored by western tourists. It might not be too obvious, but the locals and other Buddhists tourist are strongly offended by this behaviour. Since Buddhists are non-confronting, they will keep silent and just look at you. Be respectful and dress appropriately even though it is 40 degrees out!
Practically this means two things: no shoes and no shorts above knees would get you into temples without any issues. Shorts covering knees and a t-shirt covering shoulders is perfectly ok.
Socks and open shoulders are more of a grey area. While technically prohibited, apparently nobody's rejected from entering, and you will see people walking around dressed up like that. Locals would stare at them occasionally, but will not confront. Most of locals know foreigners have to pay what is a two-week Burmese salary for the privilege of simply being there, making it difficult to ask them to treat it as a holy site while their government itself treats it as a paid tourist attraction.
The Bagan cultural authority has introduced a tax against all foreigners for $20USD, 20EUR or 25,000 Kyat (Feb 2015) upon arrival.
Staff at the ticket booths sell pirated copies of George Orwell's Burmese Days for around US$5, though if you negotiate you can get them down to $2. Maps are also sold at 1000 kyats. You can also print the online version shown here beside. It is not necessary to buy as these are available free from big hotels, if you happen to pass by and ask even if you are not their guest.
There is only one travel agent selling tickets online in Bagan. Sara Travels & Tours (Bagan Travel Bureau). You can pay through Western Union or else.
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