In the heart of central Burma, Bagan is one of the richest and most extraordinary archaeological sites in the world. Once known as the city of four million pagodas, today thousands of monuments are scattered over a verdant 26-square mile plain which stretches along the Irrawaddy riverbanks.
During the city’s “Golden Era” between 1044 and 1287, Bagan (or Pagan as it used to be called) was the cradle of Burmese civilisation, and was the political, economic and cultural capital of the Pagan Empire. Over this period, thirteen kings worked to build up a civilisation bursting with temples, pagodas and palaces, as well as introducing Theravada Buddhism to central Burma in 1055, when Bagan became a centre of Buddhist spirituality and learning. However, not all the temples were built by kings, many were built by wealthy families to gain merit with Buddha. The Pagan Empire collapsed abruptly in 1287 when the Mongols swarmed down into Burma, led by Genghis Khan’s grandson, the enigmatic Kublai Khan, and sacked the city. Over the centuries that followed, the ancient city was left to the elements, shrouded in superstition and believed to be haunted by spirits. Neglected, eroded and several destructive earthquakes means that what remains today is just a glimpse of Bagan at the height if its power and importance, although some have been restored by UNESCO. Marco Polo called the ancient cityscape “one of the finest sites in the world,” and it is without a doubt a remarkable footprint of a once glorious period in Burma’s history and cultural heritage.
There are many ways to explore the seemingly countless stupas, some of which are golden and glint in the sunshine, some barley peeking out from beneath the stands of palm and tamarind. Take to the skies at sunrise and float over the other-worldly silhouettes in a hot-air balloon, drift down the languid Irrawaddy River at sunset, or just meander in between the temples by horse and cart. There are a few which can be spotted easily due to their distinguished shape and protrusion from the landscape; Shwesandaw, Thatbyinnyu, Ananda and Shwezigon to name a few. No two monuments are the same, all are highly original in design and conception, and many contain frescoes, carvings and statues of Buddha, big and small.
Bagan is hot most of the year, however the best time to visit is between October and March, and during the full moon is a popular time for local festivities. Tipping is not widespread in Burma, but small denominations of local currency are appreciated for donations in larger temples. One should dress conservatively, and shoes and socks must be removed before entering the temples. Finally, one should not shake hands with, or touch monks and nuns; a small bow or nod is the most appropriate greeting.
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