Bagan, Burma


We arrived in Bagan by way of a four hour, somewhat bone-jarring back road drive from Mandalay.  The drive gave us a view of the gorgeous Burmese countryside — carts pulled by horses and Burma cows, herds of long-eared, black-headed goats, and thatched houses along mile after mile of bright green farmland.

The picture is romantic but the people are very poor and the heat is oppressive.

"Collecting food for the cows near Bagan"

Bagan is wonderous — 2200  brick-orange temples, pagodas, and stupas spread out across ten square miles of  bright green valley. The original city is believed to have been comprised of 13,000 structures and was built mostly in the 9th century by King Anawratha, who unified Burma under Theravada Buddhism.


IMG_0816We toured the landscape for two days on silent and super fun electric bikes. (The hot air balloons were not in operation because of the weather). After my several visits to Cambodia, I couldn’t avoid comparisons to Angkor Wat, which is as dark and authoritative as Bagan is ethereal and accessible.  Angkor Wat’s massive black and grey stone work evokes power and presence, where the spires and lacy brickwork of Bagan feel personal and godly. Angkor Wat is surrounded by deep forest.  Bagan lies on a bright green plain dotted with airy acacias, palm trees, and fragrant frangipani.  Angkor Wat is adjacent to the busy, touristed city of Siem Reap, while Bagan has small modest villages that line the roads through the park.  And while Siem Reap plays up the fun on Pub Street, Bagan’s tourist brochures proudly explain that Bagan does not have any night life.


E-bikes are easy to ride and cheap to operate. We need them in the US.


Schwe Sandaw Pagoda is one of the few that may be climbed. It is jam packed with giddy tourists every sunrise and sunset. I was up there one night. It was amazing, and a unique experience to see the sunset silhouetting dozens of ipad selfies and Nikkons on tripods.

1200 years after King Anawratha, Buddhism remains a very obvious presence in Bagan. Everywhere we go, we smell incense burning in sand piles along the streets, see families praying before their favorite icons, and hear chanting from the temples.




Shwezigon Pagoda in the main village of Nyuang U is covered in gold.



Strands of sweet smelling frangipani flowers are common offerings to Buddha in Bagan temples.


Burmese men, women and children wear thanaka powder, a ground bark that acts as a sort of sunscreen and is applied decoratively.

Because there was a feeling of positive change in Bagan, I thought about George Orwell, who lived in Burma for many years as an officer in the British Army.  He wrote several books about his experiences and his observations, which were critical of the British Empire as well as the subsequent Burmese dictatorship.  Animal Farm and 1984 were banned in Burma for many years.  It’s a sign of the times that you can now buy Orwell’s books in the temples and at bookstands.  And also that the opposition party leaders are waving you down on street corners.


Thant runs the Bagan regional HQ of the National League for Democracy, which is the party of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who, after 15 years of house arrest, is a member of Burma’s Parliament.






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