THE CITY OF FOUR THOUSAND TEMPLES
TRAVEL: by ERIC MACKENZIE LAMB
Image by the author.
BAGAN, MYANMAR: Looking back at the many unusual destinations which I’ve had the privilege of visiting, some of my most fascinating memories are of the relatively little-known Republic of Myanmar, also commonly referred to as Burma.
Bordered by five other countries-India, Bangladesh, China, Laos, and Thailand-Myanmar’s population consists of more than one hundred different ethnic groups. Yangon (formerly Rangoon) is the country’s largest and most bustling city, while its administrative capital is Naypyidaw. And its history goes back thousands of years.
Burma, as it was known in colonial times, was ruled by the British from 1824 to 1948, who disengaged the country from India in 1937. During World War II, Burma was occupied by the Japanese Imperial Army, which brutally used the forced labor of Allied prisoners of war and other captives to build the notorious Burma-Thailand railway, resulting in over a hundred thousand deaths due to starvation, disease, and maltreatment. (This later became the subject of David Lean’s classic 1957 film The Bridge on the River Kwai, starring Alec Guinness and William Holden-which, by the way, was actually filmed in Sri Lanka).
Like many Asian countries throughout the centuries, Myanmar itself has had a tumultuous history which, sadly, continues to this day, mainly because of the ongoing conflict between the country’s military establishment and its forced displacement of the Muslim population in Rakhine State. Realistically, no one can predict what the solution might be, or even if it will ever happen. But, for now, let’s put all that aside. This article isn’t meant to be about conflict, it’s about the amazing city of Bagan.
Bagan, whose origins date back to the eleventh century, and probably much earlier, is located on the banks of the Irrawaddy River, approximately 430 miles north of Yangon. It has the largest and most dense concentration of temples and pagodas in the world but wasn’t officially designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site until 2019. Out of more than four thousand original structures dedicated to the Theravada sect of Buddhism, about 3,800 remain standing today. Once home to almost two hundred thousand inhabitants, the settlement collapsed in 1287 due to repeated Mongol invasions. During the centuries which followed, construction of religious structures for teaching and meditation, including accommodation for monks and their pupils, resumed under the orders of regional kings and spiritual rulers. Then came a devastating earthquake in 1975, and another in 2016, which destroyed more than four hundred temples and pagodas. Still, most survived, including the famous Ananda Temple, the Shwezigon Pagoda, and, amazingly, the Thatbyinnyu Phaya, which is more than 180 feet tall. The Bagan Archaeological Museum, housed in a structure reputed to be almost a thousand years old, also survived. Since then, the government has dedicated considerable funds and effort towards restoration of damaged sites in the hope of creating a sustainable tourism industry. Undoubtedly, especially for Bagan’s street merchants, this can’t happen soon enough.
Grapefruit?? (Image by the author).
For visitors, there’s no shortage of accommodation, ranging from luxury five star hotels to simple wooden bungalows along the Irrawaddy River for those on a limited budget, as well as camping sites. And, compared to other countries in Southeast Asia, prices are surprisingly affordable. Restaurants and snack bars are plentiful, and their food is generally excellent. A note of caution, however: drink only bottled water. The Irrawaddy river, just like the Ganges, is severely polluted. You don’t want to take any unnecessary risks and tarnish your precious vacation time with an unpleasant event.
The best time to visit Bagan is between the months of November and early March, when temperatures are still comfortable. As far as getting around, yes, you can walk, bike, or rent a scooter. Even a horse drawn carriage. But if you do, you won’t have enough time to see even a third of the amazing sights which this ancient city has to offer. My advice: take a taxi, whose driver will almost certainly be a most friendly and knowledgeable guide. And, whatever your schedule, be sure to visit the Archaeological museum, as well as the roadside stalls where Bagan’s unique lacquerware is painted by hand. For a different viewpoint, buy a ticket for a cruise along the Irrawaddy and watch the fishermen pursuing what their ancestors have done for thousands of years. Or, for the ultimate photo op, take a ride over the city in a hot air balloon.
Aerial view from a hot air balloon. Image by the author.
The banks of the Irrawaddy river. Image by the author.
You may also be surprised to learn that Myanmar produces its own whisky (which, by the way, is excellent). On the other hand, considering the fact that there are a still a number of descendants of Scottish families who settled in Burma’s highlands during British colonial times and chose to stay after the country’s independence, is it really illogical to want to occasionally remind yourself of your ancestral homeland by having a wee dram? It certainly makes sense to me. Cheers!
Burmese whisky. Image by the author.
For further information about Myanmar, please go to their official website: