© Dr. John Freedman
One of the greatest wonders of Asia is the visually striking landscape of thousands of ancient religious structures spread over the vast plain of Bagan in central Myanmar, a site known as the Temples of Bagan. This forest of “payas” (temples or pagodas) and stupas (holy shrines containing relics) was built along a wide bend of the Iriwaddy River between the 10th and 14th centuries when the ancient Kingdom of Bagan was thriving. The Kingdom covered much of present-day Myanmar, and Bagan was its political center and spiritual heart. Little has changed over the millennium to take away from the splendor that Marco Polo described as “one of the finest sights in the world.” Over two thousand temples remain today, from an estimated 10,000 that were built. The structures are of a seemingly infinite variety of shapes and of every size. Some are gigantic, majestic edifices while others are humble pillar-like tributes to the Buddha’s grace and wisdom. The sheer number is overwhelming, and even today the Bagan plain remains host to the greatest concentration of religious monuments ever built anywhere. Many consider it to be one of the “hidden” jewels of southeast Asia, as it receives just a small fraction of the tourists who visit other epic sites such as Angkor in Cambodia and Borobudur in Indonesia.
You can spend days exploring the temples, and for every one you climb to take in the expansive 360-degree view, you will see hundreds more beckoning you. Like other religious sites in southeast Asia, there are early Hindu influences which gave way syncretically to Buddhist architectural elements and iconography. Many of the temples were built during the reign of the legendary King Anawrahta (1044-1078AD), who was a devout Theravada Buddhist and is considered by many to be the father of the Burmese nation. The plains of Bagan remained an important pilgrimage site for Buddhists even after Bagan was overrun by the Mongols in 1289, and they remain so to this day.
Small roads, mostly unpaved, snake their way throughout the expansive plain, and you can travel them by horse cart, bicycle or automobile. I recommend trying all three modes of transport as each has its allure and advantages. The myriad of structures of every shape and size, and the refraction of light by the mist and dust that sit over the endless plain, give the vistas of Bagan an ethereal and other-worldly quality. In Bagan as nowhere else on earth, I get the sense that I could be looking at the remains of an ancient civilization on a distant planet.
Unquestionably my favorite activity in Bagan is viewing the sunset from the top of one of the innumerable temples which have giant open terraces that serve as grand viewing platforms. There are so many temples to be climbed and you can choose your angle, decide how remote you wish to be, and even determine how many temples you want to see dotting the landscape before you. One of my favorites for a sunset view is Pyathada Paya, a 13th-century structure which is a bit off the beaten path in the eastern section of the plain. As the sun sets over the western plain, Pyathada’s easterly location means you will see a huge number of temples silhouetted before you, as well as the mighty Irriwaddy River in the background. The sense of other-worldliness is accentuated at sunset when the sun reflects off the saffron-tinged land and the pagodas become scattered jewels in every shade of pink and gold. The sun first reflects brilliantly off the gilded portions of the tops of many of the pagodas. Then, as it sets, all the structures slowly become more and more distinctly silhouetted. The scene is made all the more striking by the orange- and then purple-streaked sky, the rose-colored mountains, and the silver ribbon of the Irriwaddy as a backdrop. There is an ineffable sense of mystery that pervades, as is always the case when one is given to ponder the almost incredible story of our species and its amazing accomplishments. A wonderful added bonus is the cool air that wafts in at sunset, bringing with it a sense of comfort and respite. The sight is one to behold, and the feeling is one of tranquility, beauty and wonder.
As one of Oceania Cruises’ passionate guest lecturers, Dr. John Freedman thrives on sharing his in-depth knowledge of international cultures while sailing around the globe with our guests. Combining his well-established career in medicine with a fascination with faraway lands, Dr. Freedman has led a number of medical volunteer programs and relief efforts throughout the world. He has spent over 30 years exploring Asia in particular, and delights in sharing his insight on the rich complexity of history and culture shaping this vast continent.