I’ve been thinking about Bagan this week. I don’t have any plans to go there in the near future, but two friends of mine are making journeys to Myanmar this month. One ex-pat I know in Bangkok, an American named John, is going with his father on a one-week trip to visit Yangon and Bagan. Another friend, Pascale from Paris, will undertake a more comprehensive schedule, going to Yangon, Bagan, Yenangyaung, Mandalay, and Nyaungshwe. She’s been to Myanmar many times before and has an extensive network of friends to keep her busy. She will also be contributing to various NGO projects in the country.
Like other tourists, when in Bagan, John and his father will have the option of touring the vast conglomeration of ancient pagodas by bike, horse cart, or car. Keeping in mind his father’s age (he just turned 80), I suggested to John that a car might be the most comfortable option, but John boasted that his father is in remarkably good shape for his age, so they may end up cycling around the ruins every day. Neither one has been to Bagan before, so there are definitely in for a treat: thousands of awesome old pagodas and temples await them … and a few new ones too. Purists may wince, but new pagodas are still being built in and around Bagan. Luckily, the new pagodas aren’t so obviously garish that they clash with the old architecture. But anyway, what can you do? When these rich folks need to make merit, nothing is going to stop them from continuing their construction plans … except, perhaps an earthquake. But it’s been a few centuries since the last quake, so let’s hope any more such calamities are not going to occur anytime soon.
One of the more popular activities for tourists in Bagan is going to a “sunset pagoda” in the early evening to — as you would assume — watch the sun set. This usually means a somewhat precarious hike up narrow stairways or stone steps to the highest terrace of the pagoda. The sunset itself can be a hit or miss experience depending on the weather, but if everything is working in your favor you’ll be treated to a glorious view with a panoramic set of majestic pagodas silhouetted in the background. Besides unpredictable weather, the other negative factor at the sunset pagodas is the number of other tourists in attendance. At the more popular sites you will have to share viewing space with dozens or even hundreds (in those cases when a bus full of Koreans has dropped by) of other tourists.
But you don’t always have to be part of a crowd at sunset. There are many smaller pagodas in Bagan that are high enough (and also allow access to the top; some pagodas are so old and decrepit that climbing to the top is prohibited) to provide you with a sufficiently impressive view. And if you choose carefully, and get off the main tourist trail, you might even have the entire pagoda all to yourself; no other tourists or even local vendors milling around to bother you. It’s a perfect time — and place — to watch a glorious sunset and contemplate life.