Bagan is one of the places that neither words nor photos could ever accurately describe. I have definitely seen some amazing photos that do represent it well, but nothing prepares you for the breathtaking moment that the sun rises over a red landscape absolutely splattered with temples, stupas and pagodas.
Luckily for us, our very first encounter with the expanse of the Bagan plains happened just like that, in the wee hours of the morning. Our overnight bus from Yangon arrived shortly before 4 am and we had the option of paying half price for a room for the extra hours that morning, or paying the same amount to take our horse cart (horse cart!) and driver to see the sun rise. Out of sheer cheapness and the opportunity to both kill time before check in and view a Bagan sunrise, we chose the sunrise.
According to Wikipedia, during the 11th and 13th centuries when the Kingdom of Bagan was at it’s height there were approximately 10,000 structures built on the plains, of which only 2200 remain due to attacks and earthquakes. It is the iconic images of the Bagan plains which many tourists think of when they dreamily plan a trip, and is often compared to the Angkor Wat complex in Cambodia. Having seen both, I would gladly say that the entire experience of exploring Bagan from the back of a horse cart, or the seat of a bicycle was much more interactive and personal than that of tourist filled Angkor Wat.
Walking around New Bagan is like taking a step back in time. Horse carts and their drivers carry tourists and locals back and forth between Old Bagan (site of the old Kingdom) and New Bagan (where locals were forced to relocate to after the government kicked them out in 1990). While the biggest form of economy in Bagan is tourism, lacquer-ware production comes close in second place. Shops and stalls selling lacquered bowls, plates, jewellery boxes, jewellery and a multitude of other miscellaneous objects can be found all around the major temples and even some of the smaller ones. My biggest fear for these Bagan plains is that, just like Angkor Wat, they will become overrun with touts who are absolutely lovely and helpful, but desperate to sell their product. More than once we were surrounded by children offering to sell us hand drawn postcards of temples, or women showing us around a temple in the hopes that we’ll buy something from her shop afterwards.
In true Burmese style, they were lovely and helpful in order to get the sale, but personally I’m worried that they’re going to get jaded and it’ll be people running after your horse cart just like in Cambodia where they surround your tuk tuk the instant it stops.
Future fears aside, I thoroughly enjoyed everything about Bagan; from the clip clopping of horses down the dusty streets, to the cutest old man selling us the coldest beer in all of Burma, to the multitude of temples that we visited throughout our three full days’ stay.