In August 2016 a magnitude 6.8 earthquake struck Myanmar. A small number of people unfortunately died. A couple of hundred of ancient Bagan’s 2000+ pagodas were damaged, notably Sulamani, one of my favourites.
In July 1975 a similar sized earthquake caused a lot more damage. In between times Myanmar’s military government, one eye on the Buddhist merit to be earned, the other on the foreign exchange to be earned from tourists, set about repairing much of the damage.
And I made my first visit to Myanmar’s number one tourist attraction.
In December 1995 most of Bagan’s two thousand plus pagodas still showed signs of earthquake damage and / or a millennia’s wear and tear. Lots of bits were obviously missing. There were piles of broken bricks all over the place.
In April 2016 the site is super tidy, there are a lot fewer brick piles lying around, the missing bits have been rebuilt, some of it looks like new. And that’s a problem. Much of the reconstruction has been completed to poor standards, without reference to original designs and using inappropriate materials.
For that Bagan has consistently been denied UNESCO World Heritage status.
There is a suggestion (BBC story) that much of the recent damage was to recently rebuilt structures. And a hope that reconstruction will be now be carried out to higher standards.
Whatever its UNESCO status, Bagan is ace and the earthquake is no reason not to go. Most of the pagodas are original and undamaged. It’s a must see. More than once if you’re lucky. This was my third visit.
I don’t think some people give Bagan enough time. Some tell me that two days was enough. How can that be? The archeological zone spreads across 100 sq km and there is plenty worth exploring outside it as well.
The answer is the e-bike.
The bicycle and horse drawn cart were previously the means of getting – slowly – around. Since 2012 or so almost everyone not on a tour rents an e-bike and zips from major site to major sight – without allowing much time for what lies between them.
They are seeing the obvious highlights but are they seeing the best of Bagan? For me the best of Bagan is not the big-hitters, brilliant though they are. I love Ananda, but so does everyone else.
Sunset and sunrise look pretty much the same wherever you watch it from. Why all watch it together? At any time of day it’s the atmosphere, as much as the view, that makes Bagan special. That’s going to be spoilt a bit if I’m overlooking a bus park, sitting amongst a crowd.
The best of Bagan is getting out there alone (ish) at dawn in search of silence and isolation. Picking a spot that’s unlikely to attract a crowd. Being among the birds. Striking out on foot for an hour or three. Not worrying much where you are or where you are heading. Hiding out in the shade when it’s too hot to move on. Taking your lunch with you. Making a day of it. Feeling it more.
That way lies romance.
And then there are the surprises to be found by wandering a little off the beaten track.
These sand pagodas were built in the river shore for a pagoda festival the month before I was there. They were fabulous. The best art I’ve seen this year. We stumbled across them only because we had time on our hands. When the rains come and the river rises they will be washed away.
What will you find?
We each take different things from a visit to Bagan. Whatever that is going to be for you I think Bagan is worth a good amount of your time. At least a day or two more than you are currently planning. And I think it’s worth leaving the e-bike behind some of the time. Don’t zip around.
Let Bagan creep up on you.
Looking for place to sleep?
In April 2016 I stayed at Ostello Bello in New Bagan. It’s the first Myanmar outpost of an operation that runs two award-winning, top of the market hostels in Milan, Italy. They do a great job of providing high quality dorm accommodation (at a price) and private rooms (better value). There is always a warm welcome and a friendly atmosphere. If you like the idea of staying with (mostly) younger travelers in a hostel that could easily be in Milan, then you’ll definitely like Ostello Bello.
http://www.ostellobello.com (or via Hostelworld)