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Bagan, Myanmar

GPS: 21.171879813598, 94.858574700158

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Bagan is the ancient capital of the first Burmese empire, the Kingdom of Pagan. It thrives from the mid-9th to the end of the 13th centuries, about the same period as the Khmer Empire in Southeast Asia. It was during the reign of Burmese king Anawrahta, at the origin of the unification of the kingdom in the 11th century, that Bagan became its capital. He distinguished himself militarily by annexing several territories (the kingdoms of Dvâravatî, Sri Ksetra and Dali) backed by the basin of the Irrawaddy River. From these victorious battles, the sovereign brings back as spoils of war many relics, manuscripts and sacred texts like the Tripiṭaka (founding texts of Buddhism). He discovered the theravāda (an ancient and rigorous branch of Buddhism from India and Sri Lanka) then decided to be converted by the monk Shin Arahan, originally from Thaton, the former capital of the Mon kingdom of Dvâravatî.

King Anawrahta imposed the theravāda on his subjects as the new state religion of his empire and abandoned the Mahāyāna Buddhism practised by his predecessors. He built in Bagan a vast complex of religious monuments dedicated to the worship of the Buddha and to Buddhist teaching. This titanic project was continued by its successors at the head of the kingdom of Pagan before gaining its contemporary nickname “land of a thousand pagodas”. Despite several earthquakes and the devastating invasion of the city by the Great Khan of the Mongols and future Emperor of China (Yuan dynasty), Kublai Khan in 1287, Bagan retains countless archaeological remains. Divided into three geographic areas (New Bagan to the south, Old Bagan to the north and Nyaung-U to the east) along the Irrawaddy River, this place mainly impresses by the density of its temples, pagodas, monasteries, stūpas (structures in bell) and Buddhist sanctuaries. In total, these form more than 2,200 religious sites and monuments still standing, which are spread over a vast plain covering an area of more than 100 km².

Veritable archaeological treasure, Bagan is today one of the most important places of pilgrimage in Buddhism. Located in a region of high seismicity, its jewels are under the constant threat of new earthquakes. The last major shake dates back to August 2016 (magnitude of 6.8 on the Richter scale), damaging numerous temples and pagodas. Under the aegis of Unesco, major restoration works will be carried out on nearly 500 buildings in Bagan and its area in the coming years.

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  • The phenomenal amount of temples, stūpas and pagodas (especially in the Old Bagan area)
  • The Buddhist temples of Myauk Guni, Bulethi, Abeyadana, Shwegugyi, Tha Beik Hmauk Gu Hpaya, Oak Kyaung Gyi, Thisa-wadi, Htilominlo, Thet Kya Muni, Kondawgyi, Ananda, Thatbyinnyu, Gawdawpalin, Lokatheikpan, Winido (group of temples) ; the Nathlaung Kyaung Temple (last Hindu temple in Bagan) ; the Dhammayangyi Temple (considered as the biggest and most important in Bagan, it has remained in its original state since the 12th century)
  • The pagodas of Shwesandaw (hair conservation of Buddha), Bupaya and Shwezigon; the Myazedi inscription visible in the pagoda of the same name (stone including sacred texts written in 4 languages at the beginning of the 12th century)
  • The numerous statues and sculptures representing Buddha (some of which are wooden made from the 11th century) ; the old murals of the Upali Ordination Hall and the Sulamani Temple; the frescoes of the Ananda Ok Kyaung monastery (dated from the 17th century, there are in an exceptional state of conservation) ; the abundance of gold on the domes and structures of certain monuments; the multiple decorative details
  • The Bagan Archaeological Museum (Old Bagan sector); the remains of Tharabar Gate
  • Sunrise and sunset shows; the views at the top of religious monuments; the expanses of palm and tamarind trees
  • Boat cruises on through the legendary Irrawaddy River (more than 2,000 km of linear it is one of the largest in Asia); The overview of the region in a hot air balloon; the visit of small rural villages; the daily and typical Nyaung U market
  • The events and festivals organized on full moon evenings; workshops for the traditional manufacture of lacquered and lacquered objects
  • The extinct volcano of Mount Popa, refuge of the 37 Nats (spirits) of Burma (it is located about fifty km from Bagan); the sacred Buddhist monastery built at its summit
  • A total of 4,000 pagodas, temples and stūpas adorned the Bagan site and stretched as far as the eye could see at its peak. Despite the disappearance of half of them, Bagan is home to the largest concentration of Buddhist sanctuaries in the world.
  • The pagodas and stūpas are built in order to keep relics and teachings of Buddha. The hundreds of sanctuaries built by King Anawrahta during his reign in Bagan enabled him to assert his political sovereignty while making this place one of the most eminent Buddhist centres in Asia.
  • Each temple is generally guarded by a family of villagers living near it. A key is even entrusted to it to open access to the monument to visitors (during the day, the majority of the temples remain open continuously).
  • Buddhism, mainly from its Theravāda branch (the most widespread form of Buddhism in Southeast Asia), is practised by around 90% of the population living in Myanmar. This is the country with the most monks in the world in proportion to its number of inhabitants (about 500,000 monks for 55 million Burmese).
  • Neem resin (tree native to India) is commonly used to restore the old paintings and frescoes of the religious buildings of Bagan. Harvested once a year, it is very effective in combating the ageing of rock art works and stemming the nuisance of insects.
  • In 1975, a first earthquake caused significant damage to the temples and sanctuaries of Bagan. In the years that followed, the military junta then in power launched a rehabilitation program called “embellishment”. Using modern and heavy materials such as concrete or metal, they led to the collapse of new buildings and carried out disastrous restorations for the Burmese heritage. In fact, the majority of the work was carried out without respecting the architecture of the premises, without using traditional materials and without knowing the techniques of old construction. Thus, local families or entrepreneurs could volunteer to adopt a temple or a pagoda and carry out the renovation or reconstruction work that seemed necessary to them. The technology used today makes it possible to model the sanctuaries in 3D to reconstruct them identically and down to the smallest detail in the event of a new earthquake.
  • The New Bagan sector was created in 1990 by the Burmese military junta then in power, to move the inhabitants of the Old Bagan area.
  • The best period to visit Bagan is during the dry season (from November to February, apart from the monsoon rains, where conditions are particularly optimal for balloon flights).
  • On site, get the local tourist card embodying the main points of interest and roads in the Bagan region.
  • Renting a bicycle (electric or not) can be a great way to rally the different temples independently (start your route at dawn to avoid the crowd).
  • Using the services of a horse-drawn carriage has a certain charm by opting for a rhythm in line with the spirituality of the place.
  • Take care to keep your shoulders and knees covered as a sign of respect for the population and the monks (shoes and socks must be removed before entering the temples).

Where to eat

  • Weather Spoon's Bagan
    (exciting cuisine)
  • Be Kind to Animals The Moon
    (famous vegetarian restaurant)
  • Yar Pyi Vegetarian Restaurant
    (hearty dishes)

Where to go out

  • Inle Lake
    (lake with floating gardens)
  • Kuthodaw Pagoda
    (the largest book in the world)
  • Natmataung National Park
    (the highest peak of Myanmar)

Where to sleep

  • Bagan Empress Hotel
    (spacious and comfortable)
  • Ruby True Hotel
    (peaceful and beautiful setting)
  • Saw Nyein San Guest House
    (cosy guest room)

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