The road ahead was long, straight, and lined with trees. It shimmered in the steamy morning heat. In the far distance, rising from the dusty plains, was the ancient skyline of Bagan. Creaking with each rotation, the wheels of my rusty bicycle carried me towards the 3,000 or so stupas, pagodas and tiered temples that are scattered across the flat Burmese grasslands. I pedalled through villages where crimson-robed monks shopped at streetside stalls attended by women whose cheeks were covered in thanaka – a pale paste made from ground bark that’s said to protect from the intense South-East Asian sun. A herd of grazing goats moved south, dust gathering at their hooves.
Wondering which crumbling relic to visit first, I stopped to consult the heavily creased map enthusiastically offered by the lady at my family-run guesthouse in the nearby village of Nyaung-U – Bagan’s nearest airport. She had circled dozens of temples. Over the coming days, I cycled along the never-ending network of sandy tracks, visiting as many of Bagan’s stupendous stupas as possible. Temple fatigue? Not likely. Located on a wide bend of the Irrawaddy River, Bagan is an essential short break on almost all Burma itineraries. And for good reason. Once a thriving city of more than 200,000 people, it’s now one of world’s greatest archaeological sites, covering an area the size of Guernsey.
The scene that awaits today is the handiwork of mighty Bagan Kings. From 1044 to 1287, an average of 20 religious buildings took shape each month; it’s estimated that more than 10,000 were built. Most have been destroyed – a result of neglect and earthquakes, the most recent of which shook Bagan in 1975. However, major restoration has returned some of the damaged monuments to their former glory.
I was admiring one deserted stupa – so small it had a number instead of a name – when a sudden rustle came from the nearby bushes. A petit chap wearing a longyi (traditional sarong) came rushing over, fumbling with a large set of keys. The caretaker unlocked the heavy gate, beckoned me into the musky interior and proudly showed off the faded murals inside. Our footsteps echoed around the cavernous chamber. Of course, there’s more to Bagan than just its temples, which is why Wanderlust readers voted it ‘Best City’. There are villages, monasteries and mountains to explore, and some of Burma’s friendliest people to meet. Follow in the footsteps of barefoot pilgrims and scale Mount Popa; seek enlightenment at the sacred shrines of Salay; or cruise along the mighty Irrawaddy. However you spend your time in and around Bagan, just don’t rush. Hang around for a few days. You won’t regret it.
Getting there: There are no direct flights from the UK; travel via a hub such as Bangkok. In Burma, domestic carriers Air Bagan and Air Mandalay both fly from Yangon and Mandalay to Nyaung-U airport; fares from one way. Another popular way to arrive is by boat along the Irrawaddy from Mandalay.
Getting around: Bikes can be rented from most guesthouses for US$1-2 per day. Taxis and private drivers are also cheap and easily arranged.
Where to stay: Thazin Garden Hotel is a teakwood property with hushed gardens and 67 rooms, some with pagoda views. Thiri Sandar Royal Bagan Hotel (Main Road, New Bagan) is a good budget option with basic but clean rooms; doubles from around £13. Where to eat: San Thi Dar serves tasty fare between Old and New Bagan. The Moon Vegetarian Restaurant is a tiny eatery near Ananda Temple.