The World Heritage Site of Bagan is the wonder of wonders in the Golden Land. Scattered across a vast and plain stand over 3000 extant monuments that proclaim the piety and power of Myanmar's first empire.
As a former centre of Buddhist spirituality and learning, Bagan ranks amongst the great sites in India and Tibet. As a manifestation of a dynamic and original form of architecture, Bagan stands alongside the other great Buddhist centres of Southeast Asia, like Angkor Wat in Cambodia or Borobudur in Java.
Bagan is stunning in its variety of concept and application. Some of the monuments, such as the Dhammayangyi, are colossal brick pyramids; others, like the Thatbyinnyu or Gawdawpalin soar over 50 m high with resplendent spires. There are small temples with rich schemes of wall painting and others wit outstanding cycles of sculpture.
Originally there were 10000 temples at Bagan, largely constructed of brick between the 11th and 13th centuries. During this time, Myanmar was unified as single political entity under the kings of Bagan.
However, little remains of the original palace and domestic architecture, for the people of Bagan glorified their faith and not themselves. These many monuments are to the Buddha alone.
Framed on two sides by the great Ayeyarwady River, the site covers an area of approximately 25 miles. The main concentration of monuments is around the original city on the bend of the river. Yet in the outer areas of Minnanthu and Thiripyitsaya are rich concentrations of lesser known but superbly crafted works.
At Bagan no two monuments are the same. All are highly original in design and conception. The structural techniques, similar to the gothic forms of Western cathedral architecture, were in advance of contemporary engineering in Europe. Technologically daring in notion, and exquisite in execution, the temples of Bagan are of a splendour rarely witnessed anywhere else in the world.
To gain a true impression of the site, some form of transportation is essential. Traditionally, travellers se local horse carts and many of their drivers have in depth knowledge of the monuments and their history. Locally hired bicycles are also available and metalled roads have now been constructed connecting the main centres of population.
The villages of New Bagan and Myinkabar are centres of traditional lacquer manufacture. Robust and attractive lacquer ware is one of the best possible souvenirs of Myanmar. In the town of Nyaung U, to the west of the site, there is a large local market which is a lively and colorful place to observe local life and customs.
Bagan cannot fail to move you. Ask any visitor who has watched the sun rise or set across these fields of glowing terra-cotta brick temples. This is the spiritual heart of Myanmar where the young Myanmar nation, first unified under one king and one faith, came to express its creative genius.
The temples now are empty. The great communities of chanting monks and learned scholars disbanded with the anarchy that followed the Mongol invasion of 1278.
Gone are the reverberating gongs and tinkling temple bells, alms processions and luxurious ceremonies.
In its place is calmness and peace, and a vision of wonder at how man was capable of creating such a vast city of spiritual monuments.