Bagan: The Should-Be World Heritage Site

Imagine an area the size of Arlington County, Virginia. Now imagine that instead of houses, schools, and paved roads, that area is filled with four thousand temples, big and small, connected by dirt roads. Most are about a thousand years old, dating back to when the area was the capital of an ancient kingdom. There are some tourists, and a few locals, but ten or twenty temples get most of the visitors, leaving most of the others empty except for their Buddha statues and artwork inside. Now you are starting to get an idea of what Bagan is like.

Bagan plain at sunset

The area was somewhat mysteriously abandoned in the 13th century- historians generally agree that it had something to do with the marauding Mongol Empire, but exactly what happened is not known. The temples fell into disrepair, and were further damaged by an earthquake in 1975, but most have now been restored. Although the Pyu kingdom in Myanmar was a contemporary of the kingdom of Angkor, and both practiced Hinduism and Buddhism, the temples are completely different. The temples of Angkor are big- Angkor Wat is gigantic- and are distinguished by their fine sculptures and bas-relief carvings. Many are made of sandstone. The temples of Bagan, on the other hand, tend to be small, and are made of red brick.

Small Bagan temple with an impressive sikhara (corncob-like topper)

Inside they are typically bare, except for a Buddha statue at the center and perhaps some fresco paintings on the walls. While some temples of Angkor are Hindu, others Buddhist; the temples of Bagan are overwhelmingly Buddhist.

Temple ceiling

A few of the more recent ones are large and have lots of statues, but it’s really only a few compared to the number of small ones.

Thatbyinnyu Pahto, one of the busiest temples for tourists, worshippers, and vendors

Actually, most of the small ones don’t have names, only numbers.

One stupa leans, maybe due to the '75 earthquake? The temple number is visible on the lower right

Due to sold-out buses, we could only spend about three days in the area, but I was glad I got to visit it at all. It’s a beautiful place and deserves to be as famous as Angkor Wat.

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