By Teng Yanyan
On July 6, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee added Bagan, Myanmar, to its list of World Heritage sites. Situated at a bend of the Ayeyarwady River on the central plain of Myanmar, Bagan is a sacred place featuring an exceptional range of Buddhist art and architecture. The property bears spectacular testimony to the peak of Bagan civilization (11th-13th centuries CE), when the site was the capital of a regional empire.
Three years ago, I happened to see a picture I would never forget. It depicted numerous trees and hundreds of pagodas providing a perfect accent for hot air balloons silhouetted against the sunset. I told my friends about the enchanting scenery, and we decided to go there in person to experience what Bagan is really like. Within a couple months, we had purchased plane tickets bound for Myanmar.
About 20 days before I left for Myanmar, the country experienced a 6.9 magnitude earthquake. According to reports, 68 pagodas in Bagan were damaged in the quake. But the earthquake only made my trip feel more urgent, and I started counting down the days to my departure.
When I finally arrived, I saw that some of the pagodas were badly damaged and covered in green nets awaiting repair. Some of the smaller pagodas that collapsed were left in ruins while retaining their sacred and quiet beauty.
More than 10,000 pagodas dotted the Bagan plains in their heydays. After the war and earthquake, only a fifth of the pagodas still stand. Still, the nearly 3,000 pagodas left in Bagan remain the most spectacular stupa community in the world.
Most of Bagan’s pagodas were built with red bricks and feature exquisitely carved surfaces that have been marred over centuries of weathering. The white-and-gray stone facades of the pagodas expose the red bricks inside. Originally in red and white, after years of natural erosion, the pagodas gradually became a mixture of red and black or white and black, evidencing the vicissitudes of the time. Buddha statues are enshrined in each pagoda and most are gilded. After such long time, some parts of the gold foil are falling off.
Many believe that an enchanting experience for tourists is enjoying endless sunrise and sunset views. I love the splendor of the sunset more than the tranquility of the sunrise. Although I have seen sunsets in many countries and regions, sunsets in Bagan still stunned me.
The best place to see the sunset is Shwesandaw Pagoda. Although it isn’t the tallest pagoda in Bagan, the five-story structure is at the center of the pagoda community and is the only one with an exterior staircase. The top of Shwesandaw Pagoda features a terrace providing a panoramic view. When tourists stand atop the pagoda, the surrounding scenery is sweeping, to say the least.
We arrived at Shwesandaw Pagoda quite early, but many tourists were already there waiting to enjoy the sunset. Three times I watched the sunset there, each leaving me a different feeling. When the sun was shining, the afterglow was reflected on the pagodas, which were silhouetted against the sunset. All of the Bagan plains was bathed in the sunset, which lasted only a couple of minutes. However, time seemed to slow down to let people soak it all in. When clouds approached, the setting sun sheepishly hid among them, casting a dark but beautiful shadow over the thousands of pagodas. It was such a rare travel experience because each time I could see a different sunset.
My Favorite Pagoda
A trip to Bagan offers plenty of fun in addition to the famous pagodas. We chose to rent an electric motorbike to take us wherever we wanted to go. Many locals were selling sand paintings and handicrafts around the pagodas, and they were so enthusiastic that they often seized the chance to chat with tourists.
One sunny afternoon, my electric motorbike got stuck in the soft sand. A passing young man stopped to ask if I needed help. His tanned face beamed with goodwill and sincerity.
The young man helped me pull the electric motorbike out of the sand and enthusiastically told me about a beautiful pagoda down the road, asking if I wanted to go with him to see it. When my bike was ready to go, he asked me to follow him. I was still hesitant to let my guard down, so I kept some distance. After a while, he turned back, stopped and said, “No hurry, the pagoda is just ahead. We’ll get there soon.” Then I caught up with him.
When we arrived at the beautiful pagoda, he coaxed me to follow him inside. We entered through a small hole and carefully stepped up narrow stairs. When I finally saw light at the top, I found myself stunned by the beautiful scenery before my eyes. Soon, I realized that I was atop the pagoda most recommended by Chinese backpackers. From the platform, I could see all the Bagan plains and quietly feel the beauty. This pagoda was actually the main tower of the Shwe-Nan-Yin-Taw Monastery Complex, and monks living nearby still meditate there.
The young man and I took pictures and sat together in the shade. In the distance we saw numerous pagodas that had managed to withstand the test of time. Serenaded by rustling leaves, the young man and I sat quietly to take in the beauty in front of us, speechless.
On the way back, the young man introduced himself. He told me that he sells sand paintings for a living and that the pagoda was his favorite. Every afternoon, he visits the pagoda to soak up the scenery. He expressed regret about destruction from the earthquake, but fortunately no one in his family was harmed, and his favorite pagoda survived. I stayed at the pagoda for more than two hours, and the episode became the most unforgettable experience of the trip.
I left Myanmar not only with beautiful photos, but also unforgettable memories that words cannot describe.