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Bagan: an Ancient Burmese City

As travel to Myanmar becomes easier, with frequent flights from Chiangmai to Yangon and Mandalay, the time has never been better for absorbing the hidden history and splendor of the Burmese Kingdoms of old. The modern cities have much to see but any tourist itinerary should take in the incredible spectacle of Bagan.

The great Ayeyarwadi (Irrawaddy) river flows through the Burmese heartland. Sheltered from the southwest monsoon by the Arakan hills, these central plains get surprisingly little rainfall, and vegetation is thin away from the rivers. One great bend of the river, as it cuts through this arid plain, provides the backdrop for probably the most amazing monument of Buddhist history. Lacking the monolithic majesty of Angkor Wat or Borobudur, Bagan overwhelms by sheer numbers. The entire plain as far as the eye can see is dotted with the stupas of great and small temples, some still intact and others tumbled in ruin.

Bagan became the Burmese capital back in the 11th Century when King Anawrahta was on the throne. The city grew in power and prestige for over 200 years, and temples and pagodas were built in great numbers, a measure of the wealth of the Burmese kings and the merit sought from Lord Buddha. The stonework was remarkable in its quality and gold was richly used in the decorations.

At the end of the 13th century, the Mongols overthrew the Burmese Kingdom, but there is no sign that they sacked Bagan for the temples remain largely intact, but from that date the city fell into decline and was never again the seat of royalty. In more recent times the temples have been protected and renovation work has been carried out, work that was hindered by the earthquake of 1975.

There is such a wealth of splendor to be seen, with literally hundreds of temples that could be visited, that the average tourist would never be able to take them all in, and a strict itinerary visiting only the finest is recommended. These must include the beautiful white Ananda temple and the adjacent Ananda Ok Kyaung monastery, one of the few surviving monasteries from the early Bagan era, with incredible murals and frescoes in vibrant colors.

Another must-see is the massive block-shaped Thatbyinnyu, one of the tallest of all Bagan's structures which was popular with tourists as a sunset-viewing spot, because of easy access to the upper terraces, until the authorities banned the practice to protect the temple from damage. The Gawdawpalin temple, close to the river bank, is another of the largest and most imposing in Bagan. The so-called corncob spire has been restored since it fell during the 1975 earthquake and with the river and the distant hills in the background it is most photogenic.

The Shwezigon pagoda is considered by many to be the most beautiful of the Bagan temples and has been in constant use since its construction in the early 12th century. The gilded bell-shaped chedi soars over the plains and is a famous landmark. As though Bagan itself is not enough the neighboring areas Myinkaba and Minnanthu are rich in ancient temples.

There are direct flights by Air Mandalay from both Yangon and Mandalay and plentiful accommodation to fit a wide range of budgets. Plenty of air-conditioned transport, to beat the dry heat of central Burma, is available, but for traditionalists, get around by pony and trap. Air Mandalay Office is located at Doi Ping Mansion on Charoenprathet Road or Tel. 818049.

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