The Crumbling Ochre Temples of Bagan, Burma

Sunrise over Buledi temple in Bagan, Myanmar (Burma)

As a tourist, you’ll never run out of temples to see in Southeast Asia. After two years of exploring temples, from Thailand to Cambodia to China and back, nothing stands out in my memories like the crumbling ruins of Bagan.

Exploring Bagan

Often, I will hear people complain about “temple fatigue” — there is, it appears, such a thing as too many stupas to visit. As with anything in life, moderation via travel is usually the wisest of paths, including keeping a positive view as you go through the ups and downs of learning from your own mistakes on the road. If you do start to find yourself getting tired of the cultural exploration, I would suggest simply taking a small break before you pick it up again. Ignoring something as majestic as Bagan, or simply skipping out after a day or two of these beautiful ruins, would do a disservice to the industry that went into building them many eras ago.

Formerly Pagan, Bagan was founded as a city in 849 and in only a few hundred years became the heart of a huge Buddhist kingdom with the construction of the ruins you see here today. The “Bagan Archaeological Zone”, the formal name for the full swath of ruins that represented the ancient Kingdom of Bagan, is thought to comprise up to 13,000 temples and other religious structure, originally built during the apex of the Kingdom, sometime between the 11th and 13th centuries. Alongside Angkor temple complexes and the beautiful Borobadur in Indonesia, it remains an important Buddhist relic from the region as a whole.

The Kingdom fell to the invading armies of the Kublai Khan, with the Mongol invasion claiming Bagan as well as much of the region. The former capital city never rose again, and the structures from the city — the old buildings built from teak, the houses and communal spaces — have been destroyed by fire, looting and floods from the Irawaddy river.

What remains is simply the temples of Bagan themselves, as well as the pagodas known as zedi locally, and stupas in Theraveda Buddhism generally. Zedi are single-structure shrines to Buddhism, without the larger areas to walk around. The larger ones are known as paho, temples themselves, often inspired by Indian relics. They were like Buledi shown above, giant, multi-level structures that included shrines and long echoing hallways, and vaulted arches.

I’ll never forget the feeling of standing atop these ruins with coarse scrublands to the left, the Irawaddy to the right and the mountains standing guard in the distance.

Buddha from Bagan, Myanmar

For seven days I woke up at dawn to explore the maze of temples by bicycle. I actually have ridden a bicycle only a handful of times during my life, and it felt magical that one of them was in this crazy former Kingdom, with its ruined zedi and awe-inspiring paho and imagining what it would have been line to witness this place myself, many centuries ago.

Map in hand and almost no tourists in sight, my days were filled with colorful frescos, gilded Buddhas and the smiling, thanaka-covered faces of the Burmese children who ran after me as I scrambled to the top of a zedi.

On my last night, a goat herder gave me the key to one of the temples he watched over, and we sat together in silence, watching the sun go down over the plains of Bagan, thinking our own private thoughts.

Head on over to CNNGo for my photoessay on the crumbling temples of Bagan (and where to stay and eat when you’re in town).


10 thoughts on “The Crumbling Ochre Temples of Bagan, Burma”

  1. I am a bit apprehensive about visting Burma considering the political situation there at present – but with photos like this its going to be hard to say no when I depart on my one-way ticket to SE Asia in February.

    Thanks for posting this.

  2. Hi Kenan. Glad you enjoyed the post. Burma’s political situation is certainly not simple, but I do think that the people benefit from independent travelers who truly want to learn about its history and its people. For more info, please take a look at my Crash Course Burma (what to know before you go, what to read, etc). Feel free to contact me via the contact form if you have more questions too.

  3. Magda @DestinationWorld

    Bagan is the most amazing place build by people I have ever seen. And the best part is that there are hardly any tourists there, so you can get the whole place for yourself :)
    And the people in Myanmar are the most friendly people I have every met.

  4. Hi Magda. I agree that Burmese people are incredibly friendly. The interactions with locals – and being invited to eat at their table, or share a game of marbles with the kids – was a good part of what made the country so lovely. Thanks for reading!

  5. Hi Jodi, I came here from your article on cnngo. Its wonderful to see how wonderful the ‘prohibited’ countries can be. The picture of that goat herder reminded me that on ground people’s lives are still the same. Thanks for the post!

  6. Wow, it sounds like such a magical experience. Easter Island was such an incredible experience because there were no tourists around as well!

  7. Priyank: I think that’s very true, and it also provides a reference point for seeing the sights in a particular place. In measuring your experiences against the lives of the people who live there, you get a different perspective. Of course, it’s important to keep the political situation in mind, but getting to the ground level makes a trip that much more rewarding.

    Bacon Lady/Andi – thanks for the comments ladies. It was beautiful.

  8. Jodi,

    Just got to Burma four days ago, and am falling in love with this country! I’ve been reading all of your posts from Burma. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences!

    Cheers from Yangon!

  9. thepinaysolobackpacker

    The temples of Bagan is one of my must sees in SE Asia. Hope to visit Burma soon! Thnx for sharing! :)

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