Experience 21: Go temple-bagging, by bike, in Bagan

by Oliver Smith
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Ask two people how many temples there are at Bagan, and you get three different answers. The New York Times says 2,000; Wikipedia suggests there are 10,000; one optimistic Burmese saying says there are four million. I think anyone who says they’ve counted them all is fibbing.*

What’s clear is that Bagan is an ancient complex of almost incomprehensible ginormous-ness. Spread over a patch of rural Myanmar just 40 miles-square are thousands of Buddhist temples of all shapes and sizes. It looks as if a decimal point had gone astray at the planning stage; as if someone had placed an order for 40 temples and they’d woken up to find a hundred times that number accidentally delivered to their doorstep. 

Bagan, of course, wasn’t an accident. The city took shape when a dynasty of kings started binge-building temples from the 11th to the 13th centuries – each trying to trump their predecessors with grander and grander constructions. Today Christa and I hired bikes and pedaled off in separate directions to see how many of their extraordinary temples as we could clock up in one day’s cycling. 

Number 36 looked a bit like St Paul’s Cathedral in London. Number 141 resembled a Mayan temple. Some of the bigger ones – such as the Ananda Temple – were busy with tourists. But most of them were entirely empty save for grinning Buddha statues and dozing bats, and silent but for the whish of the wind in the acacia trees outside. 

By sunset we had almost lost count, so we climbed to the top of the Shwesandaw Pagoda to get a panorama of Bagan. It was a truly epic view: a thousand temples casting a thousand creeping shadows, and the Irrawaddy River twinkling in the twilight. Just as we were about to leave, the sun punctured through a gap in the clouds, picking out one gilded stupa nearby and setting it ablaze with fiery golden light.

It was such a magic moment that I entirely forgot to count temple number 1,259.

* Though the Lonely Planet guide says four thousand, which is definitely correct!

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