Barefoot in Bagan

Doing lots of walking when you’re in a new destination, even going barefoot in Bagan, is par for the course.  Often the best way to get a feel for a new place is to just go for a stroll.  Walking helps you to get your bearings and allows you to find those interesting places you might miss if you were rushing past in some type of vehicle.

Walking makes you part of your surroundings; it is the most natural way to move around, and the best way to get a truly local experience.

The little town of Bagan, in Myanmar, is one place you definitely have to go for some interesting walks if you wish to see it up close.

Bagan is Myanmar’s ancient capital, and it is like no other place I’ve ever visited. There are probably more Buddhist pagoda’s here per square kilometre than anywhere else in the world. Many more than you can easily comprehend. In fact, it’s estimated there are about 3,000 pagodas in and around Bagan. They don’t seem to be built in any logical sequence, so it is very difficult for the casual visitor to estimate the number.

To call Bagan a “town” gives the wrong impression: it is more of a “place”.

Old Bagan, as it is now known, was first established in the 9th century and used to be well populated, but once the military junta, which ruled Myanmar for several decades, realised Bagan’s tourism potential most of the residents were moved a few kilometres away to New Bagan as a means of supposedly preserving the historic sites.  This new village is quite a laidback tourist town that is filled with restaurants, hotels, lacquerware factories, ATM’s and e-bike rental places. I visited during the offseason when few other tourists were around, so local business was not brisk, but you could tell that New Bagan would really buzz during peak season.

I also shied away from the idea of renting an e-bike in favour of hiring local drivers.  E-bikes are electric motor scooters that are probably environmentally friendly; however, the e-bike riders, and their passengers, do seem to silently ride around quite aimlessly looking for somewhere to go.

My reasoning for hiring local drivers was because very few of the pagodas are signposted. There are a couple of main roads that have been asphalted, but mostly the site is crisscrossed by unmarked dirt tracks, so good local knowledge is needed in order to find many of the pagodas. Hiring local drivers was quite cheap, and I do like to support the local economy. These drivers have spent their whole lives in Bagan, and they know how to find temples that are pure gems.

In many instances, I was the only westerner to be found wandering around.  Yet, there were hundreds of Burmese also visiting whilst I was there.  Each pagoda has a special significance for the locals, who mainly follow an ancient form of Buddhism called Theravada.

The one thing I was not fully prepared for was that each pagoda is still an active place of worship, and that means removing shoes when entering.  I had done some research beforehand so knew that showing knees at temples was shunned. I had taken both long trousers and shorts, that ended well below the knee.  I also knew that in order to enter a temple I would have to remove shoes.  I wore Crocs because they are very light, waterproof and easily removed, so was prepared to walk barefoot in Bagan.  However, I had assumed that each pagoda would have marble floors that would be easy to walk.  That was true for the pagodas I’d visited in Yangon and Mandalay, but the Bagan temples are so numerous and so ancient, and those smooth walking surfaces had been trodden so often over the centuries that, either from lack of maintenance or earthquake activity, many surfaces were more like a broken brick than smooth marble.

Walking on these uneven surfaces was just tolerable although unpleasant. Fortunately, my sense of adventure was greater than my need for comfort, so I still clambered up the sides of steep temples, and negotiate the dark corridors. The tremendous experience of discovering such a rich and unique location was well worth the minor pain of sore feet from going barefoot in Bagan.  I continued investigating these wonderful edifices; it was like hobbling back in time, to a civilisation that was completely alien, yet totally consuming and remarkably interesting.

There is so much detail to be seen at each place.  Some pagodas are very grand and quite ornate with remarkably cool interiors, a true retreat from the clinging heat outside. All show signs of age, especially as inside plaster has deteriorated and wall and ceiling paintings have become quite faint.  Depending on the size of the pagoda, there is either one or several interconnected interior passageways which lead to altars that face north, south, east and west, with a Buddha and prayer room facing each direction. Each Buddha is decorated in some significant way, either with a large cloth as a backdrop, or surrounded by paintings which depict some aspect of Buddha’s life. The more garish decorations included flashing coloured lights surrounding the Buddha.  No matter what collage was used, or how colourful, each prayer room did exude a genuine feeling of reverence.

Most Burmese are devout Buddhists. They attended many of the Bagan pagodas for purely religious and cultural reasons. Myanmans are remarkably tolerant people who seemingly don’t mind tourists taking photos of their devotions.  I could easily detect the locals’ excitement as they entered each temple, in fact, they exhibited palpable joy at the experience of visiting a new site.  I grasped that each temple, and indeed each Buddha within, held much significance although I couldn’t hope to understand the basis for it.

There were always pleasant surprises to enjoy.  For instance, after clambering around one very high pagoda, I descended to the bottom and was shown to a rather long but squat building that had seen better days.  Adjusting to the dark inside I saw a very large reclining Buddha, many metres in length, which was supposed to be the third-longest reclining Buddha in Myanmar.  It was just there matter-of-fact and probably missed by the majority of people who visited.

Bagan is located on the Irrawaddy River, a couple of hundred kilometres south of Mandalay, and about 700 kilometres northwest of the largest city, Yangon.

I was truly enchanted by the town as it is a destination like no other I have visited. My feet may have suffered a little from walking barefoot in Bagan, but my mind expanded at the audacity of human initiative on display there.  My feet soon recovered from their ordeal, but my memories keep taking me back to Bagan; a place where time has stood still.