Bagan in central Burma is one of the world’s greatest archeological sites, a sight to rival Machu Picchu or Angkor Wat. The setting is a verdant 26 square-mile plain, part-covered in stands of palm and tamarind caught in a bend of the lazy-flowing Irrawaddy (Ayeyarwady) river and framed by the hazy silver-grey of distant mountains. Rising from the plain canopy of green are temples, dozens of them, hundreds of them, beautiful, other-worldly silhouettes that were built by the kings of Bagan between 1057 and 1287, when their kingdom was swept away by earthquakes and Kublai Khan and his invading Mongols. Some 2,230 of an original 4,450 temples survive, a legacy of the Buddhist belief that to build a temple was to earn merit.
Most are superbly preserved or have been restored by UNESCO, among others, and many contain frescoes and carvings and statues of Buddha, big and small. Only a handful are regularly visited, and though tourist numbers are increasing and the hawkers are beginning to appear, this is still, by the standards of sites of a similar beauty and stature, a gloriously unsullied destination.
Bagan became a central powerbase in the mid-9th century under King Anawratha, who unified Burma under Theravada Buddhism. Over the course of 250 years, Bagan’s rulers and their wealthy subjects constructed over 10,000 religious monuments in the Bagan plains. The prosperous city grew in size and grandeur, and became a cosmopolitan center for religious and secular studies. Monks and scholars from as far as India, Ceylon as well as the Khmer Empire came to Bagan to study prosody, phonology, grammar, astrology, alchemy, medicine, and law.