Few sights are sadder than an icon of antiquity in ruins.
Cycling through the ancient city of Bagan, towards Sulamani Pahto, the visitor is no longer struck by the great temple’s tall tower, its red-brick terraces or its command of the surrounding plains. The intricate stone carvings and railings on the roof of this once-mighty 45-metre-high edifice are swamped with debris; green tarpaulin is draped over the top of the temple. Its glittering Buddha statues and frescoes are off-limits to tourists and the market stalls that line the path leading to the now locked iron gates of the front entrance stand silent.
One of the world’s greatest archaeological sites, the ancient capital of the Kingdom of Bagan, in the Mandalay region, was built between the 9th and 13th centuries. On August 24 last year, a 6.8-magnitude earthquake hit central Myanmar, killing four people and causing catastrophic damage to 185 ancient monuments and pagodas in and around Bagan.
“At first, it was almost a relief,” says École française d’Extrême-Orient architect Christophe Pottier, who helped survey the damage and formulate a rehabilitation plan for Bagan. “The earthquake was not as severe as the one in 1975 and the damage could have been much worse.”
Earthquakes are common in this area, and are the reason why the vast majority of the 10,000 structures built here all those centuries ago are no longer standing.
The recent earthquake’s epicentre was near the Bagan Archaeological Zone, and it was frustrating, says Pottier, to find that most of the damage was suffered, and in some cases caused, by reconstruction work.
“Conservation works conducted by Unesco from 1976 to the mid-1980s resisted very well, but hundreds of ‘reconstruction’, ‘restoration’ and ‘beautification’ attempts were conducted after 1995,” says Pottier, referring to work led by the military government of Myanmar. “Many of these new structures have been impacted, sometimes severely, showing poor construction quality or poor linkage with the ancient structures.”
At Sulamani, as at nearby North Guni, the 15-metre-tall tower section – the shikhara – tumbled, knocking out the flanks of the temple as it fell. On its way down, the shikhara, which had been reconstructed from reinforced concrete in 1996, smashed through the roof of the east entrance, destroying a ceiling that bore uniquely large frescoes depicting the life of the Buddha.
Bungled attempts at improving the area’s oldest structures – defended by the government and some locals as necessary as the structures are considered working temples – have been a major factor in Unesco’s refusal to promote Bagan from its “tentative” list of world heritage sites. The government plans to apply for World Heritage status at the end of the year, but there’s much to be fixed before then.
The panoramic view of the archaeological zone from the Aureum Palace Bagan Hotel’s thoroughly modern Nann Myint Viewing Tower is one dominated by orange tarpaulin. Sheets of it lay across the Tayok-pyi and Pya-Tha-Da temples, as well as many others, to prevent rain from getting in while debris is cleared away and the buildings are made safe. Tarpaulin covers almost the entire upper section at Tayok-pyi and the grand entrance is taped off with “strongly requested not to enter” signs: it looks like a crime scene.
Thuzar Shwe, managing director at Let’s Go Myanmar Travels, in Yangon, which organises tours to Bagan, singles out Sulamani and the two nearby temples of North Guni and That Bin Nyu as the major closures. Other temples have steps that can still be ascended from the outside, making them attractive to tourists looking for panoramic views over Bagan.
“Immediately after the quake no one was allowed to visit and climb but, today, at Shwe San Taw, South Guni, Pya-Tha-Da and Shwe Gu Gyi temples, tourists are allowed to walk up for the sunrise and sunset.”
Witnessing a spectacular sunrise or sunset across the tree-lined, temple-dotted plains of Bagan is something of an obsession among visitors. “Where are you from?” is a question that is often followed by, “Where are you watching sunrise tomorrow?”
The Shwe San Taw pagoda, the monument most quickly reached by a US$5-a-day e-bike – a fleet of which leaves the plush hotels of the tourist enclave of Nyaung-U before dawn each morning – is usually crowded. Here, visitors can ascend five steep sections of steps and it’s possible to walk around the entire terrace on each level.
Shwe San Taw offers the classic Bagan experience, but there are some great alternatives for the dawn and dusk crowd.
Yards from the huge Dhammayangyi Pahto (the so-called “haunted” temple, which is infested with bats and dogs), South Guni features a small passage to a roof terrace, from where neighbouring temples – including the rubble of North Guni – can be surveyed. The surrounding destruction only serves to make South Guni that much more atmospheric as the light fades in or out – as does having few other tourists for company.
Much busier but currently the best spot for open views of the big temples (toppled or still standing), Pya-Tha-Da is situated further south of Nyaung-U, meaning a long pre-dawn journey if you’re on a bike. It’s still possible to pad (visitors must leave their shoes at the door of all temples in Bagan) up the dark interior staircases of Pya-Tha-Da, past a giant smiling Buddha, and onto a flat roof terrace so large that the toppling of its central tower last August has made no practical difference.
SOUTHWEST OF THE Archaeological Zone and closer to the hotels in New Bagan is Dhammayazika Zedi, a logical place to begin or end a day-trip around the plains. Near the main road, the golden stupa is a beautiful sight and a tour-group favourite. Beyond, though, it’s possible to find solitude in post-quake Bagan.
Beside the tiny, undamaged bell-shaped spire of Nanda Manya – the main attraction of which is its intricate interior paintings of girls being taken to seduce the Buddha before his enlightenment – is a sunken “cave grotto”, Kyat Kan. Here, the visitor can wander freely among the monks – and many cats – in residence.
The back garden at Sulamani Pahto is also worth a look; take an overgrown path to the left of the main western entrance and keep going until the path gets muddy (you’ll have to abandon your bike). Within the garden, the Tha Beik Hmauk Gu Hpaya temple is an exact replica of Sulamani in everything but size. Greeted enthusiastically by the gatekeeper (even the most remote monuments have one) and the resident armed policeman – present to prevent looting, post-earthquake – I’m given a guided tour of the temple and its many brightly painted Buddhas, treasures I may not have seen on a packed, pre-earthquake itinerary.
Last year’s disaster has left many of Bagan’s major sites badly damaged and impossible to enter or climb, but there’s still much to explore. So much, in fact, that you may even find yourself alone and avoid having to answer the question, “Where are you watching the sunrise tomorrow?”