The train arrived in Bagan station a little after eleven the next morning, exactly a twelve-hour trip and only three hours late. I took a waiting taxi to New Bagan where I had reserved a room at the Kumundra Hotel. The taxi was a dilapidated, window-less pick-up truck that blew me along in a hot wind. On the way we were stopped at a checkpoint and I had to pay fifteen dollars to the opportunistic government to enter this zone.
The uniqueness of Bagan is that an enormous amount of temples and religious buildings were constructed here. The area is said to have been inhabited for over two thousand years, but the main fervour of temple building began in earnest in 1057 AD and continued for the next two and a half centuries. By 1200 AD there were reported to be over four thousand. Marco Polo wrote about his visit to Bagan in 1298, enthusing over the amount of gold he saw in the temples.
The reason for the town’s later decline and abandonment is not clear, but invasion by Kublai Khan’s Mongol forces did occur in 1274. A great many temples still remain though a late survey found more than 2200. At the Kumundra Hotel the accommodation consisted of bungalows lining either side of a central lawn dotted with trees. The extensive grounds were decorated with dozens of randomly placed large glazed jars, with smaller ones resting in tree forks or at their bases.
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I fell onto the bed in my comfortable room and slept soundly for two hours. My windows looked out toward the swimming pool, but it did not invite me. It was not shaded and outside it was blazing hot, dry and dusty and around 40°C. I wasn’t really enamoured of Bagan. It had an over-touristed atmosphere that I did not care for, and it was difficult to get around. There is not much to do except visit the temples, and they are spread out over a broad plain.
Most accommodation is located a distance away, except hotels in Old Bagan which were either grossly overpriced or government owned. Between Nuang U, the transport hub north of Old Bagan, to New Bagan, is a twenty kilometre oval circuit. There are no houses in Old Bagan any longer, only hotels.
In 1990 the government forcibly removed the villagers from there to New Bagan, a few kilometres south. My first visit to Bagan had been very different. It was Pagan then, there was no New Bagan. We stayed in a small hotel in what is now Old Bagan. Being on site, it was easy to visit the temples. That evening I had a meal on the outdoor tree-shaded area of decking that served as the Kumundra’s restaurant. It looked toward Old Bagan where stupas could be seen rising among the greenery of the temple-strewn plain.
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