It was under King Anawratha, who was responsible for unifying Burma through Theravada Buddhism, that Bagan became a major centre of power and religion during the 9th century. Its golden age came to an abrupt end in 1287 when Mongol invaders raided and sacked the illustrious city. Archaeologists believe that there would once have been as many as 13,000 religious structures on the 16 square mile plain, of which there are only 2,200 left today. While some of the larger buildings have been maintained, most are in various states of disrepair, others are dilapidated, many overgrown with weeds, and some little more than piles of rubble.
Unfortunately the winds (and occasional twisters) that blow across the plains have eroded the unprotected structures over the centuries, wearing down the stucco surfaces to expose the russet coloured bricks in places, giving the site a weathered look. While many visitors find the ramshackle appearance picturesque, the wind and erosion are serious threats to the site – as well as to the Ayeyarwady River, whose banks are being washed away, taking with them archaeological remnants of Old Bagan.
The beauty of Bagan is in its setting, atmosphere and details (not all of which have been weather-beaten), from the intricately detailed carvings that warrant closer study and the crimson bougainvillea that enliven the brown landscape, to the squirrels that play amongst the dusty ruins and the sublime silhouette of the delicate spires poking skywards at sunset.
Note that while it’s tempting to wear walking shoes or hiking boots to clamber about the ruins, Bagan is a sacred site and visitors are expected to remove shoes and socks before entering temples. Charming ways to visit the site include bicycle or if you’re travelling with a group of friends or family you can rent a horse and cart.