In this Internet age, true surprises are hard to come by – a modicum of research and the endless supply of online photos ensure that the visitor has a fair idea what to expect in advance. And yet there are some places so stunning, so much more than anticipated, that the oft used phrase about photographs failing to do it justice becomes not just true, but also serves as a rallying call to anyone considering it for the next trip.
Bagan is unquestionably such a place. The concern of the first time visitor is often that temple fatigue will kick in, particularly so given the numbers here, but it doesn’t apply because of the context in which they can be visited. The Shewizigon Pagoda might be the most striking at first sight, given its gilt appearance, but it is not the abiding memory that will form across the first day of visiting.
Indeed, it is the sheer number of temples, stupas and monuments that take the breath away. A drive in any direction means passing dozens of them within the first mile or two, and realising that this is to continue unabated over a significant length of time is truly astounding.
Of course, gazing in awe through the car window is one thing, getting up close and personal to a number of them is what counts for more. And having done so, and realising that what you really want is to look down over the scenery from above, climbing those where it is permitted becomes less a challenge and more an obligation.
That can be done during the day to allow for finding bearings, but it is at sunset that both the scale and the astonishing variety of Bagan becomes apparent. Watching the sun sink and silhouette the monuments right across the horizon has a tendency to cause the visitor to alternately lapse into awed silence, or to provoke squeals of delight – plus delving into a swift crash course in the panoramic feature on the camera.
The Angkor complex in Cambodia is often viewed as being the other side of the same coin as Bagan, but the experiences and the landscape are so different, it requires visiting both to truly understand their differing natures.
I have another day here, and tomorrow morning it will be to see it by hot air balloon. Suddenly that seems incredibly exciting.