Old Bagan is one of the best places in the world to see ancient Buddhist temples.
The entire city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with over 2,200 temples and pagodas in an area of 50 square kilometers, forming a unique skyline like no others.
The Best of Bagan Pagodas were captured in my previous post as I listed out the must-see places in old Bagan.
This time, I am offering some tips and guides about visiting these temples and diving into their tradition so that you have a better understanding of what you will witness if you are planning to visit there (and you should!).
Temple Etiquette – Dos and Don’ts
No shoes or socks in all pagodas and temple grounds. Yes, you will have to take off your shoes and put them on the shelves (or on the side of the road) at the entrance of all temples, and you will be walking on mud and dirt. This rule applies to everyone – including the presidents. I have some suggestions:
Wear a pair of comfortable sandals that you don’t care about. It will be much easier to put them on and off, and you don’t have to worry about your feet (or… socks, ew) being full of mud and dirt and you have to wear your shoes on your way out.
Bring a plastic bag in case you want to take your shoes with you; in fact, it may be a good idea to take the shoes with you because some temples are huge. You might have a difficult time finding your shoes on the shelves among thousands of them, after spending 2 hours or more in a temple. Besides, you have the flexibility to choose which entrance to exit – let say you walk in from one entrance and walk out from the other; you don’t have to walk all the way back to the entrance just to pick up your shoes.
Antibacterial wipes and sanitizers are your friends (even if you are not a germaphobe). They are useful after a day of visiting the temples and you could freshen up and clean your feet and sandals, all ready to have fun for the rest of your day!
No flimsy and revealing clothes, and take off your hats. For the ladies that means spaghetti strap tops, hot pants, and short skirts are big no. For the guys, don’t wear vests and shorts. It is a sign of respect for the Burmese and their beliefs. There are guards at the entrances and they may require you to cover up; In other words, this is subject to the guard’s own judgment and it will just ruin your fun arguing with them why your mid-length Capri shorts that “may or may not have your knees covered” is a violation of the temple’s dressing code.
In any case, a scarf or a shawl could be handy for you to cover up whenever you need it. Besides, it is also useful to provide some shade on a hot and sunny day on the temple ground.
If you want to soak in the local culture, get a Longyi or sarong – they could be found in many souvenir shops with all sorts of colors and patterns. The locals would be happy to help if you have trouble wearing (or tying them), too! Check out 8 Special Things to Experience in Myanmar Like a Local for more about this traditional attire. I have also shared a tutorial about how to tie a longyi.
Respect Buddha, which means refraining from taking “funny” and “silly” pictures with Buddha statues. Furthermore, your head should not be higher than the Buddha’s. If the Buddha is reclining and low to the ground, you should kneel or sit to take your photo.
Furthermore, pointing at the Buddha is also a sign of disrespect. Never use your feet to point at anything. Sometimes, it could be difficult to determine whether what you are doing is “offensive” – my advice: use common sense and always be respectful. If you still have doubts, simply don’t do it.
Respect local worshippers, which means Refrain from taking close-up pictures of the locals when they are worshipping in a temple unless you have their permission to do so. Do not talk loudly, make jokes, and nasty comments even if they may, or may not understand the language that you are speaking. Keep in mind that if a large traveling group may get quite loud when all group members are chatting – always lower your voice as you talk.
Visiting Temples… with a little knowledge
Whether you have a car, a hired driver, or a bike, it is difficult to get a taxi to get around. To make your day trip fun, you could consider hiring a horse carriage or a tuk-tuk. I am not a wiki expert here, and I am not trying to give you guys a history lesson about the Pagan Empire – there is so much more information online that you could dive into if you are interested. I am just sharing something that I learned and saw to pique our interests. Besides, you will find it helpful to know a little bit about their history and culture by walking through the ruins.
Most temples and pagodas share a similar structure and design. They have a central, square main hall, with a Buddha in the center and mural paintings around. The surrounding structures are connected by passages supported by vaulted arches radiating outward, creating the shape of a cross. Having said that, each temple and pagoda has its own subtle differences in design that make them special. It is also fascinating to find that no matter how hot it is outside, the halls are always cool with occasional breezes.
As I am exploring Bagan, I do keep comparing it with my trip to Siem Reap – The Grand Tour that covers Ta Som, Neak Poan, Preah Khan, Banteay Srei Temple… and the Small Tour that covers the Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm, and, of course, the Bayon and Angkor Wat. There are some similarities but there are so many differences if you look closely and learn a little bit about their culture. In general, the Angkor temples are scattered and quite well-hidden in the bushes in the abandoned forest, while the temples in Bagan are spread on the plain. Angkor is an interconnected system while Bagan is having thousands of temples independently that coexist in one place.
To travelers, Angkor is more developed and there are night markets, shops, spas, massage parlors, and bars; there are more choices in terms of accommodations and resorts. Bagan, on the other hand, is more relic and everything closes at around 8 pm.
Worship like a local
Apart from history, let’s take a look at their tradition.
It is common to see worshippers kneeling to the Buddha out of respect. You may even see some crawling on their hands and knees to the temple, as a way of showing their faith in Buddha.
One thing you might notice is that the worshippers like to touch the Buddha statue’s hand (if they can be touched), to the point that the hand of the Buddha is always glossier. While it is not exactly a Buddha’s teaching, but only a common belief among worshippers that touching the Buddha may give luck. In fact, the Buddha teaches us to be responsible for our own fate and not depend on external matters.
Another thing that you may notice is that the worshippers walk around a Buddha statue three times anticlockwise. This is another way of showing respect to the Buddha.
The ritual of bathing the Buddha is also a common sight. It is an important tradition to commemorate the Buddha’s birth. You will sometimes find a water tank in the yard of a temple, with tiny buddha statues and mugs. It is believed that by pouring water over his body, our sins will also be cleaned. At least I found this act quite calming and therapeutic.