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Published February 21st 2015
Watch the sun go down on one of South East Asia's wonders
Bagan, Myanmar; former capital of the Pagan Kingdom, sleepy riverside plain on the banks of the Irrawaddy, and the site of thousands of Buddhist temples – the only remaining evidence of the prosperous economy of this once great city.
By day, Bagan can be explored at a leisurely pace, as visitors meander around the sprawling site, taking in the architecture and atmosphere of this stunning relic of an ancient culture; but as night begins to fall and the brutal midday heat recedes, the area becomes the scene of a desperate scramble. People run hither and thither, taxis and minbuses shepherd tourists around, horse drawn carriages quicken their pace in an effort to reach their goal, which is of course to find the perfect spot to view the sunset.
The "secret" has long since got out about the prime sunset spots of Sulemani and Pyathadi, so anyone heading down here at sunset will find these temples choked with people. The trick is to do a bit of research during your daytime explorations and find an alternative, a spot where you can enjoy the sunset in relative tranquility. Here – in no particular order – are three of the best that I found on my recent trip to Bagan.
The Calm of Old Bagan – Nan Pagoda
The road heading south out of Old Bagan to the newer village further down the river is often overlooked by visitors, who instead use it as a gateway to reach other parts of the archaeological zone. However, those that take the time explore this portion of the plain – particularly around sunset – will be rewarded.
One of the cramped Buddha statues at Manuha
The main temple attraction on this road is the Manuha Pagoda, which features two huge Buddha statues housed in impossibly tight interior halls, apparently symbolizing the political constraints placed on the king who had them constructed. This temple is a must visit during the day, but come sunset, it's best to venture a little further south.
Here you will find Nan Pagoda, a rambling but beautiful temple that will be locked at sunset. From here, several paths worn into the earth by local farm workers spread westwards, winding between thorn trees, cacti and a clutch of smaller temples towards the Irrawaddy River.
This is the first of our three prime locations for viewing the sunset. You're almost guaranteed to be completely alone here, and watching the sun dipping beyond the horizon and silhouetting the tens of small stupas and religious buildings that are found here at the western extreme of the plain is a sublime experience.
It might lack the dramatic aesthetics of some of the larger temples further away from the river, but in terms of tranquility and subtle beauty, this spot is the equal to any on the Bagan Plain.
The "Alternative, Alternative" – Temple 405
In recent years, an alternative sunset spot to the big boys of Sulemani etc has emerged. This temple, found just to the south of the road running west from the highway towards Old Bagan and about one and half miles east of Ananda Pahto, is Buledi, and features a steep set of stairs which can be climbed to a viewing platform just beneath the central stupa.
However, word spreads like wildfire amongst tourists, and a visit to Buledi at sunset these days will see you swamped with other visitors trying to beat the crowds just like you, and inadvertently creating new crowds of their own.
The trick is here to keep walking for a few metres beyond Buledi, to the rather less romantically named Temple 405. Temple 405 is a temple constructed in the same mould as Buledi, with a terrace of its own beneath its stupa, only this miniature Buledi is several metres shorter than its neighbour.
Still, this temple affords you some incredible views of the surrounding plains and temples, while Buledi serves as a nice foreground focal point as the sun begins to set. When I visited this place, only three of us opted to climb Temple 405, while there must have been close to 100 visitors crowded onto the terrace over on Buledi.
There are few better places in Bagan to feel the residual heat emanate for the stonework of the temple at your back, and contemplate the sun descending over the western horizon.
The Banks of the Irrwaddy – Thiripyitsaya
Last but certainly not least on our rundown of alternative Bagan sunset spots is the village of Thiripyitysaya, about one mile west of New Bagan.
Heading to the village from New Bagan, visitors must turn left at the crossroads, then turn right into the village until they reach the road running parallel to the river. At the southern end of the village, another track again turns right and heads down to the water - this is small jetty used by local fisherman and is the perfect spot to watch the sun go down over the river.
Looking southwards to the golden pagoda on the riverside
The vast Irrwaddy – or Ayeryarwady, in Burmese – River is one of Myanmar's national symbols, and runs for almost the entire length of the northern part of the country. From the troubled northern regions of Myitkyinā, the Irrwaddy flows south, through the ex-colonial hub of the Mandalay Division, past the stunning vistas of Bagan and flowing into the Andaman Sea via the delta south of Yangon, almost 1400 miles from its source.
Reconciling the gentle beauty of the Irrawaddy at Bagan with its incalculable power and majesty can be difficult, but there can be few better ways to wind down after a hot day spent exploring the temples of Bagan than to watch the blood-red sun slowly sinking into the river's western bank.