Hot air balloons like bright pops of color floating away in the distance, while the sun sets in the horizon, making the massive hot air balloons look like tiny dots scattered in the sky. If you look up hashtags related to “Bagan” on Instagram, you’re bound to get bombarded with images portraying this scene, and for a very good reason!
Located on the bank of the beautiful Irrawaddy River, Bagan’s claim to fame has been the incredible hot air balloon experience it offers overlooking its vast plains. This quaint Burmese town’s reputation, however, is not limited to just that. If you scroll past the dreamy photos of hot air balloon rides, you’ll be welcomed into the world of Bagan’s stunning Buddhist temples and pagodas built several hundred years ago.
Getting to Bagan
A recent influx of tourists into Bagan has nudged the local authorities to provide better infrastructure and convenient modes of travel within Myanmar, connecting its most popular towns.
The most economical and convenient way to get here is to take a bus from Yangon to Bagan, a journey of 627 Km covered in just about 10 hours. Direct flights have been launched as well between the two cities but expect them to cost at least five times more than bus tickets! In addition to saving you big bucks, a bus ride through the length of Myanmar gives you a sneak peek into the beautiful countryside that’s rarely spoken about.
In addition to Yangon, it is also possible to get to Bagan from Mandalay easily. Bus tickets are as cheap as USD 7 per person and the travel time is only about 5 and a half hours. If you have the luxury of time and prefer a relaxed journey, taking a ferry from Mandalay to Bagan is also a great idea.
Why visit the Ananda Pagoda Festival
If you’re looking for an immersive cultural experience in Myanmar, the Ananda Pagoda Festival in Bagan is a great place to start as long as you set your expectations right.
The stark contrast between the calm and the chaos of this festival created by the coexistence of festive revelry alongside devout prayer sessions is something worth experiencing and unlike anything you’ll come across if you visit Bagan during the rest of the year!
All about the Ananda Temple and the biggest festival of Bagan
Why so much fuss and discussion surrounding Bagan’s temples you may wonder? Rightfully referred to as Myanmar’s temple town, Bagan’s exquisite collection of Buddhist cultural and architectural heritage has very recently placed it on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
However, out of it’s 2,000 odd Buddhist temples, the one that attracts the most attention is the Ananda Temple, one of the largest and most well-preserved structures in Old Bagan. The temple is instantly recognizable from a distance, owing to its distinct architecture – a 170 feet tall gold-plated pinnacle sitting atop the temple. Apart from its physical beauty, the biggest draw of the Ananda Temple is undoubtedly the annual Ananda Pagoda festival, held between December and January, in the Burmese month of Pyatho.
Typically a week-long celebration, the main day of the Ananda Pagoda Festival coincides with the full moon of Pyatho, which also marks the end of the local harvest season. In 2020, the festival is being celebrated from 9th to 24th January and the dates change every year based on the lunar cycle.
Considered to be one of the biggest festivals to be celebrated in Bagan, the Ananda Pagoda Festival is primarily aimed at raising funds from pilgrims for the preservation and maintenance of the ancient temple. Having said that, there is also a huge cultural and religious aspect of the festival. Thousands of Buddhist pilgrims and monks congregate at the temple premises and camp in the surrounding area for the entire duration of the festival.
An iconic visual associated with the Ananda Pagoda Festival is that of the pilgrims from nearby villages making their way to the festival on traditional bullock carts with their families and personal belongings and setting up camps to spend the next seven days praying and celebrating.
Another important event during the festival is a total of thousand monks coming together and chanting Buddhist scriptures straight for 72 hours. This important event ends with pilgrims and visitors offering donations in the form of food and clothing to the monks while entertainment in the form of theatre performances take place simultaneously.
It is also interesting to note that most of these events and activities take place late at night, after 9 pm on most days, and go on till the wee hours of the morning.
The week of the Ananda Temple Festival is a great time to be in Bagan, especially if you’re keen to experience authentic local culture. In addition to the atmosphere of spirituality and reverence created by the rhythmic chanting of the monks, locals also set up stalls selling delicious Burmese food and other items to cater to the sea of visitors that throng this place every year.
Tips for planning a visit to Bagan during the Ananda Pagoda Festival
1. The Ananda Festival is a time when Bagan receives a lot of visitors, both domestic and international. If you want to find a suitable place to stay during this period, make sure to book your accommodation well ahead in time.
2. In addition to booking ahead, the choice of location of your accommodation is also critical. It is natural to want to book a hotel close to the festival and temple grounds, but keep in mind that the area around the main festivities can get very noisy from prayers being played on loudspeakers.
If you want to stay in a quieter place, look for a hotel in the Nyaung-U area of Bagan. It is far enough from the temples of Old Bagan to get you a good night’s rest and it is close enough for you to join in on the festivities during the day. Moreover, accommodation options are plenty in this part of town, keeping the prices reasonable too.
3. Although the festival goes on for a week, the busiest days are around the full moon sighting. If you want to get a taste of the festival but are wary of the crowd, you may want to avoid the main festival days.
4. In case you’re wondering if the crowd of festival-goers will spill over to the rest of Bagan, you need not worry. The rest of the city beyond the Ananda Temple grounds does not get impacted by the festival so you can carry on with your other activities as planned.
5. It’s important to keep in mind that, unlike many festivals in Asia which are somewhat equipped to cater to international tourists, the Ananda Pagoda Festival is held purely by and for the local community. That obviously doesn’t imply that foreigners are not welcome, but it simply means that there are no special arrangements made for visitors.