The ancient city of Bagan dating back to the 9th century is the most coveted site in Myanmar attracting not only foreigners but also thousands of Burmese pilgrims every year. Originally, nearly 10,000 monuments were erected between the 9th and 13th century during the reign of the Kingdom of Pagan (as it was known back then). Nowadays, the Bagan Archaeological Zone is comprised of an estimated 2200 remaining monuments.
Before entering the Bagan Archaeological Zone, visitors must pay the mandatory entrance fee of 25,000 kyats at one of the guarded posts situated on the outskirts of town. With ticket in hand, visitors are then permitted to roam freely around the expansive site for a duration of five consecutive days (don’t worry, this is plenty of time to explore the temples at a leisurely pace).
The archaeological zone is huge and covers about 104 square kilometers so transport is essential. A few options are available namely renting a bicycle (at around 2000 kyats/day this is the cheapest but most strenuous option), hiring a tuk-tuk driver or air-conditioned taxi, taking a tour by horse-drawn cart or the most popular among foreign travelers is to rent an electrical motorbike (e-bike) for 8000 kyats/day; tourists are not allowed to ride/rent motorbikes in Bagan but the government came up with this clever substitution. Word of advice, make sure the battery is fully charged before you head out to explore.
WHERE TO STAY
I wanted to include this because I was really confused when we arrived in Bagan. This isn’t a list of recommended accommodation since we only stayed in one and it was average (it was also where we encountered our first cockroach in Myanmar) but rather it will help clarify as to where in town to stay. You see, Bagan is actually made up of four small settlements: Nyaung U, Old Bagan, Myinkaba and New Bagan and each one is different.
New Bagan, as the name suggests, is the newest area and the most expensive with higher end hotels offering views of some temples or the Irrawaddy River. Old Bagan is considered to be the city center with a main street lined with local restaurants and a handful of budget-friendly (but older) accommodations; we did find one or two brand new guest houses at very reasonable rates. Further away along the main road are some of the most expensive and luxurious resorts in Bagan. And then there’s Nyaung U with its laid-back vibe; this is where we stayed. This area is totally and completely geared towards tourists. The small dirt road appropriately-named “Restaurant Road” is lined with establishments serving international menus. Accommodation ranges from budget-friendly/rundown to medium-range (and a few higher end hotels on the main road). Also conveniently located here are several tour operators and e-bike rental shops.
If you want to buy some of Bagan’s famous lacquerware then head to the small village of Myinkaba. You won’t find much in terms of accommodation but there are plenty of family-run workshops – from fancy showrooms to dusty wooden houses – you’re sure to find something to your liking.
WHAT TO EXPECT
As with any tourist site, Ancient Bagan attracts its share of commercially-inclined locals taking advantage of the influx of visitors. At some of the more popular temples, you’ll find stalls selling the omnipresent “elephant pants” in a variety of prints, others will set up shop on the grounds of the temples selling their own paintings (or so they say) while other vendors will be selling a panoply of locally-made baskets or puppets.
Don’t be surprised if you’re approached by school-age kids swaying you into buying postcards. Most of them speak English very well and will try to charm you in your own language as well. All of them will say that they collect money from around the world at which point they’ll whip out their stack of different currencies. If you ask them why they’re not in school, they’ll all say school has already ended (for the day or for the year). I’m not sure if these kids actually do go to school but that’s a different topic altogether.
As mentioned previously, there are thousands of monuments scattered around Bagan but following are the ones we visited basically on a whim. Although we had a map, we decided to just go where we wanted to without aiming to visit every popular temple. The monuments range in size from incredibly huge to only a few feet tall. Most monuments can be entered and explored through a series of corridors.
When we went in April 2016, we were allowed to climb to the top of the temples to take in the panoramic views of the site (and to see the sunset/sunrise which is a major attraction in Bagan) but it seems the government has put a ban on this since mid-2017. I don’t know if this is going to change but keep in mind that some temples are permanently off-limits following the damaging earthquake in August 2016.
Now that we got all the logistics out of the way, let’s explore the most compelling temples of ancient Bagan!
As the largest monument in Bagan, Dhammayangyi Temple can easily be seen from afar. The pyramidal temple was built in the form of a cross and is topped with several blunt stupas. Though not the most elaborate temple, its incredibly fine interlocked brickwork is worth noting; it’s said that a pin can’t pass through the mortarless layers.
Special feature: Inside the temple are two Buddhas sitting side-by-side both adorned with shimmering golden heads while their stone bodies maintain a lovely aging patina. These Buddha images represent Gautama, the current Buddha, and Maitreya, the future Buddha of this world.
Ananda Temple was built in 1105 A.D. but due to damages caused by the earthquake in 1975, it’s been extensively restored making it the best preserved monument in Bagan. The presence of big voyager buses in the parking lot hint at the popularity of this temple especially among Burmese visitors. It’s hard not to miss the large spherical table at the main entrance where Buddhist devotees place monetary donations (for the upkeep of the temple?).
Special features: What makes the interior of this temple so different from the other ones is that the walls have hundreds of niches housing various Buddha images. Another distinct feature is the four standing Buddhas all cloaked in gold each facing a different direction namely North, South, East and West.
Built in 931 A.D., Nathlaung Kyaung, dedicated to the god Vishnu, is the only remaining Hindu temple found in the Bagan Archaeological Zone which is predominantly Buddhist. In an attempt to enforce Buddhism throughout his kingdom, King Anawrahta forcibly kept non-Buddhist images in the Nathlaung Kyaung temple which translated literally means “shrine confining nat.” Be sure not to miss this unique temple located to the west of Thatbyinnyu Temple.
Special feature: Inside are a handful of carvings depicting Hindu deities.
The vaulted ceilings of Sulamani Temple create a wonderful play on natural light giving it a very atmospheric and nostalgic setting. This temple has the most frescoes decorating its inner walls though they’ve been apparently restored/retouched (as was the structure) over the years following the earthquake in 1975.
Just like me, I’m sure the mysterious intricately detailed frescoes recounting stories past will also have you lingering much longer than you expected.
Special feature: Remember to look for the stunning fresco of this beautiful reclining Buddha.
With its symmetrically-built square base, the imposing Shwesandaw Pagoda is one of the highest in Bagan. It has five successive receding terraces going all around and the bell-shaped stupa sitting on top can be seen from miles around. The circular top half of the pagoda is white-washed and the bottom half was left in its original (?) state. Climbing the series of steep, narrow (crumbling) steps had my heart thumping but so did the panoramic views (as per the new ban, the stairway has been closed off to prevent from climbing).
Located close to the road, Htilominlo Temple has a similar design to Sulamani Temple; squiggly reliefs above the doors and a seated Buddha beckon visitors in. As intricate as this temple is from the outside, the inside is bare; sadly, it seems to have been stripped of its history. As with most of the temples, images of Buddhas poised on pedestals are strategically placed at each portico.
Standing at 61 metres / 201 ft high, Thatbyinnyu Temple is the highest in Bagan and is also one of the largest temples. It’s actively used by worshiping Burmese who can be seen kneeling on the recently tiled floor in front of their beloved Buddha. I loved the transitional style of Thatbyinnyu Temple – the blackened, perfectly aging patina along with its several golden parapets had me gawking in awe but the interior was a little too refurbished (including electricity and a television) for my liking.
Special feature: At the Eastern portico, two door guardians wearing colorful outfits stand out against the white facade. I’m not sure what exactly they’re guarding at this gated stairway but there sure are a lot of kyats in those glass bins!
Shwegugyi translates to “the Golden Cave” and is located in front of the Royal Palace of the ancient Kingdom of Pagan. The year of its construction – 1131 A.D. – is clearly written on a small stone slab. This smaller two-tiered temple has evident influences taken from Hinduism such as the carved statues depicting nats (spiritual beings) casually seated at the main entrance.
Special feature: One of the only temples that has its integral history inscribed on two large stone slabs placed in front of the temple.
One of the largest temples and the second highest in Bagan with an envious location on the banks of the Ayeyarwaddy River, Gawdawpalin Temple was built by King Narapatisithu but was completed by his son Htilominlo. The style of this temple was common during that era, recalling once again Sulamani Temple. We didn’t go to this temple but settled on only catching a glimpse of it from afar. As one of the more prominent temples, I’m sure it’s worth visiting though.
NAME UNKNOWN TEMPLE
That, of course, isn’t the name of this tiny temple but I didn’t take it down even though it’s probably written right on that little stone slab *slaps forehead*. As with many temples, this was just one of many we passed by and decided to haphazardly stop to visit and I’m so glad we did! It was the only temple we visited that had almost intact statues of elephants placed in niches lining two side walls. And the interior was like no other…..
Special feature: Inside this inconspicuous temple hides something very unusual – an image of two shoulder-to-shoulder Buddhas in a half-reclined position set in the corner.
So there you have it – a brief guide to help you decipher a few of the temples scattered across ancient Bagan if ever you get the chance to visit. And I hope you do as it truly is a magical place.
Read all about my travels in Myanmar
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Have you been to ancient Bagan? Are there any other temples you would suggest?