Bagan is by far the most popular tourist destination in Myanmar and worldwide famous thanks to the largest concentration of religious structures in the world. Your visit to Myanmar would be incomplete without spending a few days in this ancient city. Often compared in it's scale and beauty to Angkor Wat, Bagan offers more intimate and pleasant experience, at the same time surpassing its cambodian cousin in the number of temples, pagodas and stupas.
Trip Planning and Getting Around
Officially called 'Bagan Archaeological Zone', Bagan (also referred to as 'Old Bagan' or simply 'Bagan') is in fact an area of approximately 50 sq km, on the east bank of the Ayeyarwady River. There are roughly 2,200 religious structures rising from the plain, widely classified as temples, pagods, stupas. The majority of visitors spend at least two to three days in Bagan, which is a sufficient amount of time to explore the most significant spots. Those wishing to explore Bagan in more depth, take a baloon flight or visit the surrounding areas like Mount Popa, should plan a minimum of 4 days.
Your point of entry to the area will likely be Nyaung-U, few kilometers north-east from the main Archaeological Zone. Nyaung-U is the main town in the area, hosts a domestic airport and is the final terminus of long-distance bases coming from other parts of the country. Most of the budget and mid-range accomodation options can be found in this area.
The other town in the area is New Bagan - a village setup in the 1990s by the government to relocate all residents from Old Bagan. Located few kilometers south from Old Bagan, New Bagan offers a large selection of premium accomodation options. Budget travellers will be able to find some basic accommodation in hostels and religious centers.
Distances between the temples in Bagan can be visually misleading, therefore it is important to plan in advance on getting around the area. Beyond an organized trip, independent travellers can opt for are several modes of transportation: horse cart, bicycle, electric-bicycle and, a private taxi. Each of these options can be negotiated for a full day or a shorter time period, giving you enough flexibility and ensuring you are at the right places, at the right time. Keep note of special arrangments you may need to make when planning a temple visit for sunrise.
While visiting main sights, you may be asked to present Bagan admission ticket (10 USD). If you have not previously obtained the admission ticket, you should simply indicate this to the person and purchase it. Admission will be valid for seven days and permits you to access all sights within Bagan through your entire stay.
The plains of Bagan are located on an ancient trade route between southwest China and India. It is believed early settlement of the Bagan area took place in the 2nd century but it was not until 849AD when the city of Bagan (Pagan) has been established. Bagan was originally one of a few competing city-states within the Irrawaddy Valley. It wasn't until mid 10th century, when Bagan established itself as the capital of the Pagan Empire; the first kingdom to unify most territories of the modern-day Myanmar.
Bagan was the capital, economic, political and cultural powerhouse of the Pagan Empire from 1044 to 1287. Over this period, a number of rulers errected 10,000 - 13,000 religious monuments to commemorate their reign and assure merit in the afterlife. The city attracted travellers and pilgrims from all over the Buddhist world and beyond. One of the most famous visitors to Bagan was Marco Polo who visited in 1277 and described Bagan as "one of the finest sights in the world". Over time, the city grew in importance and attracted religious and secular scholars and students of philosophy, grammar, medicine. Different streams of Buddhism, Hindu and animist religions were accepted and incorporated into the culture of Bagan.
The prosperity era of Bagan ended abruptly in 1287 with the Mongol invasion of Myanmar. While Bagan itself was mostly spared from the damadge, the kingdom collapsed and never recovered. The city lost most of its 200,000 population and the capital status. Ten years after the Mongol invasion, Myinsaing Kingdom was eastablished in Central Myanmar and Bagan officialy ceased being the capital in 1297. Bagan continued to be a pilgrimage destination from the 14th century onwards and some temples were regularly patronized and maintained. Nevertheless, due to dry, dusty climate and occassional earthquakes, only about 2,200 of the structuers have survived till present day.
Top 5 Temples to Visit
Most of the travellers will only see a fraction of Bagan's surviving 2,200 pagodas, temaples and stupas. By careful planning and timing your visit to specific temples, you may be able to avoid peak hours at certain temples enjoy the best Bagan has to offer in or two days of sightseeing. Most of the sites will host only a handful of tourists at any given point however, even places considered crowded by Bagan standards will allow you for privacy and great opportunities for sunrise or sunset photographs. Below, we present 5 notable temples.
Completed in 1091, Ananda is Bagan's holiest temple, one of its icons and a masterpiece of Mon culture architecture. Inside facing different directions, you will find 4 teak statues of Buddha. The temple layout is in a Greek cross shape, with several terraces leading to a small pagoda at the top, covered by an umbrella known as hti.
The legend says that eight Indian monks visited Bagan's king palace and told him about a legendary cave temple in the Himalayas, where they once lived. Using meditation, the monks projected the mythical mountain landscape to the king. Impressed by the vision, the king ordered a replica of the Himalayan temple to be constructed in Bagan. Upon completion, he executed the architect to ensure nobody copies the temple.
One of the most majestic structures in all of Bagan, this 12th century, Gwadawpalin represents the gu-style temple. As opposed to stupas, this temple was used primarily for meditation. With its 3 lower and 4 upper terraces, Gwadawpalin is one of the largest shrines in all of Bagan. The temple was built in 1175 by King Narapatisithu to resamble Thatbyinnyu temple. According to the legend, the King has insulted his ancestors and as punishment, went blind. King's astrologers advised the King to redeem hiself by by making idols of his ancestors. The King prayed to these idols and begged for forgiveness. Miraculously he eventually regained his sight.
Thatbyinnyu temple or 'the Omniscient' at 61 meters high, is the tallest structure in Bagan. Located next to Ananda Temple, it's named after Buddha's attributes; Omniscience or in other words, knowing thoroughly and seeing widely that Buddha obtained upon englightenment. Thatbyinnyu is a complex temple with 7 terraces, monastery, library and a stupa. Thatbyinnyu was built by King Alaungsithu and is a transitional temple, between the early Mon-style of the Ananda, half a mile to the northeast, and the later Gu-style of the Gawdawpalin.
One of the most popular spots for sunrise sunset viewing. Built by king Anawrahta in 1057, Shwesandaw, located outside of the city walls, providing spiritual protection for Bagan, offers one of the best panoramic views of Bagan. To reach to the top, you will need to climb a steep staircase.
Shwesandaw is also known as Ganesh, after the elephant-headed Hindu god and consits of 5 terraces topped by a cylindircal stupa. The original hti lying near the pagoda was topped during 1975 earthquake and was quickly replaced with a gold leaf. West of Shwesandaw, inside an image house stands a reclining Buddha statue. You can also admire original Bagan frescoes on the walls.
Built around 1165, Dhammayangyi or Dhammayan as it is popularily called is Bagan's largest temple in terms of mass. Most likely built during King Narathu's rule, Dhammayangyi structure is similar to Ananda Temple's Greek Cross but from the distance, it may also resemble an Egyptian pyramid. The temple also hosts a unique two Buddha statues and remains one of the most interesting and intriguing structures in Bagan.
Only outer corridors are accessible to visitors. It's interior is blocked with rubble, locals believe a treasure may be hidden in the interior part of the Temple. Others believe the temple is haunted by the ghost of the King. The legend says Narathu killed his own father, brother and mother and was eventually assasinated by Indians and the construction was never comleted.
Popa Taung Kalat ("Mount Popa")
Located some 50km east from Bagan, this Buddhist Monastery on top of an extinct volcano is associated with 37 Great Spirit Heros - "Mahagiri Nat", a tradition preceding Buddhism. For seven centuries before the reign of King Anaweahta, all Burmese kings were required to make a visit to Taung Kalat. The nats would appear in front of the king and provide counseling on the most important matters. According to the legend, a young blacksmith Nga Tin De and his sister lived in the surrounding Bagan area. Considered by the King Thinlikyaung a threat, Nga Tin De had to flee to the woods, leaving his sister behind. It wasn't long before the King fell in love with the sister and married her. He later convinced her to call her brother from the woods and upon Nga Tin De's return, captured, tied to the tree and set him alight. Having seen this, the sister, Shwemyethna, jumped into the fire herself. With the bodies of the siblings reunited, they became Nat Spirits living in the tree. The story quickly spread around Myanmar and the King, trying to unite the country, ordered two figures to be carved from the tree where the spirits lived. The pilgrims started flowing to Taung Kalar to pay respect, the figures can be found in the shrine to this day. Upon arrival of Buddhism, the nat tradition has been incorporated into local Buddhist mythology and a monastery was established.
The monastery offers fabulous views of the plain stretching towards Bagan and surrounding mountains. To reach the Shrine with Nat figures, you will need to climb 777 steps to the summit. Along the way you will almost definitely meet monkey troops expecting treats, make sure your belongings are secure to avoid unnecessary bargaining to get back your posessions.
Sightseeing and hike up and down from the summit will take you 1-2 hours, making the Monastery a perfect destination for a half day excursion from Bagan. Depending on your itinerary, you may also stop on the way to explore local markets, experience traditional farming methods and buy locally made products.