Myanmar Travel

The Ultimate guide to travel in Bagan

Bagan, located on the banks of the Ayeyarwaddy (Irrawaddy) River about 630 km north of Yangon, is Myanmar’s premier tourist attraction because of its 11th and 12th century Buddhist temples, pagodas, stupas and ruins. These are the most impressive in the world. This was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan, which at one point controlled much of what now constitutes Myanmar.

The ruins of medieval Bagan, nowadays officially known as the “Bagan Archaeological Zone”, are scattered over an area of roughly 50 sq km. Formerly inhabited by an estimated 200,000 people, the lost city is now largely deserted, leaving the monuments in a state of charismatic isolation that appeals to most visitors.

You will see squirrels playfully scampering on the pediments of temples, horse-drawn carriages lazily carrying tourists between temples, and sleepy bullock carts with local produce grinding on dust- choked trails. It is as though you have been transported back in time for hundreds of years.

An estimated 2,200 temples, pagodas and other religious structures remain from around 14,000 that were erected between 1057 and 1287. The spectacle of towers rising from the scrubland is appealing at any time of the day, but especially so early mornings, when river mist and smoke often shrouds the brick and stucco structures, or in the evening as the sun settles below the horizon.

Visiting Bagan

Bagan is becoming very popular, so flights and bus services are growing in number particularly in the November to March tourist season. At the height of this season large numbers of visitors converge on the more famous temples and viewpoints and at times these are starting to feel crowded.

Fortunately, you can sidestep the crowds by visiting the sights early in the morning and by venturing a short way off the main tourist routes. This can provide equally memorable experiences without the tour groups and hundreds of vendors trying to sell you souvenirs.

Where you stay will be determined partly by how much you want to spend, how you plan to get around and how many of the top temples you want to visit. There are basically four alternatives. Old Bagan is the most central to the sights and there are some lovely riverside hotels here, a few restaurants but little nightlife outside the hotels.

New Bagan is on the southern edge of the zone but there are many midrange accommodation choices, some expensive riverside restaurants and some cheaper accommodation and eating places.

Nyaung U is the largest settlement and a real town with the most restaurants and some good budget value accommodation. It is on the northern edge of the archaeological zone. The two highest category hotels are in relatively remote locations in the general direction of the airport and you would not chose them if you planned on visiting many temples by bicycle or horse cart, or planned on eating in local restaurants.

The majority of visitors spend two days and two/three nights at Bagan, but I can spend double that here and still leave before I really want to. How you explore depends on where you stay but I like to begin at Old Bagan, the walled city enclosing the largest concentration of monuments, and work my way around the Zone from there.

Visitors are required to buy a 5-day pass to the Cultural Zone for $20 and this can be purchased at the airport and all significant sites across the Bagan region.

One of the great experiences of any trip to Bagan is climbing a pagoda to view the sunrise or sunset. However, in response to the wear and tear on delicate stairways and terraces, tourists have now been banned from climbing many of the monuments. Some say this is to force visitors to use the government viewing platform which has an entry fee but there are still some alternatives to this.

An alternative, expensive option is to see the zone from one of the hot-air balloons that drift over the ruins each morning and evening during the tourist season.

Apart from the temples, Bagan is a good place to observe some Myanmar customs. Get out on the streets early and you will see burgundy dressed monks alms begging and blessing those who give. You are also likely to see bald-headed female monks in their pink robes.

Eagan’s tourism infrastructure is still quite modest by international standards but it is set to grow rapidly. At present, there are a few international standard hotels, some mid-market properties, and many family-run guesthouses. In a great change from a few years ago, almost every guesthouse and hotel will now have wifi. Don’t expect any great speeds but at least you can check your e-mail and social media contacts.

A handful of waterfront restaurants and cafes offer breezy spots from which to admire views of the river and distant hills, while sunset cruises on the river are relaxing and enjoyable.

Eagan is also the center of the Myanmar lacquerware industry, and visitors enjoy seeing the lacquerware-making process itself.

Getting to Bagan

Most international tourists arrive here by air via Yangon. The Nyaung U Airport is the gateway to the Bagan region and this is only 15-20 minutes from most hotels. Several domestic airlines have regular flights from Yangon, Mandalay, and Inle Lake.

Myanmar Railways operates train services between Bagan and Yangon, but these are slow and not particularly comfortable. There is a daily direct train from Yangon to Bagan with a sleeping-car with 2 and 4 bed compartments. This train has a restaurant car that serves food and beer. Prices range from 4500 Kyat (about $4) in second-class to $17 for an upper-class sleeper.

There is a direct train service running from Mandalay to Bagan with two departures daily. Tickets cost about 2000 kyat in first class one way. The journey takes about seven hours in the fastest train.

Bagan station is a modern pagoda-style station in the middle of nowhere about 5 km southeast of the Nyaung U township. It’s possibly one of the few stations in the world further from the town it serves than the airport!

Overnight buses and share-cars operate from/to Yangon and Mandalay and there are some day buses to Mandalay. Buses now arrive at the new bus station located 7 km from Nyaung-U center.

The highway from Yangon is modern, but you will have to put up very loud Burmese music and TV shows that play until midnight. The buses departing from Yangon at 6 p.m. or 7 p.m. and arrive in Bagan at the rather bizarre time between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m. At this time of the morning, local taxi drivers will quote ridiculous prices for getting you to town or to Old Bagan.

VIP buses leave Yangon at 8 p.m. and take about nine hours. The cost (December 2015) is 18,500 kyat including snack and drinks.

Comfortable bus links from Mandalay are available from 8,500 kyat (bus) and minibus. The bus takes upwards of 5 hours and the minibusses longer.

An “express” ferry service runs between Bagan and Mandalay on the Ayeyarwaddy River during peak periods, and slower sailings are available all year. The express service leaves Mandalay at around 7 a.m. and takes 8-9 hours to reach Bagan. Breakfast, lunch, and coffee are provided at a cost of $45.

The slow ferry covers the same route, costs $10, and takes anything from 14 to 17 hours, but is a great opportunity to experience local life. Services are less frequent in April, May, and June when the water level in the river is low.

Getting around

The area you need to cover is reasonably large if you want to see all the sights. You can rent a private air-conditioned car and driver for around 40,000 kyats ($37) for a day and 25,000 kyats for half a day (December 2015). These are available from Nyaung U airport, the tourist information office in New Bagan township, or enquire at your hotel.

Rental bicycles are popular and economical (as little as $1.5 per day). In the early morning, before it gets hot, bike riding is a particularly pleasant experience, while later in the day, you will need a hat, water bottle and sunblock and it may still be uncomfortable. In the wet season, you should expect to get drenched.

E-bikes (electric bicycles) are available from 6,000-8,000 kyats ($6-7) and these are better for covering greater distances. It is wise to test the bike before renting particularly to see if it has a functioning headlight if you plan to travel after dark. Make sure you know what to do if it breaks down.

You can rent a horse cart with a driver for around 10000 – 15000 kyats ($9-14) for a full day but I don’t recommend that. The horse carts are slow and uncomfortable after a while. Short trips are a better option and are negotiable at around $1.5-2.

Taxis are available in Nyaung U and New Bagan. A taxi to Old Bagan from Nuaung U is about 3500-4000 kyats. An air-conditioned taxi is not a bad option during the hot season and these can be rented for around 38,000 kyats for a day and 22,000 kyats for half a day (December 2016). Shared pickups leave from the market in Nyaung U to Old Bagan (200 kyats) and New Bagan (400 kyats).

You can take a hot air balloon ride at sunrise for around $340 per person, however, they do not operate during the summer.

River boats are available for rent and are popular for sunset viewing.

Brief History

There is debate about the founding of Bagan but it is likely that it was founded in the mid-to-late 9th century by the Mranma (Burmans), who had recently entered the Ayeyarwaddy valley. Initially, it was just one of several competing city states but in the late 10th century it grew in importance.

From 1044 to 1287, Bagan was the capital of the Pagan Empire. During 250 years, Bagan’s thirteen kings energetically built temples, pagodas, palaces and the introduced Theravada Buddhism to the region and ultimately the country. This attracted monks and students from India, Ceylon and the Khmer Empire.

Shin Arahan is the missionary monk who, though his influence over four successive Kings of Bagan, ensured Theravada Buddhism became the state religion of Myanmar at a time when it was fast declining elsewhere in Asia.

Shin Arahan became the vanguard in Bagan’s battle with nat worship and the Tibetan-influenced Mahayana Buddhism. At his behest, an army was dispatched south in 1057 to conquer Thaton, his homeland, whose king owned a coveted set of Buddhist scriptures.

Bagan triumphed and its forces returned with thousands of Mon prisoners, among them architects, skilled craftsmen and scholars learned in Pali texts. These talents would be deployed over the coming decades building magnificent pagodas, temples, and libraries.

Due to repeated Mongol invasions, the Pagan Empire eventually collapsed in 1287 and the city formally ceased to be the capital of Burma in 1297 when the Myinsaing Kingdom was established.

Bagan, however, survived as a pilgrimage destination and for the few dozen temples that were regularly patronized it meant regular upkeep including repainting or fitting with new Buddha statutes. During the Konbaung period (1752-1885), shoddy restorations were carried out and some interiors were damaged.

Bagan is located in an active earthquake zone and has suffered from many earthquakes over the ages. A major earthquake in 1975, damaged many temples, and the restorations in the 1990s have drawn widespread condemnation from experts worldwide.

There are hundreds of un-restored temples and many stone inscriptions which should be sufficient for the designation of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but apparently, the sloppy past restoration counts against it and Bagan is currently not on the UNESCO list.

In 1998, many of Old Bagan’s inhabitants were forcibly relocated a few kilometers to the south into a new village called New Bagan. This is where you find the tourist office, some cheap and reasonably priced hotels and guest houses, shops, and restaurants.

Top temples and religious structures to visit in Bagan

There is little doubt that the ancient temples are the big draw in Bagan. To many visitors it matters little that much of the restoration work done on hundreds of temples bears little relation to the styles and techniques used by the original builders. It is unfortunate though that this has led to UNESCO refusing to put the site on the World Heritage List.

They still see the restored buildings as impressive monuments and frankly this is probably the only practical approach to take. It is impossible to discuss all the temples and religious sites so I have restricted myself to some of the more popular and those I personally find particularly attractive.

A headlamp or torch is useful for seeing the insides of many of the temples and for cycling out before sunrise and back after sunset.

All temples in Bagan are considered sacred by the Burmese. This means you should dress modestly by covering your knees and shoulders. Unfortunately, this is mostly ignored by Western tourists and this offends the locals and Buddhist tourists. Since Buddhists are non-confronting, they will normally keep silent but offenders will go down in their estimation and you may find locals are less friendly and co-operative.

Many of the temples can get overwhelmed by tour groups in the main season. To avoid this it’s advisable to visit before 9 a.m. when you’ll have most places to yourself. The touts don’t come out until 8 a.m. or later, the sun isn’t as intense, the air is cooler, and the light is great for photographs. Alternative visit between 1-3 p.m. when most tour groups are having their lunch.

In and around Old Bagan

Gawdaw Palin Temple

This is one of 90 religious monuments located within the city walls and at around 60 metres tall it is one of the most imposing Bagan temples. It is situated close to the Ayeyarwaddy River and was built in A.D.1175 by King Narapati-sithu.

Previously it was known as the three vaulted corridor pagoda but the earthquake of 1975 revealed a secret passage around the base so it should be more correctly called the four vaulted corridor pagoda. The temple was badly damaged in the earthquake but it has been completely reconstructed.

There are four Buddha images on the upper storey and 10 Buddha images on the ground floor. At the north-east corner of the brick platform there is a stone image of a sitting Buddha in a house. At the south-east corner of the precinct is an octagonal Pagoda with two bell posts and at the north-east corner is a chedi from a later period.

Between here and the Archaeological Museum there is a brick mound which was once a monastery where the monks who took care of Gawdaw Palin Pagoda resided.

Mahabodhi Temple

This apparently is an exact, though smaller, replica of the famous Bodhi temple in Bodhi Gaya, India where the Buddha attained enlightenment. It was built during the reign of King Nantaungmya around 1215 and is unusual because the pyramidal spire is completely covered with niches containing seated Buddha figures. The inside is a modern makeover.

The structure has two tiers of vaulted corridors. In the thick wall on the southern side is a spiral stairway. Like the Maha Bodhi at Bodhgaya, this pagoda faces East and there is on the ground floor a Buddha image and a similar one on the upper storey. The north, south and west sides of the main structure are decorated with plaster moldings, which include floral designs, birds and deva figures.

Many earthquakes have damaged this Pagoda and destroyed the original stupa atop. The present stupa is a Myanmar-style stupa.

Thatbyinnyu Temple

This was built by King Alaung Sithu in 1144 and at around 63 m it is the tallest structure in Bagan. It is one of the earliest double-storied temples and its whitish color makes it unusual. There are porticoes on all four sides and three receding terraces rise above each storey. It is a big complex structure and is quite impressive from outside.

In the ground floor, there are three big statues of Buddha made of brick and cement which are original. The other images are later additions. Original mural paintings can be seen on the ceiling and walls of the vaulted corridors on the western entrance.

Only a small proportion of the temple is accessible to the public so frankly with the exception of some suitably massive Buddhas there is not a huge amount to be seen inside. The brick laying technique used in Thatbyinnyu was excellent with some bricks in the walls laid alternatively horizontally and vertically.

There is a cave pagoda on the north-east of the precinct. Look at the two big stone posts in the southeast which once supported a huge bronze bell.

Ananda Pahto Temple

There is a rhyme traditionally sung by the people of Bagan, which runs in part, “Massiveness that is Dhammayan Gyi, Loftiness that is Thatbyinnyu, Grace that is Ananda.” I don’t argue with any of this and the Ananda Temple which is just to the east of the old city walls is very impressive and is considered the masterpiece of Bagan’s surviving Mon architecture.

Completed in 1091, it is said that King Kyanzittha was so awe-struck by the result that he personally executed the architect to ensure the temple could not be duplicated.

The structure of the building is that of a simple corridor temple. Four large vestibules, each opening out symmetrically into entrance halls, surround the central superstructure, which itself is inlaid with four huge niches. The entire enclosure is in the shape of a perfect Greek cross.

In the alcoves facing the four cardinal points are four 9.5-metre teak Buddha images. The north- and south-facing statues are originals, but those facing east and west are later copies. There are light and ventilation wells in the very high ceiling through which beams of light fall directly on the faces of the four statues at certain times.

There are three vaulted corridors and the stone sculpture works inside the outer one are considered the best of its kind in Bagan. Originally all the walls of the devotional halls were adorned with paintings and you can still see some evidence of this today.

Due to its size, beauty, unique features and central location in Old Bagan, the Ananda temple is one of the most popular with visitors. Its six terraces are topped with a 51-meter central tower, resplendent in gold since 1990, the year of the Temple’s 900th anniversary.

The roof above the central superstructure is covered with 389 terracotta-glazed tiles while smaller pagodas, copies of the central spire, stand at each of its four corners, creating the impression of a mountainous Himalayan landscape. Among the monuments in Bagan which have glazed works, Ananda Temple has the best and almost all glazed works at this temple are in good condition.

Painstaking work to strip off layers of lime to reveal ancient murals is proceeding at present, halfway into a six-year project being undertaken by the Myanmar and Indian governments. The project aims to restore and preserve the temple’s artwork – and undo the damage done by an ill-advised restoration campaign launched two decades ago.

Shwesandaw Temple

Shwesandaw was built in 1057 by King Anawahta. This white pyramid-style pagoda gives way to a graceful bell-shaped stupa and golden umbrella at its pinnacle. It was originally brick red in color with the white plaster only applied in the 1950s.

The five terraces have central staircases on each of the four sides to the base of the stupa. It is a steep climb but worth it for the 360-degree views and fortunately, there is a handrail. It is a popular destination with tour groups for sunset views from the top. It can get quite crowded on the upper terraces. There are many vendors at this temple selling T-shirts, drinks and souvenirs and some are rather persistent.

Shwegugyi Temple

This is one of my favorite Bagan temples because of its massive centuries-old wooden doors with beautiful and intricate carvings and some fine stucco carvings. These are dedicated by King Bayint Naung (A.D. 1551 — 81) who renovated the pagoda, during his pilgrimage there. The lighting during my afternoon visit was simply wonderful, great for a few souvenir photos.

It is a cave Pagoda with four Buddha images seated around the central pillar which is adorned with plaster works of floral designs, intricate ornamental backdrops, and other stuccos. Unfortunately, due to the lime wash over them, the original fresco on the walls of the main building are only faintly visible.

At the northwest corner of the chamber, there is a stone stairway leading to the top. All along the base of the pagoda and the terraces are decorative green glazed tiles still in good condition. The upper terrace offers an excellent panorama of the Old Bagan temples. It is located near the old Bagan Palace and was built in the 11th century.

Wooden Monastery in Taung Bi Village

We found this abandoned wooden monastery with large beautifully decorated stone steps in an easily missed spot at Taung Bi Village, near the Tharabar Gate.

Bu Paya

This is located on the bank of the Ayeyawady River, in the northwest direction of the city wall of Bagan. It is sometimes claimed that Bu Pava was built in the 3rd century by King Pyusaw Hti and this would make it the oldest in Bagan. The earthquake of 1975 toppled the structure and during its reconstruction, the base platform was excavated. A statue and some terra cotta tablets were discovered and these are now in the museum.

South of Old Bagan

Lawkahteikpan Temple

Lawkahteikpan is a small temple close to Shwesandaw that was built by King Alaungsithu, the successor of Kyanzittha. The architectural style of the temple dates it to the middle of the 12th century. It contains excellent frescoes and inscriptions in both Burmese and Mon.

This was the golden age of the mural and in spite of its modest size, this temple combines harmonious architecture outside with impressive dark blue, red and white paintings inside.

Mingala Zedi Temple

This is situated on the west of the road leading to Myin Kaba village. Its shape resembles that of Shwezigon and it was built by King Narathiha-pate in 1284. On the three terraces are found beautiful glazed plaques. On the brick platform, there are figurines of devas paying homage to the pagoda, figures of ogres coming to offer devotional gifts, figures of Nagas with devotional gifts and garudas coining to offer devotional gifts.

Mingala Zedi indicates the high water marks of Myanmar religious architecture because it was built a few decades before the disintegration of the Bagan Empire.

The smaller square building in the Zedi grounds is one of the few Tripitaka libraries made of brick; most were constructed of wood, like monasteries, and were destroyed by fire long ago.

Mingalar Zedi’s uppermost terrace is one of the highest points now accessible to visitors and it’s a particularly good spot for a panoramic afternoon view of all the monuments lying to the east.

Abeyadana Temple

On the river-side of the road between Old and New Bagan, the li^-century Abeyadana Temple was named after King Kyanzittha’s first wife, whom he married as a young warrior. Abeyadana, originally from Bengal, was probably a follower of Mahayana Buddhism and the fine frescoes on the outer walls of the corridor represent Bodhisattva or future Buddhas.

Our guide told us that before Kyansittha became king, he had to hide himself from his enemy King Saw Lu. While he was hiding at the place where Naga Yon Pava now is, his queen Abeyadana brought food to him. When he became king he built this Pagoda in honor of his queen.

On the inner walls are Hindu images of Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Indra, and other gods. The inner shrine contains a large, brick, seated Buddha. There are also paintings and frescos on several walls. These have been cleaned up and scientifically preserved under a UN program.

Gu Byauk Gyi Temple

This Pagoda stands on the inland side of the road near Myinkaba village. It was built in 1113 in an Indian style and is popular because of the well- preserved and richly-colored paintings inside and the fine stucco work on the outside.

On the upper reaches of the northern and southern walls are frescoes depicting Gotama Buddha receiving divine prophecy from the earlier Buddhas. Then there are pictures of the seven places where the Buddha sojourned for seven days each just after enlightenment and ceremonies of merit making events. Unfortunately, the temple is quite dark inside so you will need a light to see any of the ceiling paintings.

Manuha Temple

This rather modern looking pagoda in Myinkaba village is actually from around 1060 and is named after the Mon king Manuha who was held captive here. The highlight is the three seated Buddhas and the huge reclining Buddha behind which struggle to fit into the enclosure. Their cramped, uncomfortable positions are said to represent the stress and lack of comfort the captive king’ had to endure.

The middle immense sitting Buddha image is 15 m high while the two on its sides, each measure 10 m in height. The reclining Buddha is 27 111 long and is in the dying posture. It is said to have taken 6 months and 6 days to complete it.

Nan Paya Temple

This lies just south of Manuha and is interesting because the inner walls are built of baked bricks whereas the outer walls are built of sandstone. The date of its building is either late 11th century or early 12th century.

An interesting feature is the decorative artworks which adorn the four pillars of the interior chamber. On each of these four pillars are two stone reliefs of three-headed Brahma and reliefs of ogres holding in their mouths bunches of flowers. The stone blocks were laid so neatly and tightly that many joints are difficult to see.

In the center of the chamber is a brick devotional throne but the original image is gone. The various Hindu features make some scholars think that Nan Pava Pagoda was originally a Hindu temple but this is doubtful.

Nagayon Temple

The Nagayon, built by King Kyansittha (1084- 1113), foreshadows his crowning achievement, the Ananda and there are many similar features in the two temples.

Legend says that Kyanzittha was sheltered here by a serpent while fleeing from his angry brother and predecessor Sawlu Min. A portico paved with green glazed stones provides access to the Nagayon. Inside the temple, the main Buddha image is twice life size and shelters under the hood of a huge naga, or serpent.

The naga, sometimes human in form, is a part of the Buddhist tradition. The central shrine has two smaller standing Buddhas as well as the large one. The outer, dark corridor also paved with green glazed stones has many niches with images of the earlier Buddhas. Paintings also decorate the corridor walls.

Between Old Bagan and Nyaung U

Upali Them Temple

About 1.5 km down the main road from the Ananda Temple towards Nyaung U, this 13th– century hall of ordination, was named after the monk Upali. Although of brick construction, it is said to resemble many of the wooden buildings of the Bagan Era which have long since disappeared.

The roof has two rows of battlements and a pagoda at its center. There is a small ordination hall with red and green colored slightly faded wall paintings and some brightly painted frescoes on the walls and ceilings from the late 17th and early 18th century. The building is often kept locked in order to protect them and taking photos inside the structure is not allowed.

Htilo Minlo Temple

This is across the road from Upali Thein. Legend has it that King Narapati Sithu had five sons. He had to appoint one of them Crown Prince so he called them together and placed a white umbrella in their center and prayed “May the white umbrella incline towards the son who deserves to be Crown Prince.” The white umbrella inclined towards Zeya Theinkha so he eventually became king.

This Pagoda has three vaulted corridors. The middle corridor is like a dark secret passage going around the central structure and this is reached via an entrance hole at the top of a spiral staircase built into the wall. There are eight Buddha images, four on the ground floor and four on the upper storey. They face the four cardinal directions.

In the main pagoda, the brickwork is of high quality. Glazed green and yellow sandstone tiles decorated the structure. Whether you get to fully appreciate this, while fighting off the many vendors, is debatable.

Sulamani Temple

The Sulamani temple is south of the southern Old Bagen to Nyaung-U Road but it doesn’t particularly fit anywhere else. It is one of Bagan’s more attractive temples with lush grounds surrounded by a wall and was constructed around 1180. It has two square levels, with porches on all four sides and the upper level is set back from the lower.

Both levels are surmounted by receding terraces. There is a seated image of the Buddha on a pedestal on each side connected by a vaulted corridor. The brickwork is considered some of the best in Bagan and the carved stucco on moldings, pediments and pilasters is also excellent.

Pagodas stand at the corners of each terrace, and a high wall, fitted with elaborate gateways at each cardinal point, encloses the entire complex.

Dhammayangyi Temple

This is not far from the Sulamani Temple and it is the largest temple in Bagan. It was built by King Narathu who reigned for only three years from 1167 to 1170. Viewed from a distance its shape is like an Egyptian pyramid. It is one of the most popular temples in Bagan and hence is crowded with vendors.

In ground plan, it is similar to the Ananda Temple which was built by his royal grandfather Kyansittha. It has two vaulted corridors and four devotional halls, each at one of the four cardinal points. There is a big Buddha image in the eastern devotional hall which was sculpted out of a single piece.

For some unknown reason, the inner vaulted corridor, its entrances, and light wells were blocked soon after construction was completed. Some believe that since the super structure was so heavy the vaulted corridors and chambers underneath could not bear the weight above for very long. Others think that they were blocked because of some treasures secretly hidden inside.

Still others say Narathu was a tyrant who had killed his old father Alaung Sithu, his elder brother Min Shin Saw, and his queen Pe-thida. They believe that Narathu was so obsessed with his crimes and so overcome by remorse, that he blocked the inner corridors, windows and light wells because of his sins.

The brickwork and masonry are without equal. Although only mud mortar was used, the massive structure has survived several earthquakes. Local legend claims that Narathu oversaw the construction himself and that masons were executed if a needle could be pushed between the bricks they had laid. The building, however, was never completed. Before work could be finished, Narathu himself was assassinated.

Buledi Temple

Patches of morning fog still lingered on the ground, and the bright sky and outline of distant temples made for the perfect introduction to Bagan when we first visited here. This is an excellent place to watch the sunrise but climbing up the stairs until the third level of the temple provides a great view anytime. You need to be careful though as the stairs are steep and there is no handrail.

This is also popular with the backpacker crowd at sunset as it’s relatively close to Nyaung U along Anawrahta Road and is easily accessible by bicycle.

Tabek Hmauk Temple

This is beside Sulaman and something of a smaller version of its famous neighbor. Much was destroyed in the 1975 earthquake but there are some nice detailed stucco decorations on the main entryway. There are several stairways up to a meditation chamber and two outside terraces with superb views.

In Nyaung U

Shwezigon Temple

This pagoda was built as the most important reliquary shrine in Bagan. Begun by King Anawrahta and completed by King Kyanzittha in 1089, it is visited by most Bagan visitors. A long covered walkway with souvenir stalls starts from the road to the compound. The gilded chedi which sits on three terraces is lit up impressively at night. There are four shrines with bronze standing Buddhas at the four cardinal points.

A festival during the November-December period draws pilgrims from throughout Burma. This festival is hugely popular because elements of pre-Buddhist nat worship (nats are animistic spirits) were combined with Buddhist themes in the pagoda’s construction.

Kyanzittha U Min

Kyanzittha U Min is a cave temple near the Shwezigon Pagoda. It is constructed partly above ground and partly underground. The inside walls are adorned with ancient frescoes showing pictures of spires, Mount Meru, a Mongol warrior and a procession with musical instruments.

The structure is quite dark so you need a torch (flashlight) to see the paintings and appreciate the small meditation cellars. Unlike some other cave temples in Bagan which were carved into the sand stone hills, this U Min is built of brick.

Between the Airport and New Bagan

Kyat Kan underground monastery

This less-visited cave monastery was very interesting with incredible tunnels that have many branches and connections. It still has some monks and their small spaces where they sleep and meditate would totally freak me out.

Nandamannya Temple

This small vaulted temple built on the order of King Kyazwa in 1248, has a porch and entrance in the east and is surmounted by receding terraces and a stupa. The temple does not appear very distinguished, and the image of the Buddha inside is much damaged but the Nandamannya is worth a visit because of the paintings which embellish its walls.

Of some interest too is a rectangular panel on the western side showing a procession of scantily clad women in a variety of postures. This most probably represents the Temptation of Buddha by the daughters of Mara, the Evil One.

Pyathada Temple

About one kilometer west of Min-nan-thu village is this huge, impressive pagoda. It has become a popular sunset-viewing spot with tour groups, with a giant open terrace atop the steps, and another small deck further up, so you’re unlikely to have the place to yourself. At other times you may be all alone.

It was built by King Kyaswa in the m^-century as a double-cave type monument. Broad corridors make it possible to pass from one building to the other. It was perhaps the last great construction of the dynasty of Bagan. The technique of the vaults on corridors intersected from and to each other is considered by experts to be completely exceptional.

Other Places of Interest and things to do

Tharabar Gate

The Tharabar, the main gate of the eastern wall of Old Bagan, is the only one left of the twelve gates of the walled city which King Pyinbya established in 849. The Gate is interesting because it is the only major piece of non-religious architecture left in Bagan.

In front of the Gate are two shrines containing images of the Mahagiri nats, the brother Maung Tinde and sister Thonbanhla. Superstitious locals still make an offering to the nat by leaving a banana or coconut to ensure protection against traffic accidents.

Bagan Archaeological Museum

This rather ugly government-run museum building keeps all the salvageable and portable finds from all the temples in this region. It is situated to the south of the Gawdaw Palin Pagoda within Old Bagan and is open daily between 9 am and 4:30 pm except on Mondays and public holidays. Entrance for foreigners is $5.

Unfortunately, the lighting is poor, there is no air conditioning, the signage is only in the local language and most items are displayed poorly. Despite that, it is worth seeing the bronze statues of four famous Kings of Bagan and the large three dimension mural painting depicted the Bagan Archaeological Site. There is a large hall where many bulky objects are exhibited and there are other rooms and two other floors where items of lesser interest are exhibited.

Palace Site

There are very little remains of any royal palace in Bagan. What you see at present consists of excavations of foundations with not a single post left standing. There are early literary references to the Bagan Palace site. It is believed that King Kyansittha built a palace on this site in 1101 and it is assumed that the remains are from this.

There is, however, some evidence of another, maybe older, palace on a site across the present road adjacent to where a new building was constructed in 2008. While all this is intriguing, the site really isn’t worth the $5 entrance fee.

Bagan Golden Palace

This concrete and steel edifice is opposite the palace site and maybe adjacent to another palace site near the Tharabar Gate. It is supposed to be a recreation of an earlier palace. On first appearances this looks quite impressive then you learn that it is boycotted by most tour groups and many visitors and it is unlikely to bear much resemblance to the original because it has been built as a tourist attraction rather than anything else.

In my mind, it is out of place in this wonderful historic zone. If the lure of sparkling gold is too much, there is a $5 entrance fee which goes to the government.

Nann Myin

The Bagan Tower was opened in 2005 and is another attempt by the government to benefit from tourism. The tower is located in the eastern part of the Bagan archaeological site and has a height of 60 meters. The structure contains a souvenir shop, meeting rooms, offices, viewing rooms and restaurants.

The view from the top is impressive (but you can get a similar view by climbing some of the ancient temples) and the tower itself seems completely out of place here.

It becomes worse when a guide told us that it is owned by “a crony who is supposedly involved with the arms trade, land grabs, and drug trafficking.” He certainly is a rich person because he has built a huge 5 star over the top resort just adjacent to the tower.

Visit Nyaung U market

This market is different from most other markets in Myanmar because it combines a traditional market with an area popular with tourists who are attracted by souvenirs and antiques shops. You can get bronze statues, old lacquer ware, paintings copied from the original frescoes in the Bagan temples and many other things of interest.

But frankly, it is the traditional market which has most appeal to me. It is primitive, quite extensive, a riot of color, and absolutely genuine. You can see novice nuns from a monastery nearby do their alms-collection round. Be fascinated by the yellow face powder worn by almost everybody. See stacks of freshly caught butterfish from the nearby Ayeyarwaddy River.

Monks

Get out on the streets in Nyaung U by 7 a.m. and you are likely to see monks, wearing their burgundy robes collecting food from well-wishers. Sometimes they are led by someone carrying a little bell and drum. You can also see bald-headed female monks with their pink robes and orange skills. They use woven cane trays carried on their head and receive only uncooked rice from each donor.

Tamarind Flakes

While traveling around Bagan, you are likely to see tamarind pulp on the side of the road. The pulp is rolled through antique cylinders and cut out with cookie cutters then given a quick dusting of sugar. After a meal, you may be presented with one of these small sweets.

This is called a tamarind flake and it is the local specialty’ of Bagan. It is sugary but also slightly sour. I think they are delicious. You’ll also find them at markets wrapped in paper or sometimes in bags.

Hot air ballooning

To float above hundreds of ancient pagodas as the rising sun spreads across the landscape is one of the iconic activities in Bagan. Few Myanmar vistas are more inspiring but it isn’t cheap. Despite this, some visitors book months in advance to ensure a space on these spectacular tours. Trips usually last about an hour and are offered daily from October through March.

Sunset cruise

You shouldn’t leave Bagan without doing a sunset cruise on the Ayeyarwaddy River. At dusk, the river comes to life in beautiful warm evening hues and local life is on display. You see locals involved in their late-afternoon bathing rituals, starting cooking fires and relaxing before darkness.

The trips are in wooden long-tail boats which leave from the bank adjacent to Old Bagan. Boats power upriver then drift down again on the flow. Initially, it is quite loud but then the engine is turned off and you can listen to the natural sounds of the vast river while watching a wonderfully majestic sunset.

Shopping

Souvenirs, sand paintings and lacquerware are available everywhere. Most of the main temples and pagodas have stalls with displays of souvenirs and paintings. There are also stairway stalls selling books, and Myanmar made crafts. The paintings and souvenirs are at affordable prices. Bargaining is possible at most places.

The sand paintings are thought to originate after the massive earthquake that hit Bagan in 1975.

Prior to this, the Department of Archaeology banned the copying, photographing and videoing of murals. However, the earthquake caused hundreds of temples and pagodas to collapse and villagers began copying the temple’s murals to try to save them.

Now artists include other subjects in their paintings including lines of monks. The method is laborious and very skilled. What the artist wants to paint is sketched on to a piece of cloth using a stylus. The cloth is then covered with acrylic glue. Sand is then sprinkled over the cloth through a sieve but following the exact lines of the drawing. Once dry, vivid colors are hand painted on.

Bagan is famous for lacquerware. The products can be seen everywhere and can be bought at reasonable prices. There are lacquerware manufacturing factories which have been producing the finest quality wares for decades. The step by step process of making lacquerware can be seen at a number of these places.

Eating, Drinking, and Where to Stay

See this post for detailed information about eating and drinking in Mandalay.

See this post for detailed information about where to stay in Mandalay.

Around Bagan

Mt Popa

This is an ancient volcano located about 50 km southeast of Bagan. It is a popular half-day trip which takes just over an hour each way. The village at the base of the mountain is quite interesting particularly to watch local devotees and the antics of the many monkeys that almost overwhelm the place.

Some people say the barefoot 777-step climb to the temple perched way up on the top of a rock formation is the best part while others say the climb is difficult and complain about the mess left by the monkeys, the aggressiveness of the animals, and the many women asking for donations along the way. I am a bit in the second camp! There is a hotel/resort, restaurant and tea house in nice gardens on an adjacent rise.

The cheapest way to get there is either by bus or pickup truck. Both are a bit uncomfortable and cost around 3000 kyat. A taxi, on the other hand, will cost about 40,000 kyat.

Salay

This is about 40 km south of Bagan, on the bank of the Ayeyarwaddy River. It is a small town with over 50+ monasteries, over 100 Bagan era monuments, and some interesting faded colonial buildings.

Salay is famed for its huge 19th-century wooden monastery called Youqson Kyaung (Yoke- Sone-Kyaung) which has some impressive woodcarvings. There is also a large Buddha image made from bamboo coated with lacquer from the Bagan period called Shinbin Maha Laba Man Paya and other Bagan era monuments.

In the pagoda-filled area across from the Youqson Kyaung, you can see Payathoniu just to the east, which is a small trio of brick shrines with some faded murals inside. The westernmost has the most visible murals and also a narrow set of stairs leading to a small terrace.

Half day tours are available from Bagan. It is possible to see both Salay and Mt Popa on a day trip.