Redesign your life. Travel the world.
As if having a delicious Burmese breakfast while enjoying the cool breeze of the morning air isn’t delightful enough, the hot air balloon started to descend creating an even more romantic atmosphere. The view from where I sit was stunning – a fleet of oval shaped balloons slowly hovering over an endless landscape of ancient pagodas just as the sun was rising from the east. Simply stunning…. and yes, this is Bagan!
Formerly called Pagan, Bagan is located in Central Myanmar on the banks of the Irrawaddy River, it was founded as a city in 849 and in only a few hundred years became the heart of a huge Buddhist kingdom in Southeast Asia. The “Bagan Archaeological Zone”, the formal name for the full swath of ruins that represented the ancient kingdom of Bagan is where the magic is.
This vast landscape is believe to have up to 13,000 temples and other religious structure, originally built sometime between the 11th and 13th centuries. Unfortunately, many were left to fall into disrepair after the Pagan Empire was toppled in the 13th century. Today, about 2,200 monuments remain in various states of repair, which makes Bagan one of the densest concentrations of temples and pagodas in the world.
One last glance at my itinerary and I was ready to explore Bagan. I’ve arranged a private car for the day which would get me to the temple a bit quicker, would allow me to explore at my own pace without having to wait around for others and most importantly a vehicle with a solid AC. I paid 30,000Kyats (30 USD) for the private trip with an English-speaking driver which also serve as my tour guide. If you are more adventurous and on a budget, the best way to nip amongst the temple is by hiring an e-bike from where you are staying or from hire points in the local village. Small e-bikes can be rented for about 8,000 kyats (8USD) to 10,000 Kyats (10USD) per day. However, the electric bikes I saw were buzzing along very quickly in the morning and then slowly chugging along later in the afternoon. I guess the batteries run out quickly and you may find yourself stranded at a temple in the middle of nowhere. So better get the contact number of the person where you rented it, just in case.
The cheapest option is to rent an old fashioned pedal bikes. Make sure that you give your bike a short test ride and an inspection before paying for it, as some of them are old. Also, you better be in serious good shape to spend two days cycling through dusty dirt paths to see all the temples. If you are thinking of a temple complex here that’s similar in size and easy navigation to that of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, think again. Bagan is huge, and the temples are very spread out so push bikes are quite limiting and not recommended to those who want to see a lot. Plus, the mid-day sun can be unforgiving!
My plan was to head towards Old Bagan and see the prominent pagodas and temples listed on the map, but my guide had a better idea. He told me that there were some beautiful temples worth visiting that’s not on the map. True enough, because as we drove around Bagan, I found a lot of interesting stupas and pagodas not marked on the map. They were in the form of towering spirals – like inverted ice cream cones peeking above the tree canopy and tiny human-sized altars hiding secretly amidst thorny shrubs. Part of the magic of the place was the wonderful red coloration of the temples, which is actually the exposed brick, visible now that much of the original stucco has eroded.
Whilst I absolutely adored viewing these ornate red-brick temples from the outside. I am so pleased I took the time to explore the interiors of Bagan’s temples as well. There was rarely any tourist in sight, not in town nor around the stupas. So, there’s a feeling of graceful decay, added to by the plants growing in and out of the temples and the harmonious sound of monks chanting constantly echoed from the distance, almost as if their prayers were following us every step of the way. Bagan was surreal and mythical in every sense of the word.
Impressive monuments were erected in evolving styles and shapes.
Inside the temple are the faded remnants of murals on the walls and ceilings, or the religious relics the buildings were originally made to hold.
These temples, stupas and pagodas has its own unique story to tell, and many can be freely explored – inside and out.
Many of the temples will start to look the same after a while, but if you look closely they all have their unique differences. Some of them have incredible ornately carved facades, others have detailed paintings on the inside. Take your time and soak in the details, these really are stunning buildings and a lot of work went into making them beautiful.
Thank goodness for a helpful local guide (there’s always one available inside the temple)– without them, it would have been easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer scale let alone the intricacies of each. For one, I wouldn’t have appreciated the many subtleties of the different designs, how much information could be conveyed to the knowledgeable with a specific Buddha posture facing in a specific direction, or how the shape of an eye can convey which period the statue was created in.
The question now is, how do you choose which ones to see? To help you decide and make the most of your time here are my top picks for the best temples in Bagan and which ones to visit.
The Ananda temple is considered as one of Bagan’s best known and most beautiful temples. It suffered a considerable damage during the 2016 earthquake and still is under renovation. This whitewashed temple can be found near the Tharabar gate, the only gate remaining of the original 12 in the old Bagan city walls.
A local legend tells the story of the founding of this temple. It is said that there were 8 monks who arrived one day to the palace begging for alms. They were granted an audience by the King. The monks told the king about the legendary cave temple in the Himalaya mountains and created a vision for the King to see the temple and the snowy landscape. The king was overwhelmed by the sight and decided to replicate the temple in Bagan. To make sure that nothing like it will ever be built again, the King had the architects executed after the completion of the temple.
The entrance make the structure into a perfect cross, once inside, my attention was drown to the gilded top called sikhara located at the center of the temple. Interesting piece of architecture, I just can’t help myself but to be amazed at how people can create such an intricate design back then. Inside were four standing Buddha, each facing North, East, South and West directions respectively. Each 9½ meters teak wooden Buddha images represents the four Buddha that have reached nirvana. But only the images facing north and south are said to be original, whereas the other two were replacements for the structures destroyed by fires. Interestingly, the Buddha facing south looks serious up close, but when you walk away he looks at you with a smile! (maybe just my imagination?). The walls were quite impressive too, as it shows Buddha’s life some 2,500 years ago in a very detailed manner.
This temple can really be crowded. Best time to visit is early in the morning when there are very few visitors. Currently under renovation but sill beautiful. You will see people sitting in meditation in front of each of the four Buddhas. I sat crossed legs under the middle stupa in front of the south facing Buddha. Sitting here, meditation is magically effortless. One just sail smoothly into full meditative mode almost instantly.
Dhammayangyi Temple is the most massive structure in Bagan which has a similar architectural plan to Ananda Temple. You can see this temple from pretty much anywhere in Bagan. It has a gothic feel to it, and a dark history to match. It was not as ornate as many of the others and does not have as many Buddha images as many of them. The entire innermost passage, however, was intentionally filled with brick rubble centuries ago.
Three out of the four Buddha sanctums were also filled with bricks. The remaining western shrine features two original side-by-side images, the historical and future Buddhas. The interlocking, mortarless brickwork at Dhammayangyi, best appreciated on the upper terraces, is said to rank as the finest in Bagan. Unfortunately, the highest terraces and hidden stairways leading to them was off limits to visitors due to the earthquake that hit Bagan in 2016.
I spent quite a bit of time here taking photos and looking at the puppets which were hanging on a tree outside the temple. The walls and the exquisite brickworks were impressive and highly notable. It is said that even a pin cannot penetrate the gaps between the bricks and if it could, the mason would be executed. Whether this is the truth or not, you stop and appreciate the advanced technique used by skilled artisans. The bricks, laid with only a mortar of mud, appear as if they are one solid piece. The integrity of the bricklayers, which can be seen even in the enclosure wall, has been proven by Dhammayangyi’s survival of several earthquakes.
After admiring the exterior, I finally step foot into the imposing structure. Somehow, there’s an eerie feel to it with a dark history to match. Legend suggests that Narathu met his end in a series of morbid events shortly after acceding to the throne. He murdered his father and, shortly thereafter, his brother. He also executed his wife (a former Indian princess) for her Hindu rituals. He was then assassinated by eight men, disguised as Brahmin priests, sent by the princess’ father. Others, however, attributed his death to priest-assassins sent by the princess’ angry father or to a Ceylonese (Sri Lankan) mission that not only killed the king but sacked the city and brought Ceylonese influence to the area.
It seems that the temple’s construction ceased upon the king’s death and was never finished. Intriguingly, almost all the inner ambulatory passages were filled with rubble around the time of its construction. Some suggest that the workers not only stopped work on the temple when the king died, but filled the ambulatories out of spite.
Thatbyinnyu Temple is the tallest temple in Bagan. It nestled adjacent to the Ananda temple but not gilded as the one on Ananda. The temple has four levels and the corridors enshrine a large number of Buddha images on pedestals. Several tally pagodas can also be found surrounding the temple. The story says that for every 10,000 bricks used on the Thatbyinnyu, one was put aside for the Tally construction.
The terraces provide a good panoramic view of Bagan- of the green and brown landscape and the distant hills to the east and west. Unfortunately, the temple was badly damage by the 2016 earthquake and in order to preserve the temple from further deterioration, the upper floors, as well as the terraces are now closed.
Although the interior of the temple was bland, the views from the outside were great, the same to say about its brickwork, excellent as the unfinished Dhammayangyi. It was a great alternative if you do not like to visit crowded places. Especially for the sunset, since most people prefer to go to Ananda its famous neighbor.
This temple is known as the “crowing jewel” and it stands behind Dhammayangyi Pagoda. It features two storeys standing on broad terraces assembled to create a pyramid effect. Some part of the temple was damaged during 1975 by the earthquake. Small pagodas stand at the corners of each terrace, and a high wall, fitted with elaborate gateways at each prime point, encloses the entire complex. The interior face of the wall was once lined with a hundred monastic cells, a feature unique among Bagan’s ancient monasteries. But now only a few remain.
Sulamani represents some of Bagan’s finest ornamental work which are carved stucco on moldings, pediments and pilasters. These are today in fairly good condition. Glazed plaques around the base and terraces are also still visible.
Buddha images face the four directions from the ground floor; the image at the main eastern entrance sits in a recess built into the wall. The interior passage around the base is painted with fine frescoes and there are traces of earlier frescoes. Stairways lead very close to the top of this temple, from where you can view the vast plain.
Situated close to the road between Nyaung U and Bagan, this temple is known to be the last Myanmar Style temple built in Bagan. This was built by the king on this spot because it was here that he was chosen, from among five brothers, to be the crown prince.
Inside the 46-metre-high temple, which is similar in design to Sulamani Temple, there are four Buddhas on the lower and upper floors. Traces of old murals are also still visible. Fragments of the original fine plaster carvings and glazed sandstone decorations have survived on the outside.
Bupaya means “gourd shape pagoda”. The legend says that the third king of Bagan, removed the gourd-like climbing plant “bu” that infested the riverbanks, before becoming the king. He was rewarded for that and to commemorate his good luck he built a gourd-shaped pagoda on the bank of the Ayeyarwaddy River. This was completely destroyed when it tumbled into the river in the 1975 earthquake, but has since been totally rebuilt. The distinctively shaped round stupa stands above rows of crenellated terraces.
Shwegugyi is located in front of the royal palace that’ why it is also called as “Nandaw Oo Paya” meaning the “Pagoda in front of the palace”. There is a legend saying, that there was a huge block of brick about 12 feet high sprouted from the ground in response to the king’s greatness of accumulated merit. So, with the huge block of brick, formed the pedestal in the formation of the temple. It was mentioned that the Shwegugyi was completed in 7 months and 7 days.
For the sunset I went to the admittedly brilliant spot on the roof of Shwesandaw temple. One of the unique features of this temple is that there are stairs on all four sides. Most temples just have stairs on one side, so it’s quite distinctive that this has them on each side which makes it a lot easier to get up and down the levels when there are tons of tourists. I was not so lucky though to catch the sunset on its prime as there were so many tourist already waiting when we get there. So I decided to just do it again the next day on a different temple.
I opted to go to a smaller one called Bulethi temple, I was not the first one to get there, however, the crowd was much smaller than on the Shwesandaw roof the day before. Partly because it was a bit harder to climb with steep and sometimes dangerously small steps leading to the top. But it’s all worth it, true enough that sunset over Bagan is a moment that should not be miss!
It was breathtaking – as the sky changes colors from clear blue to orange and later deep red, mists rise up between the silhouettes of the darkening green trees and red temple roofs. Huge gold covered stupa reflects the last sunray…was in total silence, just taking it all in as if the heaven commanded everyone to just be still. Remarkable!
I stayed for a few minutes more before I went down – happy, accomplished and ready for another adventure.