Flying to Bagan is like descending into a lost world: thousands of ochre stupas sprawl across the plains amidst wilting Acacia trees and whirlpools of brown earth. Wispy clouds hang low, shrouding the landscape in an eerie yet dreamy setting.
Almost 800 years ago, this enormous holy ground was the center of a massive Buddhist kingdom. During the kingdom’s golden age, over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were constructed here – today, over 4,400 temples remain, forming one of the greatest architectural sites in Southeast Asia.
The best way to explore this maze of temples is by bicycle as distances are long and the easiest way to weave through the jungles on the sandy earth is on two wheels. During our time in Bagan, we biked everywhere – from our hotel in New Bagan, through the dusty concrete road, to the banks of the Irrawaddy River where children frolicked and played. We paddled from one pagoda to another, snaked through dirt roads to find secret corners, and wound past villagers who waved at us eagerly. But the sun was unforgiving — to escape the blazing sun, we would only head out in the early morning and late evening. In return, we were rewarded with stunning views of the striated sky and golden landscape at the break of dawn and dusk.
EVerywhere we went, we found stupas: in the form of towering spirals peeking above the tree canopy and tiny human-sized altars hiding secretly amidst thorny shrubs. The melodic sound of monks chanting constantly echoed from the distance, almost as if their prayers were following us every step of the way. There was rarely any tourist in sight, not in town nor around the stupas. Bagan was surreal and mythical in every sense of the word.
With more than 4,000 temples to choose from, we picked just a few to explore and found ourselves lost in time. Here’s a look at the temples we explored.
Possibly my favorite pagoda/stupa in Bagan, Lawkananda is perched on the bank of the Irrawaddy River. It’s the best place for a view of the river and also an excellent spot to watch local life: children splish and splash in the water, fishermen ride out on their dugout canoes, and ladies chat, giggle and barter by the sidewalk. At sunset, the shimmering facade of the pagoda blankets the river in a shade of gold.
Built by King Anawrahta during his reign in 1059, the pagoda was constructed to enshrine the Buddha’s tooth relic. Featuring an elongated cylindrical dome, the massive structure would be the first thing to be seen by traders who sailed from all over the country along the Irrawaddy River. Today, it is still used as a place of worship and sees over hundreds of worshippers each day. It’s in the New Bagan area, and located at the end of a dirt road off the main Bagan-Airport Road, but you won’t miss it if you follow the river.
Shwesandaw Paya or Sunset Pagoda
Before our trip to Myanmar, many friends told us that sunrise and sunsets in Myanmar were extraordinary. It wasn’t until we came to Bagan that we fully understood the true meaning of their words. On the top of Shwesandaw Paya, we watched the colors of the sky and the stupa-studded landscape transform from bright vermillion to golden yellow and eventually a pale shade of plum purple. Besides sunset at the Baobab Avenue in Madagascar, this was the most beautiful day-to-night transition we’ve seen.
Shwesandaw was the first monument in Bagan to feature stairways leading from the square bottom terraces to the pagoda itself. This pagoda supposedly enshrines a Buddha hair relic brought back from Thaton. Shwesandaw is located within the central plains, midway between Nyang U and New Bagan.
Close to Shwesandaw stands the largest temple in Bagan, Dhammayangyi Pahto. It was built by King Narathu, who came to the throne by assassinating his father and elder brother. The massive walled temple features two passageways, with the core of the pagoda intentionally filled and ruined by workers after the notorious King Narathu died in 1170. The most impressive feature in the pagoda is the double ochre Buddha figure. Here, we met Nway, a bright, chirpy girl in her early twenties who was eager to be our guide for the evening and earn some tips from us. She was a wealth of knowledge, bubbly and interesting, so we were more than willing to let her show us around. Nyaw told us local legends and brought us to tiny corners in the pagoda that we would have missed otherwise.
The highly revered Ananda Paya, with its golden sikhara tower and gilded spires, is known as the finest and best preserved of the Bagan temples. If you only have time to see one temple, than this is it. Built around 1105 by King Kyanzittha, this perfectly proportioned temple is said to be an architectural wonder in a fusion of Mon and adopted Indian style. The Buddhist temple houses four standing Buddhas, each one facing the cardinal direction of East, North, West and South. On the full moon of the month of Pyatho (between December and January), a three-day festival held here attracts thousands of pilgrims near and far.
Another popular pagoda to visit is the Thatbyinnyu Pahto, which literally translates to mean the Omniscience of the Buddha. In modern inscriptions, omniscience is explained as “knowing thoroughly and seeing widely.” Towering above the other monuments of Bagan, the double-storeyed temple is the tallest temple in Bagan. It was built in 1144 by King Alaungsithu.
Where to Stay
Thazin Garden Hotel is a beautifully laid-out Burmese resort featuring polished teak wood, Buddhist scriptures and carvings, and hanging wooden umbrellas. After a day spent exploring temples in the sizzling heat (it was almost 42 degrees Celsius when we were there), the swimming pool provided a great respite. The best part of this hotel is that you don’t need to go far to see stupas: in the hotel’s lush garden stands a pagoda kept in its original condition. At night, when lit up by the lights, the setting was even more atmospheric than ever. We were lucky to witness a praying ceremony in the evening, when local ladies, all dressed in shimmering silk longyi, sat by the foot of the pagoda and sang in a hypnotic tune.
How to Get There/Around
Travel in Myanmar can be difficult due to the lack of tourism infrastructure and political concerns. Generally, the easiest and fastest way to get from Yangon to Bagan is by plane (around US$100). The public bus takes around 15-18 hours and costs approximately 12,000 kyats (US$10). In Bagan, you can either choose to explore with a tour guide, or rent a bike and wander around on your own. You can also easily hire a horse cart to bring you around the archaeological zone.
Our friends Dave and Deb from the Planet D made a beautiful video in Bagan, Myanmar. Check it out to get a good feel of the town and its sensational temples.
Note: Special thanks to Myanmar Travel who hosted our hotel stay and provided plenty of valuable advice. Myanmar Travel is not in anyway associated with the military government. All opinions expressed above are my own.