Bagan is one of those places that no words can accurately describe. It really has to be seen to be believed. The Bagan pagodas are just spellbinding.
Unlike the pyramids of Giza in Egypt which I was so excited to see but left me feeling disappointed when I finally got there, Bagan completely wowed me. I knew that seeing the fields of brick temples for myself would be pretty incredible after seeing other traveller’s photos but I really didn’t fathom how much so.
A vast expanse of sandy desert stretches to the horizon, gnarled trees with prickly branches punctuate the dusty plains. Everything has a golden hue and the air shimmers in the heat. The landscape looks it would be more at home in Africa than in South East Asia.
And then there are the Bagan pagodas. Red-bricked Disney castles, each one different than the last. They stand as faded reminders of a once prosperous kingdom. Gold covered stupas sparkle under the harsh sun. Lazy cattle graze on the sun-burnt grass at the foot of once sacred shrines. Neglected and forgotten. Intricate and unique.
I don’t know of anywhere else like it.
With over 12 years of travel under my belt, exploring 54 countries on six continents, the two days exploring the Bagan pagodas was one of the best travel experiences I have had. Ever.
It really is as good as you have heard it to be, even better in fact. I hadn’t expected that.
Bagan is one of the most significant archaeological sites in South East Asia but, due to the fact that the country has been closed off from the outside world for over 50 years, it is still relatively unknown. This is changing fast.
It was an ancient city and the capital of the mighty Bagan Empire, which controlled much of present day Myanmar from the 9th century until the 13th century. There were more than 10,000 pagodas built in Bagan during the most prosperous period of the empire, between the 11th and 13th centuries, with over 2000 monuments still surviving today.
The Bagan pagodas sit over a vast, flat plain in central Myanmar, in various stages of decay.
Over the past 200-300 years, the Bagan pagodas have been renovated and rebuilt, with a lot of work being done after the 1975 earthquake damaged many of them. Controversially this didn’t always stay true to the original architectural design or materials used, with modern materials being used in some cases.
Bagan is split into three distinct sections: New Bagan, Old Bagan and Nyaung U. We opted to stay in New Bagan which has a dusty main road full of restaurants and shops.
Along with hotels and guesthouses, a lot of locals also live in New Bagan which I liked as it is an authentic village rather than just built for tourists, and we found it to be centrally located to the temples that we wanted to visit.
I had read that the best way to explore the large archaeological site was by e-bike, which are easily found all over Bagan. We hired bikes for two days and found it to be a fun and easy way to get around.
On our first morning in Bagan and after a hearty breakfast at our hotel, I was beyond excited to get out and start exploring. Zipping down the busy road, I began to catch glimpses of elaborate Bagan pagodas poking out from the long dry grass on either side of the road.
With so many Bagan pagodas to choose from, it was overwhelming to know where to start. We wanted a mix of visiting some of the most re-known (and popular) temples as well as some of the more obscure, and less visited temples. I feel like we achieved a good balance in the end.
Bagan Pagodas East of New Bagan/Central Plains:
Discovering the temples east of New Bagan in the central plains was the highlight of my time in Bagan. It is here that we really got off the well-worn path, walking through fields of tall grass to overgrown temples, and biking through soft sand along pathways where we barely saw another soul.
One morning we got up early for the sunrise, biking in the pre-dawn chill to a three levelled Bagan pagoda just off the main road past Dhammayazika. I never did find out the name of it but we saw people on the terraces and it looked like a good spot.
Entering the still dark temple the sound of rats squeaking and scratching unnerved me. We quickly climbed the narrow stone steps inside to the first terrace, finding a spot to sit and wait for the sun to rise.
Everything lit up in a golden glow as the sun slowly edged its way upward, into the morning sky. Hot air balloons rose to greet the rising sun, shadowed speech bubbles in the bright light.
There is a reason why people get up early for the sunrise in Bagan. It is a particularly magic place to witness the dawning of a new day.
Later that morning we pulled up on our bikes to the Lay Myet Hnar Complex, a bright white temple that looks brand new, surrounded by fallen down temples that are now barely more than rubble. A little local girl with big smile insisted on following us around, leading us between the structures, giggling as she went.
Leaving our bikes out the front, we decided to stretch our legs and walk to the cluster of nearby temples.
It was hot and dry but I enjoyed exploring at a slower pace. Cheeky vendors yelled out at us to buy from them as we passed by. Small crumbling temples hid away amongst tangles of trees. The hot sand shifted beneath our feet as we made our way slowly to the Bagan Pagodas in the near distance.
Payathonzu translates as ‘Temple of Three Buddhas’ and is made up of three small temples that are joined by a narrow passageway.
One of my favourite of Bagan’s pagodas was Tayok Pye Paya, a turreted castle straight out of a gothic fairy tale. Apparently the views from the top are amazing but unfortunately you can no longer access it. I was happy just to admire its beauty as we approached it along the dusty path.
Nandamannya was interesting for its mural, the ‘Temptation of Mara’, in which a group of young women try to distract the Buddha from the meditation session that led to his enlightenment. Kinda like Eve leading Adam to sin. Women really aren’t portrayed in a great way in world religions!
Recovering our bikes, a young girl from a nearby village asked if we wanted to follow her to get a cold drink. It was pretty hot so we agreed. She took us to the restaurant she works for and we sat in the shade with refreshments. After finishing our drinks, she asked if we wanted to see her village which we readily agreed to.
Her village, Minnanthu, was tiny and she demonstrated various ways that the villagers make their living including weaving, grinding peanuts into peanut oil, and spinning. She also mixed then applied Thanakha, a cosmetic paste, to my face. It was cool going on and once it dried, it cracked and peeled.
Thanakha is a yellow-brown paste made from ground bark and is worn by a lot of Burmese, mostly women, for beauty and sun-protection. The most common way to apply is swirled patterns on both cheeks.
After saying goodbye and leaving a generous tip, we grabbed our bikes and took a narrow trail deep into the central plains, sliding in the deep sand as we went.
We stopped to check out the Sinbyushin Monastic Complex, a cluster of buildings connected by a tree-shaded walkway. A great spot to escape the harsh sun for a while.
Back on the bikes we carefully navigated our way towards the well-known Sulamani Pahto, stopping to climb a hill with a beautiful view of the central plains along the way.
Sulamani means “Crowning Jewel” and was built in 1181 by King Narapati Sithu. A lot of people say that it is the most beautiful Bagan pagoda and I can definitely see why. The imposing Sulamani has gorgeous brick work and is enclosed by a high wall, making entering through the entrance arch and first glimpsing Sulamani in its entirety pretty awe-inspiring.
After exploring inside, we wandered around the walled garden along overgrown pathways, admiring the temple from every angle.
Further along the trail was the very popular Dhammayangyi Pahto, the most massive Bagan pagoda. A gauntlet of vendors lined the path to the entrance and there were a few small local restaurants clustered nearby.
Inside this behemoth temple there is a corridor that loops around the inner walls, while the centre of the temple is bricked off. The whole place stinks due to the bat guano encrusted walls.
Looping back to the main road on yet another narrow and perilous path, we arrived at Dhammayazika Paya, another iconic temple set in walled garden grounds with a red-rimmed gilded dome. A white tiled pathway leads around the outside of the pentagonal shaped temple.
There is a small temple behind Dhammayazika that has a roof terrace, perfect for sunset. It also offers a great view over Dhammayazika, which is beautiful from above. A handful of others joined us to witness the day winding down, along with a couple of wily vendors eager to sell paintings.
Bagan Pagodas between Old Bagan and Nyaung U:
Htilominlo Pahto was built in the 13th century and at three stories high, it is one of the largest Bagan pagodas. Along with its intricate brick detail, it is a sight to behold. It also had the most aggressive vendors of any of the temples we visited.
Across the road from Htilominlo is Upali Thein, an ordination hall that was built by a monk of the same name in the 13th century. It is small and unassuming on the outside but houses colourful frescoes inside that were painted during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. These are still very detailed and in great condition despite their age.
It was outside Upali Thein that I had e-bike issues, with the wheel of the bike locking forcing Dad to go for help.
I walked over to some nearby Bagan pagodas, the Rayangazu Group, while I waited for Dad to return, wandering through the long grass to reach a cluster of small temples in a neglected field. There was no one else around and it felt good to be in such a quiet, peaceful place.
Once Dad came back with a replacement bike, we left the peace and quiet behind for one of the most popular temples in Bagan: Ananda Pahto.
Ananda Pahto, which is one of the best preserved Bagan pagodas, is a majestic, white-washed palace topped with a shining golden stupa. Offerings of rice and nuts were placed on the outer wall of the temple and inside there are four magnificent giant gold-leaf Buddhas in a standing position. There is a reason that Ananda Pahto is well-known: it is stunningly beautiful.
Ananda was being washed while we were there with the newly cleaned section of the temple looking shiny and new. There were a lot of vendors outside and I bought a small lacquer ware dish from here.
Nearby Shwegugyi Pahto offers some of the best views from its roof over the grassy plains, with temples spaced out to the horizon.
Thatbyinnyu Pahto is the highest Bagan pagoda, standing at over 66 metres in height. This boxy, white stucco temple was built by King Alaungsithu in the mid-12th century, and with years of encrusted grime darkening the white exterior, it has a haunted feel.
Bagan Pagodas between New Bagan and Old Bagan:
Famous for its colourful murals depicting scenes from the life of the Buddha, Gubyaukgyi was the first Bagan pagoda that we visited in this area. A tour bus arrived just after we did so it was quite crowded but was still definitely worth visiting for the murals, which were in excellent condition.
Gawdawpalin Pahto, is another popular temple and one of Bagan’s highest, standing at 60 metres tall. Unfortunately the stairs to the top terrace are closed so we couldn’t benefit from its lofty stature and it didn’t have any other stand out features that I could see.
A group of teenage girls wanted their photo taken with me here and I bought some postcards from one of a group of small girls following us around, opting to buy some hand drawn ones.
On our last evening we were heading to the famous Shwesandaw Pahto which is meant to be a great spot for sunset when we met a local man in his early twenties at the crossroads. He said he would lead us to a smaller temple with less people that was just as good. He took us to Law Ka Ou Shaung, where we scrambled to the outside terrace just as the sun was setting.
The view over a temple dotted landscape glowing orange with the setting sun was spectacular and we only had to share the terrace with two other people, while Shwesandaw Pahto behind us had a roof stacked with sunset watchers.
Seven months later his name escapes me but we talked about his life in Mandalay where he goes to University and about his family who live in the local fishing village. After graduating University he wants to return to Bagan to work as a guide around the Bagan pagodas.
He does paintings to make money to pay for school and he wanted to show us some of his work to see if we would be interested in buying any. And they were beautiful so we bought one each.
We helped when we could during our time in Bagan, buying beautiful lacquer ware, paintings and handmade postcards as well as tipping when a local led us somewhere special. The people of Bagan are like people anywhere, they are just trying to make ends meet, and as we are in a more fortunate position than them money-wise, we were happy to help.
They were warm, welcoming and happy to share their lives with us, something that I am very grateful for. The many pleasant encounters we had with locals definitely added to the positive experience of being in Bagan as a whole.
Bagan is an incredible place full of incredible people. There really is nowhere like it.
Planning to go?
Getting to Bagan:
We caught the day bus from Yangon which cost around $15 and took around nine hours. You can also catch buses from Inle Lake, Kalaw, and Mandalay. Other options for travelling to Bagan include by boat from Mandalay, train from Mandalay and Yangon or you can even fly from a number of places around Myanmar.
Where to Stay in Bagan:
We stayed at a mid-range option in New Bagan called Bagan Nova Guesthouse. The Guesthouse was more of a Boutique Hotel with tasteful décor, one of the best breakfasts we had during our time in Myanmar, and very friendly and helpful staff. It’s located in a quiet street a few minutes’ walk from the bustling main road in New Bagan. When we stayed in December 2015 it cost $40 per night for a twin room including breakfast, which we booked on Agoda.
Getting Around in Bagan:
We hired e-bikes for two days from our Hotel. It was the first time on an e-bike for both of us and we loved the experience. The bikes we had were very similar to scooters but were silent and went half the speed. Unfortunately our e-bike experience didn’t go entirely without issue with the battery dying on one of the bikes and the wheel locking on the other. You also have to be very careful when riding on the smaller trails on soft sand, as we both fell off after skidding. Luckily we didn’t do any serious damage to ourselves or the bikes. The bikes cost $4 each per day.
Other options to get around include hiring push bikes, taxiing or hiring a horse and cart with driver.
Where to Eat in Bagan:
We loved the food in Bagan! The set lunch that included lentil soup, tomato tofu curry and Burmese tomato salad at the vegetarian and interestingly named Be Kind to Animals the Moon near Anando Pahto was incredible. This is where I first tasted Burmese tomato salad, a dish that quickly became a favourite during my time in Myanmar – so good!
Black Rose just around the corner from our hotel in New Bagan served up delicious Burmese, Indian, Thai and Chinese food and I highly recommend the Vegetarian Burmese curry. If you have a craving for Western food, the pizza at La Pizza in New Bagan is awesome. It is cooked in a wood fired oven right in front of you and served in a lovely courtyard seating area. It ain’t cheap though.
The small local restaurants outside a few of the popular temples offer basic but good food and they are a budget friendly option. We had fried rice at one of the local places in front of Dhammayazika Paya.
Cost of Entry to Bagan:
To enter the Bagan Archeological Site you need to pay a fee of $20USD which covers you for five days. We were only checked for our ticket once, outside Ananda Pahto.
Have you been to see the Bagan pagodas or is it somewhere you would like to visit? I would love to hear from you!