As we walked up the dark winding stairwell outside onto the temple’s terrace, we stared in amazement at the endless stupas, temples and pagodas across the long flat plains of Bagan. We felt like we were zapped 900 years back standing in the middle of a medieval empire. In that moment we realized what an enchanting place we had found in Burma and what an unforgettable day it would be. As we go through the ups and downs of traveling, it’s places like Bagan that make us realize why we’ve taken a year off to travel and how lucky we are to be seeing all these amazing sights. Bagan is an archaelogical dream not to be missed!
Watch our video – Ancient Temples of Bagan
History of Bagan (Pagan)
Bagan, formerly Pagan, is an ancient city in central Burma, southwest of Mandalay. It was the capital city of the first Burmese Empire and is home to over 4,000 Pagodas and Temples built from the 10th to 13th centuries. After a 1975 earthquake which destroyed the region, only 2,000 temples remain intact. Bagan is also the first religious and cultural center in Burma to embrace Theravada Buddhism, which is still prevalent across the country. The great archeaological site spans 42 sq kilometers which also includes the villages of Old Bagan, New Bagan, Nyaung U, Myinkaba, as well as several other little villages in the rural countryside.
Getting to Bagan — Chaotic Burmese Travel
We set off on an early 7am flight from Yangon to Bagan (1 hour, $90). Flight travel within Burma is quite chaotic with every process being manual and dozens of tourists running around trying to figure out where to go. In the end somehow all the logistics work out and the flight makes it to your destination on time. Upon arriving in Bagan, we immediately had to pay a $10 entrance fee per person (must pay in USD) to the “Bagan Archaeological Fund”… so they say.. but it sounds like another way for the military government to collect money from tourists. As we walked out of the airport, we were greeted by our driver holding a sign “Mr. Breet +1”, as well as a traditional Burmese musical group and dancer. We checked in at our hotel, New Park Guesthouse ($30), in Nyaung U, where most budget travelers stay. It was a great area close to all the action around what they call “Restaurant Row”. We found some really great restaurants (with vegetarian options!) that had great food and a nice welcoming atmosphere.
Exploring Ancient Temples of Bagan
The best way to explore Bagan is by bicycle, so we rented two bicycles from our guesthouse ($2/each) and set off on Bagan Nyaung U Rd. for our first day of temple exploration….. while we roamed through the less traveled south side of Bagan off Anawrahta Rd. on the second day. Throughout our days we turned down numerous dirt roads where we found dozens of temples and ruins around each site. Every temple had its own unique charm and exquisiteness. We walked around each site exploring inside and out, while finding the most amazing ancient archaeological designs, intricate stone sculptures, carvings, and beautiful Buddha statues. Upon every entrance, the walls were filled with the most beautiful mural paintings. Locals squat at some popular temples to sell post cards, souvenirs and sand paintings. Everyone is an artist. We wondered if they were government employed or really hustling for themselves.
Temple & Pagoda Highlights
There are a handful of popular pagodas and temples that are a must see, but the most magnificent ones where the no-name decaying temples we discovered off the beaten path where there wasn’t a soul in sight. People from all around the region still come to pray and worship to their Buddha in a number of the functional temples. One of the largest is Ananda Pahto (1105 A.D). The four entrance ways each have an amazing giant teak Buddha image. Dhammayazikazedi Paya (1196) is a gorgeous 5-sided temple that we got lost inside as each turn around the corridor looks exactly like where you entered. We trekked up the steep narrow steps to the top and were delighted to see more amazing sights of dozens of temples surrounding the plains of Bagan.
Sulamani Pahto, Pyathada Pagoda as well as all the other no-name temples were highlights of our day. Shwesandaw Paya is a beautiful white pyramid pagoda which is packed for sunset with its aerial views of the temples around Bagan. We made our way here for sunset but it was ridiculously packed so we found a nearby less touristy temple to climb up and admire the sun setting down across the plains of temples far in the distance. It was one of the most unforgettable and extraordinary sights we’ve ever seen.
Bagan Village Life
Apart from exploring the thousands of temples and pagodas, Bagan has a thriving village life all around. As you cycle down dusty roads leading to the next temple there are village people all around going about their daily lives. On one of our adventures we got lost down a dirt road and turned up in a remote village, which we think was called Anauk Pwasaw Village, in the south of Bagan. It was a cool detour of our day as we encountered daily village life of men farming, children playing, women cooking and washing and others just going about their day as they normally do. As we met local village people, we often wondered what they thought about living among such an amazing archaeological wonder. Bagan is the lacquerware capital of Myanmar, so head to Myinkaba Village where you can get a full tour about the creative process behind this ancient art.
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Bagan (Pagan), Myanmar