Bagan is a city in central Myanmar and one of the major historical landmarks in Asia. With over 2,000 Buddhist temples and pagodas within 16 square miles, it is a site of ancient ruins rivaling Machu Picchu and Angkor Wat.
Today, Bagan is being considered as a possible future UNESCO World Heritage Site; and for good reason, as it offers the opportunity to appreciate history as well as beauty. Many temples in Bagan can be explored inside and out, giving you an up-close and personal experience of ancient Buddhist architecture.
Furthermore, the proximity of the temples on the Bagan Plain makes for incredible views. Bagan is still relatively unknown and draws fewer tourists than other locations. This creates a more personal and exciting experience for travelers.
To help you plan your activities during your stay, here are 9 must-see attractions in Bagan.
Ananda Temple—the Westminster Abbey of Burma
This graceful temple is also known as the "Westminster Abbey of Burma", for its elegant and symmetrical design. The golden spire on top can be seen from miles across the Bagan Plain and is lit up at night by spotlights, creating a beacon in the sky. The temple itself is well-known for its four gold-leaf Buddha statues, each standing an impressive 30 feet tall.
Built in 1090AD, Ananda Temple is one of the largest and best-preserved temples in Bagan. It is still very important to local people.
From late December to early February there is a large festival at the temple to celebrate the lives of the farmers in the area. The festival attracts thousands of villagers in their traditional horse-drawn carts, to camp around the temple and celebrate.
It is a great opportunity to catch a glimpse of life in Myanmar and experience the relationship between the people and their religion.
Shwesandaw Pagoda—A Climb with a View
Shwesandaw Pagoda is one of the most impressive temples in Bagan. Standing at 328 feet tall, it is visible from a great distance. The Pagoda itself is different from the usual golden bell shape seen in Myanmar. Instead, Shwesandaw has two octagonal bases and five square terraces, each topped with a stupa.
A stone staircase ascends through each terrace to the top of the pagoda, where travelers can take in the view of the surrounding temple-dotted plain. The best time to see the scenery from the top is at sunrise, when there is a soft mist clinging to the ground, or at sunset, when the sky's reflection dances on the Irrawaddy River.
Shwezigon Pagoda—Graceful and Glimmering
An important center for prayer and reflection, the Shwezigon Pagoda is an excellent place for interacting with locals as they come to worship. It has a classical golden bell shape and was one of the first of its kind to be constructed. After it was built, Shwezigon became the model for all subsequent pagodas in Myanmar.
The Shwezigon Pagoda is resilient; a survivor of invasions and natural disasters. Because of this, Shwezigon has occasionally been renovated over the centuries.
Originally, the pagoda was gold-plated but during one of its renovations, it was re-plated with copper, giving it a stronger but equally beautiful finish. It’s an especially breathtaking sight during sunset and sunrise, when the oranges in the sky mix with the golden monument and create an incredible glimmering display.
Sulamani Temple—Ruby of Bagan
The most frequently-visited temple in Bagan, the Sulamani Temple was built by King Narapatisihu, who found a small ruby on the ground on the Bagan Plains and built a temple in its place. The word Sulamani means “small ruby” and is a fitting name for this sand-orange and elegant "crowning jewel".
The temple itself is surrounded by a high wall which can be entered through elaborate gateways, one at each cardinal point. Sulamani is especially well-known because of its layers of terraces and spires, which give the structure a mystical fairytale appearance.
Inside, intricately carved stucco embellishments adorn the doors and windows, exhibiting incredible craftsmanship and artistry.
Thatbyinnyu Temple—Two-Story Giant
Thatbyinnyu Temple is unique because it is one of the earliest two-story Buddhist temples and unlike many other temples in Myanmar is not symmetrical. At over 120 feet tall, Thatbyinnyu towers above other monuments nearby. The area around the temple is just as beautiful as the temple itself and offers a panoramic view of Bagan.
In contrast to many beautiful temples, Thatbyinnyu is quiet and not crowded. It offers a peaceful setting for photographs and for enjoying the scenery. The interior is quite large and visitors can explore and interact with locals who set up stands to sell their paintings and artwork. Thus visitors can find authentic souvenirs, as well as relax and enjoy Bagan culture.
Gubyaukgyi Temple—Murals of Buddha
Known for containing the oldest original paintings in Bagan, Gubyaukgyi Temple is a must-see for lovers of art, beauty, and history alike. The temple’s exterior is Indian-influenced in its architecture, with an elegant spire on top.
Once inside, visitors are met with a beautiful surprise. The interior walls and ceilings of the temple are covered with ancient murals, telling stories from the previous lives of Buddha. The murals have been well-preserved because the temple is lit with natural lighting from large perforated stone walls.
Each mural is paired with a caption written in old Mon. These captions are the earliest examples of Old Mon in Myanmar making it an important site for the study of the ancient language. No photography is allowed inside the temple, in order to preserve the murals for future generations.
Hot-Air Balloon Flight—Temples from Above
Taking a hot-air balloon ride is the uncontested best way to see the thousands of temples scattered across the Plains of Bagan, and provides an unforgettable experience.
Balloon tours normally begin at 6:30 am, just a few minutes after sunrise. They offer a bird's-eye view of the monuments in the misty orange morning light. The picturesque spectacle of the temples at sunrise from red balloons above, has become iconic for travelers in Myanmar.
Hot-air balloon flights in Bagan normally cost around $330 per person and are seasonal (from October to March). Because the experience has become a crowd-favorite in recent years, tours should be booked well in advance. For more information on hot-air balloon flights in Bagan, travelers can look here.
Irrawaddy Sunset Boat Trip—Relax on Still Waters
After a full day of temple sightseeing, sometimes a little laid-back relaxation is in order and a sunset boat trip on the Irrawaddy River is a great way to achieve that. From the river, travelers can gain a charming view of boats silhouetted against the sun, with mountains behind, not to mention the monuments scattered across the plains.
Truly picturesque and romantic, an Irrawaddy sunset boat trip is a good way to cool down at the end of the day.
Tours normally last about an hour and boats hold around 10 people. More private and romantic boat rides are available for couples willing to pay a little extra. Normally tea and snacks are served on the boat
Horse-Cart Ride—Authentic Adventuring
The archeological site of ancient Bagan is contained within an area of 16 square miles. Never mind traveling from temple to temple, sometimes one monument in itself is almost too big to be explored on foot.
One option for your transportation within Ancient Bagan is to take a horse-cart ride. Horse-carts are the traditional mode of transportation and can be easily booked in the city, or found near the larger temples.
Although more time-consuming than other forms of transportation, a cart ride allows travelers take in the scenery while exploring, instead of hurrying from site to site.
The landscape in the Bagan Plains is very beautiful and makes for some great pictures that can be easily missed when in a rush. Most cart drivers speak a little English and can act as your guides for the less-visited areas of Bagan.
Visit Myanmar with Asia Highlights
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