There is a saying within Myanmar that goes “If you are really from Myanmar, you must have been to Bagan.” Considered by many to be the equivalent of Angkor Wat, Bagan is, in many ways, the jewel of Myanmar. It is the former capital of the Bagan (or Pagan) Kingdom, which ruled from the 9th to the 13th Centry and was the first to unify the various states and territories that today comprise the country of Myanmar.
From the 11th to the 13th Century the Kingdom experienced great economic growth and over 10,000 various religious buildings were constructed within the plains of Bagan (2200 of which are still standing).
The modern day city of Bagan is comprised of three sections: Old Bagan, New Bagan and Nyaung U. Remember that Bagan is, and has been, the primary focus of tourists who come to Myanmar and that this area has been open to visitors for far longer than the more “recently opened” attractions of the rest of the country. Consequently, travel and business is often more convenient, however, the prices often reflect this fact.
That being said, there are a variety of ways to reach Bagan depending on where you’re coming from and your preference of travel mode: you can catch a boat up the Irrawaddy River from Mandalay, you can catch an overnight train from either Yangon or the sleepy village of Pyay, or you can even fly in.
However you choose to arrive, we would recommend that you head to Nyaung U for accommodation (K4000 from the train station). Once there, budget travelers should head to Winner Guesthouse where rooms with air-conditioning cost $17 (shared bathroom). If, on the other hand, you feel like splurging, just up the street from Winner is Princess Guesthouse with rooms ranging from $35 up to $75 with the higher budget rooms being located poolside. All prices offer pool access but the 35-45 options are located in another complex, next door to the main Princess building.
**To compare the two, the included breakfast at Winner is actually far better than that of Princess. Furthermore, the service of the latter seems also quite slow for what you’re paying.**
Across the street from Princess you can rent bicycles for the day or (trumpets blaring) E-bikes. For those unfamiliar with the e-bike it is a kind of moped-cum-bicycle hybrid: it is a motorized bike that runs on a limited battery so when the battery runs out you then use the – attached – pedals to charge the motor and continue moving forward. The prices are competitive and almost all roadside shops have them. E-bikes should only cost K5,000 for the day, or 1,000 per hour. Keep in mind that the temperatures here in the dry season can climb very high and pedaling a full-on bike throughout the day can be an exhaustive and laborious task beneath the midday sun. Also, you’ll be able to see more temples within your time span with an e-bike (not to mention drift around corners with panache).
One of the primary activities to do in Bagan is take in the sunrise or sunset from the viewing platform (read: temple) of your choice (see below for recommendations). Therefore, you should arrange it the evening before if you want to rent some form of transport to get out to the temples in the morning as many of the shops will not open until after sunrise.
Any itinerary should naturally involve the following temples:
Sulamani: Most of the stunning “cover photos” of Bagan feature this one, partially because of its proximity to other temples and also because of its exotic architecture. Originally built in 1183 it shows signs of having been stylistically influenced by the Dhammayangi Temple (see below). The inside holds several frescoes. Unfortunately, you are not allowed to climb up this one.
Dhammayangi: This is the largest temple in Bagan and was supposedly built by King Narathu to atone for having killed both his father and elder brother. Unfortunately, Narathu himself was killed before construction could be completed so, presumably, his atonement was never realized. The temple has a few upper balconies you can climb up onto and there are halls rimming the outer walls but the interior is closed off. (Editor’s note: imagine a game of paintball in here).
Ananda: According to legend, King Kyanzittha asked eight monks to build this temple based on the landscape they recalled from the Himalayas. After the completed it, he had them each killed so that the temple would remain as one-of-a-kind. Named after Ananda, one of Buddha’s closest disciples and his first cousin, the interior of the temple is shaped like a cross with a large middle area connecting the four outer hallways.
Shwesandaw: This glistening Pagoda is made up of five terraces culminating in a gleaming stupa at the top. Enshrined inside are hairs of Buddha himself. The view from the top of majestic and you will find many people camped out waiting for sunset if you go in the late afternoon.
In addition to those listed above the Thatbyinnyu, Gawdawpalin, Htilominlo Temples and Shwezigon Pagoda (under construction at time of writing) are all more than worthy of discovery, not to mention countless others among the plains.
Finally, we’ve also noted a few of our own personal favorites (by category) below as well:
Best for Sunrise: Lawkaoushaung:
This out of the way temple provides an excellent vista over the plain and captures the BIG THREE (Shwesawndaw, Dhammayangi and Sulamani). Also, getting up to the roof is an experience all its own as it involves finding the “keyholder” (a small child) who will unlock the door and (if you’re young and spry) will lead you around the higher spires.
Best for Sunset: Pyat That Ghyii:
Not **TOO** crowded and fairly easy to locate – just behind Sulaimani – it is great for all the same reasons as Lawkaoushaung but with the sun reversed and setting beneath the hills across the river.
Best for Climbing: Shwesawndaw and Goonies (I and II)
These provide the two highest lookouts onto the thousands of temples of the plain floor.