Updated September 2020
Bagan has always been synonymous with Myanmar for me. The vivid imagery of hundreds of mystical pagodas rising out of vast misty plains or silhouetted against a gloriously golden sky has beckoned me for as long as I can remember.
The reality, however, was unexpectedly mixed. The temples are stunning from afar. Close up, the mystique gets eroded somewhat and you begin to understand why a few zealously restored and pressure cleaned facades have kept this unique heritage ensemble off the UNESCO list*.
Roughly 2300 surviving temples, stupas and shrines dot some 16 square miles (40sq km) of verdant Irrawaddy plains. The numbers were said to have been closer to 10,000 once! Most constructed at the peak of the Bagan empire between 10CE to 12CE, when much of South East Asia came under its purview.
Originally founded by King Thamudarit in the 2nd century, Bagan – then known as Pagan – grew into a fortified town under King Pyinbya in 850, and into one of many minor city states in the region. It was relatively isolated from the outside world until the reign of King Anawrahta in the late 10th century. The city’s rise to prominence closely followed this King’s ambitious conquests.
The first of the pagodas, commissioned by members of the royal household and wealthy individuals as offerings to gain ‘merit’, began appearing around that time. The building frenzy continued into the reigns of successors: Kyanzittha and Alaungsithu. The Pagan Kingdom disintegrated as a result of repeated Mongol invasions at the turn of the twelfth century and never regained its glory thereafter.
Being on a cruise docked right in the Old Bagan Pier gave us easy access to the archaeological site. Our itinerary covered a fair mix of big and small temples over two full days.
I much preferred the grander structures as backgrounds in my photos. Ananda and Htilominlo pagodas in particular were jam packed during our visit. It was in the stark, lesser known shrines, however, and on the roof of a quiet, dilapidated stupa awaiting the dawn of a new day over that incredible field of pagodas, that we truly connected with the magic of Bagan.
BEST TEMPLES TO VISIT IN BAGAN?
‘Best’ is always relative. Here’s a comprehensive list of monuments in Bagan. The largest temples are also the most popular and teeming with people. We visited five of the larger temples that feature on most must-visit lists:
- Ananda Paya: considered the “finest, largest, best preserved and most revered of Bagan temples.”. The crowds are proof. Highlights are the four gilded standing Buddhas facing each cardinal direction, two of which are original. It was fully restored after the in 1975 earthquake.
- The pyramidical Dhammayangyi: a massive temple – circa 1167 – built by the evil king Narathu, who caused the death of many people including his own father and his Indian queen. His assassination inside this very temple by his father in law earned him the title ‘Kalagya Min’ (The king killed by Indians!)
- Htilominlo Pagoda: a beautiful 1218 temple built by King Nantaungmya to mark the spot where he was chosen (from among five siblings) as heir by his father in a tradition in which a white umbrella tilts toward him.
- Sulamani Pagoda: another striking and very popular temple with still visible stucco patterns and painted frescoes on interior walls.
- Gubyaukgyi temple in Myinkaba, south of Old Bagan, boasts some of the most beautiful Jataka frescoes. Next door is one of a pair of UNESCO certified, quadri-lingual (Pyu, Mon, Pali, and Burmese) Myazedi stone inscriptions that are considered the Rosetta Stone of Burma. The second is in the Bagan archaeological museum. The morning market in Myinkaba was also worth strolling through.
We witnessed sunset from the Shwesandaw, the highest pagoda in Bagan with five terraces making it the most popular spot for sunset viewing (now banned.). It is one of the first pagodas built by King Anawrahta in 1057
On our way out we popped into the Shinbinthalyaung Temple: a long, rectangular brick temple right beside the Shwesandaw with just enough room for a colossal (18 m long) 11th century reclining Buddha.
We also visited the following smaller pagodas that we enjoyed even more.
Upali Thein with well-preserved, original paintings, Nandamannya Pahto also with beautiful frescoes and the stark and tiny 9th century Pahtothamya shrine with its exquisite seated Buddha, shafts of sunlight from the high windows and fragments of some of the earliest frescoes in Bagan, my favourite of all.
The lone stupa across the Irrawaddy (see map) is the Tantkyitaung on top of Tan Kyi Mountain, one of the four that once marked the original edges of the city. It’s a splendid, newish looking golden stupa still in use and boasts panoramic river views.
The Nat-Hlaung-Kyaung, the last Hindu temple in Bagan was of interest to us for its (reproduction) murals of Hindu gods. It isn’t quite worth seeking out otherwise.
The map below will help you organise your route. I have included more of the prominent temples that are part of many must-visit lists. Tally them with the detailed descriptions on the site linked to above to help you shortlist temples to visit.
A mix of five to six of the bigger temples and an equal number of minor temples will make for a comfortable two day itinerary. Hardly any of the temples have true architectural merit so time required for a visit is rarely more than half an hour. Get to the larger temples early to avoid crowds.
Do allow time to explore the site at random. You’ll be sure to stumble upon some hidden gems.
*Update 2019: Bagan has since made it to the UNESCO World Heritage List. Climbing temples has also been banned since the fatal accident of an American tourist in 2017. No temples are currently open for sunrise or sunset viewing.
Scroll down for a detailed guide.
WHERE TO VIEW SUNRISE AND SUNSET IN BAGAN IN 2020
With the higher reaches of temples off bounds for tourists, sunrise and sunset viewing just got harder.
If your hotel offers a rooftop with views you are all set. Many New Bagan properties closer to the balloon embarkation points do.
There are viewing mounds near several temples that provide fairly high vantage points. The Sulamani Hill View Point behind the Sulamani Pagoda is reputed to be the best of the lot.
We didn’t do it, however, opting instead to be driven to an old pagoda by our captain after the balloon riders had been picked up. Watching the balloons soar into the air from the rooftop of the (Pyathatgyi) stupa in the stillness of that dawn was beyond magical even though the sunrise itself wasn’t all that great.
It was a still, cloudless morning and our cruise mates who took the ride returned a little disappointed that their balloon couldn’t get quite as low or close to the temples as they had expected. That’s a chance you take with balloon rides. Anywhere. But if you’ve never been on one it’s an experience I highly recommend trying at least once. Budget permitting of course.
An alternative for those who cannot stretch their budgets for the balloon experience is the Nan Myint viewing tower.
The rather incongruous tower is a controversial structure (developed by a cartel close to the military) which, along with the Aureum Palace Resort it is attached to, exacerbated the delay in Bagan’s inclusion into the UNESCO Heritage list.
If you must have your birds eye Bagan postcard views you now have no other option but to battle busloads of tourists to the top of the tower. An elevator runs up to the 11th floor from where you have to use stairs to the 13th floor observation deck. There’s a cafe on the 9th floor. Entry fee: US$ 5. (Not sure why this is quoted in USD. As far as I know it is payable in MMK.)
Pro tips from previous travellers:
- The tower is far less crowded at sunrise than at sunset.
- In the evening, grab a few quick pics from the thirteenth floor before the tour group stampede begins and then get down to the lower levels for a relatively peaceful sunset experience.
A more atmospheric and relaxing option for sunset is a boat cruise on the Irrawaddy. You might not have as many temples in your field of view, but the silhouettes of random temples against the setting sun can be pretty special. You can book a sunset cruise here.
MORE THINGS TO DO IN AND AROUND BAGAN (BEYOND TEMPLES)
Browsing through the Nyaung U market was a much needed change of scene from temples. Even the most ardent of Buddhist temple fans will encounter temple fatigue at some point through a Burma itinerary…we lasted until our 7th day on the cruise.
Get a feel for rural life along the river on a village visit. We got to stroll through a couple of small villages while on the cruise that gave us a non touristy perspective. Shwe Pyi Thar was one of the villages upstream between Bagan and Yandabo. Yandabo is a lovely pottery making village to visit as well. With many of the boats from Mandalay to Bagan including a guided visit to Yandabo, it might have gotten busier. See transport section below.
Salay town famed for its teak monasteries and colonial buildings is a pleasant day-trip. The Youqson Kyaung Teak Monastery, designed as a copy of the Crown Prince House of Mandalay, is a must visit. Bagan-era monuments such as Payathonzu and the Shinpinsarkyo Paya are other attractions.
Overlooking Salay is Mount Popa, a volcanic plug with the Taung Kalat monastery perched on top. (We didn’t visit Mt. Popa). Hire a taxi for the day. Or join a tour. Find tour options and prices.
BAGAN TRAVEL GUIDE
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BEST TIME TO VISIT BAGAN
Summers are hot throughout Myanmar. June to September is the monsoon season in the plains with September being the wettest. November to February is the best time to visit.
Bagan Archaeological Zone Fee: MMK 25,000. It can be bought at the airport, at checkpoints along the way or at some of the larger temples like Ananda. This is a one time fee valid for five consecutive days. The ticket provided needs to be carried with you – even for the sunrise/ sunset viewing spots – although it might not always be checked. They’ll click a photo on the spot which will be associated with the relevant barcode on the ticket so the it cannot be shared.
Archeological Museum: MMK 5000.
Find fees for other attractions in Bagan and neighbouring towns here.
GETTING TO BAGAN
By flight from Yangon or Heho (Inle Lake) airports: Closest airport to Bagan is in Nyaung U (30-minute by road from Old Bagan). We took the Heho- Mandalay flight and spent a day in Mandalay (180 kms, 4 hours by road) before joining our cruise. There are 30 min flights from Mandalay to Bagan, but driving is a better option.
By train from Yangon: Overnight trains take 16 hours. There is no online booking facility but you can easily buy a ticket either the day before or on the day of travel. Or request your hotel to do it for you. All online booking agencies do just that for a fee.
Note: Schedules on this sector might remain disrupted until 2023 due to lines being modernised. Find more details at Seat 61.
By Bus from Yangon: JJ Express takes around 8 hours including comfort stops. Both day and night buses available.
By Train from Mandalay: Train journeys take nearly 12 hours. Not recommended.
By Bus from Mandalay: JJ Express from Mandalay takes around 5 hours and costs in the range of US$10. You can arrange for a pick-up or grab a tuk tuk to your hotel from the bus station.
By road from Mandalay: Takes under 4 hours. One way transfer price (per vehicle. Remember, train and boat is per person and not door to door.) is currently in the range of US$ 80-US$ 100 (depending on who you book with, hotels being the priciest.)
By Boat from Mandalay: This is the most scenic way to get to Bagan. It takes 10 hours so I suggest doing this one way and returning by road. If you are short on time take the road option both ways. There are no public ferries any more. Daily private boat services depart from Mandalay early mornings and take about 10 hrs to reach Bagan. Some include guided visits to Yandabo. Find schedules and prices here and here.
By all Inclusive Cruise From Mandalay (or even Yangon on the longer journeys): Cruises on this sector include Bagan as well as several other old Burmese capitals like Sagaing and Amarapura in their itineraries. Pandaw Cruises are the most reputed in Myanmar. We took the 9 day Treasures Of Golden Myanmar from Mandalay on the Irrawaddy Explorer with the Haimark group. The boat has since been taken over by Paukan Cruises.
We aren’t generally cruise people. I even go so far as to suggest not joining a Nile Cruise in Egypt for better utilisation of time and money . But with far less sightseeing on this journey we found the cruise a most enjoyable way to explore the sites all the way upto Pyay. A cruise is far pricier than doing it on your own though.
GETTING AROUND BAGAN
The vast size of the Bagan archaeological site as well as the humid weather do not lend themselves to exploration by foot.
E-Bikes (battery operated) are available for hire from around MMK 7000 – 12,000/day (depending on where you hire it from. Hotels are pricier). Regular bikes cost around MMK 2000. You can hire a guide to drive you around on your E-bike if you aren’t comfortable riding one.
A more comfortable option would be to hire a Tuk Tuk for the day for around MMK 25,000 for up to two people (MMK 3000 for a short trip and MMK 15,000 for half a day). This is my personal preference. Search on Trip Advisor for recommendations for Tuk Tuk drivers who know their way around and can take you to some little known temples.
Hiring an air conditioned car and driver will cost around MMK 36,000/day. Cars are fine for the larger temples but they will not be able to navigate the smaller tracks in the park and might not be ideal to hunt down random temples.
Hiring an ox cart is anther popular option within the park. Animals did seem better cared for here – during our visit – than in many other destinations.
WHERE TO STAY IN BAGAN
Disclaimer: As mentioned before, we stayed on a cruise boat docked directly in Old Bagan. The suggestions below are based on recommendations from friends and fellow travellers. .
Staying within the archaeological zone in Old Bagan allows easier access to temples. But dining options will be limited to your accommodation. Bagan Thande Hotel is considered the best property within the walls (and not owned by the military junta affiliates as far as is known) but is well past its glory days of entertaining royal residents. The Hotel at Tharabar Gate is a newer property and closer to some stand alone restaurants.
Ananta Bagan and Heritage Bagan in Nyaung U come highly recommended. The latter is the newer of the two but also the farthest. The former seems to offer better food and service overall and is relatively closer to free standing restaurants.
New Bagan has a wider range of affordable accommodation. Find more properties to suit your budget and dates on Booking.com.
WHERE TO EAT IN BAGAN
The closest spots for a coffee or lunch break while on the temple circuit are around the Tharabar gate in Old Bagan or in Myinkaba. Nyaung U and New Bagan have a wider choice of eating places.
- Myanmar’s drone photography laws are unclear. As is the drone-fly map. While many travellers have reported taking drones in their checked baggage without incident, I advise extreme caution. Here are some basic guidelines to follow.
- Bagan is a religious site. Tourists are expected to dress ‘respectfully’: Always cover shoulders and knees. Carry a shirt or stole to use inside temples. Or a cheap longyi (sarong like traditional Burmese garment) to cover shorts.
- Wearing footwear and socks even into the most dilapidated of pagodas isn’t allowed. Deliberate and repeated flouting of this rule could have dire consequences. Keep that in mind while choosing footwear. Flip flops, sandals or slip-on shoes might be best. Wet wipes to wipe off your feet are useful. Also pack a pumice stone to give them a scrub at the end of the day.
- You might need a light jacket for sunrise/sunset…early mornings can get particularly chilly.
- Carry some loose change in case you need to tip caretakers of smaller temples.
- Flashlights are useful to better view frescoes in the dark recesses of the smaller temples. (Mobile phone torches will work too if you carry portable chargers.).
- All standard precautions for visiting a hot destination apply: sunscreen, hat, plenty of water.
- Not a tip as much as a reminder: Bring back your litter.
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World Heritage Site Status For Pagan: A thought provoking post by Paul Strachan, founder of Pandaw Cruises, on the indiscriminate ‘restoration’ of pagodas and what UNESCO status means for Bagan.
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