Bagan – An incredible plain full of Pagodas

The sight is breathtaking: Thousands of temples rise from the ground in the plains of Bagan. They date back to the 11th to 13th centuries when Bagan was the center of the first Burmese kingdom. Thousands of Buddhist pilgrims visit this sacred landmark each year underlining its enduring religious significance.

This huge set of temples was built in a construction effort lasting more than 250 years, especially driven by the enthusiastic Buddhism devotee King Anawrahta. At its peak time between 1200 and 1280, a new temple construction started every two weeks. In the following centuries Bagan faced a major decline most likely due to the invading Mongol hordes and subsequently the struggles between Shan, Mon and Bamar people.
In addition to being a war zone, frequent earthquakes and general weathering lead to a decay of most temple structures and the city around them. The British, who established their presence in the region around the late 19th century, only found piles of picturesque ruins.

Until today archeologists continue to dig out more ruins from the ground so that there remains much to do.

Today, most of the over 3000 temples in the 42 square kilometer green archeological plain have been reconstructed and partly renovated. Although visitors from all over the world mesmerize over the sight of thousands of temple rooftops scattered in the Bagan plain, international authorities, such as UNESCO, criticize the poor workmanship and historically inaccurate construction methods.

Besides the Inle Lake, Bagan is the most touristic place in whole Myanmar and must be named in the same breath with the other major South-East-Asian temple sites such as Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Ayutthaya in Thailand or Borobodur in Indonesia. Despite the many tour buses that come to Bagan each year, the temples don’t feel overly crowded once you are outside of the handful of major monuments and sunset-viewing spots.

In spite of the interesting details we find in each of Bagan’s temples, the true magic of Bagan lies in the sight of the ensemble of the 3000+ monuments. Standing on the top of one of the larger temples and seeing the sheer countless stupas covering the vast plain is a mind-boggling experience. Don’t get us wrong here: The temples themselves are worth visiting but not as magnificent in isolation as for example the major temples of Angkor Wat. Looking at Bagan’s archeological plain as a whole leaves no doubt that the site plays in the same league as Angkor.

travel tipp infoIs Bagan UNESCO material or not? Although the UNESCO committee has not (yet) listed Bagan’s temples as UNESCO world heritage, the decision certainly is also a political one. From a visitor’s perspective, the many temples spread across the vast plain causes the mandatory jaw-dropping “aaahhhhwww”-effect and there is no question that the sight is unique in the world. Still, UNESCO claims that the amateurish restorations have resulted more in a Disney Land fantasy park than in a historic monument. Myanmar officials counter that the temples are active religious sites and not a museum of the past. The truth probably lies somewhere in between.

Either way, while we did not mind so much the (visible) lack of craftsmanship in the restored temples, the “Bagan Golden Palace” and the highly visible new view tower of the “Aureum Palace Hotel & Resort Bagan” are certainly places that should not exist on an archeological site. They massively disturb the view over the plain and steal some of the magic from the temples around. Same is true for the “Bagan Golf course”, luckily enough well hidden between palms.

Discovering Bagan in two days

The hot sun shines down on us almost all day and the rainy season greets us with some light afternoon sprinkle. We hop on a rented e-bike, a convenient means to discover the area, and steer towards the temple plain from our base Nyaung-Oo.
There are two main streets leading from the hotel, hostel and restaurant covered city of Nyaung-Oo to Old Bagan. Lots of small dusty paths branch off into the rural temple-covered plains.

travel tipp infoRenting an e-bike: Check the different bike models that are for rent along the main street of Nyaung-Oo. Make sure that you get one which resembles a normal scooter (the larger ones) as only these can drive up to 40 km/h. The very small ones are limited to 20 km/h and, due to their lack of power, make the off-road tracks less fun. Also make sure that they are fully charged so that they can take you through the day.

We take two days to explore the area. On the first day we visit the main sights like the Ananda and Sulamani, Maha Bodhi and Manuha temples which have some interesting interiors to discover. Amongst them we visit huge Buddha statues crammed into smallest space, ancient murals depicting stories from Buddha’s life, decorative green tiles narrating stories and even Hindu statues as well as Indian-inspired architecture. We will not go into much detail here as you will find plenty of information on these main sites in each guide book on Myanmar.

During sunset we meet all other tourists at the admittedly brilliant spot on the roof of the Shwesandaw temple. The sunset over Bagan is a moment you should not miss: As the sky changes colors from clear blue to orange and later deep red, mists rise up between the silhouettes of the darkening green trees and red temple roofs. A huge gold covered stupa reflects the last sunrays. Birds fly through the glowing sky while the sun disappears behind a gray line of mountain ridges.

We heard of the sunrises being equally awe-inspiring but every morning we find the sky covered in thick grey clouds and must pass on that experience.

Our favorite on-the-beaten track temples:

  1. Ananda Temple: The largest temple in the Bagan plain has been massively reconstructed and shows beautiful architecture and (out-)standing Buddha statues. The walls of the labyrinthic hallways are covered with slots containing votive tablets with scenes from Buddha’s life. Beautifully carved wooden doors and colorful guardian statues decorate the entrance to the sanctuary, where four large golden Buddhas stand watching in every compass point.
  2. Sulamani Temple: The silhouette of Sulamani Temple is an eye-catcher especially at sunrise and sunset. The architecture is interesting to discover and the temple’s white façade washed black by rains is beautiful to see. However, the interior is less interesting.
  3. Maha Bodhi Temple: The Maha Bodhi looks very different compared to all other Bagan temples. It is strongly influenced by Indian architecture and reminds us very much of the old temple sites of Khajuraho (also known as the Kamasutra temples), India despite the lack of erotic scenes. The sanctuary is small and crowded by locals. A very holy Buddha statue is losing its shape as male pilgrims stick layer after layer of leaf gold on its surface.
  4. Manuha Temple: Crammed into smallest space, three large Buddha statues sit meditating, facing the very close temple walls. You have a less-than-1m strip to step in front of the left and right Buddhas. For more things or people there is no space. On the backside of the temple you can discover a larger reclining Buddha.

The second day, we take time to explore the temples off-the-beaten path, which turns out to be even more fun: Our e-bike takes us onto smaller dirt tracks (be aware not to slip in the sand pits on the way) to discover small villages, grassing cow herds and a rural life around more or less renovated temples. In the southeast of the Bagan plain many smaller temples reside that are not as frequented as the main sights around Old Bagan. Here, the density of postcard and lacquer ware vendors is much lower and its a great place to have some calm moments all on your own.

travel tipp infoBefore we are allowed to enter our chosen sunset spot temple two government guys control our tickets. They know we are in a rush to see the sunset, so they want to make money from visitors who accidentally forgot the 25,000 Kyat (about 20 Dollars) entry ticket which is valid for a week. It is a touristic place in the end. Be prepared and have your documents straight at any time to avoid such annoyances.

Our sunset spot is the Bulethi temple. We are not the first ones to get to that place, but that’s hard to find in Bagan. However, the crowd is much smaller than on the Shwesandaw roof the day before, partly because it is a bit harder to climb with steep and sometimes dangerously small steps leading to the top.

Our favorite off-the-beaten path temples

  1. The two Bulethi temples: The two “twin stupas” look almost identical. There is no inside to visit, but if you dare climbing up the steep stairs, you will be rewarded with a beautiful view over the Bagan plain. Super sunset spots!
  2. A small temple next to Nyaung-Oo near the river shore (nice village visit): Around the temple is a small village where we have to walk around and ask for the key holder to open the temple building for us. After a while of hide and seek we manage to locate him. The old temple walls hold two sitting Buddha statues on two stories and the small view from the roof onto the Irrawaddy River and the village in the sunlight is beautiful – and all yours.
  3. The group of four temples northeast of Bulethi: The largest of the four is again one of the few temples where you are still allowed to climb to the top. The temple is overseen by many and a very friendly farmer lives with his lifestock in a hut right on the temple site. He will show you where you can get to the roof.

Where to eat?

We stayed in Nyaung-Oo, the city with the hotel and hostel options on a budget. The family-run Bibo restaurant was outstandingly friendly and, compared to the clearly overpriced places around, very affordable. It has just a few tables and the dishes are incredibly tasty. It is also the only place where we saw the local lacquer ware handicraft actually in use. See the Bibo restaurant on TripAdvisor.

Another nice place was the Shwe Moe restaurant, with a more Chinese influence on the dishes. It offers great salads for good prices and has nice, very attentive staff. Here Shwe Moe restaurant on TripAdvisor.

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