The sheer scale of BAGAN (formerly known as Pagan), which covers 67 square km and includes more than two thousand Buddhist structures, is almost impossible to take in. Individual temples, stupas and monasteries impress in different ways – for their evocative frescoes, their imposing bulk or their graceful simplicity – but it’s the broader sweep that tends to stay etched in visitors’ memories: the spectacle of hot air balloons rising from behind stupas at dawn, the cool, calm relief of temple interiors in the heat of the day, or grand sunset vistas viewed from terraces.
The main transport hub is Nyaung U, which is the nearest thing here to a large town, although once you get off the main roads it quickly feels like a village. It’s where most budget travellers base themselves, and has by far the largest range of restaurants.
Southwest from here is Old Bagan, an area that includes the site of the old walled palace and has the greatest concentration of must-see temples and pagodas – they’re packed in to the extent that you can walk between them, unlike in other parts of Bagan. The government expelled the residents of Old Bagan in 1990 partly so that it could be converted into a tourist zone, and today the only life in its streets consists of wide-eyed foreigners taking in the sights.
New Bagan, a dusty and not especially engaging grid of streets to the south, was where the residents were relocated. It’s worth passing through even if you aren’t staying in one of its mid-range hotels, though, as there are a few impressive temples in the area.
A large part of the pleasure of Bagan lies in exploring and visiting buildings as they catch your eye, but if time really is limited, then don’t miss Shwezigon Paya, Ananda Pahto, Shwesandaw Paya and Dhammayangyi Pahto. At sunset everyone rushes to find temples which can be climbed for good views: Shwesandaw Paya and Pyathada Paya are particularly popular, while quieter options include Buledi, though there are many more.
This stretch of the Ayeyarwady River has a long history of settlement, only rising to prominence in its own right with its 42nd king, Anawrahta, who came to the throne in 1044. He also kick-started the building activity, but it really picked up pace under King Kyansittha (who ruled from 1084–1112): formerly Anawrahta’s general, he was exiled for falling in love with a princess who was supposed to marry his ruler but later returned to claim the throne.
By the end of the thirteenth century, most of the building had been finished. An earthquake in 1975 destroyed or damaged many of the temples, and overenthusiastic reconstruction is evident in places, yet collectively they remain magnificently evocative of Bagan’s golden age.