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.
Shortly before Tharaba Gate, you reach the white-and-gold Ananda Pahto, one of the most popular temples in Bagan (with both tourists and hawkers). Built at the end of the eleventh century in the shape of a cross, with all arms the same length and a square chamber at the centre, it has been described as the crowning achievement of early-period Bagan architecture. A 9.5m teak standing Buddha faces out on each side, representing the four Buddhas who have so far achieved enlightenment in the current era (of which Gautama Buddha was the fourth – the world awaits a fifth, future Buddha). Only the northern and southern statues are original.
At the northern edge of New Bagan sit the thirteenth-century Sein Nyet Ama Pahto and Sein Nyet Nyima Paya. The temple has some fine stucco work, while the stupa has an unusual ribbed finial. West of the town, in a spot which was once an important port, is Lawkananda Paya. Built by Anawrahta in the eleventh century to enshrine a replica of a Buddha tooth relic, its bell-shaped dome is more elongated than on later buildings.
Nyaung U’s most important stupa is the early twelfth-century Shwezigon Paya, one of the few religious structures in Bagan to be built from stone. Still an active place of worship, it’s said to contain three different relics of the Buddha: a tooth, a collarbone and a frontlet (headband). The design of Shwezigon was a prototype for many later pagodas within Myanmar: the circular stupa sits on three square terraces, each level bearing clay plaques decorated with Jataka scenes, and an octagonal base. On each of the four sides is a shrine containing a four-metre standing Buddha made of pyin-zá-làw-ha (an alloy of gold, silver, lead, tin and bronze).
A building on the southeastern side of the complex, often locked, contains statues of the 37 nats (spirits). The decision to allow nat figures, very popular among ordinary worshippers, into this temple was an important step in hastening the adoption of Theravada Buddhism.
There are also a few “cave” sites around Nyaung U, including Thamiwhet Umin and Hmyatha Umin, which are tunnels designed for meditation and carved into the sandstone hills about 1km southeast of the town. They are interesting for the way in which the builders worked with the landscape. There’s another similar complex, Kyansittha Umin, which is less off the beaten track, and just north of the main road as you head towards Wet Kyi Inn village.
The Tharaba Gate is the only secular structure surviving from Bagan’s glory days and the only remaining entrance to the grounds of the old palace. Just within the gate and to the north is the modern reconstruction of the Bagan Golden Palace, which isn’t worth the $5 government entry fee. More interesting is Mahabodhi Paya to the west of it, notable for being Indian in style. Bupaya, on the riverside, is a reconstruction but has good views and is popular with local visitors.
The main cluster of buildings is to the south of the main road, including Thatbyinnyu Pahto, the highest temple in Bagan, although you can’t climb up. You can, however, at Mahazedi, a bell-shaped stupa opposite that has good views. Other highlights include single-storey Pahtothamya, dimly lit like other Pyu-style temples (later Bamar buildings are typically lighter, with higher ceilings). This does mean that what natural light enters seems particularly dramatic. Look out also for Pitakat Taik, believed to have been built by Anawrahta to house the Buddhist texts that he brought back after conquering the Mon kingdom, and Nathlaung Kyaung, where he hid away nat animist images as he subsequently imposed Theravada Buddhism.
On the western side of the main road, after it has curved southwards, is imposing two-storey Gawdawpalin Pahto. At 55m it’s one of the tallest in Bagan, but you can’t access the upper storey.
Not far south of Old Bagan are two of the area’s most popular temples. Shwesandaw Paya, just south of Anawrahta Road, is particularly inundated with tour buses at sunset; the five-terraced temple has been over-restored but the views of surrounding temples from it are very good. The shape of the spire, tapering to a sharp point, was a prototype for many others in Bagan and elsewhere in the country.
About 500m east of Shwesandaw Paya is the huge Dhammayangyi, said to have been started by King Narathu in 1166 but left unfinished after he died four years later. He was renowned as a particularly cruel king and it is said that he had one of his wives – an Indian princess – executed, but paid for it when her father sent assassins to kill him. The interior decoration is minimal, and nobody really knows why (or when) the inner passageways were bricked up.