Bagan is the most famous archeological site of Myanmar and one of the most visited. Located on the east bank of Irrawaddy river, during the 12th century when the city was the capital of the first kingdom of Burma, it contained well over 10,000 Buddhist temples, stupas, and pagodas. Eventually the city was brought to ruin by natural disasters and hordes of mongols who sacked the city around 1300 DC. Down the centuries thousands of the temples and pagodas crumbled under their own weight or were destroyed leaving only a little over 2,000 of the structures today.
After renting an E-bike from a shop just next our hotel, we start the visit climbing up a temple close to New Bagan. It’s early morning and at the moment , in this area, we are the only tourists, very very rare considering that Bagan is the most visited site of Myanmar. After taking some pics from the top with the beautiful background of the valley dotted with its charming temples, we head to Nyaung U area to visit the Shwezigon pagoda. Known as one of the most significant religious architecture in Myanmar, it served as a prototype for later stupas built throughout the country and marked an important development in the relationship between traditional Burmese religion and Theravada Buddhism. King Anawrahta built the pagoda to enshrine several Buddha relics, including a copy of the sacred tooth relic of Kandy in Sri Lanka. According to the legend, the spot where the pagoda was built it was chosen by a white elephant carrying the relic on his back.
We continue to Buledi Temple where climb up to witness the breathtaking panoramic views of various surrounding monuments. Next up is Gubyaukgyi temple with its interior walls and ceilings decorated with fragments of ancient mural paintings that depict scenes from the Jataka tales, the stories that tell about the previous lives of the Buddha. Outside the temple we meet a group of Women Pa-o, with their typical dark suit and colorful towel on the head, here on pilgrimage.
Jumped on the E-bike, we reach Htilominlo Temple, a large majestic structure towering 46 meters high. The temple is set on a low platform and has a symmetrical floor plan, but for the Eastern entrance porch that extends further out than the other three. The massive lower cube is topped with three receding terraces. The much smaller second cube has another three terraces. All of them contain small stupas on each of its corners. After stopping for lunch at ‘’the Moon” restaurant, we go on visiting Ananda Pagoda, a masterpiece in the incorporation of Myanmar and India architectural styles, that boasts four standing Buddhas, each faces a distinct direction.
Next stop is Dammayangyi, the most massive and the biggest temple in plain of Bagan. The enormous structure that was never completed consists of a massive square base topped by six receding terraces. Our last stop is Sulamani Temple, a two storey structure with a square layout. The large first floor is topped with three receding terraces. The upper floor which is much smaller is topped with another four receding terraces. The corners of both lower and upper terraces contain smaller spires. Now it’s the time to see the sunset coloring the plain of Bagan. There are many temples where we can climb up, but we choose Shwesandaw Paya. It is one of the taller pagodas in Bagan, an imposing structure visible from far away rising from the plains of Bagan with its height of almost 100 meters. It was built in 1057 by King Anawrahta, founder of the Bagan Kingdom. There are many tourists with us who make a rush at this temple to get the best place and enjoy the view. Pushing and pushed, we climb up the steep stairs to get to the top of the temple and admire the sun slowly descending behind the immense Bagan valley lighting everything with its warm rays.
The second day around Bagan is even exciting because after breakfast, we hire again the E-bike heading out to explore the Nyaung U market and the less touristic temples, letting ourselves be guided by instinct. After 45 minutes we reach the big market of Nyaung U, the only one in this area. As all the markets around the country, strolling through the many colorful and crowded stalls selling fruit, vegetable, fish, meat and any kind of items, allow us to enjoy the Burmese culture through the locals’ daily life. Left the market, we start driving through gravel roads, where we do not find anyone, except some farmers with their cattle. The vegetation is dense and lush, and the temples scattered throughout the valley create an amazing frame: stopping our E-bike in front of a temple outside of the touristic paths, entering inside and then climbing the staircase staring at the landscape dotted of dozens temples is a priceless thing! The most interesting spots of our morning trip are the Manuha temple, one of the oldest temples of Bagan that enshrines four large gold painted images of the Buddha, each contained within a separate room, barely large enough to accommodate the images, and the Seinnyet sister temples, located on a small hill a few kilometers South of old Bagan in a single complex, surrounded by a low brick wall.
Really interesting is also to explore the village life and the fascinating countryside. In the early afternoon , we haggle the price for a cart drawn by horse to move around the countryside enjoying the daily life of its charming people. Pick up from your hotel and drive out into the country side. The road leads through beautiful scenery where peanuts, sesame, soya beans and other crops are planted. Once in the village we visit the different people’s houses and see how they live in harmony with their animals. Also interesting is to observe how the villager make wooden slippers and the noodles with soya paste . Back to Bagan we ends up our day watching the sunset from the top of Buledi temple. Also this temple is very crowded and we have to push the people to take place on the terrace facing the sun. But this is Bagan, the most famous site of Myanmar and you’ll always find people ready to discover the history of this charming valley and its thousands temples!
Getting there: the airport is Nyaung U, 15 km from New Bagan. Once at the arrival you can take a taxi to get your accommodation. The buses (Yangon, Mandalay, Inle lake) depart and arrive at Shwe Pyi (highway) bus terminal, located south east of Nyaung U. Also from here you can take a taxi to get your accommodation. The Bagan railway station is close to the Bus terminal, here you can take train to/from Yangon ( around 16 hrs ) and Mandalay ( around 8 hours). You can reach Bagan by boat from Mandalay (slow or fast boat) and the jetty is at Nyaung U, where you’ll find taxi ready to take you at your Hotel.
Where to stay: The Bagan area comprises four main settlements: Nyaung U, Old Bagan, Myinkaba and New Bagan. All the settlements offers a good range of budget and mid-price accommodation. Nyaung U is the most people’s arrival point in the region and the center of the village is atmospheric, with some colonial architecture, the market, budget accommodations and many restaurants and bars. Old Bagan has some of the most beautiful and expensive hotels, several of which have great views of the temples or the Irrawaddy River. New Bagan has a good range of accommodations and restaurants. We slept in New Bagan at Betelnut Hotel along Kayai street.
Moving around: the best way to enjoy the beautiful plain is to rent an E-bike (8000 kyat) or a bike. You’ll find shops and stalls renting them everywhere. You also have the choice of renting a taxi for the whole day (30 $-40$) or taking a horse and cart (but it’s very slow).
Entrance fee: you have to buy the ‘’entry pass’’ valid 5 days at some of the Bagan check point once arrived (airport, jetty or along the road) . The cost is 25.000 kyat and they will check your pass sometimes during the visit. Since we got Bagan by boat from Mandalay, we bought the pass at Nyaung U jetty.
Hot air balloon: it is a chance to see Bagan waking up in the morning and a very charming experience. You will see many temples in the distance and get an aerial view of Bagan. It runs from mid October to mid March, the flight is 45 minutes and it costs around 340 US Dollars.