A Beginner’s Guide to Bagan (Myanmar)

Temples in Bagan (Wikipedia creative commons)
Temples in Bagan (Wikipedia creative commons)

Marco Polo described Bagan as, “one of the finest sights in the world,” and with over 4000 temples, visiting this beautiful city needs to be planned. Here’s how to get the best out of Bagan.

A Short History

Bagan’s temple building era was at its height from the 11th to 13th century when most of the pagodas were constructed. During the later period many of the buildings have Indian features and are more intricate.

King Anawrahta was a devoted Buddhist and most of the prominent temples were built during his reign. In 1289 Bagan was overrun by Mongol invaders. This led to the decline of the city, however many of the Bamar inhabitants are thought to have departed before the invasion.

In 1975 a large earthquake destroyed many temples at Bagan but rebuilding began with the help of UNESCO. Today, Bagan is one of the major attractions in Myanmar and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Shwezigon Paya, Bagan (Wikimedia creative commons)
Shwezigon Paya, Bagan (Wikimedia creative commons)

Top Sights

It is impossible to see and appreciate every temple in Bagan during a short visit and focusing on a few will give time to appreciate the architecture and landscape here. Bagan is also very hot and so visiting the temples early is a good way to avoid the heat and crowds during the day.

One of the highlights is Ananda Paya with its four teak Buddhas in different directions and the golden hti. This is one of the most popular temples in Bagan and also one of the most beautiful.

Buddha at Ananda Paya (Wikipedia creative commons)
Buddha at Ananda Paya (Wikipedia creative commons)

Shwezigon Paya is another must see temple in Bagan. It is the main temple used in Bagan and famed for its 37 nats and zedi. It is particularly beautiful at dusk.

Dhammayangyi Pahto is a mysterious temple in Bagan and is known for its bricked up inner sanctum and gruesome history. This is where King Narathu mandated that bricks had to be so close together that a pin could not pass between them. Anyone failing the task had their arms chopped off.

Shwesandaw Paya is particularly beautiful at sunset. Temples such as Tan Kyi Paya are lovely to see from the Ayeyarwady River and taking a boat trip is a delightful way of viewing the golden stupa and Bagan.

Bagan is a spectacular site to visit and enjoying a few of the temples is an excellent way to experience the splendour of the city without being overwhelmed.

Other Diversions!

Viewing the temples in different ways is very popular in Bagan. Outside the monsoon season a hot air balloon ride over the temples at dawn is very popular. At any time of year taking a horse drawn cart through the temple areas at dusk is a beautiful way to see Bagan and especially as the sun goes down.

There are many other things to see in Bagan and one of the most popular are the craft workshops. Laquerware is very popular and of high quality in Bagan.

Another craft is sand painting which can be seen near some of the temples and is very interesting to watch. Visitors can also take a trip to Mount Popa which is a spiritual mountain near Bagan.

Getting There

Most of the travel hubs are at nearby Nyaung U which serves Bagan. It has an airport which services domestic flights from Yangon and other parts of Burma. Another way to arrive is by river boat along the Ayeyarwady from Mandalay. Other ways to get to Bagan include train, bus, and taxi.

Recommended travel site:

Tham Bu La temple (Wikipedia creative commons)
Tham Bu La temple (Wikipedia creative commons)