For a very long time, mystical pictures of Bagan temples took my breath away. As you may know, Bagan is famous for its thousands of old pagodas and stupas stretching into the horizon. Bagan was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan from the 9th to the 13th centuries, a period in which some 50 Buddhist kings ruled the Pagan Dynasty. During that time, more than 10,000 temples were built on the plains surrounding the capital next to the Irrawaddy River. Now over 2000 monuments of various sizes remain, in varying states of repair.
Earthquakes are common in this area, and that is the main reason why the vast majority of the 10,000 structures are no longer standing. There were two major earthquakes in the last 50 years which affected the temples of Bagan, namely the 1975 Bagan earthquake that destroyed important stupas and temples. Burma's Director General of Archaeology said that this earthquake was the worst in the last 900 years of recorded history. Another earthquake occurred very recently when 6,8 magnitude quake destroyed almost 400 temples. It wasn't as severe as the 1975 quake, but it hit what's known as the Bagan Archaeological Zone, which is home to well known monuments. The extensive renovation of temples is aimed to be complete by 2020.
So you have a day or two and thousands of temples in Bagan. What should you do? My advice is to concentrate on the most beautiful and impressive ones and of course watch at least one sunrise and one sunset in Bagan. What temples are the most beautiful is a matter of taste, of course, but most visitors would agree that they are the ones concentrated in old Bagan or the area close to it. So here is my selection. If you’re coming from Nyaung U town where many visitors stay, the first temple complex you would notice on your right hand side is
Group of Khay Ming Gha temples
As there are not so many places left where you can climb the temples, with the help of the locals, use the opportunity to see this group of temples from above. As it was one of the first temples I visited, this impression is strong in my memory. The group is comprised of many rustic stupas and zedis.Then continue your way to the exquisite
Ananda temple was built in the early 12th century. It is known as the finest, largest, best preserved and most revered of the Bagan temples. The name of the temple has originated from the Venerable Ananda, Buddha’s first cousin. It was once known as Ananta Temple, deriving from the phrase ‘ananta pinya’ in Sanskrit, which translates as “endless wisdom”. According to legend, in the 11th century, 8 monks from India visited Bagan and were welcomed by King Kyansittha. They told him about a legendary cave located on Himalaya Mountain and about a very beautiful temple in the snow. King Kyansittha was so impressed by it that he commanded to build the Ananda temple, a model of “the temple in the snow” in deserted ancient Bagan, in 1091. The four standing Buddhas of the temple are named Kassapa, Kakusandha, Konagamana, and Gautama. During earthquakes of 1975 and 2016, Ananda suffered considerable damage but has been totally restored. It looks stunning in the light of the setting sun.The next temple on your way is
With a height of just over 60 meters, the Thatbyinnyu Pagoda is towering above the other monuments of Bagan, Myanmar. Thatbyinnyu takes its name from the Omniscience of the Buddha. After the single storey pagodas built during the early period like the Shwezigon pagoda, the Thatbyinnyu built in the 12th century is one of the first two storey structures built in Bagan. The great height of the temple and the vertical lines of the ornamental features - the plain pilasters, the flame-like arch pediments, the corner stupas - give a soaring effect to the Thatbyinnyu. If you came on a bike or motorbike, you can leave it at Thatbyinnyu Pagoda and continue walking in the old Bagan on foot. So nearby you will find
Located just to the north of Thatbyinnyu, the Shwegugyi was built in the early 12th century. It is a large single storey temple set on a large and tall platform. There are three square receding upper terraces with corner spires or stupas at each corner on top of the central block. A bright interior is created with wide corridors and eleven open arched windows. The temple is also famous for its fine stucco and carved wooden doors in the interior.Just to the northwest of Shweguygyi are the ruins of the former royal palace begun by King Kyanzittha (1084-1113) and added to over the next few centuries. The original palace buildings were made of wood and are no longer existent.
Not so far away you can see the replica of this palace
Bagan Golden Palace
It’s your choice whether you want to visit it or not because it is so much different from anything else in Bagan and has no touch of a real thing to me. You’ll have to pay an entrance fee of 5000 kyats because it’s not part of the archaeological sites. It’s an impressive replica that will give you a good sense of the grandeur of ancient Bagan.After visiting or just passing the Golden Palace, continue your way through the Tharabar Gate, the main gate of the east wall and the only structure left of the old city built by King Pyinbya during the 9th century.There were originally twelve gates in Bagan. So turn left and continue your way around the remains of the city walls and see more temples in the distance.Just make a full loop, don’t cut corners like me not to miss the interesting Bupaya pagoda on the banks of the Irrawaddy river. Then continue your way and notice Lacquerware technology college and Lacquerware museum of Bagan and think one more time about buying lacquerware items in Bagan. They are of special quality.Soon you will reach
It is the only specimen of its structure among thousands of surviving monuments in Bagan. Built in the 13th century, this temple is a replica of the famous Mahabodhi temple in Bodhgaya, Bihar State in India. The temple is a two-storey structure about 43 meters high. Mahabodhi is unique among Bagan structures because of its extensive exterior ornamentation. Its numerous niches enclose over 450 Buddha images not only on the tower but also on the corner stupas.After a short walk, you will reach the intricate
The Gawdawpalin temple was built in the 13th century. It is one of the largest and most imposing of the Bagan temples. The Gawdawpalin is a large eastward-facing two-storey temple set on a low platform in the center of a walled enclosure with four gateways. Such a sublime style was never again attempted at Bagan. Unfortunately, Gawdawpalin was close to the epicenter of the 1975 earthquake; the tower was destroyed and its upper parts were heavily damaged. There were repairs done at different times after that. Almost half of the exterior stucco mouldings are still in place.So after visiting Gawdawpalin, you are back to your vehicle parking or maybe you were driving it all the time. Get ready to drive to
Dhammayangyi Temple is the most massive structure in Bagan that has a similar architectural plan to Ananda Temple. It was built by King Narathu in the 12th century. He was also known as Kalagya Min, the 'king killed by Indians'. The temple is located about a kilometer to the southeast of the city walls in Minnanthu direction. After murdering his own king father, Narathu ascended the throne of Bagan and then he built this temple. The remaining western shrine features two original images of Gautama and Maitreya, the historical and future Buddhas.Ready? Then drive to the nearby
Sulamani Guphaya Temple
The Sulamani Guphaya built in the late 13th century is one of Bagan's premier temple attractions. The name itself means 'Crowning Jewel' or 'Small Ruby.' It was actually more than a temple, for the complex originally contained a large number of buildings, including a lecture and ordination hall, cells for the monks and a library. The red brick temple is step pyramidal on a square base and is oriented to the east. There are two major levels with porches at each of the cardinal points and prominent eastward-facing doorways. Each of the ascending squares has pilasters in the form of stupas at the corners and a beautifully wrought sikhara, restored since the devastating earthquake of July 1975, crowns the entire complex. The first storey corridors are lit well enough to give light to photographs of the frescoes.A wall with elaborate entries in the four cardinal directions surrounds the complex.
Ok, to crown your day, be wiser than me and do not miss Shwezigon on your way back to Nyaung U town.
Shwezigon was built in the 11th century as an important shrine in Bagan, a centre of prayer and reflection for the new Theravada faith. The pagoda stands between the villages of Wetkyi-in and Nyaung U.
If you have time and interest for lesser known temples, you can go to Sein Nyet Pagoda close to New Bagan before you return to Nyaung U and/or Iza Gawna pagoda after visiting Shwezigon.
Sein Nyet Pagoda
Those looking for a set of temples away from the crowds but still featuring the beauty and traditional motifs can go in search of the Sister Temples built in 12th and 13th centuries. Sein Nyet Ama is the elder sister and is a temple featuring the typical square structure with four entrances. Sein Nyet Nyima is actually a spire; however both sisters show off delicate and ornate stucco work, featuring ogres clinging to garlands, and both real and mythical animals larking along the structures. The Sein Nyet Nyima is widely considered to be among the finest stupas at Bagan.
Iza Gawna pagoda
One of the lesser known temples in Bagan, Iza Gawna Pagoda, has a unique character of its own not found in Bagan's bigger temples. The pagoda is a well-kept shrine in a walled compound that includes a few brick payas.Locals still use the buildings around the complex.Built in the 13th century by Buddhist monk Maha Thaman.
Already upon arrival at the airport, you will need to pay Bagan archaeological site entrance fee, 25 000 kyats (16 USD). It’s good for entering all temples, so keep it just in case. You will have to take off shoes and socks and be properly dressed visiting any temple, even ruins.For visiting pagodas and temples of Bagan in Myanmar, you will need some kind of transport as distances are quite large. You can rent a motorbike or an electric bike, or hire a horse carriage.Take your opportunity to buy a painting or a lacquerware piece. You can see many artists at the temples who are making their pieces of art and selling them right there.Some of them would offer you to see some special place or climb up a temple for better views and then offer you their artwork for purchase. Be aware that visitors to the archaeological site of Bagan in Burma have been banned from climbing most of its famous pagodas, following reports of bad behaviour. Authorities hope the ban will help protect the holy sites as well as eliminate any potential dangers for those attempting to scale the pagodas. Short vocabulary: big temples are called pagodas, medium ones are stupas and the smaller kind are zedis.
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What did you think? Have you been to Bagan? Or perhaps you’re thinking of visiting there in the near future? Either way, I’d love to hear from you so please add your comments below.
Author: Anita Sāne
About the author
Anita is a part-time traveller, passionate photographer and a retired career woman from Latvia, travelling mostly solo for more than 15 years. She is a skilled travel planner who plans and executes her travels by herself. Anita wants to show you how to travel the world and open your mind to new experiences. Follow her on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter and Bloglovin.