One of the most iconic destinations in Myanmar is Bagan. It is a beautiful dusty little city full of crumbling pagodas (stupas), ancient temples, guesthouses, restaurants, and open plains. There’s the occasional snapping camera around a tourist’s neck as well. The layers of temple towers rising into the horizon is the most magical part. We viewed the temples by day light, dusk light, flash light and moon light. We were lucky enough to be there during the full moon festival, which meant some extra superb sights!
Bagan was once the capital of the Kingdom of Bagan (in the 11th to 13th centuries). The Kingdom originally unified the area that is now Myanmar (Burma). Over 10,000 temples, pagodas, and monasteries were constructed in Bagan’s heyday and about 2200 remain today. UNESCO is considering making it a world heritage site.
Logistically, Bagan is spread over a 26 square mile area of plains beside the Ayeyarwaddy River with mountains in the distance. I’d say in general in Myanmar it’s a bit hot for a bicycle, but could bike around. We got an electric bike (motorbikes cannot be rented from what we saw). We stayed in a hotel we walked into in New Bagan and found our favorite restaurants off the main road in Old Bagan. It was a little confusing before we arrived, but it’s not really such a big area or too hard to decipher once you’re there.
Anyway, we rented an E-bike to check out the sights. We drove up the main road and stopped whenever we thought a temple or stupa looked especially interesting (which was often). We mostly ignored the map. There are supposedly some especially marvelous temples, but we ignored the lines and tourists and explored on our own instead. You feel like a real adventurer walking through the grasses to the temples, wandering in the dark temples with hidden Buddhas and murals, climbing up the crumbling stone, and gazing into the distance to see hundreds of new monuments to explore. There isn’t a single stupa, temple, monastery, or wall in Bagan that isn’t interesting. One of the most amazing things was the vast variety of different shapes in the architecture. I also love ancient art; Bagan is famous for lacquerware, stucco work, murals, and glazed plaques.
My favorite temple was fairly non-descript, but it was a little bigger than some of the other unmarked ones nearby. Inside, we could see some life-sized Buddha statues by the dim sunlight filtering in through the door. Noa got out a flashlight and we discovered that the walls were covered in intricately detailed, though fading, murals. It was really astonishing that we would have missed a highlight if we hadn’t had a flashlight for exploring on our own.
Another of my favorites is actually on the map, it was Manuha Temple. It houses some MASSIVE Buddhas- they intentionally barely fit in the building by the captive King Anawrahta to symbolize his suffering in captivity. 3 of the Buddhas are sitting upright and one is laying on his right side (laying Buddhas are often
reaching nirvana and are resting in a contemplative pose, but this one is said to be dying. All of Buddha’s poses are significant, showing the phase in his path to enlightenment or a message to his viewers).
I also really enjoyed following 2 little girls up to the roof of a tall temple and scrambling up the stones behind them for a sunset view. We had to buy some postcards in exchange, but it was well worth it.
We’re not so big on morning on vacation and it was not clear during our visit (thanks, rainy season), otherwise we would have also seen a famed Bagan sunrise. You can even see the sunrise by hot air balloon! I’ve heard it’s stunning.
One of the highlights of our Bagan experience was seeing the Thadingyat festival by moonlight. Check the Bagan by Night post for lots of neat night shots!