Seemingly half ruined, half-built or nudging restoration – that’s Bagan temples. Like thousands of raw jewels they shimmer across a 26-square-kilometre stretch of grassy countryside in Central Western Myanmar. Hard to say how many there are – could be up to 4,000 making it Asia’s greatest concentration of ancient architecture and art. Recent research shows they were built from AD 540 onwards to the 20th Century with perhaps as many as 10,000 temples built all up. Likely to be on the UNESCO World Heritage list by 2019. And they’re not on your average tourist’s ‘to do’ list. Does this archaeological bounty tickle your inner Indiana Jones? Gather around, as info on these can be hard to come by.
The low-down on Bagan, Myanmar
You’ll find Bagan on the Ayeyarwady (or Irrawaddy) River in Upper Myanmar. Bagan (or Pagan) was a major early urban centre, now about 400km south of the current capital, Yangon. History records it as an economic and military power and a key ritual centre to glorify Buddha. The town takes the name of the kingdom that reigned there between the 11th and 14th centuries. Just after the 1975 earthquake, researchers listed 2,237 temples, pagodas, stupas and monasteries plus a few hundred extra were recorded separately. Since 1995, about 1,300 such artefacts were “speculatively rebuilt from mounds of rubble”, says the World Archaeology journal. The military actually used cherry red bricks (ugh) to restore some ancient buildings, says The New York Times. But more recently, conservation approaches have lifted a notch or two using remote sensing and spatial info sciences, as this report shows. The big challenges, though, are earthquakes (last one was in 2016), flooding and poor maintenance. That’s a prompt, if any, to see them for yourself now. While you only need to exercise “normal safety precautions” there, according to advisory site, Smartraveller, it’s “high degree of caution” for most of the rest of the country (apart from Yangon, Mandalay, Nay Pyi Taw and Inle Lake). Get updates from by registering with Smartraveller and keeping an eye on the English language site, the Myanmar Times.
Check with your closest embassy of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar if you need a visa – Australians, Canadians and those from the US will. Get an e-Visa from the Ministry of Labour, Immigration and Population website, and have the print out handy to show when you enter Myanmar at any of the three major airports or three border crossings.
From Myanmar’s capital, Yangon, you can take a 13-hour overnight bus or from Mandalay, a day bus or from Inle Lake, you’re up for a 10-hour bus trip. There’s air-conditioned VIP or Express buses available or more budget options. Check this site for more bus info. You also have the option of a slow boat from Mandalay, which will take you up to 15 hours, but there are only two boats per week. Speed up your journey by flying with a local airline (Air Bagan, Asian Wings or Air Mandalay which could cost up to $AUD354 return so check out this review site) and taking a taxi to Nyaung U ($AUD6) New Bagan ($AUD9) for your starting point. Beware, too, seats on flights are limited so it’s worth booking perhaps months in advance online as you’ve got fat chance of getting an online booking once you arrive in Myanmar. Get a closer inspection of what the travel options are from this site.
To get into the Bagan Archaeological Zone will cost you about $AUD13 and that lasts for five days of touring, but feel free to make a donation at any temple or pagoda. And have loose change handy when photographing or filming inside templates as there may be a charge. You won’t need to tip in this country, either.
Bagan tour options
Once in the Bagan area, you’ll be spoilt for transport choices –bus, taxi, horse cart, trishaws, pick-ups, hot air balloon, bicycle (about $AUD4 a day from most hotels) even an electric bike but it’s not really worth it, boat or foot. Notice we didn’t say motorcycles? Tourists aren’t allowed to ride them. As for tours, the more you pay, the higher quality and extent of the commentary. Cheap tours equals transport and not much else. Don’t make our mistake and skimp on a tour first up as we missed a couple of major temples because we couldn’t make sense of the maps. We heard later that’s a common problem due to poor signage. If you’re skint, consider getting a guide at least for your first day to tick off the main temples, then spend the next two on a self-guided wander on a bike or foot; if you’re more flush, start off with an aerial with a plane or hot air balloon.
The ones you gotta visit
First, an overview of the Bagan Archaeological Zone is that it’s actually four main settlements – Old Bagan, New Bagan, Nyaung and Myinkaba. Nine out of 10 people who reviewed the temples on travel website TripAdvisor said they were “excellent”. Can’t argue with that. Catch the highlights in Ultra HD here.
We’ll tip our hat to these four wonders of Bagan captured in a traditional rhyme:
- the massiveness that is Dhammayangyi (largest, 12th-century-built featuring original paintings),
- the loftiness that is Thatbyinnyu (yep, it’s the tallest at 60m and mostly white with gold-tipped spires but the ’75 earthquake seriously damaged it),
- the grace that is Ananda (well-preserved, 900-year-plus) and
- the almighty that is Shwezigon (tah dah, it’s the gold one with each of its four shrines home to a bronze Buddha).
If eight wonders fits your time-schedule better, you should also make a beeline for Shwesandaw Pagoda (five terraces to climb), Sulamani Temple (exquisite and has terracotta plaques capturing stories about Buddha’s previous lives), Nanda Pyin Nya (the painted temple where photography is prohibited) and the Ta Wet Temple (the ‘secret temple’ – an ideal spot to view the sun rising). For an even more comprehensive rundown of the temple tours and attractions, check out this site or this one for a complete list of Bagan temples and this page for them in alphabetical order plus their location.
Keep in mind that once you start meandering off the main tracks you might just find nooks of pagodas and temples to yourselves or just a handful of other tourists. Here, you set your own pace, rest up and soak in the vistas and splendour to recharge. Head east along the Irrawaddy River bank from Nyaung U and stumble upon some open temples with interiors that have stood the test of time. Here’s a link to a map for one of them, the Gawdaw Palin, and while you’re at it, check out the Tharabar Gate, built AD 849, which features stucco carvings of the ogres. North of Old Bagan is the 19th Century Myoe Daung Monastery, measuring 40m by 35m and from exquisitely carved teak wood.
Take your discovery tour up a level checking the panorama from viewing hills and platforms. The go-to ones are at Ko Mauk Lake, Oh Htein Kone, Nyaung Lat Phat Kan and Sulamani Kone. The one at Nyaung Lat Phat Kan, for example, is 122m long, seven metres high and almost eight metres wide. The government built these platforms to stop visitors climbing pagodas and temples. Two more viewing platforms are on the cards. May be those platforms aren’t quite high enough?
Take to the air
Feel like a drone – hop into a hot air balloon to get a real sense of the expanse of Bagan’s temple zone. Balloons over Bagan? Well, time stops, it’s jaw-droppingly gorgeous, especially if you take off just after sunrise. Usually there’s 12 to 16 passengers in a basket, but we didn’t feel we were jostling the others. You won’t be able to go as low as these folks went because the minimum height off the ground while cruising is now 100m. However, the tours are well-organised, the guides informative and it’s good to know the baskets can rotate 360 degrees. Cost is from $370 to $AUD500 for an hour-long flight and tickets sell out way in advance for the Christmas and New Year period.
Fright at heights? No issue
Not everyone’s going to get into a hot air balloon no matter how adventurous they are. That’s OK. Ground yourself with a private half or full day tour for about $AUD56 to $AUD150. Some include a trundle on an ox-drawn or horse cart ($AUD14 to $AUD24 a day just to hire those), market visit, pottery and art gazing. Cultural and arty highlights of the area include glazed plaques, stucco, mural paintings, stone inscriptions, replica art and lacquerware. Actually, Bagan is the country’s lacquerware manufacturing centre.
Transport wise, while trishaws and pick-ups abound, trishaws are your short-distance option in towns while pickups will only take you from Nyaung U to Old Bagan and New Bagan via the main road. If you’re keen to tick the major temples and monasteries off your list, pick up the pace by bicycle, which can go in places horse/ox drawn carts can’t. Hire a bike (they’ll come with a nicely cushioned seat) to explore on your own/with buddies or hook into an organised tour. There’s a range of operators including those with mountain bikes. Check out this review for more info and a video of cycle touring the temples. Another idea to take the water with a sunset boat cruise on something that looks like a stretched gondola (about $AUD8 for a one-hour cruise). You can also opt for a dust-free traveling option via an air-conditioned taxi (but don’t expect it will be able to go on all of the tracks). It will set you back between $AUD25 to $65(ish) depending on where and how far you go.
For an overview of the top five hotels, check Backackerlee’s site – these are your luxury options for the region. Old Bagan, a quiet walled city, has the priciest accommodation as it’s the nearest you can stay to the temples including at four-star hotels. Scout around to secure the cheapest room at around $AUD126 in this old city, which is also home to the Bagan Archaeological Museum (entry about $AUD8). South of Old Bagan is Myinkaba, a village known for its traditional lacquerware and bamboo weaving, but there are few accommodation options there.
Be kinder to your budget and stay in New Bagan, which is between Old Bagan and Nyaung U (aka Nyaung Oo) and easy enough to travel to the temples. The town was built in 1990, has many handicraft shops and a good selection of restaurants on the banks of the Irrawaddy River.
If you don’t mind staying about 3km from the edge of the start of the main temple area, then Nyaung U has your cheapest hostels and hotels (from $AUD18 per night or this more upmarket one at $AUD32). You’ll find most of your mod cons in that town including transport links, ATMs and access to free WIFI at the touristy Restaurant Row (Thiripyitsaya 4 Street). Erh, another accommodation option was to sleep on the roof of a temple as a bunch of self-described “daft 20-somethings” did a couple of years ago. The government has since banned climbing of Bagan temples except for Shwesandaw, Pyathard Gyi, North Guni, South Guni and Thitsaw Wati.
You won’t be rained out
Yep, no monsoon season in Myanmar’s lower areas to narrow your travel window. You can visit Bagan pretty much any time of year, but the likelihood of rain means no hot air ballooning there from April to September. Just as a guide, the temperature averages 28oC from October to March and slightly higher at 32oC from April to September. High humidity means you’ll need to pack light clothes made from natural fabrics such as cotton, silk or hemp plus a hat or cap. Leave your risqué attire at home (cover your knees and shoulders) or you’ll risk offending locals. Don’t drink the tap water though – bottled water is the go. Mornings are cooler and usually less crowded for your temple viewing, too. And check when religious festivals are on because as that’s when people from across the country converge onto the Bagan temple area.
After you’re all templed out
After the dust has settled on your Bagan temple tour, consider venturing out to Inle Lakes in Myanmar for its floating gardens and villages. Now that’s a contrast – the impermanence of those settlements with the enduring (though somewhat battered in parts) temples of Myanmar’s yesteryear.