Bagan, also spelled Pagan, on the banks of the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River, is home to the largest and densest concentration of Buddhist temples, pagodas, stupas and ruins in the world, many dating from the 11th and 12th centuries. The shape and construction of each building is highly significant in Buddhism with each component taking on spiritual meaning.
When comparing this immense archaeological site to other archaeological gems of Southeast Asia, the Angkor sites, an analogy with food is apt: savouring the Angkor sites is like a Chinese Lauriat banquet where the temples are presented in grand and exquisite servings and takes a long time (about 10 to 15 minutes) to get from one to the next. Bagan is served up Spanish tapas-style, in small bite size servings, often in frequent intervals and near to each other.
What makes the temples look romantic is the process of graceful ageing. There are no windbreaks and occasional whirlwinds spawn loose dust particles that sandblast the temples. This has eroded the stucco coatings of the temples to reveal the underlying bricks, reddish, and golden brown when bathed in sunlight.
Erosion is a significant threat to this area, not only the wind chipping away the buildings' parging, but also water from the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River threatens the riverbanks. Strong river currents have already washed away half of the area of Old Bagan. It used to be a rectangular-shaped piece of enclave protected by a perimeter wall. Now the remaining triangular eastern half is exposed to the river.
Bagan became powerful in the mid-9th century under King Anawratha, who unified Burma under Theravada Buddhism. It is estimated that as many as 13,000 temples and stupas once stood on this 42km2 plain in central Myanmar, and Marco Polo once described Bagan as a "gilded city alive with tinkling bells and the swishing sounds of monks' robes". Approximately 2,200 remnants remain today, in various states of disrepair. Some are large and well maintained, such as the Ananda Pahto, others are small tumbledown relics in the middle of overgrown grass. All sites are considered sacred, so when visiting, be respectful. Remove footwear and socks before entering or stepping onto them.
Bagan's golden age ended in 1287 when the kingdom and its capital city was invaded and sacked by the Mongols. Its population was reduced to a village that remained among the ruins of the once larger city. In 1998, this village and its inhabitants were forcibly relocated a few kilometres to the south of Bagan, forming "New Bagan" where you will find accommodation in its handful of cheap, quaint, clean hotels, and religious centres.
Despite the majesty and importance of Bagan, UNESCO did not include it on its World Heritage Site, because it says some temples were rebuilt in an un-historic fashion. Nonetheless, the site is perhaps as impressive as the pyramids of Egypt: a dry, vast open landscape dominated entirely by votive architecture.
When entering Bagan you will be taken to a ticket booth where you present your passport and purchase a USD15 ticket to the whole archaeological site valid for your stay before dropping you off at your hotel. This pass is needed for accommodation as hotels and hostels record the ticket number when you check in.
Staff at the ticket booths sell pirated copies of George Orwell's Burmese Days for around USD5, though if you negotiate you can get them down to USD1.
Maps are also sold for one thousand kyat (MYK1,000). Don't buy one. They are available free from big hotels if you pass by and ask for one even if you are not a guest.
From the airport to New Bagan takes about 15–20 minutes by car, and usually this will cost around MYK7,000-10,000. Most mid-range and luxury hotels will provide free pickup from the airport. Nyaung Oo is the closest town to the airport, only a few kilometres away, and has mostly budget accommodation.
- Overnight trains run daily from Yangon, departing about 16:00 and arriving in Bagan about 09:00 the next day, at prices ranging from a few thousand kyat (a few dollars) in second class, to USD50 for a "luxury" sleeper.
- There is direct train service running from Mandalay to Bagan with two departures daily. Tickets are available at the railway station and cost about USD6 one way. The journey takes about seven hours.
Most train routes in Myanmar are fairly nice, however when going on the Mandalay-Bagan route expect the train to be incredibly crowded. You will also have limited room to store your stuff, as well as cramped uncomfortable sitting conditions. The night train to Bagan has lots of room and foot room in the 1st class carriage, USD10.
Comfortable bus links from Mandalay are available for MYK8,000 one way (6–7h). Night buses to Yangon leave in the afternoon and arrive early in the morning, MYK18,000, 13 hr. There is one day bus that departs Bagan at 09:00. Prices can be as high as MYK18,000, but should be no more than MYK15,000 booked directly or through your hotel. Try to buy directly at the bus station. You can get Yangon to Bagan for MYK13,000, so you should be able to get the same price for Bagan to Yangon.
Air conditioned buses are available from Nyangshwe (Inle Lake) for around MYK14,000 and take 9 hr. The same buses go from Kalaw as well, 7 hr.
A daily "express" ferry service runs down the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) from Mandalay to Bagan taking about 9 hr (or something like 30km/hr). A one-way ticket is USD45. It is more of a slow pleasure cruise than a rush express trip thanks to the priceless river views and fresh air, the glimpse of country life with locals waving at you, acknowledging your presence unobtrusively, and the overall soothing and relaxing atmosphere detached from misery and distant from poverty. The RV Shwe Keinnery runs daily, leaving the Gawwein jetty in Mandalay at 07:00, arriving in Bagan at 17:00.
A (very) slow ferry covers the same route frequently and costs USD10. Takes from 14-17 hr, but is a great opportunity to mix with the locals. Plastic chairs are available to rent on board. Otherwise, bring something to sit on and a cover for the early hours (leaves around 05:00) and evening. Locals will be grateful to share theirs if you ask or if they see you shivering.
- Travelling around on a rented bicycle is quite easy (although you have to compete with much vehicular traffic on the one-lane roads) and economical (as little as USD1.50 per day). In the morning, before it gets hot, is a particularly pleasant time to do this. People tend to rise late around Bagan, so touring early really emphasizes the sense of Bagan as "abandoned". Later in the day, particularly during the warm season, it may be uncomfortable beyond sanity to do this. In the dry season, bicycling the sandy paths connecting the more remote temples can be a harrowing exercise in self-inflicted torture, but this is still the best way to get to where you want to go cheaply and freely.
- Shared pickups leave from the market in Nyaung Oo to Old Bagan (MYK200)and New Bagan (MYK400). They sometimes attempt to charge MYK1,000 for tourists but it can be fought.
All temple signs are written in Burmese. Only a few are in English, and if it is, it's written on the back of the sign.
The three basic building blocks of typical Bagan temples are stupa, block base, and vestibule. With a little practice, you can deconstruct the structures into their basic elements.
The simplest structure starts with a stupa shaped like a chess pawn. It caches a tiny sacred piece of human remains, relics of the Buddha, or a simple commemorative votive piece. Some stupas have a single pierced niche housing a Buddha icon, which can be viewed by the devotee from the outside. As complexity kicked in, the niches became bigger and no longer fit in the stupa, so a cube block base was introduced to accommodate the enlarged niche which eventually became a cell. With the cube block casing the cell now fully defined, the stupa became its topping. Then, the cube's cell's entrance developed a vestibule, while the cell increased to two (back to back), eventually completing all the sides, one for each cardinal compass point (north-south-east-west), and eventually as it became bigger, a dark claustrophobic ambulatory connected all four cells. Becoming more articulate and intricate, the cube's top taper into two to three tiers and are decorated with smaller corner spires on each while the vestibule protruded further and further out, the doorways decorated with pediments, some with upturned, others with downturned, teeth-like decoration. In others, the tiers became prominent to resemble a stepped pyramid. Meanwhile the stupa became more elaborate as moldings multiplied and sets of tiers and niches were introduced. From a simple gourd-shaped stupa, it evolved into a complex structure. Nobody can be expected to visit more than 20 of these structures, let alone all 2,000.
- Ananda Temple (Left side on the southern stretch of the Bagan-Nyaung Oo Rd just before the road heads to Tharaba Gate of Old Bagan). Bagan's holiest temple, built by the third king, Kyan-Zit-Tha in 1091. Ananda comes from the Pali word "anantapannya", which means "boundless wisdom". The temple houses four Buddhas facing the cardinal directions, which represent the four Buddhas who have attained Nirvana. The fifth, Maitreya, is yet to appear.
- Dhamma Yangyi Temple. Commissioned by King Narathu to atone for the sins of assassinating his father, brother, and wife. The eccentricity of this king is reflected in the building's finely set brickwork (he executed a bricklayer for his imperfect masonry) and its unfinished construction (work abandoned after he himself was assassinated). Believed to be a haunted temple by some inhabitants.
- Manuhar Pagoda (The last major temple at the S end of Myinkaba Village along Bagan-Chauk Rd, marked by a free-standing column). Built by King Manuhar from the nearby kingdom of Thaton, once a prisoner of King Anawratha. Released, he sold his jewellery and built this temple.
- Shwe Gugyi Temple (In front of Thatbyinnyu Temple). Commissioned by King Alaunsithu in 1131, one of the most intact temples, thus needing less imagination to appreciate.
- Shwe Zigon Temple (Heading S, right side on the northern stretch of Bagan-Nyaung Rd after passing the bus station. A long covered walkway with souvenir stalls starts from the road to the compound). This gourd-stupaed golden pagoda is the prototype monument (including for the iconic Shwedagon Pagoda of Yangon) built in Myanmar-style in 1087.
- Thatbyinnyu Temple (Left side after entering the Tharaba Gate of Old Bagan, the second road). The tallest pagoda, measuring 66 m, built in the 12th century.
- Bagan Archeological Museum. This very ugly museum building, the sad result of the fusion of old and new architectural styles with the overemphasis on the profusion of lotus ornamentation, keeps all the salvageable and portable finds from all the temples in this region. A grand hall has a coffered ceiling of dizzying Myanmarese patterns and unusual colour combinations.
- Buddhist Initiation Rites. During school breaks, boys are inducted into monkhood with this ritual. This can be observed with the first signs of loud temple music blaring out a day before and on the day itself coming from a monastery around (in and out of the walls of) the northern side of Old Bagan. On the day itself, the boys are brought to the monastery by parents and relatives dressed in gowns, crowns, flowers, sequins, and glitter, stockings, and make-up. An audience gathers. The place itself is colourfully festooned. A small show consists of songs by hired singers accompanied by ensemble music, a pep talk by a layman and some rituals. After some photos with their parents, the boys are brought again to another monastery to be stripped, heads shaved, and bathed. Finally they are assembled in the hall in front of the abbot for prayer recitation, oath taking, and robe-blessing ceremonies, after which they are totally stripped and dressed in their new vestments by their parents. They will stay the rest of their school holiday in the monastery.
- Bupaya Stupa (Inside Old Bagan, a north-bound road leading to it branches out from the main road as it turns south. The stupa is visible from the outside and not necessary to explore the temple complex). This lone golden gourd-shaped structure sits on a complex temple by the river.
- Gawdaw Palin Temple (In Old Bagan, just N of the Archeological Museum). A fusion of Burmese and Indian styles, this temple has a beautiful courtyard with a medium-sized stupa and interesting bell hangers.
- Gubyaukgyi Temple, Wetkyi Inn Village (Better accessed via Bagan-Nyaung Oo Rd, although Anawratha Rd is nearer but remote, just N of the dry creek). This durian-shaped stupaed temple was modelled after Bodh Gaya in India. It has also murals depicting scenes from the Jataka tales. But the best feature in this temple is the rooftop view of the surrounding area even if it's not as high and acrophobic as those in its category. Access is controlled by a caretaker who expect a small tip for his efforts.
- Monks and Nuns (Best seen along Nyaung Oo Rd from Thante Hotel to the Shwezigon Pagoda). 07:00. If you haven't seen monks alms-gathering and bestowing blessings, get out and see the monks wearing their burgundy vests. There is even a herd of little monks as young as 3 or 5 to 10-year olds parading barefoot with the tallest down to the smallest toeing the line and with the eldest and the shepherd of them all brotherly escorting the last and the youngest (a heartwarming sight to see). By the way, the first in the parade is the announcer carrying his little bell and beater. Other spectacles are the also baldheaded nuns with their pink robes, orange skirts, and beige-ochre shoulder-to-armpit wrapped towels. Their way of alms gathering is different: they use woven cane trays carried over their heads and receive only one spoonful of uncooked rice from each donor.
- Murals. Some temples became elaborate and have murals, but it's just a waste of time trying to see them as the majority have are in dark interiors. It's not worth taking off your shoes and socks to get in. The only exceptions are the Phayathonezu Temples, the Gubyaukgyi Temple at Wetkyi-Inn Village, and the Upalithein Ordination Hall where natural light can penetrate. Better to go to the archeological museum to see scaled reproductions, or buy the book on the subject sold at all souvenir bookshops.
- Balloons Over Bagan. For an unparalleled view of the Bagan plain, you can take a hot air balloon ride at sunrise. These balloons are British-made and have a perfect safety record. They do not operate during the summer. USD320 per person.
- Rent a Bike. Many hotels offer bike rentals from MYK1,000 per day. Most of the area in and around Bagan is flat and very easy to bicycle your way around.
- Rent a Chauffeured Car. This is the best option for doing the comprehensive tour. Cars are privately owned but they must be government accredited as indicated by a big sticker on the door of the car. Of course, the government gets a cut of this. The rental office is on the tourist information office at New Bagan township. USD35 per day per car (fare can be split, maximum 4 passengers).
- Rent a Horse and Carriage. The classic way to visit interesting sites in Bagan. A day tour around the temples will cost about MYK10,000-15,000 per cart (up to 4 people). You can either tell the driver where you want to go, or let them decide for you. Usually, they will try to take you to a cafe where they get a commission, but this is not always a bad option.
Bagan offers lacquerware, cloth paintings, T-shirts, and other handicrafts. It is considered "friendly" to grant a customer 10% off, but it is common for initial prices to be double what you can get with bargaining. If you haggle, remember to keep it friendly.
There are several ATM's in Nyaung Oo and new Bagan.
There are many places to eat in Old Bagan serving the traditional Burmese dishes, especially noodle soup. Some of the buffets are excellent; for about USD1.50 you can eat to your heart's content from dozens of different traditional dishes.
At the south end of Bagan-Nyaung Oo Rd. where a dirt road leads to Ananda Temple, there are alfresco restaurants lining this road serving complete budget meals. A meal priced at MYK1,600 consists of rice with the main dish, two bite sizes of beef, pork, or two small chicken pieces, or about a dozen smelt pieces, plus clear broth and 4 small plates of appetizer-veggies, beans, salads, pickled veggies.
- Black Bamboo (Restaurant row in Nyaung Oo). One of the few places with an atmosphere, set in a green courtyard just off the restaurant row. Local and Western dishes and wine available.
- Mahar Bagan, Khayee Rd, Khan Laung Quarter, New Bagan. One of the better restaurants in Bagan, with a cheerful and friendly owner who speaks good English and seems happy to indulge customers in stories about the area. The menu consists primarily of Chinese-style dishes. The restaurant serves an excellent array of traditional Burmese food, but you have to visit 4-5 hours in advance to let them know your order, as most Burmese dishes take a long time to prepare.
- Moon Vegetarian Restaurant (N of Ananda Temple, Old Bagan), ☎ . Not only the best veggie restaurant in Bagan, but overall just a great eating experience. All food on the extensive menu is freshly prepared, and there's always a special dish of the day. Seats around 15, so you won't have to sit with big tour groups. USD5.
- Star Beans (N of Ananda Temple, Old Bagan, next to The Moon Vegetarian Restaurant). Run by a friendly man with over 15 years experience in Myanmar hotels, the restaurant offers beautifully presented Burmese food and a few Western favourites. Best are the fresh baguettes.
- Weather Spoon's, 5 Main Rd, Nyaung Oo (Near Cherry Guest House on the main road heading to Old Bagan), ☎ . Awesome new eatery that has European, Burmese, and Chinese food. Delicious hamburgers.
Most accommodation nowadays are found in New Bagan or Nyaung Oo. In Old Bagan, only some government-involved, luxury hotels remain. The best temples are located along the northern stretch of Nyaung Oo Rd. or at Nyaung Oo township and downwards before you arrive in Old Bagan. This is a good place to stay, starting from Thante Hotel to the north to about a half a kilometre south of the Bus Terminal. It is especially helpful for those on a tight-budget to be based in this area.
Hotel guests sometimes have no control of switching TV channels in the bedrooms. To change channels, one must go down and ask at reception. Their explanation is that their hotel is just licensed by the government to view a limited two-channel “slot” at a single time. It is expensive to maintain more than two “slots” for the channels to put in.
- Amazing Bagan Resort (Adjacent to the Bagan Nyaung Oo Golf Club), ☎ . Check-out: 12:00. A luxury resort at a bargain price. It's a bit outside "everything", so to get to the nearest town or even shop it's necessary to rent a bike or take a taxi. It's a very quiet, beautiful and tranquil place. They can arrange horse cart rides to see the temples with pick up from the hotel for MYK13,000-15,000 for a full day. Bikes can be borrowed free of charge. Nice large swimming pool. Wi-Fi is free of charge as well in the lobby. The restaurant serves excellent food and isn't too expensive. Main dishes cost around USD5-10. The reception staff is very friendly, polite and helpful. The rooms are big, only problem with that is that the small air-con units in the rooms have a hard time cooling the rooms. Owned by a local Chinese businessman. USD53-75.
- Inn Wa Hotel, Nyaung Oo (Near the rotunda at the N end of Nyaung Oo Rd). Cleanly maintained and exceptionally dust-free for it's category. Air-con, TV, private bath with hot water and breakfast. Good English speaking informative staff. Good service. Highly recommended. Free Wi-Fi. USD15.
- Kaday Aung Hotel, Hninn Pann St, Kyansitthar Quarter (Near Manuhar Temple, Myingabar village), ☎ . Garden and pool OK, but the cold environment from the shade of trees is priceless. The rooms are well-decorated with woods and bamboo fixtures and art. Dinner and dance shows at outdoor restaurant, buffet breakfast with local and continental menus are so delicious. All staff smile all the time and manager is very helpful. USD20-40.
- Pyinsa Rupa (In Nyaung Oo, on the main road SE of the market). Rooms on the roof are nicer and quieter. Wi-Fi usually doesn't work. Not the cleanest place, but OK. Bikes can be rented for about USD2 per day. The owner speaks very good English and is very informative and helpful. USD17 for a double with shared bath including a standard breakfast.
- Thante Hotel (N tip of Nyaung Oo-Nyaukpadaung Rd). Clusters of rooms set in bungalows around a central pool. Close to the market. Excellent service. Dispenses free map. USD35 for a single room.
- Thasin Hotel. Bungalows and rooms overlooking a rebuilt pagoda. There is also a salon, expensive Internet access, a limited library, billiards, a scenic pool and a nice breakfast room.
- As the Romans do, the best footwear to go about in this site is a pair of plastic slippers or Crocs. Easy to slip on and off as one hops from one temple to another. Wearing socks and laced shoes is a hassle.
- Be careful when you climb the stairs of less-visited temples, hidden beehives just above your head might make Bagan a painful experience!
- Headgear is also important. A wide brimmed hat is recommended.
- Bring lots of wipes, the best way of cooling off and getting rid of dust and sticky sweat in your face, arms, and feet. There are no air conditioned buildings to shelter in during hot noon breaks. Even banks are not air conditioned.
- Bring a bottle of water and when empty, refill it at the nearest travel agency or banks you happen to stop by. If not squeamish and tight on budget, refill it at the water stations (with local clay jars as water containers) ubiquitously and strategically placed all around the town.
- Bring ample sunscreen.
- Bagan is not for those with respiratory illnesses as the air is full of dust.
- If you are using a bike for your personal tour, when you leave it by the gate, it is 100% assured that your bike will still be there when you get back. Pagan is a family-village setting and anyone who does harm to anybody will surely be known and humiliated, if not prosecuted. Being Asians, Myanmarese value face-saving as important.
- Internet use is always a problem. Surfing is an exercise in futility: super slow and disconnected often.
- Souvenir vendors - young and old, some as young as 6 years, are pros. They manipulate the heartstrings of the tourists using subtle and psychological techniques. They initially act as your bike minders, then guides, then tip providers eventually revealing their true intentions. They sometimes even offer to visit you at your hotel if you aren't decided or you have no available cash. Don't fall for their friendliness, and be firm in your refusal before they get too attached to you even if you insist that you are only a tourist on budget and had already coughed out USD5 for each vendor at all temples you've visited. They are hard to shake off and will persist.
From Bagan, you can do a day trip to visit Mt. Popa. This attraction is a temple on a cliff. You walk the stairs up, about 100 m), although barefoot as the place is considered holy. The stairs are not very clean because of the presence of large numbers of monkeys. The views from the top are good. Pick-up trucks can be organised by your hotel, or at the market in Nyaung U. Don't pay more than MYK6,000 return (probably even that is too much, haggle!), locals pay around 1,000 one way.
Local (non air-con) bus to Monywa costs MYK3,000 at the bus station (that's the locals price, haggle!), at hotels they charge you about MYK5,000. They can pick you up along the main road. The bus starts at 07:30 and takes about 3–4 hours, including several stops.
There are several daily buses to Kalaw/Inle. costs around MYK12,000 and takes around 8 hours to Kalaw and a few more to reach Inle. The bus should pick you up from your hotel in Nyaun U. The ride up into the hills to Kalaw is steep and scenic, and the road quality is normal for Myanmar.
The bus to Mandalay leaves at 08:30 and costs MYK7,500.
Bus to Meiktila costs MYK5,000.