Bagan is one of the musts on the Myanmar tourist trail. Almost all tourists make the trek by air, train bus and even car to this spot 715km (431 miles) northwest of Yangon. The area is sited on the eastern bank of the Ayeyarwady (or Irrawaddy) River. This river slices Burma into two. You can travel to Bagan from Mandalay using this river on an express boat (which takex 10 hours) or an equally long train ride, a very rough bus or car ride (8 to 9 hours).
Trains, cars and buses will take you south to Yangon (13 to 17 hours).
Flights with one of the multiple local airlines connect Bagan to most cities in Myanmar from NYU airport.
There are three principal settlements spread along the river:
- Nyaung-U- a busy riverside town with teashops, restaurants and a great market. The market seemed to be completely focussed to local people so it was great to watch people buying, selling, trading. There was one section that was entirely tourist stuff. The sellers here were fun but every one of them demanded we look at their wares! Architecture of the town reminds me of a frontier town. The airport (NYU) which we left from is three kilometres from the town and the train station we arrived at, is a little further away.
- Old Bagan -sits within the remains of the city walls of the ancient capital, some of which are partly intact -this is where we stayed at one of hotels here along the riverside. It was great to be able to walk to some temples near the hotels.
- New Bagan (Bagan Myothit) was established on a peanut field when the government forcibly relocated villagers from Old Bagan in 1990. There are some midpriced hotels and riverside restaurants here.
Imagine an ancient city over 1000 years old, with over 2000 temples, pagodas and monuments spread out over an area of 41 square kilometres (16 square miles). The effect is jaw dropping and stunning. If you spent 15 minutes at every temple or pagoda for 50 hours a week, it would take you over ten weeks to visit everything! I was told that there exists a Buddhist belief that there is “great virtue” in erecting temples.
Sadly, 400 recorded earthquakes between 1904 and 1975, poor maintenance and human intervention mean these are just one fifth of what was built remains. The remainder are in varying stages of repair or preservation and are filled with statues of Buddha, murals, frescoes and stone carvings. The centres still draw Theravada Buddhism devotees today and those who want to be touched by what has to be one of the most awesome human built structures on the planet. We are talking about a place in the same league as Machu Pichu, Angkor Watt or the Pyramids of Egypt.
Top marks for the breath taking side. If I could I would have given it 15/10! Less impressive are the modern human interventions. In 1996 Myanmar nominated the ‘Bagan Archeological Area and Monuments’ as one of eight Myanmar properties for UNESCO World Heritage Site status. None were accepted and all remain on UNESCO’s tentative list. UNESCO had some clear concerns about Bagan including poor management strategies for the site.
One massive error was the location in the middle of the cultural zone of a resort and golf course development. This was placed there by the previous regime of Myanmar to attract tourists. There is also an ugly unsympathetic viewing tower which was built to survey the plain. Tripadvisor tourists are fairly condemning of this tower- for good reason! My favourite quote: “A stupid building build by stupid idea near around the ancient city, historic building and historic area.”
There is also considerable international debate about the quality of Myanmar’s restoration work. Some scholars believe some has been done badly undermining the integrity of the site. This is rejected by the on-site archeologists.
There are two categories of temples in Bagan:
- the stupa or pagoda solid temple – massive structures usually with a relic chamber of some sort inside
- the gu-style hollow temple – a structure used for meditation, devotional worship of the Buddha and other Buddhist rituals. The gu temples have been two basic styles: ones with a single main entrance and ones with four main entrances. There are also five-face and hybrid styles.
Ananda temple is considered to be one of the most beautiful. finest, largest, and most revered of all of the Bagan temples. Built in 1105 AD during the reign of King Kyanzittha (1084–1113), Ananda suffered much damage in the 1975 earthquake but has been totally restored. There is a legend behind the building. Eight monks arrived at the palace begging for alms. They told the king that once, they had lived in the Himalayan Nandamula Cave temple. The King was fascinated by the tales and had a desire for building a temple which would be cool inside in the middle of the Bagan plains. He requested the monks to build a temple in the middle of the Bagan plains with these cool conditions inside. After the monks completed the temple construction, the King, had the monks executed to ensure the uniqueness of the temple in all the world. The temple houses four beautiful standing buddha statues. The Dhammayangyi Temple is the largest structure in Bagan. It was built by King Narathu between 1167-70. It is located about a kilometre to the southeast of the Old Bagan city walls. My biggest disappointment was that the terraces and stairways leading to them are off limits to tourists. I would have loved to climb despite my predilection to falling off temples.
Shwezigon was built as the most important shrine in Bagan to be a centre of prayer and reflection started in 1090 and completed in around 1100 to enshrine one of the four replicas of the Buddha tooth. It was an amazing place. Take time to see it and experience it. This is an active worship centre and the sight of devotees is fascinating. Be aware that it is an important place to many and be respectful.
Thatbyinnyu (meaning Omniscience of the Buddha) towers over Nyaung U.
Tourists must pay an archaeological tax in US dollars which can be bought at the airport, on the road from the station or through most hotels. The price seems to vary but is around $US10 for three days. We didn’t see anyone checking for tickets. I think it is assumed every tourist will have one. We think it is very good value for the amazing cultural finds!
There is an archaeological museum in Old Bagan,. This large impressive building seems to promise much but its delivery is disappointing. There are treasures taken from the nearby sites but nothing explained well. were largely superficial and assumed much knowledge. I would have liked much more explanation. I also think it would be a fairly boring experience for kids.
Bagan is also famous for its beautiful lacquerware. It was sold everywhere in the district albeit with varying quality and price!
For the volume of tourists, the crime rate seems low. There were complaints that crime was on the rise. Some tourists have had phones, cash, wallets and cameras stolen when walking or riding around temples by themselves. Exercise caution if by yourself. There are 50 Tourist police offices patrolling the region There are a large pool of people now making their living from selling postcards, paintings, lacquerware to tourists entering, walking through or leaving the temples. We saw the same things being sold again and again, whilst being reassured: “i made this myself” or “my brother does these“!
Bagan is located in Myanmar’s “dry zone” of Burma, which receives little rain. Top temperatures seem to range between 30 and 42 celsius (86 and 106 Faranheit). Coldest temperatures at night are between 19 and 25 (66 to 77). Be ready for heat and dust. Start exploring early in the morning, come back for a late brunch and spend the middle of the day doing what the locals are doing – staying out of the heat.
Not much development has occurred in the area and outside hotels and services are more limited which adds to the charm of Bagan. This is all changing fast and I predict a massive growth in tourist centred offerings which scares me significantly. Will the development put Bagan at risk? The government has promised that future developments at Bagan will be contained and sympathetic.
There are a small number of pubs in Nyaung-U, along with a significant range of restaurants.
We were lucky enough to rest by the hotel pool enjoying cocktails and watching the river!
Tourists can hire a car and driver for the day either through your hotel for a (higher) fixed price or by haggling with a driver (sometimes lower price with hassle). There are many places to hire push bikes, electric bikes or motorbikes including from many hotels and guesthouses.
You can also hire a horse and cart to go to temple sites. This looked romantic but is actually quite uncomfortable plus I felt sorry for the horses. It is a sheltered way to do it but don’t opt for this ride for more than half a day. Your tailbone will not thank you. This is one way locals make money and families rely on a fairly meagre income, so do consider a tip for excellent service.
Walking the whole site is not recommended in view of the distances between places and the heat.
There are buses but I never saw a visitor on them and never figured out where they went and at what times.
The plains are popular for hot air ballooning and (surprisingly) their safety record in this space is excellent. Balloons do not operate in the Myanmar summer.
Slow down and enjoy the special vibe in this place. It is truly unique. Similar in some ways to Angkor Watt but oh so different. And much more peaceful.
The Verdict: 61%
Overall, I gave Bagan a rating of 61% which fits it in the middle ranking of the all places I have been to. This does not in any way detract from the awesome place it is. It was the highlight of my visit to Myanmar. Bagan is somewhere I would come back to and somewhere I would recommend people spend longer than 24 hours in!