Bagan Travel Guide: Exploring the Best Pagodas

Bagan Travel Guide: Exploring the Best Pagodas

Part 2

 

The alterations between the magnificence of ancient empires and the brutalities with which many of them came to end, the beautiful heritage they left behind and the vengeance with which many of these legacies were destroyed blend together to create history which is sometimes surreal and sometimes admonished.

Connections made with the history of Earth and everything in it creates lasting impacts. How unsurprising then, that I found myself disoriented trying to rely on the armature of language to form words that could adequately describe the richness of my thoughts and imaginations from my trip to Bagan.

 

Consisting of three beautiful towns – Nyuang U, New Bagan and Old Bagan – Bagan really is one of those places where something as common as temples create the most uncommon and arresting views. Nuyang U is the classy sibling out of the three. The influence of modernism is highest here. It has a train station, airport and jetty so this is where you will be flying in to. An eviction of the residents of Old Bagan gave birth to New Bagan in 1990. But Old Bagan is the heart and soul of the place.

This is where you may yearn to return every day. This is where life finds a new pace. This is where temples tell you tales of their lost magnificence. This is where you are gently coerced to imagine their resplendence when they were first built. This is where Vikram and I fell in love with history all over again.

Let your imaginations cocoon you in the beauty of these historic relics as I relate to you my experiences and give to you a guide to visiting this marvellous land. If you’re inspired to plan a trip to Myanmar then remember to go through my overall guide to Myanmar.

 

You may access Part 1 / Day 1 of our stay in Bagan here.

 

Day 2

Our stay was arranged at the splendid Aureum Palace Resort and while we loved spending most of our time outdoors, the resort provided us with luxurious accommodation and a very warm stay.

Sunrise and sunsets in Bagan are magical. We woke up early on our second day, and as we watched the light of dawn gently colour the sky we knew that this trip would last for an eternity in our memories. As the sun drew her veil to light up the world, we indulged in a sumptuous breakfast before starting with our explorations of the temples in Bagan.

 

Staring at the expanse of 67 square kilometres which marks the Bagan Archaeological Zone, I realized that nothing arrives as quickly as the past. We looked at a place that was once alive with worshippers, pilgrims, citizens, kings, and monks praying, rejoicing or mourning in over 10,000 temples that once speckled the place. I could see why tourists make it a point to visit Bagan when they plan a trip to Myanmar.

Nature has played its part in transforming a considerable fraction of these temples into ruins. An earthquake in August, 2016 destroyed many of the temples and yet many stand strongly defying the ravages of time. Some are active temples even till this day. But let not nature take all the blame, because human neglect and lootings have had an equally damaging impact.

You would find fewer visitors here than most other touristy places that you may have visited. And this adds to the beauty of the place. Myanmar is still relatively undiscovered which makes this the best time to experience the country.

323c (Sunrise from the Nan Myint Tower of Aureum Palace Resort)

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The Temples of Bagan

On our flight to Bagan, I did some research on the popular temples of the place. These were the ones I didn’t want to miss. But as I looked down the window, I realized that there were hidden gems that were quietly waiting to be discovered by intrepid travellers and these were the temples that created a profound connection with us. It may have been partly because of the absence of other people and partly because of my excitement in discovering them.

Exploring the place requires a lot of time. This is why we decided to use a chauffeur driven vehicle; but electric scooters happen to be a popular choice for tourists. The motive is to discover the place at your own pace.

Some temples stand unwaveringly as a part of the skyline. These are the ones that usually have a name, the more famous ones, some of which continue to be a learning seat for monks in the region. But there are those who fail to claim their place in the vista, the meeker ones, those that may have succumbed to the devastation caused by man and nature. But know this, not a single one failed at claiming a place in my heart.

 

Bagan incited a childlike excitement in me as we set out to discover temples that were once the centre of powerful cities. I felt like an adventurer and the peaceful lands of Bagan were my world for the day.

Some call them temples, others know them as pagodas and yet others may refer to them as stupas. For the most part they are almost the same. But our guide threw some light on the terms explaining that Pagoda is a generic term for a stupa or a temple; stupas don’t have an entrance so you can’t go inside them while temples have entrances and exits located north, south, east and west with a Buddha at each entrance. I will be using the three terms interchangeably.

 

Bagan’s beautiful temples warmly welcome visitors. You can climb up or go inside these marvellous places of worship, to lose yourself in the encapsulating beauty of the place. Ruins or not, these temples continue to hold a religious significance which is why you must show your respect by taking off your footwear before entering or climbing up the pagodas.

I have curated a list of my favourite temples. Some of them are popular and you may even find them in the Lonely Planet guidebook but many of the temples that you visit may be standing in solitude as if waiting for you to discover them.

 

Shwezigon Pagoda

Dazzling majestically in the rays of the early morning sun, the Shwezigon Pagoda, clad in an attire of over 30,000 copper plates which have been gilded in gold, looked like a piece of jewel decorating Bagan.

Standing at the square compound, admiring the regale appearance of the temple, we shook ourselves back to reality when a procession of young boys followed a monk to begin their training.

The main pagoda is surrounded by smaller temples and shrines and a Burmese market within the compound adds to the vibrancy of the place.

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Ananda Pahto

You may hear of it as the Ananda Temple, AnandaPahto or AnandaPhaya. It sits gracefully near the Tharabar Gate which is the last surviving gate among the 12 which once facilitated entry and exit in the Old Bagan City Walls.

Legend has it that eight monks built this magnificent temple which was commissioned by King Kyanzittha. The temple was completed in 1105, but the grandiosity of the monument devoured the king’s judgement and he killed the eight monks to protect the uniqueness of the temple.

With strong Indian influences in the architecture, this perfectly symmetrical temple is one of the best preserved temples in Old Bagan. With a gilded stupa crowning the structure, the glorious past of the temple and its current fame make it one of the most visited stupas in the region.

Before my trip to Bagan I had felt that I may end up losing my wonderment after seeing so many temples in one day. But I realize how wrong I was because every time our car stopped at a temple or passed by one, I watched in complete amazement.

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323nn (Ananda Pahto)

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Sulamani

Stepping inside the red-bricked multi-storeyed Sulamani Temple takes us back into the era when it would have been alive with people, decked up for worship. The architecture of the temple allows for light to pour in from several vaulted openings. This joyful play of light and shadows creates a beautiful aura around the temple inviting visitors to explore its nooks and corners, wrapping them in an enchantment as they roam its age-old pathways. We didn’t want to leave the mesmeric beauty of the place to return to our car!

Wondering why the name Sulamani? An inscribed stone explains that this temple sits on the same place where King Narsapiatisithu once found a small ruby which is what Sulamani means.

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Pyathadar Hpaya

We discovered this temple by chance on our tour around the temples of Bagan. Also known as Pyathatgyi, this massive double cave monument creates a lasting impression at first-look. The large open terrace on this temple was a beautiful place to view the surrounding area. The serenity of Bagan is largely untouched. While small tourist groups may join you, for the most part, I loved the fact that we could explore the place without being rushed or overwhelmed by large crowds.

Stand on the terrace and drink deeply from the enthralling views offered by the region from here. Nestled between farmlands, this temple gives you unhindered views of the locals working at the fields, buses chugging around, e-bikes buzzing down the pathways and cows and goats grazing in the lush green lands. Could you imagine that places like these could still exist?

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Windo

This small temple is often overlooked by many travellers. But sometimes, you must accept that beauty lies in the places that you may have least expected. The splendour of the huge gilded temples remains unmatched, but there is something about the smaller temples where you may feel a connection, where you may want to return simply because it offers the joy of exploring its beauty without any disturbances.

Local families residing in Bagan usually hold the key to these smaller temples. An older gentleman who resided in a small dwelling adjacent to the temple complex helped us inside the temple and showed us around. His English was clear which made it easy for us to communicate. This temple wasn’t far from the main road, but in the eagerness of visiting the bigger temples, many visitors overlook beautiful ones like these.

In the course of our conversation, he mentioned that he was planning a trek in the Shan State. We offered a small pay as a token of our appreciation, but with a warm smile on his face, he declined.

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The quiet temple with amazing views

This one was a personal favourite. Even though it did not have a name or a board describing its history, this temple offered uninhibited views of the region. Sharing the space with a young couple who seemed to have lost themselves in the romantic beauty of the place, with their arms around each other, we could see why Bagan’s temples are talked about so much.

I wish I could help you with directions, but this was one of those temples that we stumbled upon during our tour. I won’t ask you to look it up either. Instead, I would encourage you to find a temple on your own. Travel down the road aimlessly and allow yourself to chance upon a temple like this; a temple that hides in the magnanimity of the place, waiting to be discovered by a traveller like you.

323z2a quiet temple

 

 

Shwesendaw

At the time of our visit, the temple was closed to visitors because it was in danger of collapse. But if you arrive at a time when the temple is rebuilt, then you will be able to enjoy some of the best sunrise and sunset views from its narrow terraces.

Since you won’t be the only one trying to enjoy these views, it would be best to arrive early. Our guide informed us that it is best to visit the place an hour and a half before sunset when the lighting is perfect to capture the magical landscapes of Bagan from your lens.

Sharing a stock image of the Sunset view from atop Shwesandaw Temple

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South Guni Temple

It was around 5 PM when we reached this temple. This is where we had decided to drench ourselves in the last rays of the day’s sun. And as a ruby-toned sky covered the horizon, we enjoyed the fading warmth of the atmosphere with other tourists who looked spellbound at the changing colours of the sky. This was our second sunset in Bagan and the experience was as surreal as the first one.

The terrace wasn’t too crowded allowing all of us to comfortably enjoy our own personal space and yet connect with each other through the same spectacular views that we witnessed. We rejoiced in the beauty of the place, in the magnificent views of the sky and the temple-dotted land where we stood.

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323z4 (South Guni Temple)

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* The best time to observe the astounding views of Bagan is from one of the temple tops during sunrise or sunset. As the glowing light paints the sky in hues of red and purple and the glimmering orange of the sun lightens up the Irrawaddy River, the stupas begin to shroud in darkness with nothing but their black silhouettes visible as the sun dips behind the mountains. You can also position yourself behind the sun so that the fading light illuminates Bagan and its pagodas glimmer in shades of pink and gold!

 

https://www.instagram.com/p/BbRg6Z8nQDS/

 

We carefully found our way down the steep flight of stairs to reach our car that took us back to the resort.

 

Please note: This guide outlines my visit to some of my favourite temples in Bagan. I may have side-lined the more famous temples for quieter ones. But if you really want to ensure that you cover all the important ones on your visit, then I strongly recommend hiring a tour guide.

 

End note: Bagan is one of those places which completely erases concern and replaces it with a renewed sense of self where every temple you explore, every sunrise and sunset you watch and every interaction you have with the locals is deeply profound and the entire trip extremely fulfilling. My advice to you is to wander the lands aimlessly and focus on creating experiences that will last a lifetime!

Difficult as it may be for me to sum it all in one sentence, here’s how I would describe my experience:

“A soulful escapade into a land wrought with serendipitous explorations, breath-taking views and warm people where I was fortunate enough to witness some of the most magical sunrises and sunsets.”

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What you will need for a day of temple hopping in Bagan

  • Money
  • Water
  • Sunscreen
  • Hat
  • Camera
  • Face mask {to keep the dust out of your lungs when moving about on a two wheeler}
  • Light jacket for the early mornings or late evenings, particularly if plan on exploring the place on your e-bike.
  • Clothes that cover your knees and shoulders
  • Flashlight / headlamp for dark temples, or late / early explorations.

 

Have you already experienced the magic of Bagan? If so, tell me about your favourite temples and the most memorable experiences of your trip. If not, is it on your bucket list? Let me know in the comments below!

 

* Our visit to Myanmar has been split into several posts. Stay tuned for Day 3 of our stay in Bagan.

** If you like this article, please share it on social media using the share buttons at the bottom of the post.

*** Disclaimer: This review was done on an invitation from the Ministry of Tourism, Myanmar. Due judgement and care has been applied by the author to remain objective and unbiased in the review.

 

Images of me have been retouched by Vidhya Sakar

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* I love bringing together a bunch of conflicting items and weaving my own sense of one-ness to them. *

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