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Alongside Angkor Wat in Cambodia and the Borobudur in Indonesia, Bagan in Myanmar is one of the most spectacular wonders of the ancient world. The 25 kilometre-squared area covers what was once the resplendent heart of the Bagan (or Pagan) Empire. Between the 9th and 13th Century, in a wave of religious fervour, the rulers and the rich of Bagan built over 10, 000 pagodas and temples.

Today the ruins are peppered across the landscape, in the wet season described as rubies on green velvet, situated amongst shallow lakes and sprawling orange and golden peanut fields. At dawn, one can climb to the top of the Pyat That Gyi Temple and watch the sunrise from this vantage point, or alternatively book a place in one of the Bagan hot air balloons to fully appreciate the size and scope of the site. At sunset, scaling Shwesandaw Pagoda offers startling views, but for this reason attracts the crowds. Those searching for tranquility can take a boat out onto the Ayeyarwaddy, or simply slip off into the fields of Bagan, watch the sunset from a solitary stupa, and wish for nothing more than that the moment never ends.

Things to do in Bagan

Flying into Nyaung U, the Bagan airport, (Yangon to Bagan flights are daily, as are those from Mandalay and Inle) visitors have a variety of options of where to stay. The hotels in the heart of the Archeological Zone offer tranquility in the evenings and easy access to the Bagan temples during the day. While Nyaung U boasts the best bars, New Bagan has a wide selection of top-notch restaurants and is walking distance from the Ayeyarwaddy. When staying in Bagan, visitors can opt to be taken around in a private car, or alternatively explore the site on a rented bicycle or nippy e-bike. The history surrounding many of the Bagan temples and pagodas is extensive and the stories tantalizing; for this reason, we would recommend being taken around by a guide for at least one day in Bagan, as so much is added to these ruins when one knows the history and context. That being said, leaving behind the crowds and striding off into the wilderness towards little and little-known stupas is one of the nicest things to do in Bagan.

Unlike much of Myanmar, Bagan, known as ‘the parched land’ to the Mon, is subject to little of the deluge that rains upon Yangon between June and September. Visitors to Bagan in the wet season will be able to enjoy the area free of flocks of tourists and enjoy the fleeting green landscape, as well as view the handful of sesame and peanut farmers still at work. However, the chance for the odd rain shower remains, and the sunset and sunrise views are likely to be draped in patches of cloud. Though this can be spectacular in itself, it may disappoint some visitors looking for postcard-perfect photos. Those travelling from October to February can enjoy the fading greenery and cool temperatures, while travellers visiting between March and April should prepare for temperatures of up to and beyond 40 degrees celsius.

Around Bagan

With Bagan as your starting point, visitors can make a day-trip to the lively Mount Popa, climbing up the steps to the pagoda at the top past hosts of monkeys swinging between stalls and shrines. On the way back from Popa one can visit the small town of Salay, as well as the old British oil fields at Chauk. Additionally, one can visit the nearby town of Pakokku, and if driving north to Mandalay, spend a day and a night at Monywa, visiting the exuberant night market and the two gigantic Buddha images at Bodhi Tataung. Cruises from Yangon to Bagan can be arranged, as can those further north to Mandalay and beyond, and vice versa.

Bagan History

Mainstream scholarship claims that the Empire of Bagan was founded by the Bamar people entering the Irrawaddy Delta east from modern day China in the 9th Century. Discovered Pali Scriptures that it was in the early days also known by the names Arimaddanapura (City of the Enemy Crusher) and Tambadipa (Copper Land.) By the 11th Century, Bagan, Myanmar’s first imperial power to unite the people of the delta, was the cultural, spiritual and economical hub of Southeast Asia, rivalled only by the Khmer Empire in modern day Cambodia. Beyond commerce (which it dealt greatly in) Bagan was primarily a centre for scholarship and religious worship. Bagan drew monks, students and scholars from as far as India, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and the Khmer Empire

The Bagan Empire is heralded as having solidified the Theravada strain of Buddhism in Myanmar. King Anawrahta incorporated nat worship (the animist belief in spirit beings that is widespread throughout the country) into Buddhist theology at an inferior level, so to allow the animists to embrace Buddhism without having to abandon their former beliefs. Mahayana and Tantric Buddhism continued to be practiced simultaneously, as well as strains of Saivite and Vaishana Hinduism.

Due to an onslaught of Mongol attacks upon Bagan, Myanmar’s first empire eventually collapsed in 1287. Though it is believed that Bagan itself was not breached, many of the monuments and buildings were torn down to reinforce the city’s fortifications. The city, once home to perhaps as many as 200, 000 people was reduced to a small town, and the country fell into turmoil as factions rushed to take advantage of the sudden power vacuum. The temples were largely forgotten, save for by pillagers, treasure hunters and the occasional pilgrim. The site was not known broadly across the globe until stumbling upon Bagan, Burma’s colonial rulers the British were struck by its majesty and sent gushing reports back to Europe.

Of different shape, size and style, today the Bagan temples and pagodas are in a varying states of preservation; some are hollow allowing visitors to enter and observe wondrous mural paintings, frescoes and stone inscriptions. Some can be scaled, but this is strictly prohibited at most. The renovation on the part of the Government and wealthy donors has prevented Bagan being listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The U.N. body encourages professional restoration and preservation, but frowns severely upon whole-scale renovation, and certainly at the hotels and museum that have were built within the Archaeological Zone by the former government.

Without being a World Heritage Site, the Bagan temples and pagodas are unable to benefit from the technology and expertise that UNESCO offers in preservation. This is a great shame, as some of the ruins are in desperate need of these resources. Today all restoration work is conducted under the guidance of experts from UNESCO, and it is believed that some choice temples will soon be listed by UNESCO.

The Archeological Museum and the Viewing Tower, both built in a mock-Pagan style, are gaudy and ill-conceived. However, most of the time visitors will be blissfully unaware of their presence. In fact, despite its increasing fame and popularity, there will be many times during your trip to Bagan when you will find yourself amongst a landscape of dusty sand tracks and jungle creeper, and modest wooden huts are the only signs of human life whatsoever. From many vantage points, looking out over the plain displays no sign of modernity or technological development, save for, perhaps, a stationary tinpot motorbike hitched up against a tree, with its driver next to it smoking quietly in the shade.

Interested in a journey that incorporates Bagan? Check out our Bagan journeys here. And you can whet your appetite for the Scorced Empire with our Bagan Board on Pinterest.

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