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Old Bagan

Described by Marco Polo as ‘one of the finest sights in the world,’ visitors to Old Bagan in Myanmar often regard their time spent amongst the dusty ruins of these imperial temples and pagodas as the most spectacular segment of their Myanmar journey. Old Bagan, known bureaucratically as the Bagan Archeological Zone, stretches over 25 square kilometres, situated in a dry stretch of central Myanmar, 600 kilometres north of Yangon and 180 kilometres southwest of Mandalay. Visitors can rent bicycles, e-bikes or a taxi to take them around Old Bagan and the surrounding villages, or alternatively explore the ruins by foot. The temples and pagodas are believed to have been built within a crazed rush of activity of 250 years, crashing to a halt when the Mongols invaded the empire in 1287. Almost a thousand years on, the ravages of time and warring nations has not been enough to wreak this wonder of the ancient world. As Professor Tun Aung Schain writes in Glimpses of Glorious Bagan: ‘Time has been a relentless enemy, but linger a while among these monuments … linger, and dimly at first, then with increasing clarity comes a realisation of the glory that-was Bagan.’

 

Visiting Old Bagan


To the Mons, Bagan (formerly called Pagan) was known as ‘Tattadessa’, the ‘parched land’, the region situated within the dry-zone and therefore receiving substantially less rainfall than the rest of the country. If you visit in the late wet or cool season (August through to February) you will see the uncommon green landscape of Bagan, poetically described as ‘rubies on a velvet carpet.’ Normally however, the sandy landscape has much the feel of a savannah and hosts flora and fauna to suit. It is home to a handful of endangered species in Myanmar such as the Burmese Bush Lark and the White Throated Babbler. (Additionally, you may come across the odd snake in Bagan, found dozing in the shadowy corners of the temples.)

The airport at Nyaung U is only a twenty minute drive from Old Bagan. One can also reach the region by train or steamer, cruising down the Ayeyarwaddy from Mandalay or up from Yangon, drinking in the views of typical Myanmar villages along the way. Most people allow for two days of exploration, although in reality, even after four days visitors still depart leaving much unseen. Whether hiring a taxi, bicycle, e-bike, or walking about on foot, the greatest pleasure to be found at Old Bagan is simply soaking up the sublime atmosphere at your own pace.

 

Ananda Temple and other ruins of Bagan


Ananda Temple, or Ananda Pahto, ornate and appearing as though it has received a heavy dousing of talcum powder, is Bagan’s most popular temple due to its splendour, size and good state of preservation. Perfectly proportioned, the Ananda Temple marks the stylistic demise of the early Bagan Period and the beginning of the Middle Period. Inside the temple visitors can view the different styles of Buddha image, the Indian or ‘Bagan’ style and the later Burmese style. At the Ananda Temple there is also the ‘laughing Buddha’, who gazes sternly down at the monks at his feet, but breaks into a knowing smile the further you step away from him.

The mammoth Dhammayangyi Pahto with its bloody history of patricide and Indian assassins, and the gorgeous Sulamani Pahto with its stunning murals, rival Ananda as the most spectacular site in Old Bagan. Watching the sunset over the Ayeyarwaddy from the clefts of Shwesandaw Paya is sublime, in spite of the amount of tourists attracted to it. As the sun begins to set there is a palpable ambience of anticipation, shared communally by visitors, street vendor and security alike. Popular sunset alternatives are the Pyathada Paya and Thabeik Hmauk. If you are keen to avoid crowds, ask a guide to take you or direct you towards one of the many quieter spots (they will know plenty!) Alternatively you can look into hiring a boat on the Ayeyarwaddy. For sunrise, gazing down from the basket of a hot air balloon is without a doubt the most awe-inspiring way to view the breadth of Bagan.

 

Brief History of Old Bagan


Old Bagan sits on the site of a former village in the Archaeological Zone at the heart of Bagan. From the 9th to the 13th Centuries, while Yangon remained an obscure fishing village known as Dagon, this was the vibrant heart of the great Bagan Empire. Known also as ‘Arimaddanapu’, meaning ‘the City which Crushes its Enemies’, the rulers of the Bagan Dynasty were the first to unify the tribes and ethnicities of the region, and in doing so established Theravada Buddhism as the dominant strain in Myanmar. The city was a dynamic centre for both worship and religious scholarship and it is believed that Burmese script in its present form was written for the first time in Bagan.

After habitual Mongol raids, Bagan finally fell in 1287. A power vacuum opened and amidst the ensuing skirmishes and struggle for dominance the temples of Bagan were largely forgotten and fell into disrepair. In 1990, in preparation for Myanmar’s ‘Year of Tourism’ in 1996, the government forcibly relocated the villagers of Old Bagan, citing increased incidents of treasure hunting as the reason. The villagers built up New Bagan on a stretch of peanut fields, while the government went on to build their own hotels where the village once stood. In his book Under the Dragon, Rory Maclean recounts the experience of one lady returning to Old Bagan after years spent in Yangon, to find that her childhood home had vanished.

‘She stopped and listened. No cockerels crowed, no children laughed, no farmers called from the fields. She did not hear the monks as they went on their morning rounds with alms bowls and blessings. The unexpected silence disorientated her, jolting her back to Insein. She panicked, taking her bearings from the temples. She recognised the range of hills, placed herself, and then in the half-light saw the outline of the rhyming tree. It was wilted and downcast, dying as if from a lack of love. Ma Swe stepped beneath it. A scorpion scuttled in the dust. The garden fence which had once surrounded the tree was gone. She could not see her bamboo gate. There was no family home, no village hall, no neighbours’ house. She stood at the edge of a dark, barren field, once the site of old Pagan village, alone.’

Despite the unceremonious upheaval of the local villagers, today Old Bagan, Myanmar’s crowning jewel, for all Burmese is both the symbol of a spectacular past as well as evidence of the enduring vitality and spiritualism of the people.

Keen to visit Bagan? Check out our journeys incorporating Bagan and enquire about a bespoke itinerary.

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