Eventually, my Bagan dream has come true, though not quite as I imagined. Thousands of earthy brown stupas appear in the fuzzy layer of dust and dim lights of the sunset are perhaps the most miraculous spectacle a tourist can witness. Under the burning heat of this semi-desert land, the temples in all sizes, the largest up to 61m tall, and the smallest, not as tall as a human, still exist from the 11th century until the present. Besides Angkor, Ayutthaya and My Son, Bagan is also an important archaeological and religious relic in Southeast Asia.
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1. History of Bagan
Bagan or Pagan is the name of a kingdom existed from the 7th century and is the first unified kingdom of Burma. It was the most powerful empire of the Western Indochina Peninsula from the 9th to the 13th centuries. Nevertheless, Bagan empire collapsed after being destroyed by the Mongols. Located right next to the Ayeryawaddy river basin, Bagan’s prosperity gained by trading with surrounding countries and agriculture. Bagan is a complex with 2,200 Theravada Buddhism temples, built from the 9th to the 14th centuries. The large temples were built by the king, and smaller ones are built by nobles or rich families, depend on their financial ability, and in a homogenous architectural style. Bagan has been recently recognized as a world cultural heritage by UNESCO in June 2019 .
2. Best time to visit
You should visit Bagan from December to April when the weather is cool and dry. The sky is clear and the trees among the temples are greener. From June to September is hot and rainy season in Bagan. May is the peak of the hot season, the temperature may reach over 40 Celcius degrees.
3. Transfer to Bagan
Normally visitors often travel to Bagan by air from Mandalay, which takes around 30 minutes.
If you want to admire Bagan from afar on the Ayeryawaddy River, you can take a boat from Monywa, which takes 4 hours. You will travel from Mandalay to Monywa, stay for 1 night and from Monywa to Pakkoku pier it takes 2 hours, then take the boat to reach Bagan in 2 more hours. The spectacle of the temples appearing under Ayeryawaddy river sunset is really memorable but if you don’t have much time and can’t stand the heat, you should not choose traveling by boat.
Many travelers choose high-quality shuttle bus from Mandalay to Bagan with the same transferring time of 4 hours.
4. Useful tips
Bagan is very hot and dusty, you should bring along sunscreen cream, sunglasses, and cool water during the trip.
Bagan is divided into 3 zones: Old Bagan (the densest ancient temple area and has lots of luxurious resorts & hotels), New Bagan (fewer temples and mid-range resorts & hotels) and Nyuang U (area near the bus station and airport). We stayed at Amata Garden Hotel in New Bagan.
If you rent an electric bike to go around temples, you should also hire a local people or local guide. There are many trails that are very difficult to pass, but the locals will be willing to show you the best places to admire the sunset or sunrise.
At present, Bagan authority does not encourage tourists to climb on top of the temples to have a great view to take beautiful photos. The temples are extremely old and after the earthquake in 2015, they became more fragile. Some locals may show you the temples that may climb, which is not illegal but not recommended.
The temples are quite similar and depending on your preferences, you can stop by to visit the ones you want. However, the 3 most important temples are Ananda, Shwezigon, and Dhamayangyi.
As mentioned above, you can take a flight to Bagan from Yangon or Mandalay. If you love religious relics and seek for more unique experiences, you should stay at Monywa for 2 days and 1 night. After 3 hours traveling from Mandalay, you can visit a group of 3 pagodas: Thanboddhay with 582,000 Buddha statues of all sizes, Bodhi-Ta-Htaung with 100 Buddha statues under a Bodhi tree, and a 100m-laying Buddha statue with 150m high. Overnight at Win Unity hotel with swimming pool and beautiful sunset view. Next morning, you can visit Shwe Ba temple on a rocky peak and the Po Win Taung temples complex with hundreds of cliff-carved pagodas built in the 16th century. Then transfer in another 5 hours to reach Bagan by the river.
5.1. The first day
On the first day, we departed from 7 am by electric bike to visit Bagan. Our hotel is only 20 minutes away from Old Bagan by electric bike. However, a lot of tourists wake up from 5 am just to see the sunrise.
The first one we visit is Dhamayazaka temple, this is the temple with a model architecture for many other temples in Bagan, followed by Dhamayangyi, the largest temple with pyramid-like architecture. Next is Sulamani temple with 12th-century frescoes depicting the life of Bagan people.
Visit Minnathu village, famous for its silk weaving technique.
Lunch break until 4 pm. Continue by visiting Bagan House, a lacquer technical center. Then visit Ananda Temple, the most beautiful and famous temple with 4 large Buddha statues located in 4 directions, carved teak wood doors and outer walls, which made from white marble instead of bricks like other pagodas.
Riding a horse and admire the sunset, en route stop at Thatbyinyut Temple. Stop at a small hill to see the sunset.
Watching puppet performance in the evening night at Amanta Boutique House.
5.2. The second day
On the second day, in the morning from 7 am, we depart to visit Shwezigon Pagoda, which was built in the 12th century, is the largest and oldest golden pagoda in Bagan. Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon was built based on the model of Shwezigon. Then visit Nyang U Market, where you can shop for souvenirs at a cheap price.
Then we set off for Mount Popa, a sacred mountain in Myanmar’s folk beliefs with the custom of worshiping Nat, the lost souls. Mount Popa is an hour away from Bagan and is a limestone mountain over 100m high. Time to climb to the top and down takes us 2 hours. On the way stop to visit the jaggery production factory.
Lunch break until 4 pm, then visit Gubyaukgyi temple, which possesses lots of precious ancient paintings. In the temple, photos and videos are prohibited because the light may create a negative impact on the paint color. Then stop to visit the Htilominlo Temple, a temple with a sophisticated brick architecture.
6. Ideal location to admire sunsets and sunrise
A 45m high observatory for $5/person offers you a wonderful panoramic view of Bagan.
Shwesandaw Temple: This is considered the best place in Bagan for watching Sunrise and Sunset. Since the structure of Shwesandaw consists of 5 floors with 4 faces, each has its own stairs, it is very convenient for visitors to enjoy the amazing scenes of the sun.
Mingalar Zedi Temple: This pagoda is located in the middle of an empty area that full of sun and wind, so from there, you can wrap all Old Bagan within your eyes. This is the last great temple built in the late XIII century before the Bangan Kingdom was invaded by Mongolia.
We do not encourage climbing on top of the ancient temples to get the best view.
7. Recommended hotel & restaurant
– Restaurant: Art @ Bagan Restaurant, Rangoon Restaurant.
– Amata Garden Hotel.