Bagan Temples, Myanmar

5 Tips for exploring ancient Bagan temples

Pip
March 19, 2015

Rising from the plains like thousands of mushrooms after the rains, the temples of Bagan are one of the world’s most impressive archaeological sites and must-see cultural wonders of Southeast Asia. Located on the banks of the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar’s heart, Bagan is the largest and densest concentration of Buddhist structures found anywhere in the world with thousands of Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries, built between the 11th and 13th centuries combining to make an historic landscape which rivals that of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat.

Bagan’s history as the kingdom of Pagan

At its height, the kingdom of Pagan was a centre of Buddhist learning, where monks and scholars came from as far away as the Khmer Empire, India and Ceylon to study medicine, astrology and law. Today the stone lion-flanked doorways and fascia woodcarvings offer a glimpse into the architectural style favoured during the kingdom’s reign which proved influential in Burma’s temple design, while frescoes and statues within symbolised the religious devotion of their patrons and society.

This former centre of the kingdom of Pagan expands across more than a hundred square kilometres and visiting over one day doesn’t do it justice. From transport to timing, here are five tips to help you get the most from a visit to Bagan and absorb as much of its historic ambience as possible.

Tip 1 - Start early for a magical sunrise of Bagan

Dhammayangyi temple in Bagan sunrise view
Bagan’s magnificence sunrise view of Dhammayangyi temple in the early morning mist.

While waking in the pre-dawn dark is not everybody’s favourite way to start the day, when you are sitting atop an ancient temple while the sky gradually changes from deep blue to a soft luminous glow, and the sun’s first rays peek over the horizon, illuminating the temple-dotted landscape below, it is worth any sleep deprivation you may be feeling. First light over Bagan is simply stunning.

While Shwesandaw has traditionally been the temple to watch sunrise from with its pronounced elevated position, it can often be swamped with package tourists. The nearby Shwe-Gu-Gyi and Lawkaoushaung temples are equally impressive and less-crowded, with elevated patios allowing you to get 360 degree views across the temple-dotted plains below. Away from the crowds, you won’t be competing for the best vantage point, or straining to compose the perfect photograph without other tourists in it, but be able to contemplate Bagan’s magnificence in the early morning mist in peace and tranquility.

Rising early also allows you to get some serious sightseeing under your belt before the midday heat sets in, during which time it’s best to retire to a local tea shop, refuel and take a well-deserved siesta.

Tip 2 - Float above Bagan during sunrise in a hot-air balloon

Sunrise hot ballon ride in Bagan
Sunrise hot ballon ride in Bagan is one of the unique experiences you must try while in Myanmar.

There are a few places in the world where the hefty cost of a sunrise hot balloon ride is worth every penny and Bagan is one of them. Guided by gentle winds and floating serenely above the ancient landscape below, this bird’s eye view offers a unique perspective on the immensity of Bagan and an appreciation of the human feat involved in building what once amounted to more than 4,000 pagodas, temples and monasteries. Glowing rich in the early morning sun, this expansive view of the red-hued temples and golden stupas is a mesmerising one, and if you are feeling giddy from the rush, the champagne breakfast which follows will help sedate the adrenalin.

Flights only operate between October and April when aerial conditions are favourable, so if you are set on flying, coincide your visit with these months.

Tip 3 - Take to two wheels and cycle the road less travelled

Explore Bagan temples with a bicycle in Myanmar
Riding a bicycle through hidden dirt trails of Bagan is a great way to explore the archaeological site.

Winding along the back lanes and hidden dirt trails, far from the well-trodden route of the package tour buses, riding a bicycle is a great way to explore the archaeological site. Rather than being ferried from one crowd-filled temple to the next, being under your own steam allows you to pass by little-known temple ruins which make up the site, as well as the fields, farms and villages of Bagan’s current local residents, offering an insight into daily life for today’s Myanmar. With most temples within only a few hundred metres from one another and flat conditions, the cycling is easy and suited to all fitness levels. Far from missing out on the site’s most famous attractions, you can visit them in your own time, and getting lost along the way will have you discovering more than you bargained for.

Tip 4 - Discover Bagan’s secrets with a horse-drawn carriage

Visiting Bagan temples with a horse cart in Myanmar
Visiting Bagan with a horse cart, you can enjoy more the atmosphere and essence of the ancient city.

If you’re not feeling so energetic, or one day on the bike seat is enough then consider taking a horse-and-cart, complete with your own local driver-cum-guide. This still allows you to get off the beaten track and access some little-visited gems at a lazy pace, while the driver’s inside knowledge extends from history, to where the crowds aren’t, to the best tea stalls in the surrounding region. While an air-conditioned vehicle may get you from one temple to the next in comforted speed, it limits your exposure to the atmosphere and essence of Bagan which is fundamental to its appreciation.

Tip 5 - Spend at least 2 days to absorb everything Bagan has to offer

Many tourists ‘do’ Bagan in one long day, visiting all of its major temples in a haze of condensed history and fast-captured photographs. But to really get an understanding of the significance of this extensive complex, the symbolism imbued in each of its structures, and the kingdom’s reign throughout the start of the second millennium, you need to allow at least two days. If you take a guided tour the first day, then go solo the next to get a different perspective on the site, and allow time to explore the local handicraft and artisan shops in the villages which have blossomed around the site.

Sunset in Irrawaddy river, Bagan, Myanmar
Sunset cruises along Irrawaddy river offer continually changing views as you float downstream.

At least two days at Bagan also means you will have two sunrise and sunset opportunities, so you can view it from different angles or benefit from having a second chance if the weather isn’t perfect the first day. While viewing sunset from the elevated lofts of a temple cannot be underestimated (with the impressive spots of Sulemani and Pyathadi temples deservedly popular), there are unique perspectives to be had from either the banks or waters of the Irrawaddy River. The village of Thiripyitysaya, just to the west of New Bagan, is a great place to watch the sun sink over the temples, with the tranquil Irrawaddy waters reflecting the changing sky above, while sunset cruises along the river offer continually changing views as you float downstream.

The best time to visit Bagan

November through to March is the best time to visit, when the skies are relatively dry across Myanmar and cooler temperatures make sight-seeing much more pleasant. During these months a light fog often sits above the temples in the pre-dawn, making sunrise all the more magical when it finally peeks over the horizon. Throughout April and May temperatures begin to climb and it can become unbearably hot before the rains come at the start of June, so unless you can handle the heat, avoid visiting during this period.

Explore Bagan from multiple perspectives

Today what remains in Bagan is an intriguing insight into Myanmar’s glorious past at a time when the country is slowly re-opening its doors to tourists. While it is both wondrous in its extent and profusion of structures, many of which have been carefully restored, its appeal also lies in its scattered relics, overgrown with grass, whose history have forever been lost in time. Discovering the site from multiple perspectives will, undoubtedly, leave you with a deeper understanding of this enchanting World Heritage Listed kingdom.

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