Arimaddana-pura: City that Tramples on Enemies
Reaching the highlight of this journey, Bagan. The most memorable place and world renown image of Myanmar to the outside world; and for us, the reason number 1 on why to come to visit this fascinating country. The immense place will leave you speechless with the more than 2200 temples scattered in the plateau. And now imagine how its heyday might have looked like with over 10000 temples during the 9th and 13th centuries when the city was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan. It is by all means the place with the largest and densest concentration of Buddhist temples, stupas, pagodas and monuments in the world.
From the 13th century and until the 15th when the city declined no longer being the capital. And only the most important and famous temples were kept up to date, refurbished and upgraded through the centuries, meaning that many other thousands fell into disrepair and lost. Nowadays only thousands of piles of rocks are their solely remnant of their location. Earthquakes have done their part too, damaging and destroying many structures. Fortunately many hundreds have been questionably restored. And I use the word “questionably” because their restoration did not follow the original design nor features and fittings, hence why the entire place has not made it yet to be inscribed as a World Heritage Site. UNESCO claims that the restoration vaguely follows the original, and for now it remains on the Tentative List.
Bagan, apart from the archaeological site, has nothing else to see or do. And unless you have some plans to get farther to the many great sites nearby, then do not plan any longer than 2 days. Yes it is true the site is vast and you could be spending more days to visit, in the other hand and after visiting the most important temples, the rest are all pretty much the same. New Bagan, located to the north of Old Bagan is just a simple a modern small city where majority of hotels and facilities for tourists are, and residence to the local people. Old Bagan is a deserted place on the early morning and late evening hours.
Our original plan was for only 2 days here as we could not spare any longer due to our extremely tight overall time of just 7 days in Myanmar; but at the time I started to search for information about the places we were going to be visiting, something popped-out and catch my attention immediately, to the point of having to plan our time around it because we did not wanted to let the opportunity go. This was Taung Kalat Monastery at the footstep of Mount Popa volcano; 50 kilometres southeast of Bagan, and if you are wondering by now what is all about this place then Google for images as I am sure you will want to go there too once you do and see. All in all, it worked perfectly for us the time we planned for both Bagan and Popa within the 2 days we were here.
You must take note that there is a tourist tax of 25000 Kyat for arriving into Bagan. This is payable either at the airport, or if you arrive by road or rail, you will eventually come to a checkpoint for paying it. This grants you access to all the sites in Bagan, at the exception of the ones with an extra ticket entrance, and you are free to enter the sites whenever you like and during the days you stay in the city.
I would not recommend anyone visiting more than 20 sites in full (of course I do not count in here the many other minor structures you will see and pass in between). The list I have created in the next section below has in total 22 places, and that was by far already too much in my opinion; although in the other hand, those are the really “must-see” except for the rebuilt Royal Palace and the Museum which you can easily skip (and we did). I guarantee you anyway, that coming towards the end of the day you are going to be so “saturated” of visiting same of the same that you won’t care anymore if you have done them all or not.
For more information about Bagan check the Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. As for Mount Popa, this is the Wikipedia and Wikitravel links. The currency in Myanmar is the Kyat. Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
How to visit the site
Be really well prepared beforehand. Check which are the temples, stupas and monuments you wish to visit and aim for creating a logical route to follow them on a consecutive order. Of course in between them you will be passing many other minor and piles or fallen and disrepair ones. Anywhere in the internet you can find a list and description of the best temples to visit as for example Wikipedia, Wikitravel and Tripadvisor; but in those you will not find any order whatsoever nor appropriate easy to navigate information, hence why the list I provide below in the section on what to see and do will be your piece of cake “ready to be eaten” without moving a finger.
Now knowing and having in hand the list of places you would like to go and visit, all you need is a way to transport you from A to B, to C and so on. Well, this is merely entirely up to you what you decide. You can walk anywhere you wish that is out of question, but distances can be really huge, and if time is your limitation, I’m sure you won’t like to spend most of the day walking to reach few places while you could rent for example a bike or an e-bike to speed up your visit.
There is a good bunch of options available, with various prices depending on what you wish to do. To start with, the most famous and unforgettable way is a hot-air balloon. Overlooking the entire site from a bird’s eye view, this is “priceless”. Well it does have a price, 350 USD per person. There is a downside however, you will see the site from above, but not from street level nor being able to enter the temples, so you will still need to consider after the balloon a further transportation to continue your visit.
Next in line, renting a car with a driver for the whole day will be 25000 Kyat, or 30 USD. This seems to be the official price anywhere, so every hotel will quote you the same. Without any doubt, this is the most comfortable way to get to all the places in your list, and the one I strongly recommend.
A horse carriage sounds like a nice idea too. A bit cheaper than a car with a driver, and since it is open carriage you can take as many pictures along the way as you like. But the journey will be very bumpy, and very very slow and time consuming.
E-bike and motorbikes are then, some of the best choices you can have. Inexpensive, fast and easy to move everywhere you wish. But bear in mind that even you do not need a driving license at all, we tried them and could actually not make ourselves comfortable to the idea of driving them. Not to mention the ways between the temples and the entire complex are unpaved and very bumpy and sandy, son this can complicate it even further.
What to see and do in Bagan
- North of Old Bagan Area This is the farthest to the north you would need to go when visiting the temples of Bagan.
1- Shwezigon Pagoda Built in 1087 as the first example and prototype in the Myanmar style of a gourd-stupa golden pagoda upon which the famous Shwedagon Pagoda of Yangon was built afterwards. It is one of the must do’s for its beauty and size, paying also attention at the covered walkway of main access.
2- Htilominlo Temple Along the Lanmadaw 3 Road (parallel to the Anawrahta Road), south of Shwezigon on direction to Old Bagan main area. Built during the reign of King Htilominlo in 1220.
- Archaeological Museum/Middle Area This quadrant around the museum and in between the main Anawrahta Road and Bagan-Chauk Road, both running parallel to the river contain the major sights in the complex.
1- Bupaya Pagoda One of the most important constructions in Bagan. Believed to be built by the third King of Pagan, Pyusawhti. It was completely destroyed in the 1975 earthquake and the current re-built does not follow in truth to the original design while using modern materials as is the now reinforced concrete pagoda instead of bricks as was the original. Located on the shores of the Irrawaddy River, right at the northernmost end of the Bagan-Chauk Road.
2- Myat Taw Pyay Right by the intersection of Bagan-Chauk Road with the side street towards the Golden Palace, some meters south of the Bupaya Pagoda.
3- Maha Bodhi Phaya Along this small street off from the Bagan-Chauk Road. 2 beautiful brick pagodas.
4- Shwegu-Gyi This is one of the best preserved temples, dating from 1131 and commissioned by King Alaunsithu. It offers great sunset views from the upper level. It is few meters ahead of the Maha Bodhi Phaya.
5- Golden Palace Rebuilt from the original archaeological foundations that were found, yet not following the original design at all. It was raised merely as a tourist attraction that actually got a nice look. A separate 5USD admission ticket is required to enter. Literally across the road from the Shwegu-Gyi.
6- Ananda Temple The most sacred and most important of the entire area and also one of the oldest, built in 1105 during the reign of the third king, Kyanzittha from the Pagan Dynasty. Four Buddhas, one at each of the sides mark the cardinal directions. East of the Golden Palace.
7- Thatbyinnyu Pagoda Built in the 12th century, ever since remaining as the tallest built in Bagan at 66 meters. Located by the parallel little street from where the Shwegu-Gyi Temple is just at the front, meters west of the Ananda Temple.
8- Gawdaw Palin Temple Designed in a fusion of Myanmar and Indian styles. Started during the reign of Narapatisithu, and finished during the reign of Htilominlo in 1227. Continuing the little street where the Thatbyinnyu Pagoda is to the west, and just meters north of the Archaeological Museum.
9- Archaeological Museum For those who would like to know more about the history and the findings. Nothing out of the blue to be honest and easily skip if you do not have much time.
10- Mee Nyein Gone Phaya The last of the important temples in this quadrant. Built in the 12th century, it offers great views for sunrise. Few meters south of the Museum, on Bagan-Chauk Road.
- South of the Archaeological Museum/South Area This area hosts over a 1000 constructions, many of which are simple ruins. Following a logical order, the following are the most impressive to visit.
1- Mingala Zedi Pagoda Built in 1274 during the reign of King Narathihapate. It is one of the very few examples in all Bagan where glazed terracotta tiles were used. Located along the Bagan-Chauk Road, just south of the Mee Nyein Gone Phaya.
2- Shwesandaw Temple Informally known as the “sunset temple” for being the best place to be right before sunset; as higher the level from the 3 the better, but expect many people with the same idea as yours hence plan to come early to get a good spot. The sunset view with the temples and far landscape are really worth! You can find it along the path off the Bagan-Chauk Road from the intersection where the Mingala Zedi Pagoda is. You will pass other structures along the way.
3- Dhammayan-Gyi Temple Commissioned by King Narathu who came to the throne by assassinating his father and elder brother, is the largest of any temple in Bagan; although left unfinished when the king was assassinated. It is believed that over 6 million bricks were used. Continuing farther to the east from Shwesandaw.
4- Sulamani Temple Built in 1183 by King Narapatisithu is one of the most visited in the complex due to its great state of preservation after being restored in 1994 from the 1975 earthquake damages. Not far to the east of the Dhammayan-Gyi Temple.
5- Payathonzu Temple Unique in Bagan for being the only one composed of 3 temples joined together by a passageway, hence its name meaning the Temple of the Three Buddhas. Although it was never finished, it was recent that after restoration, the top of the three pagodas was completed (clearly visible for the brighter colour of the bricks). Southeast from the Sulamani Temple.
6- Dhammayazika Pagoda Located to the south of the complex near New Bagan. It is a great example of pentagonal base and circular pagoda, built in 1196 during the reign of King Narapatisithu. Immediately nearby at all sides are a lot of smaller pagodas and temples.
7- Seinnyet Ama From the Dhammayazika Pagoda taking the road leading to New Bagan, and then back onto the Bagan-Chauk Road, you will find this small and beautifully preserved temple.
8- Somingyi, Naga Yon Hpaya and Abeyadana Those three minor temples and pagodas are grouped together at both sides of the Bagan-Chauk Road, few meters to the north of the Seinnyet Ama temple.
9- Nan Paya and Manuha Temples The first is of very reduced size, one of the few examples of Hindu temples built in Burma; the second is one of the oldest, built in 1067 by captive Mon King Manuha. Both are adjacent along the Bagan-Chauk Road.
10- Gu Byauk Gyi The last in my list. From here to the Mingala Zedi temple you started at number 1 in this listing is matter of meters and you would have the complete circle and can pretty much say you’ve seen most of the important sights. I guarantee you from all this list, you’ve seen double than what an average tourist will do.
Visiting Taung Kalat (Mount Popa)
You will need to pre-arrange some transportation to get here. It seems that the common price for a half day driver is US$30. This is 5 hours driver, that will pick you from the hotel and drop you back. It takes little over 1 hour to get there, same to be back, and then along the way near Mount Popa the driver will stop to a nice viewing point, and wherever you want him to stop, of course. The visit of the Taung Kalat is around 1.5 hour max. Every hotel can arrange this for you at the time you desire, and dismiss their suggestion of going there by 8.00am or even earlier! There is no need why to wake up that early and make yourself unnecessarily tired for the rest of the day. We asked to have the driver by 13.00pm and it was a perfect time. There is not much to do, since it is a monastery at the top of the rock, so the most time you will spend climbing up the stairs, and down again, but definitely highly recommended to do.
Arriving to Bagan is best by plane since overland transportation is way too slow, and even the city lies in between the main railway line between Yangon in the south to Mandalay in the north, there is not much of beautiful scenery to attract you for getting on a train or bus for over 10 hours instead of just matter of few minutes flight.
The International Airport is 10 kilometers to the east of Old Bagan, 12 from New Bagan, hence quite convenient in location to anywhere in the city your accommodation might be. It costs 6000 Kyat to Old/New Bagan area in a taxi. Unfortunately very limited flights operate from/to the airport (as of March 2016). Expect this to change in the near future now that the country opened to the world. In any case, the main destinations are covered with Yangon and Mandalay from where you are most likely to be travelling from/to.
By train as mentioned earlier, it will take over 10 hours to/from Yangon, and 8 to/from Mandalay. Not to be considered in our case at all. It took us just 1.15 hour flight from Yangon and it is barely 30 minutes flight from Mandalay.
In the other hand, something I might have really considered if time would not have been my constrain was getting a boat between Bagan and Mandalay. One per way per direction departing each day taking around 9 hours.
Do not expect a lot of hotels, nor big chains and big properties here. The country is recently opened to the world and will still take some time until more and more is constructed one a more tourist-friendly approach.
The accommodation you will find right now is well enough and still a good choice, but rates per night are much higher than anywhere else across Southeast Asia. And bearing in mind how important to any tourist Bagan is, expect properties to book out quickly, especially during high season months. It took us some days to figure out where would be best for us to stay; prices did not drop at all but kept increasing closer to date so try to get your hands in sorting the accommodation the earliest the better.
We stayed at the Bagan Umbra Hotel, in Wet-Kyi-In, Nyaung U Township. Yet again, and after such a great experience back in Yangon, this hotel was also great. But you must take note that there are many kind of rooms, located at different buildings in this hotel. We selected the Grand Deluxe room. 45 square meters with balcony and views over the infinity pool. This is in the new building where the very nice rooms are, and it was a great choice indeed! Not only the enormous comfortable room, great service and treatment and facilities like the infinity pool and normal pool, but also the nice breakfast, and the location of the hotel itself, along the main road connecting New Bagan with Old Bagan, to the north of the main archaeological site and with many pagodas already meters away. Perfect location to start your sightseeing.
Album of Bagan
Album of Mount Popa