Bagan in the Central region of Myanmar on the banks of the Ayeyarwady River is arguably one of the most important religious and cultural sites in the entire world. It has the largest concentration of Buddhist temples, pagodas and ruins anywhere dating from the 11th and 12th Centuries. No one should underestimate Angkor in Cambodia of course and intrepid travellers on Myanmar travel packages should probably put both places on their lists of ‘’must see.’’
This Bagan travel guide intends to reveal the best that is on offer and in the process persuade you to come to see for yourselves. Visitors seeing the temples for the first time will immediately see that they have ‘’aged.’’ Erosion by the dry winds has affected the temples while the river has gradually eroded its banks with the result in a proportion of old Bagan has been lost.
As many as 13,000 temples and stupas were thought to exist here at Bagan’s height until towards the end of the 13th Century and the Mongol invasion. Marco Polo described it as a "gilded city alive with tinkling bells and the swishing sounds of monks' robes". There are still 2,200 today though some are in a complete state of disrepair. That said, every site is sacred and visitors should pay due respect to all, dressing conservatively as Buddhism requires.
Our Bagan travel guide has to begin by looking at temples. The list of the most popular ones is quite extensive but here is the list in no particular order:
• Ananda Temple was built in 1091 by King Kyan-zit-tha and it regarded as the most important in Bagan. Its four Buddhas face in different directions.
• Shwesandaw is the "sunset temple", a popular place for locals and visitors as the sun goes down.
• Shwe Zigon Temple is a nearby golden pagoda dating back to 1087
• Thatbyinnyu Temple is 66 metres high, the tallest of all the temples. It was built in the 12th Century.
• Shwegugyi Temple is in excellent condition despite dating back to 1131.
• Shwe-San-Daw is also good for watching the sunset and likely to be less busy that ‘’sunset temple’’.
• Manuhar Pagoda was built by King Manuhar from the kingdom of Thaton.
• Gubyaukgyi Temple is in Wetkyi-Inn Village. It is in the shape of the durian fruit.
• Gawdaw Palin Temple is a mix of Myanmar and Indian style.
• Shwezigon Pagoda is on the banks of Nyaung U; its design was later replicated in Yangon.
When you travel to Myanmar you must understand that the locals will welcome you but expect you to respect their religion and culture. That means not only dressing suitably for visits to religious sites but understanding that you should not touch their heads, even casually or point in any way with your feet, the dirtiest part of the body.
This Bagan travel guide cannot cover every aspect of expected behaviour suffice to say use your common sense, heed advice and be polite.
A hot air balloon ride early in the morning is a great way to silently pass over Bagan and see it from another perspective.
Horse and cart is one way to get around though it is not the most comfortable mode of transport. If you decide on independent travel then hire a driver unless you want to cycle around. Cycling is an alternative though you should think about the temperature before doing anything too energetic.
Boat trips are enjoyable, an hour or two just relaxing and seeing the sights from the river.
Other interesting attractions
Mount Popa has a monastery on the top; it is a volcanic plug and a visit here can be combined with a chance to see village life. It is about an hour out of Bagan and the views across the countryside are amazing. There are several little statues at the foot of the mount which represent the spirits of the place.
Ananda Ok Kyaung, close to the temple of the same name, is a lovely monastery, often described as a sanctuary.
Bagan Viewing Tower is perhaps not in keeping with the surrounding architecture but it provides great panoramic views and is especially impressive at sunset.
Bagan Archaeological Museum is a recent structure that has replaced museums that were built at different times in the 20th Century. The Bagan travel guide aims to tell a little of the history of the region and the Museum is a means to learn a great deal more. There are ten rooms in all covering everything from history to culture and literature.
A few words of advice
If you are spending a lot of time walking it makes sense to have comfortable shoes. It is easy to slip on steps remember. There may well be snakes looking for shade so be careful where you place your feet. They prefer to avoid human contact but if you surprise them they may well react. They are unlikely to be around the popular spots but if you look for somewhere quieter remember they may well have tried to do the same thing and you have disturbed them.
You should have a hat, plenty of water, sun cream and some wipes because you will not find air conditioned rooms for shelter. A torch can be useful because you may find some dark staircases on your travels. A small medical kit is always useful as well, especially if you intend to visit remote areas in your free time from your organised tour.
Bagan and Myanmar travel in general are safe and the people very honest in the tradition of their religion.
Myanmar tour packages inevitably include Bagan because for those wishing to visit temples and to understand more about Buddhism it is more important than the capital, Yangon. Good tour companies are well able to find the right balance to show clients the most important things in each location and hopefully this Bagan travel guide will have begun the process of your deciding you need to go and see it.