Temples of Bagan

Bagan was the capital city of the Pagan Empire and the cultural epicenter of a kingdom that ruled over the regions surrounding the Irrawaddy River during the 10th to 13th centuries.
The Pagan Empire was the first to unify the country’s city states – including Mon, Arakanese, Bamar and Pyu people – into what would become known as Burma. At the peak of its powers the empire built around 10,000 Buddhist temples, monasteries, stupas and pagodas across the plains of Bagan. This was a powerful Southeast Asian dynasty that would rival that of their contemporaries, the Khmer Empire in Cambodia, and the temples of Bagan were as highly regarded as those constructed at Angkor.
There are still around 2,000 ruined and relatively intact temples, stupas and pagodas to be seen on the plains of Bagan today. They are all protected as part of the Bagan Archaeological Zone and have become one of Burma's most significant cultural sites. Some are solid stupas that were used for commemorative reasons, others are hollow gu style temples that were mainly used for meditation.
Bagan stands out not just because of the quantity of monuments but also the quality, intricacy and artistic designs on the brick and gilded architecture. This is testament to the skills and knowledge of the Burmese craftsmen and architects who constructed virtually everything by hand.

Where are they?

Bagan Archaeological Zone is in an area roughly 10km2 within Bagan's old city. The nearest town is Nyaung-U which is about 4km from the site itself. You can actually fly into Nyaung-U from Yangon (formerly Rangoon); it's just a 20 minute drive for here to Bagan.

How can I see them?

The best way to see the temples of Bagan is to stay in Nyaung-U. Small group tours of Burma usually include two or three days in Nyaung-U. Groups can then visit the temples with a local guide with the option to return for an independent wander.

Given the scale of the site, one of the most convenient ways to get around the forest-clad temple complex is by bicycle. Some tours provide a bike and route map as part of the experience; electric bikes may also be available. A dusty labyrinth of dirt tracks between the trees and temples makes cycling a really efficient and atmospheric way of getting around. Comfy clothes, sun protection (long sleeves, shades and sun cream) and bike helmets are all advisable.
A far more sedate mode of transport is by hot air balloon. Floating over the temples as the sun rises is breathtaking, and you’ll be served a champagne breakfast, just for good measure. Balloon flights usually last between 45 minutes and an hour but they must be booked in advance, are subject to weather conditions and only offered from October to March.
Another way to see the temples from above is to head to the extinct volcano, Mount Popa (1,518m), about 50km southeast of Bagan. Next to Mount Popa is Taung Kalat, a volcanic fist of a hill that features 777 steps to its summit. This major pilgrimage site for Burmese Buddhists features a shimmering, golden-capped monastery as well as numerous Nat (Buddhist spirits or deities) temples and shrines. Panoramic views from the top of Taung Kalat reach all the way to Bagan and provide a perfect platform to share with the resident monks and monkeys. Mount Popa is about an hour’s drive from Bagan and can easily be reached by taxi if you’re staying in Nyaung-U.

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Please don’t climb on the temples

Although you can clamber all over Bagan’s temples either using steps or simply scrambling to the top, there are now plenty of PLEASE DO NOT CLIMB signs in place, especially around the main temples. Please respect the signs and the local people. It can also be pretty dangerous with loose brickwork and heavy stones crashing down on climbers, or sunset selfie-seekers risking a long fall. If you have to get your climbing fix, go to Taung Kalat.
Written by Chris Owen
Photo credits: [Page banner: Sven Scheuermeier] [Old Bagan: Roxanne Desgagnes] [Hot air ballons: Charlie Costello] [Don't climb: Dan Lundberg]
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