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Last update: Oct 30, 2019

Bagan is awarded World Heritage status.

Bagan has been awarded World Heritage status by UNESCO on the 6th of july 2019, after a procedure of 25 years. The news of World Heritage status will likely boost tourism numbers. Read here why it took so long:

Bagan awarded World Heritage status.


Introduction to Bagan.

The Bagan Archaeological Zone is not as large as the Angkor temple complex, the main Bagan temple area between Old Bagan, New Bagan and Nyaung-U is roughly 7km by 7km. The huge Angkor archaeological park stretches to 400 square kilometres; the Bagan Archaeological Zone is less then 50 square kilometres.

The smaller area of Bagan does not imply that it is any less imposing than Angkor. The two historic sites are just different in many ways: the architecture, the population and the purpose of the two old cities were completely different. The Angkor temples were the royal residences of their kings, and the towns in and around Angkor Wat had a population of up to a million people. Bagan was the center of a large empire, but the city of Old Bagan had only about 10.000 residents. The temples outside of Old Bagan, spread out on the wide plain, were grand, lofty, spiritual monuments devoted to the Buddha.

Where to stay in Bagan?

The overview map below shows the villages of Old Bagan, New Bagan and Nyaung-U (Nyaung-Oo). The charming old town of Nyaung-U is the central "hub" for Bagan; it's where the market, restaurants and shops are. A short distance down south are the airport and bus-station. For the evening out Nyaung-U restaurant street is the place to be.

Bagan Hotel Zone map
Infographic: Bagan Hotel Zone tourist map
Hotel map of Bagan, Touristenkarte/karte von Bagan

The major temple zone (red) is where many of the large, royal temples are, around the old walled city of Old Bagan. The ruins of the old walls are still partly there, but about half of them, on the Northwestern side, have disappeared into the river.

A Resort, a hotel or a guesthouse in Bagan?

Booking a hotel in Bagan can be confusing because the 3 locations of Old Bagan, New Bagan and Nyaung-U are all very different in character and price. Where you want to stay depends on your budget too; Nyaung-U has the cheaper budget hotels, New Bagan has the mid-range and quieter hotels, Old Bagan is the posh but rather quiet area.

A price indication (high-season rates) for the three hotel area's:

  1. Budget hotels :   10 - 40 US dollar
  2. Midrange hotels: 30 - 70 US dollar
  3. Top- end hotels : 60 - 250 US dollar
Note: the low-season rate of mid-range and top-end hotels can be 20 to 30% less than the high season room rate (December - January).

Where to stay - from cheap to expensive.

The centre of Nyaung-U village is interesting, with some colonial architecture and a market which is a hive of activity. Most of the popular restaurants are in Nyaung-U, on restaurant street, though New Bagan also has many restaurants.

The busy north-south road from the market towards the airport and the monasteries can make Nyaung-U noisy; in some area's the monks wake up very early in the morning and diligently start their morning chanting. Nyaung-U has many guest houses and cheap hotels, and a few mid-range hotels.

New Bagan has a good range of mid-price accommodations. It was built in 1990, when the government relocated the villagers from Old Bagan, and that's why lacks the colonial charm of Nyaung U. New Bagan is a pleasant town however; it is very quiet and has some lovely restaurants.

The resorts around Old Bagan are the most expensive; but there are less restaurants than Nyaung-U. However, if you rent an e-Bike scooter then Nyaung-U is about 15-20 minutes driving away; and perhaps half an hour by bicycle. Old Bagan is the best location for the popular main temple group, but if you bicycle out of Nyaung-U towards Old Bagan you will soon notice temples left and right. And even New-Bagan has some fascinating temples very close to it, notably the golden domed Dhamma Yazika.

The Airport area has a few new hotels, but no restaurants at all. It seems to be the worst location; only useful if you want to stay very close to the airport or bus station.

E-Bikes / e-Scooter rent.

E-bikes can be rented at many hotels; but you can ask for a discount if you ask around at e-bike shops and if you rent more then one day. The e-bikes in Bagan are really quite big and fast e-Scooters; the most powerful e-bike can do 50km/hour. Depending on the size and performance the rent is between 6.000 and 10.000 Kyat.

There are two types of e-bikes, a medium size and a large one. Bigger is better but both types are quite good. The standard e-bike can do about 45 km/hour but when going top speed for a full day you might run out of battery power - slow down when you see the dial going to 80% charge. Most of the larger eBikes have a better battery endurance. If your eBike's top speed is less than 40 km/hour the battery is in a bad condition. Test the e-bike before you rent it and get the phone number of the rental place in case a problem occurs.

Be careful when you have no scooter experience; you won't become a good driver in an hour! That said, there is little traffic in Bagan and no licence checks so you could try it if you are a good bicycle/moped driver and know your limitations. Drive slow and stay on the asphalt or hard dirt roads, but be careful, because on soft sand patches you can crash. Lots of tourists have crashed in Bagan on the soft sand paths, these are very slippery. Perhaps walk a short stretch?

And if you don't know how to ride a scooter, use a bicycle, horse cart, tuktuk or taxi. A foreign country is not a good place to try your first scooter driving, avoid the hospital and use a bicycle!

 


Temple list ordered by rating

This temple list shows the highlights of Bagan's temples; the rating is from one to five stars. The rating has been done by me; and therefore it is a subjective rating. The numbers are from the book "Inventory of Monuments at Pagan", by Pierre Pichard; Published by Unesco (2000).

The size of a temple is classified according to the width and length by Pichard:

  • small - less than 12 meters (40 ft)
  • medium - from 12 to 25 meters (82 ft)
  • large - from 25 to 50 meters (164 ft)
  • very large - more than 50 meters (164 ft)
The highlights are the large and very large temples; in the list below these are coloured dark blue.

 

nmbr name type rate alternative name
2171 Ananda Pahto temple ***** Ananda Phaya
947 Dhamma Yazika temple ***** Dhammayazika
1 Shwezigon pagoda pagoda *****
1597 Thatbyinnyu temple ***** That-Byin-Nyu
2162 Ananda OK Kyaung kyaung **** Ananda monastery.
771 Dhamma-Yangyi temple **** Dhammayangyi
1622 Gawdawpalin temple **** Gawdaw Palin
1323 Gubyauk-Gyi (Minnantu) temple **** Kubyauk Gyi / Minnantu
1812 Htilominlo temple ****
1023 Lawkananda pagoda pagoda **** Loka Nanda pagoda
539 Narathihapatae Hpaya temple **** (old name: Tayok Pye or Tayoke Pyay)
803 Pyathatgyi temple **** Pyathat Gyi, Pyathadar
1589 Shwegugyi temple **** Shwe Gu Gyi
748 Sulamani temple ****
918 Thitsarwadi temple *** Thisa-wadi
1202 Abeyadana temple *** Abe-ya-dana hpaya
374 Alo-daw Pyi Hpaya temple *** Alodaw Pyi
1439 Mingalazedi pagoda *** Mingalar Zedi
1239 Nanpaya temple *** Nan-Paya
1600 Nathlaung Kyaung temple ***
259 Shwe Leik Too temple ***
1568 Shwesandaw pagoda pagoda ***
482 Thambula temple ***
659 Winido temple ***
298 Gubyauk-Gyi (Wetkyi-In) temple ** Kubyauk Gyi / Wetkyi-In
1580 Loka-Hteik-Pan temple ** Lokatheikpan
1670 Mahabodhi temple **
1192 NagaYon temple ** Naga-Yon
766 North Guni temple ** Myauk Guni
478 Payathonzu (Center) temple ** Paya Thone Zu
477 Payathonzu (East) temple ** Paya Thone Zu
479 Payathonzu (West) temple ** Paya Thone Zu
1085 Seinnyet Ama temple ** Sein Nyet Ama
1085 Seinnyet Nyima pagoda ** Sein Nyet Nyima
765 South Guni temple ** Taung Guni
744 Thabeik Hmauk temple ** Tha Beik Hmauk
1657 Bupaya stupa * Buu Hpaya
LEGEND
Large temple
Medium/small temple

Alphabetical temple list

nmbr name type rate remarks
1202 Abeyadana temple *** *Jatakas.
374 Alo-daw Pyi Hpaya temple *** Southeast of Wetkyi-In
2171 Ananda Pahto temple *****
2162 Ananda OK Kyaung kyaung **** Small monastery next to Ananda. Jakatas.
1657 Bupaya stupa *
947 Dhamma Yazika temple ***** A pentqagonal temples which is quite large.
771 Dhamma-Yangyi temple **** Largest of all temples in Bagan
1622 Gawdawpalin temple ****
1323 Gubyauk-Gyi (Minnantu) temple **** Myinkaba Village. Jatakas.
298 Gubyauk-Gyi (Wetkyi-In) temple ** Wetkyi-In Village. Jatakas.
1812 Htilominlo temple ****
1580 Loka-Hteik-Pan temple ** *Jatakas.
1023 Lawkananda pagoda pagoda **** New Bagan, on the riverside
1670 Mahabodhi temple ** temple with pyramidal spire
1439 Mingalazedi pagoda ***
1192 NagaYon temple ** *Jatakas, which are partly whitewashed
1239 Nanpaya temple *** Hindu temple, bas-reliefs in stone of Brahma.
539 Narathihapatae Hpaya temple **** *Jatakas.
1600 Nathlaung Kyaung temple *** Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu
766 North Guni temple ** Ex-sunset temple
478 Payathonzu (Center) temple **
477 Payathonzu (East) temple ** (Paya Thone Zu, meaning three stupas)
479 Payathonzu (West) temple **
803 Pyathatgyi temple **** Ex-sunset temple
1085 Seinnyet Ama temple **
1085 Seinnyet Nyima pagoda **
259 Shwe Leik Too temple *** Ex-sunset temple
1589 Shwegugyi temple ****
1568 Shwesandaw pagoda pagoda *** Ex-sunset pagoda
1 Shwezigon pagoda pagoda *****
765 South Guni temple ** Ex-sunset temple
748 Sulamani temple **** *Jatakas.
744 Thabeik Hmauk temple ** medium size, 3 stories
482 Thambula temple ***
1597 Thatbyinnyu temple ***** Thatbyinnyu means Omniscient.
918 Thitsarwadi temple *** Thisa-wadi
659 Winido temple *** *Jatakas.

 

*Jatakas are murals of hundreds of years old; these murals depict the life story of the Buddha. I use the word "Jataka" here for murals in general, but a Jataka is defined as a mural or story in images about the life of the Buddha.

Just a heads-up: the Jatakas or frescos in Bagan are 700 to 800 years old, and are not as vivid or colorful as the murals in Thailand's temples. Also, the smaller temples often do not have good lighting. Sometimes a caretaker can switch on a light for you, but it is better to carry a flashlight.

I have looked at many jatakas in many temples, and rarely had the "Wow" feeling. For me, some of the best murals in Bagan can be found in the Ananda OK Kyaung, the small monastery building next to the Ananda temple. Another temple famous for jatakas is Narathihapatae Hpaya (old name: Tayok Pye or Tayok-Pyi) which is close to Minnanthu village. (Ananda OK Kyaung: youtube.com)

"Kyaung" is Burmese for monastery, and they are the most interesting spiritual buildings after the temples and pagoda's all over Burma. The Kyaungs in Bagan and Mandalay are often stone buildings, but the typical monasteries around Inle are mostly teak or hardwood buildings

The nicest and most photogenic part of the temples is inside; these are the Buddha statues. Though, unfortunately, most of them are freshly painted, and an authentic one is quite difficult to find. Most of the jatakas are a bit faded but authentic; most of the Buddha statues are not.

Thambula temple Buddha
A peek at the Thambula temple Buddha, Januari 2017.

Why is the Bupaya stupa so low in the ranking (one star)? The original stupa fell into the river during the 1975 earthquake, and was replaced with a concrete copy. Thus it is just a small replica, with a nice riverview. Want to see a large golden stupa with a great riverview? Go and see the Lawkananda pagoda (4 stars) which is very large for a stupa, and thus it is called "Lawkananda Pagoda". It used to be a whitewashed pagoda, but in recent times it has been gold-painted. This pagoda is also very popular with local Burmese visitors, and has a lively atmosphere.

The Shwesandaw pagoda is a large, major pagoda, but since it has been closed for sunset viewing, it has not got much going for it. It was in its original condition until 1957; but in that year the pagoda trustees renovated it with plaster and lime washing. Thus it is not in the must-visit list, but just OK for a drive-by and a quick look.

 


Improving tourism to Bagan.

Bagan Archaeological Zone ticket changes (2018).

All tourists must purchase a Bagan Archaeological Zone ticket at a fee of 25.000 Kyat; or you can pay in dollars: 20 USD. The validity starts on the day you buy it.

In 2018 the Bagan Authorities shortened the Bagan zone ticket validity from five days to three days. They did not reduce the 25.000 Kyat entry fee for the ticket. However, they soon realised that three day validity was so short (it includes the arrival day); and sometime in 2018 reverted the validity back to 5 days from the date of the purchase. This is not widely known or published on any official website (there is none for Bagan).

Bagan 5 day entry validity
2019: Bagan Archaeological Zone tickets have a 5 day validity.
Note the three has been replaced by a 5!

Bagan has introduced digital tickets on the 1st October 2018, but the checking of tickets remains a weak point. With the IT infrastructure in Myanmar it remains to be seen if digital tickets are an effective and efficient system, or money thrown at an expensive electronic system that a developing country does not need. Why re-invent the wheel if you can copy the perfectly operating Angkor Wat ticketing system?

The digital ticketing will solve some fraud problems, like passing on a ticket to someone else. But if Myanmar wants to professionalize the Bagan ticketing system it could have a look at the Angkor Wat pricing and ticketing system. Bagan has a quite reasonable zone fee of 25.000 kyat; but a time limit of five days (winter 2018/2019). Angkor park has a ticket validity of 1, 3 or 7 days and a watertight validation system.

And do take note that the Angkor Archaeological Zone pricing system is set up to entice people to stay longer. The cost of the one-day Angkor pass is $37, while a week-long visit pass – valid over a one-month period – costs $72; which amounts to about 10 dollars per day.

Avoiding the entrance fee used to be easy, but ticket checks are now quite frequent. It is still occasionally suggested by stingy travellers with a tight budget and the rather feeble excuse "I don’t want to give money to the government". In my opinion Bagan has a quite reasonable entry fee. Perhaps the authorities should put up a website of the cost and validity of the Bagan Archaeological Zone ticket, and have a three-day ticket and a one-week ticket.

The photo below shows a Bagan official checking the Zone tickets. Which person do you think is the real Bagan ticketing official?

Bagan 5 day entry validity
Bagan Archaeological Zone officials.
(Not the uniformed man - it is the left one in orange shirt...)

One more improvement option: The Bagan ticket validity starts on the day you buy it. Many travellers will arrive in the afternoon or evening, and cannot take advantage of the first day. They pay for 5 days but have only 4 full days left. This can easily be improved by starting the ticket validity from the next day if you arrive in the late afternoon or evening. One last tip: pay the 25.000 Kyat zone fee, since 20 dollars is well over 30.000 Kyat at the moment.

 


Angkor Wat and Bagan visitor statistics compared.

A small step from Angkor to Bagan.

It is getting busier in Burma but it's all quite relative if we compare it to Cambodia. In 2016 Bagan welcomed 280.000 visitors but ... Angkor Wat had 2.2 million visitors; almost 8 times more. There are about 650 hotels in Siem Reap (Angkor Wat) but less than 100 in Bagan. Around Christmas/New Year it can be busy in the small towns around Bagan or Inle lake; but most of Myanmar is not overrun with tourists - yet.

And note, it is just a small step from Angkor to Bagan, from one World Heritage site to another. However, the cultural difference is a large step, Cambodia and Myanmar are very different countries, with very different cultures, and in different stages of development.

Angkor and Bagan visitor statistics
Graph: Angkor Wat and Bagan visitor statistics compared (2011-2017).

 

If Myanmar wants to compete with the Angkor Wat tourism in Cambodia then they will need to improve their infrastructure significantly. Siem Reap has an international airport, whereas Bagan (NYU) airport is a small airport which is only served by local flights. The Mandalay international airport does not have a regular bus or taxi connection with Bagan; though it is only 3 hours away from Bagan. The building of new hotels is severely limited by the Bagan Archaeological Zone where new hotels are prohibited.

 


Sunset viewing sites - the end of pagoda climbing!

The sun has set over the sunset pagodas.

In 2017 the Bagan authorities started to build new sunset hills. In 2018 the construction of these lookout sites was finished, and all staircases for access to upper floors of all sunset temples were closed. The tour buses now drop their tourists at the viewing hills; these hills or mounds are lower than the old sunset pagodas, but some do have good sunset views.

The major sunrise/sunset pagodas were: Shwesandaw Pagoda, Pyathada (Pyathat Gyi/Pyathatgyi), North Guni, South Guni, Bulethi/Buledi, Lawkaoushaung and Mingalazedi temple.

The Pyathatgyi sunset
Sunset on the Pyathatgyi (PyathaDa/Pyathat Gyi), 2016.

 

The alternatives for sunset pagodas.

There are a few alternatives for the sunset pagodas: one possibility is using the viewing hills or mounds; another is the Bagan Viewing tower or Nann Myint tower.

During 2018 the major sunset temples were closed. What happens if you close the large, high sunset temples A, B, C and D? People went to smaller temples E, F and G. The government has caught on to this and closed these too. Then the touts came in to show you a small sunset temple.

When biking around; you'd be approached by touts, young women and men who, for a few thousand Kyat, would show you a small temple that was still open. These temples turned out to be smaller than the sunset hills or mounds, and in my experience did not have good views. A good sunset photograph should have a few nice temples set off against the sunset.

These temples do not have that, so they are not working for the great sunset photos that used to be possible from the famous Shwesandaw and Pyathatgyi temples. These small temples often have a few trees and a sunset view, but no temples in sight! You need at least one temple in the frame to prove that you witnessed a sunset in Bagan, right? The sunset pagoda below is too small to have a good view; if it was double the height it might be a good vantage point.

small sunset pagoda
Bagan, 2018. Visitors on a sunset pagoda;
this temple is too small to have a good view.

Anyway, in 2019 there are some (outdated) websites that will tell you about a small secret temple that is supposedly still open. First of all it is probably closed now, and if it ain't the Myanmar government officials can also read english. So, in no time they will close any new "still climbable" temples! This is a race for the last temple with a good view that has already been won by the Bagan authorities in 2019.

Please be careful when climbing just any temple; most of the small pagoda's are not suitable for climbing and should not be climbed without permission. Several tourists have been wounded when climbing a temple, notably a 20-year-old American woman who fell to her death in November 2017 while trying to view the sunset from a 20-foot pagoda.

sunset pagoda
Bagan, 2018. Damage at a small sunset pagoda.

 


The best alternative: sunset viewing hills.

sunset hill map
Sunset viewpoint hill map.

There are two new sunset mounds around the Sulamani temple. One of the best sunset viewpoint places is the Sulamuni Sunset Hill; which is situated just south of Sulamani pagoda (S). From this hill you have a good view of the large Dhammayangyi pagoda (D) and a few smaller temples against the sunset. The one more east on the map above is the Nyaung Lat Phat Kan hill, which is not very good.

Bagan sunset
Sunset crowd on the Sulamani Sunset Hill, Dec. 2018.

 

The Bagan Viewing tower or Nann Myint tower is actually an upmarket restaurant; part of the Aureum Palace Resort. The tower has an open air viewing point from the 12th floor, and behind glass on the 11th. The restaurant is on the 9th and 10th floor. At 60 meters (200 feet) tall, this is a pretty good place to get a bird's eye view of the magical sight of thousands of temples, pagodas and stupas.

Unfortunately, the tower is a bit too far away from the main temples near Old-Bagan so you need a zoom lens, and a clear day without haze. It can also be crowded at sunset. If you visit the Viewing tower you are supporting the government; the viewing tower is owned by the Htoo Trading Company Ltd. which also operates the Aureum Palace Resort next to it. The entrance fee for the viewing tower is 8000 Kyat or 5 US dollars. The admission fee is waived if you have booked at the (pricy) restaurant. There is a Happy Hour at the top floor bar every evening.

Another possibility for sunrise viewing is the hot balloon trip at sunrise, though it is quite expensive at 300 to 400 dollars for a flight of less than one hour.

Bagan sunset
Typical sunset view from Nyaung Lat Phat Kan hill, Dec. 2018.

 


Promoting Bagan's sunset viewing.

Climbing the sunset pagoda's and little temples was always a fun ritual to end the day. But the Shwesandaw Pagoda has been closed, along with all other temples. Gone are the days when you wormed your way into the small, cramped stairs along small and sometimes a bit dangerous passageways to find yourself on the top of a sunset temple.

The Shwesandaw Pagoda was always the favourite temple for sunset viewing. The five receding terraces used to be covered with hundreds of terracotta plaques depicting the scenes in several Jataka tales about the previous lives of Gautama Buddha. Unfortunately, during the restoration work in the 1990s these were removed or covered. Now the Shwesandaw is a rather plain, whitewashed temple.

The Shwesandaw Pagoda
The Shwesandaw Pagoda, 2017

 

The Shwesandaw Pagoda is a large "stepped" temple with quite steep stairs; but it is not fragile and very suitable for climbing. It is unlikely that visitors cause any damage. The small pagodas on the contrary are not suitable for climbing and should not be climbed. At the moment these are being climbed; and they do get damaged. Also, many of them are dangerous; there are no rails or good stairs and are not meant to be climbed. It may be a good idea to re-open the Shwesandaw for sunset viewing; for safety reasons and for a controlled viewing environment.

Bagan panorama 2009
Panorama from the Shwesandaw Pagoda, 2009

 


Temple restoration after the earthquake.

On the 24th of august 2016 Myanmar was hit by a 6.8-magnitude earthquake. The epicenter was in Chauk in central Myanmar, which is close to Bagan, where more than 400 temples were damaged. Chauk is just 30km south of Bagan on the way to Saleh, which is also a tourism destination. The Sulamani, North Guni and Mingalazedi temples were seriously damaged; as were the lesser known Gubyaukgyi (Nr.298 in Wetkyi-in), SitanaGyi and Tayoke Pyay.

bagan sunset
The sunset photo's after the Bagan earthquake: scaffolding on many temples.

 

The statistics - the number of damaged temples

There are an estimated 2200 temples in Bagan; many of these are small stupas or solid brick temples without entrance. There are perhaps only about a dozen "grand temples" like the Ananda Pahto, Dhamma Yazika and Sulamani temple that are on the must-see list of most visitors.

Of the 2200 temples 453 have had earthquake damage; it is usually the top or spire that has been displaced or fallen off. The quake reduced 17 small temples and stupas to rubble, however most temples had just minor structural damage.

UNESCO Myanmar is now coordinating an international team to work on the monuments. A total refurbishment of the 453 damaged monuments may cost up to 12 million US-dollars. The famous Thatbyinnyu Pagoda in Bagan was repaired as a priority: mmtimes.com

Thatbinnyu temple
Thatbyinnyu temple compared to Notre Dame cathedral, Paris.
(The towers of Notre Dame are a bit higher than Thatbyinnyu)

 


Temple or pagoda?

The Seinnyet sisters.

The Seinnyet temple and pagoda are 2 temples located between Myinkaba and New Bagan, just north of New Bagan. The closest to the road is Seinnyet Ama Pahto which means elder sister; behind it is Seinnyet Nyima Paya, the younger sister. Pahto means temple and Paya means pagoda, so the 2 sisters are actualy one temple and one pagoda. The Ananda Pahto is therefore a temple and not a pagoda, and the same goes for Dhammayangyi Pahto (Dhammayangyi temple).

A temple has at least one entrance but sometimes up to 4, so a temple can be visited for worship. A Burmese pagoda is a large massive conical shape made from bricks, without an entrance. Stupas are solid and without entrance, to protect the sacred relics contained within. A pagoda is a large kind of stupa, in Myanmar it can be named a "Zedi", for example the Mingalar Zedi.

A pagoda can be covered in gold; though it is usually made from cheaper metals like brass. Famous examples of pagoda's are the Shwezigon Paya and Dhammayazika Paya in Bagan, or the Shwedagon pagoda in Yangon which is covered in real gold. The name "Shwe" means gold in Burmese.

Seinnyet Ama was built by queen Seinnyet; Seinnyet Nyima is a pagoda built in the 12th century by her sister. The top is a stylized umbrella in the form of concentric rings. The foto below shows the typical damage the quake did to many temples: the top has been shaken and damaged and will need to be rebuild somewhere in the future.

Quake damage to Seinnyet Nyima pagoda
Damage to Seinnyet Nyima pagoda spire from the 2016 quake.

 


Burmese Temple Architecture.

And finally an explanation of the most common parts of the Bagan temples. The illustration shows the architecture of one of the smaller types of the Bagan temples. It is a one-story temple and quite common on the Bagan plain; there are dozens of this type. A few examples of this temple type are the Gubyauk-Gyi (Minnantu), Narathihapatae Hpaya, North Guni, South Guni, Shwe Leik Too, Thambula, Thitsarwadi and Thabeik Hmauk.

Bagan temple architecture
  1. Spire: the conical spire has several varieties.
  2. Square tower: the square tower or Sikhara is the uppermost part of a temple.
  3. The Tower Lancet is the central part of the Sikhara.

  4. Terrace: The first story of a temple usually has an accessible terrace, nowadays these are closed to tourists.

  5. Flaming arch pediment: The entrance to a temple often has a stucco or stone facade in the shape of a "flaming arch".

  6. Platform and base of the temple.

 

The naming convention is from the book "Inventory of Monuments at Pagan", by Pierre Pichard. The inventory covers more than 2000 monuments within an area measuring 13 by 6 kilometers; each monument was measured, photographed, and described. This Herculean field-work began in 1982 and took nearly a decade, ending only in 1991.

Sikhara or Shikhara is a Sanskrit word translating literally to "mountain peak"; and it refers to the square tower often used in the temple architecture of North India. The Sikhara is the holy part of the temple and symbolizes the peak of a mountain. The architectural point of the Sikhara seems to be its transition from the square shape of the main temple building, to the round spire. In 13th-century Bagan, sikhara were constructed in large numbers.

The Sikhara below has a nice tree decoration on the tower lancet. This Bodhi tree decoration is unique in Bagan; usually the decoration is much less conspicuous or even absent. This temple is not on the tourist trail.

Bagan temple tower
Bagan temple tower with Bodhi tree on the lancet.

 

The Flaming arch pediment is a defining element of the majority of all Bagan monuments. It is unique to Burmese temple design. Flaming arches can decorate entrances but also windows.

Flaming arch pediment
Flaming arch pediment at Narathihapatae Hpaya (old name: Tayoke Pyay).

 


The best tablet or smartphone online map for Bagan.


View Larger Map
Nyaung-U map

If you want to use a GPS-map in Bagan the Open Street Map (OSM, see the map above) is much better than Google maps; because OSM shows the many footpaths as well as most of the smaller temples in Bagan. Open Street Map seems to show all of the 2200 stupas and temples in Bagan! For hotel locations however Google maps is more accurate than OSM.

Maps.me is a useful mapping app based on Open Street Map; it's available on iPad, iPhone and Android phones and tablets. Maps.me does not need an internet connection, it works offline using only a GPS signal.

 


2019: Bagan is awarded World Heritage status.

The Myanmar government started the procedure for World Heritage status in 1994, about 25 years ago. The reason for the duration of the process, is that the military government allowed new hotels and resorts to be built within the heritage area, and a golf course, which is against world heritage conservation guidelines. The Bagan golf course was established in 1996 in the middle of the Ancient Monument Zone.

But the golf course and resorts were not the main reason why UNESCO refused World Heritage status. The real reason was the way the authorities restored and rebuilt damaged temples after the 1975 earthquake. At that time many of the temples had been neglected for centuries and had fallen into disrepair.

There are inscriptional records of damage to buildings by flooding in 1331, by treasure hunters in the fifteenth, sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, by looting during the Ava-Hanthawaddy wars of 1742–1754, and by at least sixteen earthquakes between 1174 and 1975 (Hudson, 2008). Gordon Luce was one of the first researchers of Bagan; in his book "Old Burma - Early Pagan" (1969) he writes:
"Most of the famous pagodas of Burma have been repaired so often that one can say little for certain about the original shape of their upper parts."

The most disastrous damage however, came when the 1975 earthquake hit Bagan. Most of the thin spires fell off, many sikhara towers collapsed. Walls and domes of buildings cracked, and stucco decoration fell off. The photos of the "Inventory of Monuments at Pagan" by Pierre Pichard show that not a single spire is left on the temples.

The Inventory has a total number of 2730 structures, and a total of 1919 buildings were categorized as half-ruined, completely ruined or rubble mounds. That means only 811 temples, stupas, pagoda's and kyaungs were more or less intact; which is only 30% of all structures. Most of the large and very large temples were relatively undamaged, but of the 790 small temples 448 have been completely rebuilt since the 1975 earthquake (Hudson, 2008).

So, whereas most of the large temple have been carefully restored; many of the small temples in Bagan have been restored in a rather clumsy way. Many small temples were "resurrected" on the basis of some ruins, a platform, or a few low walls; without any knowledge of the design of the original temple. Burmese people could erect stupas and temples as a sign of merit (good karma) and they could have a new small temple built for just 2500 dollars. This practice has nothing to do with restoration; as a matter of fact, some archaeologists have described the government restoration program as “catastrophic”.

In 2005, a UNESCO official told the International Herald Tribune that “a Disney-style fantasy version of one of the world’s great religious and historical sites is being created by (the military) government. They use the wrong materials to build wrongly shaped structures on top of magnificent ancient stupas”. (mmtimes.com )

Bagan temples compared
Bagan temple restoration compared (2018)

On the left an authentic temple with only some repairs to the tower and a new spire; on the right a temple that seems to be mostly rebuilt, and only 30% original. The many tourists on the top make it likely that more repairs will be necessary in the future. Both these small temples have been closed in 2019.

The Burmese vision of Bagan.

The local Burmese have a very differently view of the temples than the average tourist; for them Bagan is a living monument. During the Ananda Pagoda festival, thousands of people from local villages make a pilgrimage to Bagan in oxcarts. Monks recite Buddhist sutras with loudspeakers and amplifiers set on maximum volume. For Burmese devotees the Buddha statue is an idol to be worshipped, for tourists it is a piece of history to be conserved. For the worshipper, lighting a candle or incense stick right next to a Buddha statue is a sign of devotion, for the historic value the soot marks are detrimental.

So, the Burmese have sometimes an opposite point of view as the western tourists. They focus on Buddhism; tourist focus on history and authenticity. Western tourists come for authentic old temples with at least 700-year history, Burmese come to pay homage to the Buddha in a shrine. Authentic Buddha statue or not, it makes little difference.

Examples of restoration and modernisation of Bagan.

The very large temples were quite sturdy, solid constructions, and were less damaged than the small ones. But the large temples have not escaped "modernisation": for example the Shwesandaw pagoda was in its original condition until 1957: no plaster covered the red bricks. But in that year the pagoda trustees led by the monk Sayadaw U Wayama renovated and embellished it with plaster and lime washing. So, it now looks likes a more modern structure, but - the white paint becomes dirty quite soon, and the pagoda needs a new layer of paint every year. (http://www.baganmyanmar.com)

In 1975 the large Gawdawpalin temple was seriously damaged by the earthquake, and it was extensively restored and rebuilt with a solid concrete core in 1991-92. There used to be glazed tiles of plaques adorning the structure; but due to theft and vandalism in past times, only a few tiles are left. (www.baganmyanmar.com, orientalarchitecture.com)

The murals of the Ananda Pagoda, the most impressive in Bagan, were whitewashed from 1975 onward as part of the government-initiated restoration. In 2015, during a six-year project being undertaken by the Myanmar and Indian governments to restore the Ananda Pagoda many layers of lime were stripped off; and revealed ancient murals.

Historian and archaeologist Tampawaddy U Win Maung said (Myanmar Times, 16 Jan 2015): “There are many priceless murals in Bagan’s temples, but most are covered with lime because some incompetent conservators had no idea what the murals meant. All they know is to paint the temples sheer white, which destroys the authenticity. Donors were too dedicated to renovating the pagodas and they wanted to make the entire pagoda look like new, regardless of whether there were mural paintings.” (mmtimes.com )

Is Bagan a Disney-style fantasy? Are there any ancient, original, unspoiled temples left? You might imagine some small overgrown little crumbling temple, but, believe it or not, there are large, special and fascinating temples beyond the usual tourist routes. There are many amazing, old, authentic and original temples. There are many well hidden objects like temples, kyaungs and meditation caves that are rarely seen by tourists. If you have more than a few days in Bagan, go and explore out of the grid. Find the real Bagan.

 


Reference and links.

  • Inventory of Monuments at Pagan / Pagan, inventaire des monuments, by Pierre Pichard. Coedition of EFEO and UNESCO. This is an 8 volume book of an inventory arising from a project sponsored by UNDP/UNESCO and with the co-operation of the Ecole Francaise d'Extreme-Orient, involving the collection of data for 2260 monuments, each of which was surveyed, drawn and photographed in detail.
  • Restoration and reconstruction of monuments at Bagan (Pagan), Myanmar (Burma), 1995–2008, by Bob Hudson
  • Bagan - Asian Oriental Architecture: orientalarchitecture.com

Youtube video's on Bagans' earthquake damage.

  • youtube.com - Lasers and Drones Help Preserve Ancient Temples (Scientific American)
  • youtube.com - Drone footage of the North Guni and Sulamani temple damage.

Bagan on Wikipedia and other sites.

 


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Gordon Luce was one of the first researchers of Bagan; in his now rare book "Old Burma - Early Pagan" (1969) he writes: "Most of the famous pagodas of Burma have been repaired so often that one can say little for certain about the original shape of their upper parts."

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Copyright © 2017 - 2019 R. Schierbeek.