Last update: Jan 17, 2021
The 2730 temples of 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 kilometers; the Bagan Archaeological Zone is less than 50 square kilometers.
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 town of Angkor Thom had a population of up to a million people. Bagan was the center of a large empire, but the fortified town of Old Bagan had only about 10.000 residents. The temples outside of Old Bagan, spread out on the wide central 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.
Infographic: Bagan Hotel Zone tourist map
Hotel map of Bagan, Touristenkarte/karte von Bagan, plan touristique de Bagan
The major temple zone (red) is where many of the large, royal temples are; around the ancient walled city of Bagan. The ruins of the old walls are still partly there, but about half of them, on the North-western side, have disappeared into the river.
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, but also many mid-range hotels, New Bagan has the mid-range and quieter hotels, Old Bagan has the luxury resorts.
A price indication (high-season rates) for the three hotel areas:
- Budget hotels : 10 - 30 US dollar
- Midrange hotels: 30 - 60 US dollar
- Luxury 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 center 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 mid-range hotels towards the western side (restaurant street) and in Wetkyi-Inn.
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 is why it 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, here are the luxury hotels; but there are only a few restaurants. 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 bike 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.
Bagan Archaeological Zone tickets.
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 realized that the 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 has introduced digital tickets in 2018. When you buy it, they take a picture of you. Each ticket has a barcode which can be scanned with a reader, and they can also verify your identity with the ticket number. There are checkpoints at some of the temples, like the Ananda temple, and at the sunset hills. Take a photo of your ticket, in case you misplace it or lose it.
Bagan Archaeological Zone tickets have a 5-day validity.
Note the three has been replaced by a 5!
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 ticketing system. Bagan has a quite reasonable zone fee of 25.000 kyat; but a time limit of five days. The Angkor park ticket has a validity of 1, 3 or 7 days and a watertight validation system.
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. Some stingy travellers with a tight budget suggest to bypass the ticket counters with 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 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. Why not start the ticket validity from the next day, if someone arrives in the late afternoon or evening?
E-bikes / e-Scooter rental.
You can rent an E-bike at many hotels; but if you ask around at one of the many e-bike shops you can ask for a discount. 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 many different brands of e-bikes, all from China and without any indication of performance or battery size on the outside. There are roughly two types, a medium size and a large one, which are quite difficult to distinguish, since the markings are all in Chinese. Both types are quite good, the larger e-bikes usually have a better battery endurance, the smaller will slow down sooner. The standard e-bike can do about 45 km/hour but when going top speed for a full day you may run out of battery power. Test the e-bike before you rent it, and get the phone number of the rental place in case a problem occurs. If your e-bike's top speed is less than 40 km/hour the battery is not good.
Be careful when you have limited scooter experience; you will not 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 slowly 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 do not know how to ride a scooter, use a bicycle, horse cart, tuk-tuk or taxi. A foreign country is not a good place to try your first scooter driving, avoid the hospital and use a bicycle! In Nyaung-U town, a good bicycle is very difficult to find; the e-bike is the most popular transport.
The distance from Nyaung-U to the Ananda temple near Old Bagan is only about 5km, so on a bicycle that takes about half an hour. The Grand circle route, which goes from Nyaung-U to Old Bagan, south to New Bagan and east to the airport, is about 25km, which is quite a distance in the warm, tropical sunshine.
However, if you take a few of the side-paths off the main road, the soft sand will really slow you down. Perhaps an e-bike is a better choice.
- E-bike rent is between 6.000 and 10.000 Kyat. Hotels may charge up to 12.000 Kyat.
- The rental period is one day, not 24 hours.
- The most convenient is to rent an e-bike from your hotel.
- For normal use the E-bike should have enough charge for one day. For some people who drive a lot it may need a recharge.
- The International Driving Permit (IDP) or International Drivers License is not recognised by Myanmar, and is not required for renting an e-bike.
- For navigation the Open Street Map (OSM) is much better than Google maps; because OSM shows the small dirt-paths and -roads as well as most of the smaller temples in Bagan. Maps.me is the mapping app based on Open Street Map, it works offline.
The shop that rented the e-bike to you will charge the battery at night, and usually you will have to return it around 7 pm or perhaps a bit later. You can't keep it overnight, that is why it may be more convenient to rent an e-bike from your hotel; even if they charge a bit more rent.
Range: The range of a proper e-scooter should be enough for one day, and a grand tour of Nyaung-U, Old Bagan, New Bagan, Minnanthu, and back to Nyaung-U is possible. You should also be able to go up and down to a sunset hill at sunset. If the battery charge indicator starts going down below 90%, or the top speed starts slowing down a few km, it is best to start making your way back to the rental agent or hotel. They should give you a new, charged e-scooter.
Temple, pagoda or kyaung?
A temple has at least one entrance, but sometimes up to 4, and it can be visited to pay homage to the Buddha. A Burmese pagoda is a large massive conical shape made from bricks, and usually a solid structure. Stupas are built for merit-making.
A pagoda is a large kind of stupa, in Myanmar it can be named a "Zedi", for example the Mingalar Zedi. Pagodas are built to protect the sacred relics contained within. These relics can be jewels, precious metals, gongs, or Buddha figurines. Pagodas only very rarely have a secret corridor or passage to the relic chamber, for obvious reasons. In July 2020 the theft of relics from the treasure chambers of five temples in Bagan was discovered.
A pagoda can be covered in pure gold; though most are usually covered with 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.
So, to summarize:
- A temple is a place of worship that can be entered to pray to the Buddha, usually with one or more Buddha statues inside. Examples: Ananda Pahto, Dhammayangyi Pahto.
- A stupa is a small conical structure, which contains a relic of the Buddha.
- A pagoda is a large stupa. Paya and Zedi are Burmese names for pagoda, for example: Shwezigon Paya, Mingalar Zedi.
The third type of building in Bagan is the "Kyaung"; a small stone building, usually in the shape that resembles a cube, or sometimes a rectangular block. "Kyaung" is Burmese for monastery. Many of these small stone buildings were used as sleeping quarters, some are larger, for example the Shin Bo Me Ok Kyaung, just west of Nyaung-U.
Shin Bo Me Ok Kyaung (right) is very large, about 14m by 14m on its base, and 12 meters high. This building was possibly a library of Buddhist scriptures. The long vertical crack was caused by the 2016 earthquake, which made the northern wall separate from the building. The Shin-Bo-Me OK Kyaung was completely restored in 2020.
Many of these small buildings were part of a large monastery complex, the Hsin Phyu Shin monastic complex on the central plain is one of them. This monastery complex of 710 by 800 feet had many buildings, and a large water tank or pond.
The large water tank or pond in Hsin Phyu Shin.
The kyaungs in Bagan and Mandalay are often stone buildings, and are called Ok-kyaung, which means stone monastery. The typical monasteries around Inle lake are mostly teak or hardwood buildings, and are just "kyaungs".
The "King-size" temples of Bagan.
The founder of the Bagan Empire and the Bagan Dynasty, around 1050, was king Anawrahta. He constructed the irrigation system which turned the "Dry zone" of central Burma into a rice granary. Anawrahta built both the Shwezigon and Shwesandaw pagodas, the oldest in Bagan.
The image below shows the kings of the Bagan Empire; and the many temples and pagodas they built over the centuries.
The layout of the royal temples in Bagan.
The many temples and stupas around the central plain of Bagan seem to be located in a haphazard fashion. The entrance of many of the temples roughly face east, and the rising sun may light the Buddha statue inside, but many temples are not aligned with the cardinal directions. The illustration above shows the correct size of the temples, but not the exact orientation.
Only the kings of Bagan had the funds and power to create the very large royal temples and pagodas; and first-time Bagan visitors usually go and visit these. The following are the kings of Bagan, a dynasty which lasted from the 11th to the 13th century:
- King Anawrahta (also spelled Aniruddha): 1044-1077
- King Kyanzittha (Kyansittha): 1084-1113
- King AlaungSithu (Sithu I) : 1113-1167
- King Narathu : 1167-1170
- King NarapatiSithu (Sithu II) : 1174-1211
- King Htilominlo : 1211-1234
- King Kyaswar (Kya Swar): 1234-1250
- King Narathihapati (Sithu IV): 1255-1287
There were a few intermediate kings, who did not build any large temples, and are not included in the list above.
The first and most famous king of Bagan was Anawrahta, because he created the empire. The last king, Narathihapati, was much less famous; here is a short anecdote about the king with the complicated name:
Narathihapati was known as the king who fled from the Mongolian invasion in 1277 – 1978; namely Kublai Khan's Mongol army. Paul Strachan, in "Imperial Pagan", describes Narathihapati as a decadent king, and writes that Tayok Pye means "Fleeing from the Chinese". Historians are not sure if the Mongol armies ever reached Bagan (they got quite close according to Marco Polo), but they are sure that with Narathihapati's hasty departure, the Bagan empire ended.
King Narathihapati is remembered in Burmese history as Tayok-Pye Min, or "the King who fled from the Chinese". The Tayok Pye temple has been renamed to Narathihapatae Hpaya in 2019, after the king who built it. Perhaps the ignoble name "Tayok Pye" made the authorities change it to Narathihapatae?
The most notorious king of Bagan was Narathu, who came to power by assassinating his father Alaungsithu, and his elder brother at the same time. He also killed his wife, an Indian Princess, with his own hands in a wave of anger. Perhaps to atone for his sins, he started to build the Dhammayangyi, a massive, pyramidal, imposing temple, which Narathu never finished. The huge structure of the Dhammayangyi Pahto, very central on Bagan's plain, still seems omnipresent. It is easily recognisable in many sunset photos, because the tower or Sikhara is missing, probably damaged by an earthquake, and never repaired.
The story does not end here. The murdered Indian Princess was a daughter of Pateikkaya, a tributary kingdom in West-Bengal, near present-day Chin State. In 1171, the chief of Pateikkaya, after hearing about the fate of his beloved daughter, sent a group of eight assassins to Bagan. The eight assassins, disguised as Brahmin astrologers, managed to gain an audience with King Narathu while hiding their swords underneath their robes. They quickly stabbed and killed the king; and when the palace guards rushed in, they all committed suicide. The Dhamma ran out, and his Karma caught up with Narathu. And that is why Dhammayangyi is haunted, and was never finished.
It is possible to follow a historic route though Bagan's history; a sequential route through the royal temples, in the order they were built. It will give you an idea of the evolution in temple design through the centuries.
This route around Old Bagan could start at the Ananda temple, go through Tharabar gate to Thatbyinnyu, north to Shwegugyi, west to Gawdawpalin, south to Mingalazedi pagoda, Shwesandaw pagoda, Dhammayangyi, Sulamani, Htilominlo, and end at Pyathada. By following this route, it is possible to see all large royal temples, and perhaps a few pagodas too. Realistically, you will need about two days to see these 8 temples and 2 pagodas.
The Dhamma Yazika pagoda and the Shwezigon pagoda are not included, since they are located too far away, near New Bagan and Nyaung-U; you can visit these on a "Grand circle route" on another day. The Shwezigon pagoda, one of the oldest temples in Bagan, is similar to many other golden temples in towns all over Myanmar. The Dhammayazika pagoda is a pentagonal pagoda, which is worth a visit because it is very different from the usual pagodas.
Burmese Temple Architecture.
The origin of the most common Bagan temple architecture is from the Hindu temples of Northern India. 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 (Myinkaba), Narathihapatae Hpaya, North Guni, South Guni, Shwe Leik Too, Seinnyet Ama and Thabeik Hmauk. Thitsarwadi has a similar construction, but is a three-story temple.
Bagan temple architecture
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 km; each monument was measured, photographed, and described. This Herculean field-work began in 1982 and took nearly a decade, ending only in 1991.
In 13th-century Bagan, Sikhara were constructed in large numbers. 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 is the transition from the square shape of the main temple building, to the round spire. The "cats' ears" are placed on the corners of the square Sikhara; and these often become clearly visible on sunset photos.
The Sikhara below has a decoration on the tower lancet; a female goddess. The decorations on Sikharas vary, but the female goddess in lotus position is the most common.
Bagan temple tower / Sikhara.
The Flaming arch pediment is a defining element of most of the Bagan temples, unique to Burmese temple design. The flaming arches decorate many temple entrances, but also windows everywhere. The arches are made of stucco or plaster, which was applied wet, moulded, and allowed to dry.
Flaming arch pediment at Thayawate temple, New Bagan.
In most countries Buddha statues outnumber stupas, in Myanmar however, stupas vastly outnumber Buddhas. The earliest stupas in Myanmar were built by the Pyu people; and the bulbous Pyu-style is the beginning of the Burmese stupa. The Bupaya stupa on the riverside is an example of the bulbous stupa; this Pyu-style stupa is the oldest in Bagan.
The cylindrical Lawkananda pagoda (Loka Nanda paya) is the next step in stupa shapes. Lawkananda is situated south of Thiripyisaya along the river bank, very close to New Bagan. It contains a Buddha tooth relic from the King of Sri Lanka. King Anawrahta built the Lawkananda, and its big brother Shwesandaw pagoda.
The Shwedagon pagoda in Yangon has a more modern design, it evolved from a large stupa that was built when the city of Yangon did not even exist.
Pagoda and stupa diagram: Bupaya, Lawkananda, Shwesandaw and Shwedagon pagodas.
Apart from the many "Burmese stupas", there are also quite a few "Sinhalese stupas" in Bagan. Sinhalese Buddhist stupas are quite easily recognisable; they evolved from the Indian type stupa that started with the Sanchi stupa. Typical for the Sinhalese stupa is the "Harmika", the square chamber on top of the dome.
The Sanchi stupa is an important monument of Indian Architecture; it was built by the emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BCE.
The Sanchi stupa is the oldest stupa in India; and the prototype of many stupas with a large, hemispherical dome, especially in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is an island close to India, which explains why it adopted Buddhism as one of the first countries. Nowadays Sri Lanka is very much a Buddhist country, whereas India has reverted to Hinduism and Islam, and Buddhism has almost disappeared. Apart from India, Burma had close connections with Sri Lanka, and thus Buddhism and architecture was influenced by it.
The common Sinhalese stupas consist of a large hemispherical dome on top of a square terrace. On top of the hemisphere is a square enclosure, the Harmika. On top of that is a tapering umbrella symbol, consisting originally of 3 disks, which later developed into a conical spire of more rings or disks. This umbrella symbol is called a Chatra, it has a central pillar (Yashti); which symbolizes the cosmic axis. The three disks or umbrellas represent the Three Jewels of Buddhism.
Stupa evolution diagram: from the Sanchi stupa to Sitanagyi pagoda.
The architectural parts of the Sinhalese Buddhist stupa are these:
- The base: square receding terraces.
- A large hemispherical dome (Anda)
- The Harmika, a square chamber.
- Conical spire of disks. (Koth Kerella)
The Chatra symbol on top, the triple parasol, branched out into different incarnations in the countries that border India. Other Buddhist countries went in different directions with their stupas; with different shapes and esoteric symbols.
Sri Lanka copied the Sanchi stupa closely, but they used a much larger spire with concentric disks on top. The triple umbrella went from three umbrellas to a spire with many concentric disks.
Bagan's kings used this same large conical spire on pagodas and temples, and thus the "Sinhalese stupas" in Bagan are easily recognisable.
In Tibet, a similar spire, made from a pillar (Yashti) and the concentric disks, became a symbolic representation of a Bodhi tree or "Tree of life".
The best example of a typical large hemispherical Sinhalese stupa in Bagan is the Sitanagyi/Seddana Gyi pagoda; another much smaller pagoda is the Seinnyet Nyima pagoda. Other temples with the "Tree of Life spire" on top are the West Petleik temple, Pebingyaung Pagoda (1653), and the Abeyadana temple.
Now you might think these are not stupas, but very large pagodas. Well, a stupa is called a dagoba in Sri Lanka, but technically a dagoba is just a large stupa. The same is true for pagodas, a pagoda is called a stupa by historians and archaeologists. The word pagoda may be a variation of the Sinhalese "dagoba".
Sitanagyi: the Sinhalese pagoda.
(Also: Sitana Gyi, Sittana, Saytanagyi, Saytana Gyi, Seddana)
The Sitanagyi pagoda
Just a bit south of New Bagan, Sitanagyi (Sitana Gyi) pagoda sits a bit forlorn on the Bagan plain, and being a bit off the usual routes; it is not popular with the local Burmese, nor with western tourists. It is mentioned in some guidebooks, but these guides also mention that the pagoda is rarely visited. It was off the tourist maps until 2019, perhaps overlooked by most tourist who head north for the large temples near Old Bagan. But since 2019, more and more people seem to have discovered this very large pagoda.
Sitanagyi is a Sinhalese type pagoda; built by King Htilominlo, also known as King Nadaungmya, in the 13th century. It has a larger footprint than Mingalar Zedi, and certainly a larger volume, as it has an enormous bulbous dome, typical of Sinhalese pagodas.
The first time I saw the massive Sitanagyi pagoda was in 2016, a few months after the earthquake had struck. It had taken the top off the enormous pagoda, a huge conical spire which had tumbled down and destroyed quite a lot of brickwork on the way down. This spire had only just been reconstructed in 1997. Unfortunately, about 20 years after the reconstruction, the 2016 earthquake shook the new spire off, as it did with many spires in Bagan.
I was very surprised at the sight of such a large pagoda, outside of the tourist area. The very friendly caretaker seemed a bit saddened by the damage to his pagoda. He made a sad impression on me, but I could not verify that, because he didn't speak much english at all.
After I had walked around and taken some photos, he pointed at a tiny door, perhaps the size of a window, on a corner of the pagoda, and suggested a visit inside. Normally, a pagoda is a large solid structure, which cannot be entered. In the heart of an important stupa or pagoda is usually a relic chamber, with a hair of the Buddha in it, or something similarly important.
Only a very few of the large pagodas have an entrance, which is often bricked up, and then there is usually a complex labyrinth of tunnels to confuse any treasure hunter. According to Paul Strachan, (Strachan, 1990, p43), the Sitanagyi has such a labyrinth, which should lead to a relic chamber:
The passage leads to a maze of tunnels and chambers where fresh air is short and bat droppings have turned noxious. Visitors are not recommended to enter.
So, if you choose to enter the labyrinth, you are in for an Indiana Jones type of adventure. Probably with less scary cinematic effects, and more ordinary obstructions, like a massive wall blocking the passage.
The tiny entrance door to the Sitanagyi pagoda.
I had one look at the little entrance door, which seemed like something out of Alice in Wonderland, and refused politely. I should mention here that I am a quite tall Dutchman who sometimes has a bit of difficulty getting up and down the little stairways of the temples, which are built for Burmese people, not tall foreigners.
In fact, Myanmar's average height of the male population is 163,5 cm (5ft 4.5inch), which is on the small side. And 7 centuries ago, the average human was even smaller.
I have enjoyed going up and down the little stairways of many small and large temples, when all temples in Bagan were still open for doing such things, usually at sunset. Those were the days! Since 2018 all these little stairways have been closed off, and entry to upper floors is now prohibited.
However, the next year I found myself in Bagan again, and had a second chance at going into the little door, which was perhaps 50cm wide by 1 meter high. The grandma of the caretaker's family was there, and she also suggested me to have a look inside. This time I was curious to see what was beyond the small door, and I accepted her suggestion.
I had to squeeze in backwards, to get into the corridor behind, which was wider and higher than the doorway. I found myself in a long dark corridor, and after switching on my flashlight, started walking to the back. I was in for a surprise.
To be continued ...
Ananda: the magnificent temple.
There can be only one best temple in Bagan, and the Ananda Phaya is certainly a few notches above all other temples. The Ananda temple, built in 1105 AD by King Kyanzittha (1084–1113), and was the first of the very large, royal temples in Bagan. It has four huge standing Buddha statues, which are about 9,5 meters high. These four Buddhas, looking down magnanimously (benevolent, showing kindness or forgiveness) upon the devotee, make a magnificent impression. The Indian government restored
the temple from 2011 to 2018, and removed the whitewash (lime paint) from the walls. When the layers of lime were removed; ancient murals were revealed.
Buddha statue in Ananda temple.
The temple is not just popular with western tourists, but also with local Burmese devotees. Once a year, in December or January, the week-long Ananda Pagoda festival is held. The villagers from around Bagan come to the festival in bullock carts and stay for the duration of the celebration. This is perhaps interesting if you want to photograph local people, but there is a drawback: during the celebration, 1000 priests will continuously chant the scriptures for 72 hours, using big loudspeakers. Unless you understand Burmese and have a deep interest in Buddhism, this may not be a very enchanting experience.
Temple restoration from 1980 onwards.
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. Many of the thin spires fell off, and 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.
Immediately after the earthquake, the Myanmar Authorities approached UNESCO for technical assistance, and three subsequent projects were implemented from 1980 to 1994 under UNDP funding. Pierre Pichard began field work to make a comprehensive inventory of monuments, and compile an archaeological map of Pagan; this project was sponsored by UNESCO and the École française d'Extrême-Orient (EFEO).
The Inventory made by Pichard 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).
The large temples have been carefully restored; but many of the small temples have been restored in a rather clumsy way. Many small temples were "resurrected" based on 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; in fact, some archaeologists have described the government restoration program as “catastrophic”.
Temple nr. 1138 below, located just east of New Bagan, has been restored from a ruin. The black and white photo is from the Inventory by Pichard (1992). The newly built first floor and Sikhara are completely conjectural, and not based on any historical evidence. This temple is now empty inside, and unused, just like many other "restored" or newly built temples around Bagan.
Bagan temple nr. 1138 restoration, 2019 (top).
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 )
The Burmese vision of Bagan.
The local Burmese have a very different view of the temples than the average tourist; for them Bagan is a living monument. For example, 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 at maximum volume; the Ananda Pagoda is filled with crowds of visitors. A Burmese devotee worshippes the Buddha statue as an idol; 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 people often have an opposite point of view as the western tourists. They focus on Buddhism; where tourists focus on history and authenticity. Western tourists come for authentic old temples with at least a 700-year long history, Burmese come to pay homage to the Buddha in a shrine. Authentic Buddha statue or not, it makes little difference.
An old temple versus a newly built one.
Examples of restoration and modernization 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 "modernization": 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 like 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 by the government. In 2015, during a six-year project, 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 )
A "copy-paste" temple.
The "new" copy-paste temples have an omission; which is the stucco on the walls. Hundreds of years ago, the temples would have had stucco on the outside walls, but a freshly plastered wall on a new temple would probably be too ostentatious. A new, bright white temple would stick out like the proverbial sore thumb, so that is not done. If you get close to one of these new buildings, it is pretty obvious that it is a modern construction.
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 many impressive and fascinating temples beyond the usual tourist routes. There are many amazing, old, authentic, and original temples off the well-trodden path. There are many well-hidden objects like temples, kyaungs and meditation caves. If you have more than a few days in Bagan, go and explore out of the grid. Find the real Bagan.
Restoration after the 2016 earthquake.
The Thatbyinnyu temple is a rather stumpy, solid structure, and though it is the tallest in Bagan with a pinnacle height at 66 metres, it is not the most elegant.
A temple like the Thatbyinnyu needs a strong structure, because a fragile building like a French gothic cathedral would not last long in Bagan.
Thatbyinnyu temple in Bagan.
Myanmar is located on a large earthquake fault, the Sagaing fault, and Bagan, which is located close to a subfault, has survived many earthquakes, for example in 1975 and in 2016. In 2020 there were more than 200 small earthquakes recorded.
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.
Most of the damage done by earthquakes is to the Sikhara and the spire; that is why almost all the spires in Bagan look like they were made recently. The Sikhara of Htilominlo was rebuilt during 2019-2020, and reinforced with a steel frame.
Design for the new Sikhara of the Htilominlo (2019).
There are an estimated 2200 temples in Bagan; but many of these are small stupas, little brick temples or even ruins. 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 has been coordinating an international team to work on the monuments. The total refurbishment of the 453 damaged monuments may cost up to 12 million US-dollars.
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 that took no less than 25 years. The Myanmar government started the procedure for World Heritage status in 1994.
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 created in 1996 in the middle of the Monument Zone.
But this was 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.
Sunset viewing options.
The sun has set over the sunset temples.
In 2017, Aung San Suu Kyi said: "Sunset and sunrise viewing on the temples can cause damage to the cultural heritage, and that is not suitable in the long-run and should be banned in the future."
So, during 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 the 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 temples, but some do have good sunset views.
Sunset viewpoint hill map.
There are four new sunset mounds around the Sulamani temple. One of the best sunset viewpoint places is the Sulamani Sunset Hill (S); which is situated just south of Sulamani temple. From this hill you have a good view of the large Dhammayangyi temple and a few smaller temples against the sunset. The one more northeast on the map above is the Nyaung Lat Phat Kan hill, which is not very good for sunset, but quite good for sunrise.
The major sunset temples were the very large Shwesandaw Pagoda and Pyathada (Pyathat Gyi/Pyathatgyi) temple. The smaller North Guni, South Guni, Bulethi/Buledi, Lawkaoushaung, Ta Wet Hpaya, and Mingalazedi were also popular. These are all closed now, and access to the higher floors of all other temples has also been closed, as the authorities now consider all temples sacred monuments which should not be climbed. Most temples still have access to the ground floor, except a few vulnerable temples which are locked.
Sunset viewing from the Pyathatgyi temple, 2016.
The alternatives for sunset temples.
There are a few alternatives for the sunset temples: one possibility is using the viewing hills or mounds; another option 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, and C? People went to smaller temples D, E, and F. The government has caught on to this and closed these too.
Then the touts came in to show you an even smaller sunset temple. When biking around; you would 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 small temples always turned out to be smaller than the sunset hills or mounds, and had a sunset view with a few trees and perhaps a stupa, but no temples in sight! You need at least one temple in the frame to prove that you witnessed a sunset in Bagan, right? Therefore, these temples do not provide the great sunset views that used to be possible from the large and high Shwesandaw and Pyathatgyi temples. The sunset temple below is too small to have a good view; if it was double the height it might be a good vantage point.
Bagan, 2018. Visitors on a sunset temple;
this temple is too small to have a good view.
There are still some outdated websites that will tell you about a small secret temple that is supposedly still open. Most probably it has been closed now. The Myanmar government officials can also read English; in no time they will close any new "still climbable" temples! This was 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 temples are not suitable for climbing and should not be climbed without permission. In November 2017 a 20-year-old American woman fell to her death, while climbing a 20-foot temple to view the sunset. And be wary when being approached by a tout who knows a secret temple.; there are no secret temples that are better than the sunset mounds.
The Bagan Viewing tower
The Bagan Viewing tower or Nann Myint tower is part of the Aureum Palace Resort, located south of the golf course. At 60 meters (200 feet) tall, this is a good place to get a panorama view of the magical sight of hundreds of temples, pagodas, and stupas. The tower has an open-air viewing floor from the 12th floor, and a viewing floor behind glass on the 11th. The windows on the 11th floor are dirty, and air-conditioning is minimal, so most people go to the upper 12th floor.
Unfortunately, the tower is too far away from the main temples near Old-Bagan, which are the best subject for sunset photos. You need a camera with a good zoom lens, and a clear day without haze. It can also be crowded on the 12th floor at sunset. 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; which is on the 9th and 10th floor. There is a Happy Hour at the top floor bar every evening, 2 cocktails for the price of one.
In summary: on a clear day, without haze, the Viewing tower may be worth it; the panorama of Bagan's plain is a great view. But for a good sunset photo you will need a camera with a zoom lens and a perhaps a tripod, as the large temples near Old Bagan are too far in the distance. So, the service is not good, the free drink comes in a plastic cup, windows on the 11th floor need cleaning.
The Viewing tower would be better situated if it was closer to the main temples, and a bit lower. Closer, because the grand temples are just too far away. Lower, because you are too high up for that iconic shot of a temple with the sunset behind it. There is a nice panoramic view, but everything seems just very tiny from up here. On the other hand, if the tower was more in the central plain, it would be even more of a blot on the landscape ....
Typical view from the Bagan viewing tower (2019).
Before sunrise: find the best view spots.
The Sulamani Sunset hill is only good for sunset viewing, but has no view of the sunrise. Also, it is very well possible to make a good sunrise photo from the ground; just find a spot close to a large temple, and right after sunrise the balloons will rise into the sky and make a nice background. Just remember to find a good spot the day before; because early in the morning before sunrise everything will be dark and very difficult to navigate.
Obviously, the balloons, which rise just after sunrise, are the best option for a good view, but Bagan is one of the most expensive places for it. Balloon flights cost between 300 and 400 dollars, and last less than one hour. One other option is the Bagan Viewing tower, which is located close to the starting field of the balloons, which is on the golf course.
Sunrise balloons over Bagan.
Sunset photo tips
Try to find a good sunset place well before sunset, and make your way there at least an hour before. Sunset photos can be made half an hour before the sun sets, and also some time after the sun has set, although the light will fade rapidly. That is why most great sunset photos are made before and during sunset, and only a few after sunset.
For a colorful sunset photo, change your settings to slightly underexpose the sky. That is when all those colors “pop”. Slight underexposure will deepen and intensify the colors.
If you overexpose the sky, the landscape is well exposed; but the sky colors become invisible. However, if you underexpose, the landscape becomes rather dark, but the sunset colors become visible. To have both the sky and the landscape perfectly exposed in sunset photography, professional photographers use a graduated ND filter, which reduce the light in the upper part of the photo, and bring down the light of the sky.
Sunset photo, from Sulamani hill, Dec. 2019.
Now, if you own a system camera which doesn't have the many options of a big DSLR camera, how do you underexpose the sky? That is not difficult, a compact system camera or superzoom camera can be used for great sunset photos.
- While you look at your subject, a temple in the distance, point your lens a bit upward at the sky.
- Press the release button halfway, the camera now locks the exposure into the correct sunset colors.
- Point your lens downward at the temple. The landscape is now a bit dark and underexposed, which is what you want.
- Click! You landscape is now a bit dark, but the colors of evening sky are brilliant.
This works on all cameras: DSLR, superzoom and compact cameras. Smartphones are an exception, they suitable for panorama photos; but since they have only very limited zoom capability, making a good sunset photo is going to be difficult. They can be adjusted for exposure, but it is done differently than on normal cameras.
Another little trick in the tropics, which doesn't work for sunset but only in the daytime, is using a polarizer filter. The sunlight in the tropics is very "hard", and most of the day the colors are washed out. The best photo moment is during the Golden Hour, the first hour of light just after dawn and the last hour of light just before sunset.
The best way to avoid washed-out colors is to use a polarizer filter; which uses the polaroid effect to improve photos. The greens become greener, the blue becomes darker, the colors become more saturated. It really makes photos become alive.
There are two types of polarizer filters, a linear polarizer filter, and a circular type. The circular polarizer filter is the easiest to use.
And lastly, there are more alternatives for a sunset photo, for example the photo below, taken from the ground in the direction of some nice temples. Some silly backpackers even climb a small temple from the outside, which is, obviously, prohibited and will likely cause damage. One sunset photographer even climbed into a tree and made a pretty good picture, though that seems very impractical and not advisable. Tree climbing is permissible, temple climbing is prohibited.
Sunset photo, from the ground, Dec. 2019.
Temples with murals and jatakas.
Bagan has lots of temples with jatakas and murals. Jatakas are small, square murals which depict the life story of the Buddha, most of them are hundreds of years old.
The Sulamani temple has many grand murals, but no jatakas, but many of the other temples have plenty of jatakas.
I use the word "jataka" here for murals in general, but a jataka is defined as a story in images about the life of the Buddha. Jataka stories in Buddhist temples are a popular form of Buddhist visual art. Most devotees in ancient times could not read, and a story in images was the best way to educate them. These Jatakas are usually painted as square panels; around 40 by 40 centimeters, or a bit larger than a square foot.
If you only visit the very large, royal temples, you will not see many murals, as most have disappeared over the centuries because of the repeated restorations. Many murals have been whitewashed or vanished. On the Grand circle route, which goes from Nyaung-U to Old Bagan, south to New Bagan and east to the airport, one can visit many of the temples that have their original murals and jatakas intact.
The large and very large temples used to be regularly maintained, but there are many smaller temples which were neglected during the last centuries. Here one can find the original murals and jatakas of the 12th and 13th century, which have escaped destruction. Here is a list of temples with jatakas and murals in alphabetical order:
| nmbr || name || type || rate || remarks
| 2162 || Ananda OK Kyaung || kyaung || ***** || pronounced Ananda Okjong
| 1323 || Gubyauk-Gyi (Myinkaba) || temple || **** || Jatakas.
| 539 || Narathihapatae Hpaya || temple || **** || Jatakas. Old name: Tayok Pye.
| 748 || Sulamani || temple || **** || Murals
| 1202 || Abeyadana || temple || *** || Jatakas.
| 577 || Nandamanya || temple || *** || Jatakas.
| 482 || Thambula || temple || *** || Jatakas.
| 659 || Winido || temple || *** || Jatakas.
| 298 || Gubyauk-Gyi (Wetkyi-In) || temple || ** || Wetkyi-In Village. Jatakas.
| 1580 || Loka-Hteik-Pan || temple || ** || Jatakas.
| 478 || Payathonzu || temple || ** || Jatakas.
| 1192 || NagaYon || temple || * || Jatakas, which are partly whitewashed.
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 more recent murals in Thailand's temples. Some of the murals, like the ones in the Ananda OK Kyaung, were painted just a few hundred years ago, and are much more colorful. Also, note that 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. In many temples photography is prohibited.
Murals in the Abeyadana temple.
The Abeyadana temple is located just south of Myinkaba Village. From the roadside it is hidden by some trees and small pagodas, and it is not signposted. It is a low unassuming temple, and seems very ordinary from outside. The temple has only very small windows, the inside is very dark, and only vague mural paintings are visible with some effort. However, the murals, when lighted, are phenomenal. You need a good flashlight to appreciate it, since there is no electric lighting and no caretaker around.
Without a flashlight it is not really worth visiting.
The frescoes are some of the best of Bagan and have been restored by UNESCO in 1987. The Abeyadana temple was built around 1090 CE, and these murals are more than 900 years old, so they don't look pristine anymore. Part of the murals have been destroyed by the earthquakes in the past, but the largest part (70%) remains intact.
The large murals on the outer walls of the corridor represent Bodhisattvas, or future Buddhas. Mahayana Buddhism is based on the path of Bodhisattva, and Abeyadana is a temple influenced by Mahayana Buddhism. On the inner walls are images of Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Indra, and other gods of the Hindu pantheon. Beside the large murals, there are no less than 550 Jatakas, these are all small sized.
The name is transliterated into English in various ways, other variations include Ape-yadana-phaya, and Apeyadana. Photographs are prohibited, but ... there is no caretaker or guard.
Bodhisattva mural in the Abeyadana temple.
The Bodhisattva mural above is an image of the goddess Tara, who is a bodhisattva of compassion. Tara is a goddess of the Mahayana Buddhism. On her left side, there is a Padma lotus, and on her right side, there is a blue lotus; these flowers are said to signify her purity. A Bodhisattva is a sentient being or sattva, that is on the path for Bodhi or enlightenment. He or she is a being who is "bound for enlightenment". Mahayana Buddhism is based upon the path of a bodhisattva.
Many of the older murals have faded over the centuries, but the Abeyadana temple is very dark, and that may be the reason that the colors are quite well preserved. The first time I visited Abeyadana I didn not have a flashlight with me; and as I walked around in the dark walkway, I could only discern a few vague shapes of wall paintings. Somewhat disappointed I exited the temple, and ran into a young woman who had just got off her e-bike. I introduced myself, and asked if she perhaps had a torch with her, and she had; so, we re-entered and admired the murals together.
You can find some of the best murals in the Ananda OK Kyaung, the small monastery building next to the Ananda temple, which has murals of the 18th century. Ananda OK Kyaung means "Ananda brick monastery", and its murals are very colorful and well preserved. The guard keeper will unlock the door and show you around with a torchlight. Taking photos is strictly prohibited!
Photography is prohibited in the temples with the best murals, for example the Abeyadana, Ananda OK Kyaung, Lokahteikpan, and the Gubyaukgyi temple; therefore, there are very few interior photographs on the internet. The large, royal temples are better lighted, and the murals there can be photographed. Unfortunately, many murals here have been destroyed, for example the murals of the Ananda Pagoda, the most impressive in Bagan, were whitewashed. So, look for nicer murals in the smaller temples, like the Abeyadana, the Gubyaukgy, Nandamannya or Thambula temple.
Jatakas in an unknown temple, 2019.
The Jataka above is in an unknown, hidden temple, and I was lucky enough to be able to photograph it. It is a bit similar to the Nandamannya temple jatakas, though the colors have mostly faded over the centuries.
The nicest and most photogenic part of the temple is often inside: the Buddha statue. Unfortunately, most of them are freshly painted, and an authentic one is quite difficult to find. Most of the murals are a bit faded but authentic; most of the Buddha statues are not.
A peek at the Thambula temple Buddha, January 2017.
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
- Paul Strachan, Imperial Pagan: Art and Architecture of Old Burma, 1990
- The Symbolism of the Stupa, by Adrian Snodgrass, 1988
- wikipedia.org - Tree of life symbol.
Youtube videos on Bagans' earthquake damage.
- youtube.com - 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.