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Last update: Nov 19, 2020

Last update: Nov 19, 2020

The 2730 temples of Bagan.

Introduction.

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.

Bagan Hotel Zone map
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:

  1. Budget hotels :   10 - 30 US dollar
  2. Midrange hotels: 30 - 60 US dollar
  3. 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'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, 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 5-day entry validity
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. It is still occasionally suggested by stingy travelers 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 travelers 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.

 

E-bikes / e-Scooter rental.

E-bikes can be rented at many hotels; but you can ask for a discount if you ask around at one of the many e-bike shops. 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 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 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 don't 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!

E-bike practicalities.

  • E-bike rent is between 6.000 and 10.000 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 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 occasionally they charge a bit more.

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 kilometers, it is best to start making your way back to the rental agent or hotel. They should give you a new, charged e-scooter.

 

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 was 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. From 2011 to 2018 the temple was restored with the help of the Indian government, and the whitewash (lime paint) was removed from the walls. When the layers of lime were removed; ancient murals were revealed.

Ananda temple 2009
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 amplifiers and loudspeakers set at maximum volume. Unless you understand Burmese and have a deep interest in Buddhism, this may not be a very enchanting experience.

 

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 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. Pagodas only very rarely have a secret corridor or passage to the relic chamber, for obvious reasons. In July 2020 discovered the theft of relics from the treasure chambers of five temples. These relics can be jewels, precious metals, gongs, or Buddha figurines.

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.

Ananda temple 2009
Pagoda and stupa examples.

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. It probably had more functions than just a sleeping quarters, it was possibly a library of Buddhist scriptures.

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 Builders 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 Bagan kings and their temples
The layout of the royal temples in Bagan.

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 : 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

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". Narathihapatae Hpaya used to be called Tayok Pye temple; but it 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 doesn't 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.

The oldest temple is the Shwezigon pagoda, built by king Anawrahta. 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. This route gives 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 of the 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; these can be visited on a "Grand circle route" on another day. The Shwezigon pagoda in Nyaung-U 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's very different from the usual pagodas.

 

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 won't 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 Old Bagan 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.

Abeyadana temple jataka, December 2019
Bodhisattva mural in the Abeyadana temple.

The Bodhisattva mural above is an image of the goddess Tara, who is a bodhisattva of compassion. 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. The Abeyadana temple was built around 1090 CE, and these murals are more than 900 years old. 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. There is no caretaker around this temple, and the first time I visited Abeyadana I didn't have a flashlight with me. So, 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 reentered and admired the murals together.

Some of the best murals in Bagan can be found 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 it's 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!

In the temples with the best murals, for example the Abeyadana, Ananda OK Kyaung, Lokahteikpan, and the Gubyaukgyi, photography is prohibited; and therefore there are very few interior photographs on the internet. The large, royal temples have more light, 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.

temple jataka
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.

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

 

 

Sunset viewing options.

The sun has set over the sunset tr.

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 hill map
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 sunrise/sunset temples were: Shwesandaw Pagoda, Pyathada (Pyathat Gyi/Pyathatgyi), North Guni, South Guni, Bulethi/Buledi, Lawkaoushaung, Ta Wet Hpaya, and Mingalazedi. 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, though a few are locked.

The Pyathatgyi sunset
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, 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 an even smaller 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 always 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 small temples usually 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 don't 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.

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

Anyway, in 2020 there are some (outdated) websites that will tell you about a small secret temple that is supposedly still open. First of all, it is quite certainly closed now, and if it isn't the Myanmar government officials can also read English. So, 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. 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 temple.

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 airconditioning 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.

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. It's 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 ....

sunset view
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 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 ballons, which is on the golf course.

sunset view
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 actually sets, and also some time after the sun has set, although the light will fade rapidly. That is why most great Bagan sunset photos are made before and during sunset, and only a few after sunset.

For a colorful sunset photo, you have to change your settings to slightly underexpose the sky. That’s when all of 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.

Bagan sunset
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.

  1. While you look at your subject, a temple in the distance, point your lens a bit upward at the sky.
  2. Press the release button halfway, the camera now locks the exposure into the correct sunset colors.
  3. Point your lens downward at the temple. The landscape is now a bit dark and underexposed, which is what you want.
  4. Click! You landscape is now a bit dark, but the colors of evening sky are brilliant.

sunset exposure

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's done differently than on normal cameras.
Thaungtho

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.

 

Angkor and Bagan tourism compared.

It is getting busier in Burma but it's all quite relative if we compare it to Cambodia. In 2017 Bagan welcomed 300.000 international visitors but ... Angkor had 2,5 million during 2017, about 8 times more. The number of tourists in Angkor and Bagan are just international tourists, since local tourists don't have to buy tickets and get in for free.

Angkor and Bagan visitor statistics
Chart/graph: Angkor and Bagan visitor statistics compared (2011-2017).

There are about 650 hotels in Siem Reap (Angkor) 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.

Why compare Angkor with Bagan? They were contemporary kingdoms, having their largest expansion from roughly the 10th century to the 13th century. The Bagan kingdomn lasted shorter than Angkor; from 1044 to 1287. Both have been strongly influenced by India in their religion, decoration and architecture. And the two are without doubt the major archeaological temple sites in Southeast Asia.

Bagan was mostly a Buddhist kingdom, Angkor was strongly influenced by Hindu religion and myths, though it also had much Buddhist influence. For example, Jayavarman VII, who was considered the most powerful of the Khmer Kings, built the Bayon as a monument to Buddhism.

It seems just a small step from Angkor to Bagan, from one World Heritage site to another, however, the cultural difference is huge. The Indian influence, of Buddhist and Hindu origin, was translated very differently in the two kingdoms. And even now, Cambodia and Myanmar are very different countries, with very different cultures, and in different stages of development.

Bagan has many advantages over Angkor

  • Bagan has many temples with the original details intact. Angkor's temples have been completely emptied and its contents have been sold over the centuries, and many temples are in ruins.
  • Bagan has many old Buddha statues and murals. Angkor has impressive bas-reliefs, but only at a few temples.
  • Bagan has much less visitors, and hardly any crowds. Only the local Burmese can make a bit of a crowd in just a very few temples.
  • The weather in Bagan is cooler in the winter season, especially at night, and the early morning can even be chilly. Angkor is warm at night and hot in the daytime. Bicycling in Angkor is always sweaty and hard work, in Bagan less so.
  • Sunsets: because of the high forest, sunset photos in Angkor are unremarkable. Bagan is famous for sunset photos.
  • The Bagan zone fee of 19 dollars is much cheaper than the Angkor fee, which is 72 dollars for 7 days.

Advantages of Angkor over Bagan

  • The landscape: The Angkor Archaeological park, has an impressive forest/jungle around it. Bagan has plenty of trees and rice fields, but no jungle. It does have the wide Irrawaddy river flowing around the remains of the Bagan citadel.
  • Siem Reap has a dynamic nightlife, with loud music going on until 2 or 3 at night. For many people this is a negative point.
  • Angkor is a bit easier to travel to, and has an international airport. Bagan has an airport, but only for local flights.

If Myanmar wants to compete with the Angkor tourism in Cambodia then they will need to improve their infrastructure significantly. Siem Reap (Angkor) 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, and thus the quality and range of hotels types is more limited in Bagan, compared to Siem Reap.

 

 

Burmese Temple Architecture.

And finally, an explanation of the basic parts of the Bagan temple. 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 and Thabeik Hmauk. Thitsarwadi has a similar construction, but is a three-story temple.

Bagan temple architecture
Bagan temple architecture

 

Bagan temple tower

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.

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 nice decoration on the tower lancet.

Bagan temple tower
Bagan temple tower / Sikhara.

The Flaming arch pediment is a defining element of the majority 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, molded, and allowed to dry.

Flaming arch pediment
Flaming arch pediment at Thayawate temple, New 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. It is a bit smaller than the Notre Dame, which is 69 meters tall.

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

The Thatbyinnyu has to have a strong structure, because a fragile building like a French gothic cathedral would not last long. 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.

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), Sitana Gyi and Tayoke Pyay.

Most of the damage done by earthquakes is to the Sikhara and the spire; that is why almost all of 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.

Sikhara
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. The famous Thatbyinnyu Pagoda in Bagan was repaired as a priority.

 

History of Bagan.

Bagan is awarded World Heritage status in 2019.

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.

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. The thin spires that still remained on the temples fell off, and 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.

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).

structures

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).


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”.

The photo of temple nr. 1138 below, located just east of New Bagan, shows a temple that 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 temples compared
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. 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 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.

Bagan temples compared
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 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 )

Bagan temples compared
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's not done. Anyway, if you get close to one of these new buildings, it is pretty obvious that it's 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.

 

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

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.

 


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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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