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Take a Spiritual Journey Among Bagan’s Abundant Ancient Temples

by Marlene Goldman

Mar 9, 2023


March 2023

The golden edge of light peeking through a groggy layer of fog was a clear sign I needed to quickly secure a sunrise spot. I was one in a long line of tourists making the steep ascent of the five-tiered Shwesandaw Pagoda for an early-morning view over Bagan.

Bagan is Myanmar’s cultural apex, featuring an array of Buddhist art and architecture spread out over more than 40 square miles in the country’s central plain on the eastern bank of the Irrawaddy River. The Bagan Archaeological Zone, designated in 2019 as a UNESCO World Heritage site, boasts a total count of 3,595 recorded monuments including stupas, temples, murals, sculptures and other structures of Buddhist spiritual practice.

As the mist began to lift, the silhouettes of a sea of pagodas and temples interspersed with hovering hot-air balloons started to emerge. The ancient temples and ruins dotting the landscape hail from the 11th to 13th centuries, the height of the Kingdom of Bagan, then known as Pagan. Today the hot-air balloons remain the safest and preferred way to view Bagan’s mystical sunrises and sunsets since recent safety regulations prohibit climbing many of the temples.

Shwesandaw Pagoda, standing prominently on the landscape at a height of 328 feet, was originally built in 1057 by King Anawratha in the Mon style of architecture. Topped with a bell-shaped stupa, the white- painted symmetrical structure features five receding terraces. The pagoda is said to enshrine sacred hairs of Gautama Buddha.

Like the other structures throughout Bagan, the original Shwesandaw Pagoda suffered severe damage in a 1975 earthquake. More recent earthquakes also impacted the temples, most recently in 2016 when a 6.8-magnitude quake damaged nearly 200 temples. But Bagan is still a wonder to visit. While some of the site’s former sacred structures still stand in ruins, Myanmar’s military government restored a good number of them in the 1990s (though some criticized the job was poorly done), enough to make even a three-day visit challenging to see a fraction of them.

The Bagan Archaeological Zone, as the larger area is formally known, comprises the temples of Bagan and four main settlements: Nyaung-U, Old Bagan, Myinkaba and New Bagan. Bagan Archaeological Museum, located in Old Bagan, offers one of the best starting points for an overview. It features original relics and artwork depicting the stupas and temples of this ancient city.


Old Bagan also hosts some of the area’s most important and awe-inspiring temples, including Ananda Pagoda, the best-pre- served of Bagan’s pagodas. Built in 1090 and deemed one of Bagan’s holiest, its four imposing Buddha statues face the four directions. It displays frescoes of Buddha’s journey from birth to death and is noted as representing the wisdom of Buddha.

I timed my visit to coincide with Ananda Pagoda Festival, a week-long festival held during the month of Pyahto, in the December–January timeframe. Buddhist devotees gather to worship and raise money for the local community. Many arrive on traditional bullock carts, and some set up camp for the week. During the festival about 1,000 monks continuously chant scriptures for 72 hours. The day I visited, I wit- nessed throngs of monks in their burgundy robes as well as vendors selling food and local crafts, from sand paintings to small statues.

While worshippers and tourists filled Ananda Temple, the adjacent Thatbyinnyu Temple (at 201 feet the tallest structure in Bagan) remained nearly empty. The temple’s grand exterior and cavernous corridors evoke the feeling of a medieval castle.

Dhammayangyi Temple, Bagan’s largest, was built 1167–1170 by King Narathu. This temple’s history is one of Bagan’s darkest. According to ancient lore the king smothered his father and brother to death and executed one of his wives, an Indian princess, for practicing Hindu rituals. Its notable brickwork construction was by some accounts overseen by King Narathu himself, who ordered masons be executed if a needle could be pushed between bricks.

One of the most important temples in Bagan, the golden Shwezigon Pagoda lies close to Nyaung-U on a site said to be chosen by a white elephant carrying a tooth relic of Buddha on its back. Buddhists hold the pagoda in high esteem as it is said to enshrine the sacred frontal bone and tooth relic of Buddha.

For sheer beauty, Sulamani Temple (the name translates to “small ruby”) was named after a ruby found on the spot where the temple was erected, in the Minnanthu area southeast of Old Bagan. The more than 500 plaques on its base and terraces also depict Buddha’s journey from life to death. Frescoes and murals from various eras showing scenes from the life of the Buddha line its corridors.

Decades later, the equally grand Htilominlo Temple was constructed much like Sulamani, with equally colorful frescoes and murals depicting Buddha, though many have faded.

For my final sunset, I managed to duck the tourists this time and ventured out to the Gubyaukgyi Temple, built in 1113, a cave temple located in Myinkaba Village … a peaceful setting in this majestic place.

Local airlines such as Yangon Airways and Golden Myanmar Airlines fly from Yangon or Mandalay to Nyaung U Airport. A flight from Yangon takes about 1 hour and 20 minutes, and from Mandalay about 25 minutes. A taxi ride from the airport to Nyaung town center takes about 10 minutes and about 20 minutes to Old or New Bagan. Other options include buses from either city and a riverboat from Mandalay.

Options for getting around the vast area include private cars, taxis, horse carts and bikes or e-bikes. Bikes prove a better bet than e-bikes for the hot, dusty region since the dust can cause potential issues with e-bikes. Other highlights include hot-air balloon rides with Balloon Flights Over Bagan, especially popular at sunrise, and sunset cruises along the Irrawaddy River.

Before planning travel to Myanmar, we recommend referencing travel.state.gov for any current U.S. Department of State travel advisories to the destination.


FX Excursions

FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.


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