Untouched History: A Revealing, Self-Guided Temple Tour in Bagan, Myanmar
The refreshingly temperate air moves gently through the dark, damp halls of the Dhamma-ya-za-ka Zedi temple pulled only by the hot, dry breeze outside the thick walls. Our bikes sit abandoned outside this beautiful Buddhist monument and they will remain that way for nearly an hour. Inside, we find a seat in the blissfully cool temple and revel in the simple stillness that has crept into both our minds and hearts.
This is Bagan – one of the most magnificent archeological sites in Asia. The ancient cultural and economic center of the Pagan Empire transformed into the religious heart of Southeast Asia after thousands of varying religious temples were constructed during the 11th to 13th centuries. Unfortunately, many were left to fall into disrepair after the Pagan Empire was toppled in the 13th century. Still, Bagan remained a site of religious pilgrimage mostly for followers of Theravada Buddhism, which eventually prevailed as the foremost line of thinking in the region.
Today, a few of those initial ancient structures remain, and the thousands of other temples built afterward dot Bagan’s rolling landscape framing an unbelievably magical backdrop.
With this in mind, exploring even a fraction of the approximately 3,000 standing temples around the entire region is one of the most intriguing and rewarding travel experiences available to globetrotters today. However, tackling Bagan’s temples on your own may seem daunting but it shouldn’t be.
Any independent Myanmar traveler should succumb to their imagination and release the desire the control each minute of their travel itinerary. In Bagan tourists must accept they simply will never see it all; honestly, attempting to do so would exhaust even the most inquisitive of spirits.
Today, the majority of travelers still explore Bagan via tour group, but allowing yourself time away from the ever-growing crowds to explore independently will most likely lead to an irreplaceable spiritual journey of your own.
If you’re traversing through Bagan as part of a tour group or you plan to hire a driver to lead you to the main tourists sights first, you’ll most likely follow a route that includes Bagan’s largest and most famous temples.
Bagan’s Famous Temples and Pagodas:
Shwe-san-daw Paya or “Sunset” Temple
However, it may just be the small, rundown, all-but-forgotten temples that will offer you the sense of remoteness and peace you’re seeking. Just know that the nameless, numbered temples are often the smallest, and while some are old, many are new construction. It’s easy to spot the bright red brick unshaped by time, and while it’s definitely worth a peek into a few, they aren’t nearly as magnificent as those temple that have withstood generations. In addition, few nameless, numbered temples will be listed on a tourist map and tour companies will skip them altogether, so if you’re going at it alone, you’ll most likely need to ask your driver or horse-cart attendant to take you their favorite unnamed temples or simply ask to pull over if you spot a structure you thinks looks interesting.
Of the named but lesser known temples of Bagan, I recommend Na-ga-yon Temple located between New Bagan and the Myinkaba Village. In fact, several of the temples alongside Myinkaba Village are worth the time it takes to explore them. And, for beautiful views of the Aye Yarwaddy River search for Bu-Paya located just past the Lacquerware Institute on the edge of Old Bagan near the Z-Craft Jetty.
Remember, aside from the Shwe-san-daw Pagoda (Sunset Temple), you should not climb onto pagoda or temple structures. Yet, without fail, you will see an intrepid explorer mounting a nearby archeological gem in an attempt to obtain a little solitude while watching the sun full on this magical region.
Once you’ve tackled the temples and you simply can’t force yourself inside yet another, it’s time to rent a bike and explore Bagan’s backroads. While the main thoroughfares are relatively easy to cycle, the thick sand and hidden bumps can make the ox cart trails a bit more of a challenge but one well worth the effort.
It’s on these roads rarely traveled by tourists that you have the opportunity to meet some of Bagan’s warm-hearted locals. We weren’t necessarily aiming for an off-the-beaten-path experience, but I couldn’t imagine our trip to Bagan without one. Upon leaving the Sunset Temple, my husband and I set out along a small ox cart path to the left leading at least in the direction we believed we wanted to go. As the fun faded into a small sliver and rich pinks melded with hues of blue in the sky, we found ourselves completely lost. A turn here, a trail there and we were in the heart of a small housing development void of tourists but full of life. Young children ran alongside our bikes waving and racing while women washed clothing in buckets near the road and men hauled burlap bags filled with rice and old, rusted tanks of water from antiquated carts. This is the Myanmar we’ll always remember. Not a Burmese was bothered by our presence, and in fact, they welcomed us two strangers and helped us find our path with a series of points and smiles.
Unfortunately, I can’t give you exact directions to the small village, but can only tell you that an extra day spent off the paved roadways and in the dusty plains of Bagan’s backroads is undoubtedly the best way to end your time in this enchanted land.
For more information on the history and specific holdings of each temple BaganMyanmar.com has a page of easy-to-sort through information.
THREE DAYS TO SEE BAGAN BY…
MOST POPULAR TEMPLES FIRST
Day one: Explore the complex of Shwe-zi-gon Paya located near the Aye Yarwaddy River outside of Nyaung-U. Farther down the main road toward Old Bagan and to the left is Gu-byauk-gyi. Later proceed to Hti-lo-min-lo – again just off the main road to the left toward Old Bagan. Just on the outskirts of Old Bagan itself is the magnificent Ananda Temple – make sure you take time to lounge in the courtyard and explore a few of the shops along the hall leading to the temple entrance. Next head to the nearby That-byin-nyu Temple followed by the massive Dhamma-yan-gyi Pahto. Finally, end your first day at Shwe-san-daw Paya (Sunset Temple). Just look for the towering, worn white square pagoda crawling with tourists wrangling for the best vantage point to capture the gold colors of the sunset.
Day Two: If you haven’t explored one of the Bagan region’s many lacquerware shops, it’s simple to find one. They are located along the main roadway running through Nyaung-U, Old Bagan and New Bagan. You may want to start your morning with a tour of one of the local facilities to learn more about this amazing art form. Next, head back within the ancient walls of Old Bagan and explore the Shwe-gu-gyi temple. Nearby, spend some time wandering through the Bagan Archaeological Museum, which is open from 9:00am to 4:30pm Tuesday thru Sunday. Head south out of Old Bagan toward the Myinkaba Village and explore the temples lining the roadways along the way. South of village toward the east Kya-sin, Na-ga-yon and Paw-daw-mu Pagoda are worth some exploring as is the Soe-min-gyi Monastery and they Ape-ya-da-na Temple to the west. And, finally return north east of the Dhamma-yan-gyi Pahto to end your day exploring Su-la-ma-ni Pahto before edging slightly west back to Shwe-san-daw Paya for yet another chance to catch a fiery sunset.
Day Three: Spend your third day without a schedule, and simply allow yourself to explore the smaller temples off the main tourist trail. If you haven’t already, my advice is to rent a bike and simply follow the old ox cart paths through the sprawling countryside. It’s nearly impossible to get completely lost in the Bagan Region. Someone will most likely come along and if you simple know the name of the area you would like to return to – they will point you in the right direction.
TEMPLES BY AREA
Day One: Start northwest of the airport in the small township of Nyaung-U. The temples within are small and not necessarily worth your time, however, if you’re not staying in on of the hotels or hostels here, checking out what the town has to offer means you may return for dinner, shopping or to use services like the post office. Just outside of Nyaung-U you’ll explore one of the most popular temples first, Shwe-zi-gon Paya. Once finished, you can follow the pathway directly south, cross the roadway and go to Gu-byauk-gyi and Gu-byauk-nge. Proceed farther southwest along the road and look east for Shwe-leik-too. From there head to the Alo-pyi Temple followed by Hti-lo-min-lo. From Hti-lo-min-lo cross the main roadway west toward the river and take in the beautiful frescos inside U-Pali Thein. Now, on the outskirts of Old Bagan take some time soak in the temples and views along the river like Shwe-kun-char.
Day Two: On day two, you’ll spend time exploring the beautiful town and temples of Old Bagan. Start with Ananda Temple, one of the largest and most beautiful temples in the region. Take your time before moving slightly southwest to That-byin-nyu Temple and farther east to Shwe-gu-gyi. Set aside ample time to explore these beautiful structures, and allow even more time to explore the smaller pagodas and temples nearby. South of the city walls lies a treasure trove of great temples and pagodas including the Pe-nan-tha Group and the beautiful Mingala-zedi pagoda. Continue working your way south into the Myinkaba Village, where if you’re lucky you may catch a late-afternoon sporting event. South of the village, Na-ga-yon Temple is worth exploring as is the Soe-min-gyi pagoda and monastery across the road toward the river.
Day Three: Options include spending time exploring how locals go about their daily lives in New Bagan, the township created when the Burmese government moved residents from Old Bagan. The town itself is void of ancient temples, so if you’re looking for more of Bagan’s unique history skip New Bagan and head out into the countryside to Dhamma-ya-za-ka Zedi and Ah-dai-htan Temple. You can continue slightly north east toward the small village of Min-nan-thu and explore the temples and pagodas slightly north of the village.
When it comes to a recommendation on where to stay in Bagan I can only tell you what to expect. If you try to avoid the high-end resorts, which often have ties to corrupt government cronies (see a New York Times article on the issues of traveling Myanamar here) you may find yourself in a subpar hotel. If you’re OK with a little wear, tear and dirt, many of your middle-of-the-road, locally-owned choices will be fine.
Keep in mind that location in Bagan is not necessarily a concern, unless you plan on spending time outside of your hotel at night. In that case, you may want to select accommodation closer to restaurants located mainly in New Bagan and Nyaung-U. The Bagan region is not necessarily a walking tourist destination nor does it lend itself to evening strolls along long stretches of well-light tourist trails filled with shopping and dining – that infrastructure is simply not there yet. However, you can still explore shops in the evening and dine on delicious local eats at a number of free-standing restaurants in more in Nyaung-U, some in New Bagan and fewer in Old Bagan.