What is the best way to see the largest and most dense concentration of Buddhist temples, pagodas, stupas, and ruins—many dating back to the 11th century? Nothing quite compares to a hot air balloon ride over the archeological gem of Southeast Asia: Bagan, Myanmar.
Myanmar, the proper name for the country many still think of as Burma, has only become open to tourism relatively recently. It still holds fantastic opportunities for getting to see sights that few foreigners have set eyes on.
Bagan’s Fascinating History
Located along the Irrawaddy River in central Myanmar, Bagan is sublime: a lush 26-square-mile plain spotted with palms and tamarind with thousands of temples rising from the verdant land. Built by the kings of Bagan between 1057 and 1287, many of the temples were destroyed by earthquakes and Kublai Khan and his invading Mongols. About 2,230 of the original 4,450 temples survive, most of them in excellent condition. Many contain frescoes and carvings and ornate statutes of Buddha.
Considering the incredible sight—rivaling Ankor Wat in Cambodia and Machu Picchu in Peru—Bagan is hardly frequented. The number of tourists and vendors are increasing, but this is a magnificently unsullied destination.
For years the horse cart was the only option for visitors to Bagan. Now, the flat, vast space is enjoyed by bicycle and electronic bikes. The sheer number and diversity of Bagan’s temples will leave you breathless however you choose to see them. You probably won’t have time to see all 2,000-plus temple,s so here are the top 5 for their beauty as well as their historical and religious significance:
- Ananda Temple: Built in 1091, the holiest temple in Bagan houses four Buddhas facing the cardinal directions, symbolizing the four Buddhas who have attained Nirvana. Ananda comes from the Pali word anantapannya meaning “boundless wisdom.”
- Shewsandaw Temple: The “sunset temple” is a popular gathering point to view the vibrant Bagan sunset. After five-minute walk up a narrow flight of stairs, visitors are rewarded with breathtaking views as the is sky ablaze with color over the temples and landscape.
- Shwegugyi Temple: A good alternative for watching the sunset, Shwegugyi, commissioned by King Alaunsithu in 1131, is one of the best-preserved temples.
- Thatbyinnyu Temple: Built in 12th century, reaching 66 meters high, Thatbyinnyu is the tallest pagoda at the site.
- Gubyaukgyi Temple: Located in Wetkyi-Inn Village, this durian-shaped temple was modeled after Bodh Gaya in India. The temple features a rooftop with an excellent view of the surrounding area, as well as murals depicting scenes from the Jataka tales, literature native to India that tell about the previous lives of the Buddha.
The main jumping point for the site, with the most hotels, restaurant, and tour options, is Nyaung-U. Two miles to the west is tiny Old Bagan, a quiet village whose inhabitants were forcibly relocated in 1990 to New Bagan, two miles to its south.
The journey to Bagan typically is via Yangon, where one can catch a domestic flight, bus, or train. The bus and train will be less comfortable, although very scenic, winding north from Yangon.
Places to tour slightly beyond Bagan include Mount Popa, a sacred mountain; Salay, a religious center from the 12th century with colonial-era buildings; and sunset or other short boat trips offered at Nyaung-U.
Recommended Reading about Myanmar
The Glass Palace: A Novel by Amitav Ghosh
The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma by Thant Myint-U
Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin
Melissa Reichwage is an avid traveler and international development and health professional currently living in Colombia. She holds a Master’s in Public Health from Emory University in Atlanta (USA). With familial ties in Myanmar, she has a special affinity for the beautiful landscapes and people of Myanmar. Images courtesy of the author.