Bagan is famous for its temples and pagodas, but it also has rich cultural traditions and a thriving agriculture sector. You can learn about these and more at the Bagan Archaeological Museum.
One of the most memorable experiences you can have in Bagan is a sunrise hot air balloon ride over the Land of 3000 Pagodas. Watching the temples glimmer in the golden light of the sun is magical.
During the kingdom’s heyday, Bagan was a cultural center with a cosmopolitan population and multiple schools of learning. The people of Bagan were masters of water management; they built a complex system of dams, canals, and sluices to irrigate the dry region. They also developed a system of agriculture that allowed them to cultivate the vast areas outside of the city.
Bagan was also a thriving trade hub and a major center of commerce, with many ports along the Ayeyarwaddy River. This helped the city thrive, providing a source of revenue for the rulers and common people alike.
During the 250 years that the Pagan empire was in power the people of Bagan constructed over 13,000 religious monuments, including temples and pagodas. Even after the fall of the kingdom, religious monuments continued to be built in the area, although not as lavishly or frequently as before. The Bagan Archaeological Museum is a fascinating place to visit and contains a variety of relics, including preserved stone reliefs and gilded Buddha images.
The temples, stupas, and monasteries of Bagan are the enduring vestiges of a powerful kingdom at its height in the 11th to 13th centuries. Their diversity in architectural style, wall painting, and inscriptions reflects the central role of Buddhism and a complex system of merit-making that brought in tribute, goods, and ideas from far-flung regions.
Today, Bagan’s remarkable monuments have survived pillaging armies and natural disasters. But experts fear they’ll succumb to the inauthentic restorations sanctioned by Myanmar’s military junta.
Archaeological research continues at the New Bagan Archaeological Museum and in the field, where earthenware pottery distribution can shed light on socio-economic dynamics. However, there is an urgent need to harness and concentrate expertise and resources for a coordinated triage process of restoration work, prioritizing property-specific guidelines with careful and logical regard for conservation issues, relative significance, and values-based decision-making. This will require collaboration with local and regional stakeholders. It will also require a re-think of how Bagan is presented to visitors, based on the understanding that it is a layered cultural landscape.
Temples and Pagodas
A highlight of any trip to Bagan is the huge collection of temples and pagodas to explore. The best way to see them is on a horse and cart, which is cheaper than hiring a bike (though you may not cover as much ground). Most drivers speak some English and the clip-clop of the horses can be hypnotic.
Most of the temples house a relic – usually a hair, tooth, or bone fragment – of the Buddha. Some are used for worship and the inside is often painted with intricate designs. Others are a memorial to the Buddha’s past lives.
The best temples in Bagan include Thatbyinnyu and Sulamani, which have grand-tiered architecture. Aim to visit at sunrise or sunset for the best views. Dhammayangyi Temple is one of the largest and most intriguing – it was built by King Narathu who got to the throne after assassinating his father and brother, and believed building the largest temple would make up for his sins. It’s a beautiful structure and a fascinating history lesson.
Bagan has the temples and pagodas to rival destinations such as Machu Picchu or Angkor Wat but, thankfully, is not yet as overrun by tourists. There are enough hotels and guest houses in the area to ensure you can find your perfect spot.
Bagan is divided into Old and New Bagan. Generally speaking, the best hotels and restaurants are found in Old Bagan, and the more budget options in New Bagan.
In New Bagan, there is a lovely modern and fresh hotel with rooms that look over the temples, and is a great value for money. It is called the Hotel at Tharabar Gate. Old Bagan has some fabulous choices as well, such as the luxurious and eye-pleasing resort that is a short walk from the Shwezigon Pagoda. It has a large garden with plenty of tropical plants and a pleasant, if not too big swimming pool. The rooms are nicely designed with a lot of wood and feature a good standard of equipment for the price.