We climbed to the highest point in Bagan to try and fathom the density of ancient Buddhist monuments that flooded the plains. The flat, dusty swath of land with skinny cattle grazing on crab grass wouldn’t seem like a desirable place to build the first capital of Myanmar…but the 2,200 temples, stupas, and monasteries tell you, this is one of the most magical places on Earth. The abundance of 9th-13th-century buildings and the lack of people wandering between them made each exquisite structure feel like a treasure tucked away just for us.
After an eight-hour overnight ride from Inle Lake our bus arrived in Nyaung-U, the closest town to the Bagan Archaeological Zone. We’d recommend staying here for at least three days (we stayed five), and explore the area with a combination of bicycle and horse cart. Brave the sandy paths away from the roads and you’ll find the most peaceful temples and friendly groundskeepers, excited for your company.
Time, wind, earthquakes, and restorations have given the temples of Bagan their own beautiful but sometimes controversial look. A series of quakes in the 20th century (over 400 in 70 years), damaged numerous pagodas and in the 90s the military regime decided that making Bagan sparkly and new would bring more tourism and hence revenue. Some inaccurate and crass renovations have kept this unbelievable area off the UNESCO heritage list. UNESCO-anointed or not, Bagan is undeniably rich in beauty, culture, and history.
The Ananda is the holiest site in Bagan and one of the four remaining active temples (the rest are mostly used for worship by local herders and neighbors). It’s a stunning space with four massive gilded Buddhas facing in each cardinal direction, and a series of terraces leading to the umbrella-topped pagoda.
Hot-Air Balloon Ride in Bagan
Bagan is said to be one of the best places in the world to hot-air balloon…flying between 12th-century pagodas and hovering above their spires and domes, can you imagine? Sadly poor winds canceled our much-anticipated flight but a few days earlier we woke up to see the balloons dot the pink horizon from our own sunrise temple picnic.
TIP: If you want to take a balloon ride, book it for your first morning so if it gets canceled due to weather you can reschedule. Eastern Safaris’ Balloons over Bagan is the main operator in town.
We continued to cycle Bagan heading vaguely in the direction of the big-dog temples like Shwesandaw, Thatbyinnyu, and Shwe Zigon but the encounters along the way were just as intriguing. This super friendly monk and I just got chatting and next thing you know he invited us to a festival!
Sunset at Shwesandaw Temple
Sunset is the magic hour in Bagan and the time when everyone scrambles up some very steep temple stairs for a good view of the plains. All the guidebooks say the best lookout is Shwesandaw Temple but there were too many tourist for our liking so we went to the temple across the way and vowed to find our own secluded spot for the following day.
As the sun was setting we biked away from the river to the western far reaches of the Bagan Archeological Zone. We asked a temple keeper where would be a good viewpoint nearby and next thing you know he is grabbing his keys to take us to the top of his pagoda for an epic private sunset spot!
Fifty kilometers beyond Bagan is the heart of all Nat (aka spirit) worship in Myanmar, Mount Popa! The country is largely Buddhist but what makes their religion unique is the inclusion of the 37 animist spirits. Supposedly the only way the kings of Bagan could convert the people to Buddhism was to work the Nats into worship. Their exact beliefs are still a bit cryptic to us but we took a shared pickup out here to the mountain to find out what it was all about.
More impressive than the actual temple is its location on an extinct volcano. For the best views walk away from the holy site and up the opposite hill. We hiked into the woods to get even better photo ops, but you could always have your photo taken here on a rainbow swing or under a floral arbor, like this girl.
Bagan is place not easily forgotten. It’s not just the 2,000+ temples that make it so special but the cows that graze between them, the families that care for them, and the peace that you feel when you sit atop a secluded pagoda with the person you love.