Imagine you are in a balloon, soaring above the ancient temples of Bagan. As far as you can see, pointed spires poke above the land below. The sun is just beginning to rise, casting its light on the temples’ brick walls. It feels like you are in a dream.
The ancient temple city of Bagan is one of the most impressive sights in Asia. Thousands of ancient buildings are spread across the plains surrounding the Irrawaddy River. From almost any vantage point you can see dozens of pointed peaks poking above the flat landscape. Turn around, and you’ll see another dozen. It is an overwhelming sight and it is so difficult to describe the marvel of it in words or capture in a picture.
The Pagan Kingdom, as it was previously called, converted to Buddhism in the 9th century. At that time, only a few Buddhist monuments were erected. In the mid-12th century, the ruling Pagan king started building Buddhist stupas (zetis/pagodas) and temples at a staggering rate. This construction continued for over 230 years until there were over 10,000 Buddhist stupas and temples and 3,000 monasteries. Wars, earthquakes and neglect took their toll on many of the structures but today there are still 2,200 in Bagan’s Old City and neighbouring towns.
The stupas are brick, bell-shaped structures with tall, pointed spires. Many have been beautifully renovated to show off their intricate designs. A few of the larger buildings have stairs climbing to terraces which provide great views of the surrounding plains.
The Buddhist temples in Bagan are large brick buildings with tall spires topped by golden Htis (umbrellas), typical in Myanmar architecture. Inside narrow hallways are lined with golden statues of Buddha.
With 2,200 ancient structures to maintain, it will be a while before the entire archeological site has been restored. Many of the buildings are surrounded by scrub vegetataion, bushes and trees. When we visited, there were no other tourists in these rougher areas so they were a great place to explore on our own.
Some of the buildings were being renovated and were covered in bamboo scaffolding. The restoration equpiment in Bagan was generally outmoded. At one temple we watched as workers used a low-tech pully method to hoist supplies to the top of a building they were renovating.
On our second day we splurged and took a hot air balloon ride at sunrise. We arrived early and watched in fascination as staff carefully spread out the balloon ensuring none of the lines were twisted. Then, a large burner was brought to the balloon’s mouth. Flames from the burner sent hot air into the balloon.
Slowly the balloon began to fill with hot air and rise off the ground. The big basket at its base became upright. Our basket fit 8 people, in 4 compartments giving us each plenty of room to move around a little for the best views. As we rose, dozens of other balloons followed suit. We felt as light as air, climbing higher and higher above the ground. Even with a sky full of large hot air balloons, it was a very peaceful atmosphere. The occasional burst of flame from the burner was the only sound to break the silence.
The balloon ‘airport’ was not close to the archeological site. We approached it from the outer edge, at first seeing only a few temples far below. As we got closer we could see more and more in every direction. It was incredible to have this bird’s eye view. A hot air balloon ride is a great way to really appreciate the vastness of Bagan.
Sunsets in Bagan aren’t as great as we had hoped. In Bagan, as in most of Myanmar, the locals burn everything; leaves, crops, garbage. The result was that the air and sky always had a smoky haze that completely blocked out the sun at the end of the day. The views were nice, but not as spectacular as we had hoped.
Tips for visiting Bagan
The archeological site of Bagan covers an area over 100 sq km and is too large to visit on foot. We rented e-bikes on the first day. They allowed us to explore a large area on our own to make sure we could visit all of the highlights. On another day we rented bicycles to reach a few select sites. Another option is to hire one of the local tour companies. They offer group or individual tours by bus, car or even horse-drawn carriage.
The Bagan Archaeological Zone comprises four areas. The entry fee (K25,000/$17 USD) allows access to all four sites and is valid for three days.
Where to stay and eat
There are high end tourist hotels in Old Bagan. Most of the mid-range and budget hotels can be found in New Bagan and Nyaung U. New Bagan has many choices for restaurants of all budgets including trendy coffee shops and bars.
Getting to Bagan
Flights and buses arrive in Nyaung U. From there local taxis can take you to New or Old Bagan (10 km). Tourist buses are often quite comfortable as they are retired tour buses from the US. There are frequent overnight bus trips from Yangon (9 hrs), Mandalay (4 hrs), Inle Lake (7 hrs) and Kalaw (6 hrs). Note that even the short trips are usually done overnight meaning you’ll arrive at your destination in the wee hours of the morning. There are also small mini-buses going to and from these destinations. They are less luxurious but allow you to travel in the daytime.
When to visit
The best time to visit is between November and February, when temperatures are more moderate (30°C/86°F). Avoid the rainy months between June and October.
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