I spent two days exploring Bagan, the first in the back of an air-conditioned taxi ($20-$30) and the second by bicycle (around $2-$3 for the day.) Whilst I probably preferred exploring all the smaller “off the beaten path” pagodas I was able to access via bicycle, here are 5 of what I would term “Must-See Pagodas” in Bagan.
Dating to 1057, Shwesandaw Pagoda is believed to be one of the first temples built by King Anawrahta, the founding father of the Burmese nation.
The steep climb to the top was probably not the best time for me to realise that I seem to be developing worsening acrophobia, but once I took a few deep breaths I was taken aback by the impressive views afforded from the top of the Stupa and it made my jelly legs all the more worthwhile.
Its worth pointing out that the hawker stalls here were some of the most expensive and insistent I have encountered in Myanmar. Harsh as it sounds, I would recommend moving past them quickly without acknowledgement, as even a simple cheery “MIngalabar” saw me sucked in and I left some $20 poorer (I know, I know) with a handful of admittedly nice items (lacquerware, longyi’s & books) that I really had no need for, nor any intention of buying.
At 61 metres high, the cross-shaped Thatbyinnyu Pagoda, built in 1144, is the tallest Pagoda in Bagan. As you are only able to access the first two stories of the Pagoda, it doesn’t afford the same sort of views as Shwesandaw however what is notable about Thatbinnyu is the number of seated golden Buddhas inside the Pagoda itself.
Located just across from Thatbinnyu is the Ananda Pagoda. You enter via a small covered market that looked to be a better place to buy things like books if you were so inclined. Whilst most of the other items for sale looked pretty uninspiring that didn’t seem to stop the coach loads of people who were making purchases (I made the mistake of visiting over a full moon weekend at the beginning of high season which meant that the main temples were comparatively busy)
The Pagoda was built in 1091 and had extensive repair work done to it after a 1975 earthquake. The spires were also re-gilded for the temples 900th anniversary in 1990, making it one of the most fully “intact” Pagodas in Bagan.
There are four golden statues, facing North, East South & West, inside the pagoda which represent Buddha in different stages of attaining the state of Nirvana which were handy in remembering which way I had entered the Pagoda as it all got a little disconcerting inside the dark, thick walled corridors.
The Dhammayangyi Pagoda, the largest pagoda in Bagan & home to a rare double Buddha statue, was built between 1163-1165 by King Narathu who had assassinated both his father and brother in his quest to take the throne. This was apparently a recurring theme with Burmese royals; the last King of Burma King Thibaw and his Queen had over 70 Princes and minor Royals assassinated in order to consolidate their power. This said to have horrified the British so much they used this as one of their excuses in finally attacking and seizing control of Mandalay during the Anglo Burmese wars of the late 1800’s. It is believed that the King decided to build this impressive structure to help atone for his sins however in what is perhaps best described as poetic justice, King Naruthu was himself murdered by Sinhalese invaders before the construction of the Pagoda was completed.
I had wanted to watch the sunset from The Sulamani Pagoda however as of Novermber 2016 it was closed due to earthquake damage. Luckily my driver was quick off the mark in getting me to the nearby Pyathada Pagoda with plenty of time to spare, ensuring I had a magnificent sunset view after all!
Built in the 13th century by King Kyaswa, Pyathada has the largest terrace/viewing platform from which to watch the sunset, something that is ideal when you consider how many neighbouring temples you can see from here, making it the ideal sunset spot.
Of course this comes at a price. Whilst the crowds are far from those of say Angor Wat, the Pyathada Pagoda is not one one of those secret temples you will have to yourself, although the crowds were certainly manageable on my visit and didn’t block my view or impact my enjoyment at all.
Points to remember
You will need a temple pass (25,000 Kyats for 5 days temple access) that you can buy at various places in and around Bagan and Nyaung U (including the airport where I purchased mine from) in order to access the archaeological park.
Wear comfortable, flat shoes that are easy to put on/take off as you will have to remove your shoes and socks to enter all pagodas. This is a sign of respect and is non-negotiable.
You should also remember to dress modestly.
For ladies this means covering your shoulders, décolleté and shorts/skirts should be down to your knees. I would recommend trousers or shorts as the stairs to the pagodas are very steep and you don’t want to flash the people climbing up behind you…Bikini tops are for the swimming pool, not important religious monuments, the same can be said for string vests/backless dresses, hot pants etc.
For Men, you should wear t-shirts not singlets and again, shorts should be down to your knees. The Burmese are very modest, religious people and it is extremely disrespectful to wear singlets/vest tops or go topless as I inexplicably saw some tourists doing.
People have been jailed in Myanmar for insulting Buddhism as recently as Summer 2016 so it really is especially important to act respectfully at all times. Buddha tattoos are seen as highly disrespectful and if you do happen to have one I would highly recommend keeping it covered at all times – people have been deported from Sri Lanka for these and I imagine it would be the same here.
Bagan is much hotter and more humid that other parts of the country, this means it is even more important to stay hydrated. Water is available to purchase at many of the larger temples and I would recommend always having a bottle with you. Suntan lotion and mosquito repellent is also a good idea, as are plasters for the inevitable blisters after all that walking!