If you like Buddhist temples then Bagan is for you, with over 2,000 in a relatively small area, easily explored by bike or on foot. They date back to the 11-13th centuries when Bagan was the capital, with 10,000 temples during the peak.
While there are a number of impressive temples in their own right, the pleasure of Bagan is the sheer number of them and their setting, with it easy to avoid the crowds (not as bad as expected in late January toward the end of peak season) to have places to yourself.
Shwezigon Pagoda was an uncharacteristic introduction, with relatively little gold compared with elsewhere in Bagan, but it was my favourite pagoda in Myanmar. After the bustle of Yangon’s main pagodas it was surprisingly nearly empty at sunrise, a wonderful spot.
After a jet lag supported early start the next day I wandered around at sunrise by foot, finding a temple with people hanging from the top. Two years ago the authorities banned climbing on any of the temples but it is still a popular activity. Some people climb up the outside but this had an open staircase and local guides taking people there. It felt pretty dodgy on top with people hanging off taking photos, posing for selfies and flying drones. To be honest it was pretty underwhelming, a better experience would have been from the ground moving around to get different angles.
Interestingly Bagan is not a UNESCO World Heritage Site, despite efforts by the government to gain this status. The military junta funded some pretty poor restoration work, which is apparent on a number of temples, and sanctioned the building of hotels in the archaeological zone.
Bagan Archaeological Museum is a notable new build, with a reasonable collection housed in an huge building.
The real sights though are the temples, with Ananda Temple understandably being one of the most popular sites, for it’s recently restored intricate exterior, and incredible Buddha statues inside.
The Maha Bodhi Phaya is unusual in its Southern Indian inspired tower, like a Hindu temple.
Bu Paya is by the river, there are surprisingly few other riverside buildings.
Thatbyinnyu is the tallest but certainly not the most attractive temple.
Atwin Zigon Pagoda had an attractive Buddha inside a neighbouring temple.
Gadawt Palin was one of the most ornate temples.
Shwezandaw Pagoda was impressive, if closed off for repairs. Bagan is in an earthquake zone, with strong quakes in 1975 and 2016. It’s amazing how much has survived considering.
Dhammayan Gyi is an epic brick structure.
As is Sulamani Temple, which is home to wonderful paintings throughout the interior, dating from the 17th century.
Here are a selection of other temples whose names I didn’t capture.
A number of hilltop lookouts were built three years ago which offer better views than hanging off temples, for less risk, if for a small fee to go up. It’s amazing how little altitude you need to gain to get the views. Late afternoon clouds made for a suitably scenic sunset to end the day.