There are over 2,200 temples and pagodas in Bagan, Myanmar. They survived earthquakes, political turmoil, and time to the present day. After the 2016 earthquakes, many sites, unfortunately, have to be scaffold against the top and are even prohibited to climb or enter. (Not to mention I just saw the news today about a pagoda collapsed in front of our eyes when the river is flooded!) Still, I couldn’t deny the absolute beauty and find my inner peace when I was sitting on top of a pagoda, waiting for the sunrise. Together with Angkor Wat (in Cambodia) and Borobudur (in Indonesia), these three sites are claimed to be the three greatest and largest ensemble of Buddhist heritage in the world. However, Bagan is yet “commercialized” as compared with the other two sites; therefore tourists are given an opportunity to have a more lay back experience.
The Bagan archaeological zone is around 100 sq. km and not as large as the Angkor Archaeological Park. Most temples are mainly located in the area among New Bagan, Old Bagan, and Nyaung-U (the main town in the northeast near the airport and bus station).
Yes, tourists come to in Bagan mainly (or solely?) for the temples but it doesn’t mean what they see would all be the same. I visited a number of major temples (in my longyi) and I was pleasantly surprised that each of these temples has their own unique feature or interesting story. To visit these temples, some may hire a horse carriage, some may get a driver, and some may ride a bike; I hired the driver on the way from the airport to the hotel. What’s more, we experienced a lot more about the Burmese history, food and culture than temples. I will be sharing the “must-dos” in Myanmar soon enough. Now, I will go through the highlights in Old Bagan – which are simply – the best.
Manuha Temple: Unique Structure and Intriguing History
The name “Manuha” was given after the captive Mon king from Thaton. Most of the temples and pagodas are shaped like a pyramid and so, Manuha stands out with its different structure. The Buddha statues all seem too big for their enclosures, with a smile on their faces showing that for Manuha only death was a release from his suffering. This is one of the first places that Aung San Suu Kyi visited when she was released from the house arrest – maybe it was because of the history of this temple and she saw the resemblance?
We went to Manuha right after we saw the sunrise, not only we saw a nice reflection of the sun with the temple, it was also the time when the monks collecting alms! I will talk about a little more about this Buddhist tradition in the future.
Gubyaukgyi Temple: The Best Decorated
The Gubyaukgyi temple is built 900 years ago by Prince Yazakumar of the Pagan Dynasty. The temple is important as it has a large array of well-preserved frescoes, the oldest original paintings to be found in Bagan. The frescoes are captioned by ink in Old Mon, providing one of the earliest evidence of the language used in ancient Myanmar. It was dark as we entered the Pagoda so I couldn’t see anything. Once we turn on our lights we could see the delicate paintings on the wall like tomb raiders.
Besides, the temple is located very close to two stone pillars that were found inscribed by four ancient Southeast Asian languages: Pali, Old Mon, Old Burmese, and Pyu. The inscription provides evidence about these ancient cultures and these are the keys to cracking the Pyu language.
Tip: Bring a handy torch as some of the temples are very dark; and you can’t appreciate the impressive mural printings in the darkness.
Ananda Temple: The Most Beautiful
If you have been to the famous Ananda temple you would agree why it lives up to the hype. If you are checking out the 10 must-sees, 5 must-sees, or 3 must-sees temples in Old Bagan – Ananda would probably still remain in the list. In terms of Architecture, this glowing masterpiece is the best persevered and holds the title of being “the most beautiful”. The temple was built during the reign of King Kyanzittha, who instructed the architects to make sure the uniqueness of Ananda. One iconic feature would be its spires that radiant in the sun as they are covered in gold.
There are four Buddha statues around the temple and each of them represents different parts of Buddha’s teachings. The ground and the terraces are paved with glazed tiles. The Buddha statues in the inner courtyard are interesting, too. They seem scowling when you look at it up close and seem the scowl would soften and becomes a full grin when you step back.
Thatbyinnyu Temple: The Tallest
Thatbyinnyu is known for being the tallest in Bagan. The temple is built in the mid-12th century and it is so neatly constructed that a knife blade couldn’t pass between the bricks. The temple was seriously damaged after the earthquake and so, unfortunately, now it’s not allowed to climb up the building. Towering above the other monuments of Bagan, Thatbyinnyu dominates the Bagan’s skyline; Try, no matter which angle you aim through your camera, the temple will always give you a perfect host.
Shwesandaw Pagoda: Sunrise. Sunset.
King Anawrahta, the founder of the Burmese Kingdom, built Shwesandaw Pagoda after his conquest of the then Mon Capital, Thaton. If you ask any guide or locals that where to go to watch the perfect sunrise and sunset in Bagan, this is the place, and it’s hard to argue why. It is the pagoda that tourists could climb up and sit down for a perfect panoramic view – and it’s purely majestic and breathtaking. Be warned, it could be quite crowded in peak season and save yourself a good seat by arriving the pagoda a little bit early. Besides, prepare a bit of workout with a steep climb to the top!
Dhammayangyi Temple: The Largest
Dhammayangyi was built by King Narathu, and it’s known for being the “largest of them all”. It was built so large because the King came to the throne by assassinating his father and elder brother, and he thought building this largest temple as a way to compensate his sins. The huge pyramid-shaped Temple dominates Bagan’s skyline on the opposite side of Thatbyinnyu Temple. If you think the outside of the building impressed you already, it’s even more majestic when you stroll, barefoot, around the giant corridors inside, and see the magnificent drawings with the naked eye.
Shwezigon: The Oldest & Grandest
The Pagoda reminded me so much of the Shwedagon in Yangon, but make no mistake, Shwezigon is much older than Shwedagon and it is considered to be the most significant monument for then- newly found Theravada Buddhism in Bagan. It’s located close to Nyaung-U’s city center and away from the rest of the famous Temples in Old Bagan. Yet it’s one of the busiest because it is believed that the temple is the most “effective”. Every day, thousands of worshiper come and pray, while the markets on the four sides of the temple make it more crowded.
Gawdawpalin Temple: The Temple of Forgiveness
Gawdaepalin was built in the 12th century by King Narapatisithu, and it’s known as the “temple of forgiveness”. Same as King Narathu, he committed a terrible crime against his ancestors and he had gone blind for his sins. The temple was built as a result to paid obeisance in atonement for what he had done. Gawdawpalin is one of the largest temples in Bagan.
Htilominlo Temple: The Last Temple Built
Htilominlo Temple is put in last because it is also the last Myanmar style temple built, in 1218, by King Htilominlo. Legend has it the temple was built in the same place where he was selected as the next King by his father. The five princes were standing in a circle in this place with a white umbrella in the center. The next king was decided to depend on who the umbrella was pointing at when it fell. The temple was built with red bricks and it has a similar design to the earlier Sulamani Pahto and Gawdawpalin Temples, both built by Htilominlo’s father. Again, like many other temples, Htilominlo was seriously damaged after an earthquake in 1975 and the second floor was now closed to tourists.