Exploring the ancient temples of Bagan

Bagan-17I was bound for Bagan, a place of mystery, magic and many rumors. A place that ranks among the world’s finest cultural heritage sites such as Angkor Wat in Cambodia or Machu Pichu in Peru. From the 9th to 13th centuries, the city also known as Pagan, was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan, the first kingdom to unify the regions that would later constitute modern Myanmar. During the kingdom’s height between the 11th and 13th centuries, over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were constructed in the Bagan plains, of which the remains of over 2200 temples and pagodas still survive to the present day. A must see for every Myanmar tourist, I just hoped that it would not bee to crowded. After a long overnight bus ride I arrived before dawn. Still half asleep, I stumbled out of the bus to board a horse cart into town. My adventure was about to begin.

First sunrise over Bagan
I had arranged accommodation beforehand since I wasn’t sure about the availabilities and also because I didn’t want to take a risk given my super early arrival. My friendly horse cart driver dropped me off in front of the guesthouse and made sure I was let in. He then offered to pick me up after an hour to watch the sunrise. I was a little hesitant but given the fact that I was awake anyhow, I thought might as well and agreed to meet up a little later. My friend was on time, 5 o’ clock,  and so we headed off to Shwei Leik Too, a temple near by which he thought would be nice to watch the sunrise.  He sure didn’t promise too much – there was no one else there but a friendly Chinese girl who had ridden her bike over. We had climbed the temple in darkness and was now waiting for the sun to appear. We didn’t have to wait long – the sun slowly rose above the horizon and painted the vast plains and its temples in different tones of orange and then yellow. It was amazing to see the temples starting to glow and slowly casting their long shadows over the surrounding fields. But the best was the solitude we were allowed to enjoy at a place like this. This was slightly diturbed a little later by a couple of vendors trying to sell some of their paintings. It did not dampen the magnificent atmosphere much though since they were rather friendly and curious than pushy. It was a great start of my stay in Bagan. I was ready for more and went back to the guesthouse to get an overview of what to actually see and how to structure my days.

Temples casting their shadows over the Bagan Plains.

Temples casting their shadows over the Bagan Plains.

Dawn in Bagan.

Dawn in Bagan.

Right on time ...

Right on time …

Exploring in the incredible heat of Bagan
After a surprisingly good breakfast and some studying of Bagan maps and the respective pages in the guidebook I was ready to head out on my own. My plan was to rent a bicycle and cycle around the Northern part of the Bagan loop and maybe into the center for a bit. While arranging the bike, I soon became aware of how extremely hot it actually became during the daytime. The sun just burned down mercilessly and I realized that the early hours of noon and afternoon are probably spent best in the cool of my room’s air-condition. I still wanted to check out a few temples before it got too hot and made my way down the circular road. The temples and stupas along the way already gave a good impression of the great variety Bagan features. Small ones, bigger ones, some with intricate designs on the inside, others more a ruin than a temple and all so close to each other, connected by little paths cutting the plain. After a bit, the long bus ride combined with a lack of sleep and the heat took its toll though. I headed back to the guesthouse to recharge my batteries and wait out the heat.

One of the larger temples.

One of the larger temples – Sulamani

Burmese Woman returning from the temple.

Burmese woman returning from the temple.

Adapting quickly to the siesta mode, I was back on track at around 4 o’ clock, ready to explore more temples and eventually seeing the sunset. The sky was still clear so I had high hopes for a nice scene. After cycling around for a bit, I decided to go to back to Sulamani Temple which I had seen already earlier that day. It was said that you would be able to enjoy the sunset without the masses present at Shwesandaw Paya there. Up on the temple’s terrace a bit early, I waited to snap a few shots and enjoy the setting sun over the plains. The crowd up there was alright with a lot of locals who had actually come for prayer and meditation. The atmosphere was great and I got to talk to a couple of fellow travelers from Europe and China. We all enjoyed the scenery, took pictures and just gazed at the sky. Riding my bicycle back in the dark across narrow paths, I was just grateful to be there at this time. Maybe traveling Asia in low season is not too bad after all.

Painting the last light across the plains.

Painting the last light across the plains.

Almost disappeared.

Almost disappeared.

Color concert.

Color concert.

Inside Bagan’s Temples
The next day I had woken up for yet another sunrise which wasn’t as nice as the last one. So I returned to the guesthouse where I met Angel from Canada. She had just arrived from Mandalay and was planning her day. We decided to go exploring together and went out to see some of the temples before it would get too hot. This point came sooner than expected though. We returned for lunch and decided  to meet again after a well deserved nap. It prove to be the best decision. Fresh and awake we went to some of the bigger temples which offered maze like passageways and hidden statues of Buddha. The light was perfect, dimming the interior of the temples in different tones of red and orange. With the little crowds present, it all had a little bit of an Indiana Jones movie. The walls were decorated with delicate carvings and paintings, some renovated and others marked by the sands of time. We wandered around in amazement and stopped here and there to take in the magnificent architecture and the silence of the moment.

Inside the temples of Bagan...

Inside the temples of Bagan…

For sunset we decided to go the most popular temple, Shwesandaw. The difference to the evening before was striking. Tour buses, big and small, were unloading their passengers right in front and loads of people were on top already. We wanted to make the best of it and climbed up the steep stairs. The view from up there compensated for everything else I have to admit. The plains looked magical with all the major temples in sight. And yet again, it was clear with just a few clouds dotting the still blue sky. But soon it all changed completely and the sky was painted in a deep purple / indigo color. It looked surreal. After a bit, the sun had completely disappeared leaving the biggest temples illuminated in the night sky. It is just crazy at how different the temple and the plains can look within just one hour or so. Fascinating.

Bagan a bit off the beaten path
The next day we wanted to get off of that beaten path and go down the Southern end of the circular road. Hence distances are a bit far, we decided to each rent electric bikes. Never rode one of those before but the lack of rental motorbikes made it the most feasible alternative to get around quickly.
The temples along the road were way less visited. We actually had most of them for us alone – no other tourists around. We arrived at one bigger complex which looked interesting but it was locked. We knew, that there are usually key holders who, if you manage to find them, open up the temple for you. Once again lucky, we found the key holder for this temple, a young energetic guy who was eager to show us around. He explained the intricate wall paintings and led us up two stupas. On top we chilled for a moment while our key holder talked to his girlfriend on his mobile phone. So funny. He had done such a good job that we wanted to pay him a little tip which he resolutely refused. Wow, Myanmar surprised once again. You definitely don’t find that kind of behavior a lot in South East Asia anymore.

Before the rain started...

Before the rain started…

The plains ...

The plains …

After a short shower which we endured in a remote monastery where the monks allowed us to take shelter, we made it into a small village. Right on time because we were starving. Well fed y the keeper of the local restaurant, we were showed around the village by a friend of the family. The village was small and traditional featuring wooden stilt houses and life stock everywhere. We stopped at a house were the grandmother of our “guide” was producing yarn for the traditional clothing they were making. She also hand rolled the typical Burmese cheroot cigars. Not one hundred percent sure if all this was really authentic or already tainted by tourism, we still enjoyed the moment. In the end, again it was just us, no one else around. It was nice to have some time to talk with the locals without a big group around and everyone snapping away.

Yarning and smoking it up.

Yarning and smoking it up.

Traditional weaving.

Traditional weaving.

Smoking up the cheroot cigar.

Smoking up the cheroot cigar.



Last thoughts …
The temples of Bagan are definitely a must see if in Myanmar. It is absolutely impressive to see the mass amount of temples and stupas, their intricate designs, the paintings inside them and to just take in the magical atmosphere around those masterpieces of ancient architecture. At the same time it was very pleasant to share this place with a few people only and not with hordes of tourists like in Angkor. But I think part of this circumstance has to be contributed to traveling in the rainy season. Bagan was definitely the place where I realized how good a decision it was to travel during that time. But I think, with all the improvements of the political situation and the influx of mass tourism, all of this will change very quickly. I can just hope, that Bagan won’t become another Angkor. It is definitely a magical place.

Categories: Culture, Myanmar / Burma | Tags: , , , , , , , | 26 Comments

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26 thoughts on “Exploring the ancient temples of Bagan

  1. Babygirl

    My favourite post ao farm the pictures were breathtaking and so nostalgic

    • Philipp Dukatz

      Thanks Babygirl! How come you like those pictures best? Have you also already been to Myanmar? 😉

      • Angel

        Because you captured the skies so beautifully and so colorful. It’s surreal.
        …hehe and yes, I went to Myanmar with you 😛

  2. So beautiful! Can’t help but share it on Facebook. 🙂

    • Hi Miguel, thanks for your comment and your share. I really appreciate that. I looked at your blog as well and I really like your pictures. Some of my favorites are in the Hong Kong section. So nice. Seems like you have traveled quiet extensively. Can you tell me what kind of camera gear you are using at the moment (Camera and Lenses)? I will have to buy new stuff since all of mine got stolen in Saigon. Definitely in need of inspiration of what to buy. Cheers bro!

      • I use an old Nikon D60 and a 28-300mm lens. 🙂

        The images you have posted seems all amazing to me. What did you use to capture all these?

      • Hi Miguel, the Nikon is a very good camera and I am very surprised by the quality that 28-300 lens brings out. That’s definitely an eye opener. I am thinking of switching to Nikon as well now that all my gear is gone and I basically have to start new in terms of equipment. Just seems to be the more professional stuff. But I have to look into it more thoroughly. I WAS using a siple Canon Eos 600D with a 18-135mm and a 50mm 1.8. The 50mm works magic but I wasn’t really satisfied with the 1.8 version of it. Autofocus was not working precisely enough, especially in low light situations. So how come you manage to travel so much. Really nice, especially the trip to Batanes. Really wanna go there some day… Were abouts in the Phils are you from? Cheers, Philipp

  3. That streak across the sky in the “color concert” photo looks like an arrow. I wonder what it’s pointing to? 🙂 The views inside the temples really do have an Indiana Jones look! Walking through all those corridors, with those shades of red and gold, it must really feel like you’re looking for some secret treasure…

    The most surreal views, for me, were some of the daylight ones — the one “before the rain started,” for instance. That shade of green in the fields, almost neon-bright against the gray clouds, seems almost supernatural!

    What was it that made you unsure whether the weaving and cherrot rolling processes were really authentic?

    • Actually, I meant “the plains” photo had the surreal green fields, not “before the rain,” though the latter does also have a slightly otherworldly look to it.

    • Hi Nerija, I have to say that I like the inide the temple pictures even better than the landscape ones. It was special there and a lot of times we were by ourselves, which was really cool. We didn’t find no treasure though. Just some Buddhas and hell of a lot of bat shit, hehe.

      Unsure….because I wasn’t sure if it all was real authentic are already tainted by tourism. I mean, who knows how many tourists actually stop by that village. Maybe all that is more or less just being kept up for the tourist. Hard to tell. But we enjoyed the moment just being by ourselves. Did not think too much about it. It was cool in any case.

      By the way, I just arrived back home. So damn weird. I will write a quick update post on that later on today. Catch you later Nerija! Philipp

  4. t.on.air

    Beautiful photos! Make me miss my time in Bagan. I wish I could sit there and watch the sunset again. Viel Spaß weiterhin.

    • Danke, danke. Bist du auch aus Deutschland. Bagan war wirklich super. Die teilweise komplett verlassenen Tempel etwas abseits waren wirklich toll. Aber sogar der volle Sunset-Tempel hatte was. Gute Zeit dort. Wann warst du da? Viele Grüße, mittlerweile wieder aus dem kalten Deutschland. Philipp

      • t.on.air

        Yep! Komme auch aus D. Hatte auch ne wunderbare Zeit dort. Allein. War im Okt dort, Regenszeit aber ich fand es nicht schlimm. Man sollte immer das Beste rausholen. Viel Spaß weiterhin.

      • Philipp Dukatz

        Hey, ich war auch im Oktober dort. Die Regenzeit war kein Problem, ganz im Gegenteil. Es waren weniger Leute unterwegs und die Unterkunftssituation war problemlos. In der Hauptsaison ist das wohl mittlerweile schwierig geworden. Danke nochmal, dass du vorbeigeschaut hast. Ich bin schon wieder zu hause und muss mich erst wieder einleben. Irgendwann geht es aber sicher zurck nach Myanmar. Viele Gre, Philipp

  5. t.on.air

    Oh I just noticed you have almost the same wish as I do in regards to how Myanmar/Bagan should (not) be! What a small world.

    • Yeah, let’s hope for the best. I will sure go back someday to see again and also to explore the more remote regions. I would like to see the far North and Namshan if those areas will be opened up for tourists. How long did you spend in Burma and when did u go? Cheers, Philipp

  6. Kyong

    Hey Phil,
    Its been awhile. Starting to go through your blogs and photos of Myanmar. YDeciding whether to change plans and go based on your amazing photos and insightful blog. Look forward to reading your other blogs for motivation.



    • Hey Kyong, good to hear from you bro! I hope you had a great Christmas away from home. What did you do and where did you spend it. If you consider going to Myanmar and you feel the need for more info, just let me know. Maybe I can help you out. It is definitely a country worth visiting. It was one of two highlights of my whole journey. So where are you at right now man and where will you be tomorrow for New Year’s! Weherever it will be, have a good party and a good 2014. Best of luck and I hope we will be able to meet again sometime…. Cheers and happy NEW YEAR! Phil

  7. Pingback: The Temples of Bagan: A lifetime highlight! | backpackerlee

  8. Mavis

    Thanks for all the pointers to get away from the masses!

    • Hi Mavis, thanks for your feedback. Glad my article was of help for ya. Are you planning to head to Myanmar anytime soon then?

      • Mavis

        Yup, we’re planning to do 10 days at the beginning of March. Hoping to cover Yangon, Bagan, Inle lake, and Ngapali / Ngwe Saung beach.

  9. Cindy

    Hi Phil, looking forward to see Bagan in October. Nice shots you got there. Hopefully, we get the chance to see all the “top” sights in 2 days. Thanks for this.


    • Hi Cindy, thanks a lot for stopping by. You will have a wonderful time there, I am sure. I hope it’s not going to be too hot ;). Happy travels! Philipp

  10. dines

    I enjoyed reading this blog, as usual. I was extremely jealous with your experiences of watching the sunrise and sunset there and capturing them so magnificently. I’ ve been trying to have a pic of sunrise here at La Rochelle but it was always so cloudy at the end of the day! Hope to be lucky next time. The pics of the pagoda are so beautiful; captivating! I’ m enjoying my trip to Burma, thanks to you 😉 One question : what is it on the face of the girl smoking a cheroot cigar, a kind of make up, or ash? Warm greetings, Dines 😉

    • Hi Dines, glad you liked this one as well. Bagan was nice and I was lucky since it wasn’t high season yet so it wasn’t that crowded. The stuff the girl and by the way most women are wearing in Myanmar is sort of a traditional Makeup called Thanaka. It is made from a special kind of food which gets grinded on stone with water, resulting in a paste they apply on their faces. It is also supposed to give a little sun protection.

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