Bagan (formerly known as Pagan) is, essentially, magnificent. This huge, wonderfully preserved ancient city is arguably the most amazing sight in the whole of Asia. With over 2,200 temples and pagodas spread over an area of 40 square kilometres, Bagan is also one of the largest archaeological sites in the world and a tentative world heritage site. Bagan is a must-see on your tour of Myanmar.

Bagan was already a thriving city-state of the Pyu Kingdom by the year 850, when Europe was in the dark ages. In 1044 the Bamar King Anawrahta came to the throne and converted to Buddhism. In 1057, the king demanded that the Mon King Manuha give him their ‘Tripitaka’, the holy canon of Theravada Buddhism. When he refused, King Anawrahta conquered the Mon kingdom, taking Manuha prisoner. The Bamar and Mon cultures merged into the First Burmese Empire and the golden age of Bagan was set in motion. Skilled architects from around the Buddhist world arrived and over the next two and a half centuries some 4,400 pagodas, ordination halls, monasteries and libraries were built of brick, wood and sandstone. It said that so many trees were felled to fire the brick kilns that the local environment was permanently altered.

The great traveller Marco Polo visited Bagan and said in his book; ‘The towers are built of fine stone, and one has been covered with gold a finger thick, so that the tower appears to be of solid gold. Another is covered with silver in a similar manner and appears to be made of solid silver. The King of Mien Guo (As Myanmar was called by the Chinese) caused these towers to be built as a monument to his magnificence and for the benefit of his soul. They make one of the finest sights in the world, being exquisitely finished, splendid and costly. When illuminated by the sun they are especially brilliant and can be seen from the great distance’.

The Golden Age ended in 1287 when Kublai Khan’s forces invaded Bagan. The city declined and for centuries the area was all but deserted, thought by the people of Myanmar to be haunted by spirits. Myanmar people re-occupied the area during the British colonial period and much renovation and reconstruction work has been completed over the past century. Those gold-covered towers mentioned by Marco Polo are still there, as brilliant as ever and a sunset over Bagan is an experience you will never forget.

Highlights. (In alphabetical order).

Ananda Pagoda.

Ananda, probably the best-known and most beautiful pagoda in Bagan, was built in 1090 during the reign of King Kyansit-Tha. Marking the transience from the early to middle Bagan periods, this 170 feet high masterpiece is also one of the best preserved. The base of the pagoda, corridors and terraces are decorated with glazed tiles showing scenes from the Jataka. Nowhere else is the Buddha’s biography depicted in such detail at a pagoda. The pagoda is also home to four, 31 feet high teak standing Buddha images, of which two (the North and South facing) are original. The structure is crowned with a gilded corncob-style ‘hti’, or umbrella which shimmers across the plains. The pagoda is a favourite with photographers. A brick sanctuary just to the northwest of Ananda features some brightly painted, 18th Century frescos depicting the daily lives of Bagan residents and traders.

Dhammayan Gyi Pagoda.

This huge walled temple was built in 1167 during the reign of the cruel King Narathu. The story goes that the King instructed the pagoda be built with the brickwork held tightly together by a very thin layer of mortar. When the King inspected the building work he used a needle to look for gaps in the masonry. If he was able to pass the needle between two bricks the worker responsible would have his hand cut off. The place where the punishment was meted out is just inside the West entrance.

After killing his wife, the daughter of an Indian Emperor, the evil King was assassinated in 1170. Some say by agents of the Emperor, but others say by angry builders as revenge for his cruelty. Following the King’s death the inner passageway of the temple was filled with brick and rubble.

Dhammayazika Pagoda.

Built in 1196 during the reign of King Narapathi Sithu this is one of sixteen pentagonal monuments dating from the Bagan period, possibly the oldest surviving five-sided buildings in the world. Set in a lush garden the site boasts five small temples to house the images of four last Buddhas and the future Buddha, a concept of Mahayana Buddhism. This pagoda is best visited late in the day for the excellent views from its highest terrace.

Gawdawpalin Pagoda.

This imposing temple was built during the reign of King Narapati Sithu. He is said to have constructed the pagoda to seek pardon for insulting the memory of his forefathers. The name means ‘Act of obeisance from the throne’. The structure is thought to be the crowning achievement of the of the late Bagan period.

Gubyaukgyi Temple.

The ‘Great painted cave temple’ is a popular site in the Myinkaba area of Bagan. The temple was constructed in 1113 by Prince Rajakumar after the death of his father, King Kyansit-Tha. The temple is nicknamed the ‘Love Temple’ after the beautiful stone inscription of dedication from the Prince to his father. The dark temple has protected the spectacular murals inside which date to the temple’s construction. A four-sided pillar next to the temple bears an inscription of consecration written in four languages; Pyu, Mon, Pali and the first Bamar (Burmese) script known to exist.

Htilominlo Pagoda.

Dating to 1218 the Htilominlo Pagoda marks the spot where King Nantaungmya was chosen from his brothers to ascend the throne. The name means ‘favoured by the King, favoured by the Umbrella’ after the method of selection. This is an impressive, terraced pagoda similar Sulamani Pagoda. There are some fine sandstone decorations and plaster carvings here though little remains of the original murals.

Kyanzit-Tha Umin.

Possibly dating to the reign of King Anawrahta these accessible caves are built into a cliff face near Shwezigon Pagoda. The cool, dark caves are famous for their frescoes depicting the invading Mongol armies of Kublai Khan. Some of the murals may have been painted by the invaders themselves.

Lawkananda Pagoda.

A small, pretty pagoda, Lawkananda was built during the reign of King Anawrahta in 1059 and boasts a distinct, elongated zedi. The pagoda marks the riverside spot where trading ships from as far away as Sri Lanka used to unload their wares. This is still an active place of worship and boasts lovely views over the river.

Manuha Pagoda.

This pagoda, built in 1059 has an interesting history. It is said that it was built by Manuha, the captive king of the Mon. This square pagoda houses four immense Buddha images, each housed in claustrophobically small niches. It is said that this represents the king’s feelings as a prisoner. One of the Buddha images, a reclining Buddha in the act of entering ‘paranibbana’ (final passing away) has a smile on its face; indicating that for the king, only death was a release from his suffering.

Nathlaung Kyaung

This is the only Hindu temple remaining in Bagan and has been severely damaged by earthquakes. The date of construction is unclear but suggested dates go back as far as 931AD. During the reign of King Anawrahta, beliefs other than Theravada Buddhism were suppressed. This temple, meaning ‘Shrine where Nat are confined’ was a place used to store Nat figures and statues confiscated from animist places of worship.


This may be one of the oldest temples in Bagan, possibly built during the reign of the little-known King Taunghthugyi in the 10th Century. This is a single storey, Pyu-style building with small stone windows creating a cool, dark interior. These interior passageways conceal possibly the earliest surviving murals in Bagan.

Payathonzu Pagoda.

This complex of three temples, built in Indian or Khmer style is notable for its 13th Century murals. These murals are quite different to most in Bagan and may betray Mahayana or Tantric Buddhist influences. The only other temple of a similar design in Myanmar lies further downriver at Salay. Historians believe the temple was abandoned shortly before construction was completed due to an invasion of the city.

Shwe Gu Gyi Temple.

This small, beautiful temple was built in seven months during the reign of King Alaung Sithu in 1131. In 1163, the enfeebled King was brought here by his son, who then smothered him to death. The ‘Great Golden Cave’ Temple features some fine carvings, a teak Buddha and a history of its construction carved in stone.

Shwesandaw Pagoda.

A pyramid-style pagoda topped by a gilded stupa, Shwesandaw was constructed under the reign of King Anawrahta in 1057. The stupa is said to contain a hair of the Buddha, brought by the king from his conquest of the Mon city of Thaton. This was the first pagoda to feature stairways to the top terrace and is the highest viewpoint in Bagan, making it a very popular place to come and watch the spectacular sunset.

Shwezigon Pagoda.

This beautiful pagoda is the main site in the Nyaung U area of the archaeological zone and famous for its link with pre-Buddhist ‘Nat’ worship. This golden-domed pagoda was left unfinished on the death of King Anawrahta and was completed by his successor King Kyansit-Tha, the first elected king of Myanmar. Original stone inscriptions in the Mon language erected by King Kyansit-Tha can be found at the western entrance. There are four shrines at the cardinal points of the pagoda housing 13 feet high Gupta- style statues cast in 1102. These are the largest bronze Buddhas surviving in Bagan. On the southeast side of the pagoda is a small compound containing figurines of all 37 ‘Nat’ officially endorsed by the monarchy. These include an original freestanding figure of Thagyamin, the king of the Nat; the oldest known such figure in Myanmar. The bell-shaped zedi of Shwezigon was the prototype for almost all pagodas built in later years in Myanmar.

Sulamani Pagoda.

This majestic, red-brick temple was built during the reign of King Narapati Sithu around 1181.The receding terraces of this pagoda create a pyramid effect, topped by a gilded ‘sikhara’. This is a sophisticated temple boasting some of Bagan’s finest examples of brick, and ornamental work. Buddha images are located at each cardinal point and the base’ interior is painted with frescoes dating from the 18th Century Konbaung period.

Tharabar Gate.

This is the last remaining of twelve original city gates dating back to 849AD. The gate is protected by two ‘Nat’ (Spirits), Lady Golden Face and her brother, the Lord of the mountain, Min Maha Giri. Local people make offerings to the Nat to protect against accidents.

Thatbyinnyu Pagoda.

The ‘Temple of Omniscience’, built in 1144 by King Alaung Sithu is one of the city’s most impressive structures and Bagan’s tallest, standing 207 feet. This huge temple is a classic example of the middle period. There are indentations here for plaques telling stories from the Jataka but the plaques were never added. It is thought that the temple was never consecrated and was possibly used as a library. This white-washed temple is popular with Myanmar pilgrims and a must-see on a Bagan tour. The city wall, two hundred metres from the temple is a good vantage point for photographs.

Nyaung U Market.

This bustling market is best visited in the relative cool of early morning. Hundreds of local people shop here daily for life’s essentials. Fruit, flowers, vegetables, baskets, palm sugar, cheroots, Thanaka – and souvenirs! This is a great place for photographs and remember to bargain!
If you can spare the time Myanmar Cycling Tours recommends you spend at least two full days in Bagan. This will allow you to discover all of the main sites at a comfortable pace. If you have more time we recommend day tripping to Mt Popa and Salay, the spirit worship and monastic centres of the area. We can arrange air-conditioned cars with experienced drivers to take you around the archaeological zone and knowledgeable guides who can make the city come to life by explaining the history behind the bricks and stone. Our drivers and guides can also take you to a local village where you can talk to the locals and see how they make a living in Myanmar’s ‘dry zone’. Our day tours end at one of the ‘viewing’ pagodas so that you can savour the wonderful sunsets.

Myanmar Cycling Tours highly recommends taking a balloon ride over Bagan to see the ancient city from a unique perspective. Bagan is acknowledged as being one of the premier ballooning spots in the world. If you have ever thought of taking a balloon ride, this is most definitely the place! The balloon trips are extremely popular so we recommend you book with us at least 6 weeks in advance.

Bagan can be reached by air from Yangon, Mandalay and Inle Lake. If you would like to arrive by riverboat along the mighty Ayeyarwady River, we can arrange cabins on luxury cruises from Mandalay and Pyay. We can also book seats on the fast day ferries from Mandalay in season. If you are hiring a car, Bagan is a full day drive from Kalaw (via Mt Popa), Mandalay or Pyay.

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