It’s hard to convey in words the experience of being surrounded by the temples in Bagan, Myanmar. But we’ll try…
Hundreds upon hundreds of brick-red and honey-colored pagodas shimmering in the baking sun.
Feel the dust kicked up by horse-drawn buggies carrying shutter-happy tourists around the parched Bagan plains.
Eye more massive Buddha statues inside temples – standing, sitting, reclining – than you ever thought possible.
Now imagine the “gilded city alive with tinkling bells and the swishing sounds of monks’ robes” that Marco Polo once encountered here.
Temples in Bagan
This is the ancient city of Bagan – and it’s entrancing.
Marco Polo called Bagan “one of the finest sites in the world.”
Of course, you’ll visit Yangon first. But after, make your way to Bagan.
Recommended reading: See our review of the Savoy Hotel (it’s a great place to stay in Myanmar’s capital city)
So what’s the history of Bagan?
From the 9th to the 13th centuries, Bagan was the capital of the kingdom of Pagan, the center of the country now known as Myanmar (Burma).
During this time, its kings built thousands of pagodas, temples and Buddhist monasteries (up to 10,000).
Today, about 4,000 of these monuments remain.
Bagan – and the pagodas and temples of Bagan – is certainly one of the most breath-taking historical sites in the world we’ve ever seen.
It rivals other ancient world-renowned places – like the rose-red city of Petra in Jordan and the sacred city of Anuradhapura (one of 8 epic UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka) – in its splendor.
The Shwedagon Pagoda isn’t the biggest in Myanmar: The Shwesandaw Pagaoda in Pyay is even bigger than the Shwedagon!
How to see the Bagan pagodas
We saw the temple ruins a couple of different ways.
By horse and buggy:
The first time was by horse cart. We highly recommend this way of seeing the temples.
The pagodas are spread out over a very large area, and the clip-clopping sound of your horse places you back in time. Hiring a horse and buggy shouldn’t cost you much more than $10 USD an hour.
Sunset is a great time to go. Tell your driver you want to stop at one of the temples that people are able to climb, so you can take pictures from above.
Read next: The monks of Myanmar are an unforgettable sight
The next morning, we rented bicycles to bike around.
But we didn’t get far this way! The bicycles weren’t in the best condition, and it was hard pedaling along in the soft red dust.
By hot air balloon:
You can also soar in a hot air balloon over Bagan.
In Turkey, we experienced a hot air balloon ride in Cappadocia – and it was magical!
We didn’t go ballooning in Bagan, but it looks like it would be equally memorable. Go for it, if you can!
Best Bagan temples and pagodas
So what are the best temples in Bagan to see?
Let’s go visit them now!
1) Ananda Temple
Perhaps the most grand of the Bagan temples is Ananda Temple.
Built in 1105 AD, the red-brick temple is one of the largest in Bagan.
It’s decorated on the outside with demon heads (to prevent bad spirits from entering) and green-and-yellow ceramic tiles.
Inside, four entrances lead to their own towering golden Buddha statues.
Somewhat smaller seated Buddhas are nestled in niches along the four entrance halls.
2) Sulamani Temple
Also one of our favorite Bagan temples, the Sulamani Temple was built in 1183 in an Indian style.
As you walk the path to the entrance, you’ll be amazed by the ornamental work you see on the red brick exterior.
The paintings inside are from the 18th century.
The kings at that time repainted the temple inside in white and then painted their own paintings on top.
They’re lovely – a wealthy woman having her long hair brushed, a man smoking a pipe, a royal barge.
These original paintings in red, green, black and white have had little restoration.
3) Shwesandaw Pagoda
Just outside the city walls, the Shwesandaw Pagoda was built in 1057 and is the tallest pagoda in Bagan (towering 328 feet above the Bagan plains).
At sunrise, it offers great views of the surrounding temples.
Note: This isn’t the same Shwesandaw Temple in Pyay. That’s a completely different pagoda.
4) Tayoke Pye Temple
Built in the 13th century, Tayoke Pye Temple is believed to have once been part of a monastery.
As with all of the temples, we removed our shoes at the entrance.
We then walked around a dimly-lit, tunnel-like chamber inside the temple. Four large Buddha statues are inset against each of the four inner walls.
Several frescoes caught our eyes.
Somewhat faded, they are original paintings, mostly in black, white and red colors.
These sketches depict seated and standing Buddhas facing their disciples, who are listening to the Buddhas preach.
Starting from the 13th century, the color green (from copper sulphate) was also used, and so some frescoes are painted in black, white, red and green.
5) Thatbyinnyu Pagoda
At 201 feet high, this is one of the tallest pagodas in Bagan.
Built in 1144, it’s white in color on the outside (unlike many of the other brown and brick-red pagodas) and so it’s uniqueness makes it especially lovely.
6) Shwegugyi Temple
Meaning “Golden Cave” in Burmese, the Shwegugyi Temple is one of the smaller temples in Bagan.
It’s notable for its arched windows and huge teak doors inside, decorated with intricate carvings of birds.
7) Thambula Temple
Thambula Temple was built in 1255 by Queen Thanbula (though her name is spelled slightly differently).
Inside, you can see Burmese texts on the walls and Chinese influences in black-and-white Buddha paintings (many Chinese traders made their way to Bagan at the time).
8) Dhammayangyi Temple
Dating back to the 12th century, Dhammayangyi Temple is Bagan’s biggest temple. From a distance, it looks a little like one of the early Egyptian pyramids.
It’s most well-known for its bloody history – it was built by King Narathu who killed his father to sit on the throne.
He never got to see the temple complete. Narathu was himself assassinated, and the temple has remained unfinished ever since.
9) Mahabodhi Temple, Bagan
Does this Bagan temple look familiar?
If you think it looks like the famous Mahabodhi Temple in Bodhgaya in North India, where Buddha found enlightenment, you’re spot on.
The Mahabodhi Pagoda in Bagan was built in the 13th century to resemble the one in India. And it’s enshrined with some 465 Buddha images.
Other beautiful Bagan, Myanmar, temples and pagodas
Of course, there many other beautiful pagodas in Bagan – some 4,000, remember?
We don’t know the names of all :-).
But the mystery and beauty of these remarkable temples in Bagan is undeniable. And if you get a chance to see them, seize it!