Two and a half centuries ago, the earliest Myanmar kings, determined to celebrate and memorialize their religion, decided to do so with beautiful, timeless structures. At the center of the country, they built thousands of temples, stupas, and monuments in a breathtaking variety of shapes and sizes, all packed in 40km² (16 miles²) of flat, copper plains next to the dazzling Ayeyarwaddy River.
While most would think of Angkor Wat, Cambodia or Borobudur, Indonesia when considering Asian cities of impressive scope and historical significance, Bagan is set to become a rival to these World Heritage Sites. Your visit to Bagan will become one of the most memorable journeys during your adventures in Myanmar.
The Kings of Bagan
For about three centuries, from the 11th to the 14th, Bagan became one of the earliest unified seats of Buddhism in Myanmar. This unification was greatly due, in part, to King Anawratha in 1044AD, who used the Buddhist religion as a way to strengthen the people and also started the royal building trend.
The manpower needed to build these impressive structures was great enough to require the help of architects, artists, craftsmen, and slaves from nearby countries. They created elaborate stone reliefs to cover the stupas, walls as thick as a house to support the heavy temples, and painted intricate murals following the many reincarnations of the Buddha.
Following the tradition started by King Anawaratha, the twelve kings that came after would compete with and try to outdo the last, eventually creating the legacy of religious monuments in the country.
Despite the kind of erosion that would come from centuries of harsh sun, weather, and neglect, many of the structures built by those kings have survived to the present day. The mosaic artwork, gold leaf, and carvings are still decorating some of the buildings, while vines have grown over other crumbling stone facades. Depending on how they’re defined, the number of Bagan temples can range from 2,100 to 4,400 within the main complex of the site. It’s not surprising that Bagan’s attractions have continued to be one of the most impressive archaeological sites in the Southeast Asian region.
The lax regulations on the structures mean that visitors can still climb the staircases of these historic buildings and see the surrounding temple-dotted landscape. Watching the sun create breathtaking silhouettes of the vast temples that dot the horizon is one of the most powerful experiences you’ll have in Myanmar.
Once one of the most glorious kingdoms in the country, Burma had trading relations that extended to the ancient empires of India, Ceylon, and Khmer. The Bagan Kingdom’s influence even spread to other kingdoms in the country like Thaton, located in Southern Myanmar. The Thaton’s culture and population were conquered, and eventually absorbed into Bagan’s kingdom.
By the end of the 14th century, the Kingdom of Bagan abruptly ended, allegedly due to the arrival of the warrior Ghengis Khan and his Mongol army. Despite the culture’s sudden end, Bagan’s monuments still remain and have persevered through the ravages of time and nature. Many today rank these magnificent traces of the kingdom as one of the great wonders of the ancient world.
Even the famous explorer Marco Polo had to mention the beauty of Bagan in The Description of the World, his account of his two and a half decade exploration into the Orient and beyond:
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…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.
Temples in Bagan you should not miss
King Kyanzittha built this well-preserved masterpiece in 1091 AD. Famous for its architecture, the temple’s two corridors are decorated with niches and Buddhas. To get inside, there are four entrances that lead to 10m tall Buddhas greeting visitors as they approach the center.
Considered the largest temple with the finest brickwork, the Dhamayazeka Temple was designed in a pentagonal shape by King Narapathusitthu during his brutal reign in the 12th century.
With its 3 terraces, this brick stupa allows for some of the best views over Bagan for sunset and sunrise. Each terrace is decorated with glazed tile illustrating scenes from the Buddha’s lives, known as the “Jataka” stories, and his teachings.
Because of its location in the center of Old Bagan, the Shwesandaw Stupa is one of the most popular locations to watch the sunrise or sunset. Even though the crowds may encourage a different choice to watch the sun or view the temple plains, its well-placed location still makes it well worth a visit.
The Dhammayangyi Temple has a darker history than some, considered the “ill faith” temple. It’s said that its creator, King Narathu, would order the worker’s arms chopped off for any unsatisfactory workmanship. His standards were so high that he demanded that a pin should not be able to pass between the bricks.
The sadistic king even had his own father, brother, and wife murdered.
At 67 meters high, the Thatbyinnyu Temple is considered the tallest of Bagan’s temples. Even though it has five floors, only the ground floor is available for the public to explore, but best appreciated from the outside. King Alaungsi, the third king of Bagan, commissioned the temple in the early 12th century.
Otherwise known as “The Golden Sandbank”, the Swezigon Pagoda has a legend about its inception. According to the story, the King of Bagan’s white elephant was the one that chose the location of the pagoda because it was carrying a tooth relic of the Buddha, donated by the King of Sri Lanka (Ceylon).
The Swezigon Pagoda is gilded shimmering gold from the layers of gold leaf covering the sandstone underneath. Many consider it to be the most beautiful monument in Bagan.
This temple is best known for the finest and best preserved painted murals in Bagan.