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Bagan

Bagan

Bagan (Burmese: formerly Pagan) is an ancient city located in the Mandalay Region of Myanmar . From the 9th to 13th centuries, the city 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 alone, of which the remains of over 2200 temples and pagodas still survive to the present day.
Bagan Overview
The thousands of temples that are spread across the plains of Bagan (sometimes spelt Pagan) are the most impressive testament to the religious devotion of Myanmar’s people – and rulers – over the centuries. They combine to form one of the richest archaeological sites in Asia and provide views quite unlike anywhere else on earth. For practical information on restaurants, ATMs, accommodation and trasport, visit our towns of Bagan page.
 
One of the beauties of spending time in what is now officially called the Bagan Archaeological Zone (which also comprises four main settlements) is that, once you have paid your K25,000 entry fee, you have the freedom to explore this vast and fascinating area at your own leisure – the entry ticket is valid for three days. Bagan is in general more touristy and possibly less of the ‘real Myanmar’ than other parts of the country, but despite obvious sales ploys such as the multitudes of children selling hand-drawn postcards, you will rarely suffer the hard sell – and the locals remain warm and friendly.
Bagan History
Bagan started life as a small settlement, thought to have been founded in the late-ninth century by the early Burmans, who had migrated to the Irrawaddy Valley from what is now southern China. The name Bagan comes from the old Burmese word Pugan, which is in turn derived from the older Burmese word Pyugam, meaning “Pyu Village” – and in its infancy Bagan was just one of many competing city-states inhabited by the Pyu people in that region.
 
Over the course of about 200 years, Bagan gradually grew to absorb these neighbouring principalities, and in the mid-11th century King Anwrahta founded the Pagan Kingdom – unifying for the first time the regions that would form the basis of modern Burma. From 1044 until 1287, Bagan was the capital of this kingdom, growing steadily in size and wealth to become a major centre for religion (including both Theravada, Mahayana and Tantric schools of Buddhism as well as Hindu and animist traditions), scholarship, astrology, medicine and law. At this time, the Pagan Kingdom was equal in sophistication and power with the neighbouring Khmer Empire, and attracted monks and scholars from all over South and Southeast Asia.
 
In the mid-13th century, a series of Mongol invasions sent the already rather unstable Pagan Empire into decline. The political fragmentation that ensued continued for 250 years – about as long as the empire’s golden age – lasting well into the 16th century. During this time, some religious monuments continued to be built in Bagan, until slowly but surely it halted altogether. Only around 200 monuments were built between the 15th and 19th centuries.
 
Though it has diminished from a city of up to 200,000 inhabitants to a small town, Bagan has continued to survive as a significant pilgrimage site throughout history until the present day. Many of its monuments fell into disrepair in the centuries following the fall of Pagan, while others were repainted or fitted with new religious statues. Between 1752 and 1885, the Burmese state funded the systematic renovation of many of Bagan’s monuments, in a move that is largely considered to have done more harm than good.
 
Bagan has also had to deal with numerous earthquakes over the years, some of which have caused extensive and even irreparable damage to temples in the area – notably the Bupaya pagoda, which was completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1975. In the 1990s, the Burmese government once again carried out restoration works on many of these monuments, and once again the renovations were considered by the international community to have been irresponsible and damaging to the integrity of the area.
 
Bagan today
Bagan is at risk not only from the well-meaning meddling of would-be renovators, but also from further earthquakes and from erosion caused by the Irrawaddy River – which has, in fact, already worn away a significant portion of the surrounding area with the strength of its current.
 
Despite this, Bagan is still an enchanting and as yet relatively little-visited archaeological marvel, and constitutes the highlight of most trips to Burma. While there are a handful of popular temples and pagodas that receive a steady stream of visitors, there are countless more that remain obscure and undiscovered.

Bagan climate and best time to visit
Bagan is hot most of the year. The best time to visit is between November and February, when temperatures hit 30C (86F). Avoid March to May, when temperatures can reach 43C (110F). Rainfall is highest in June and October. If you can, visit during a full moon, a popular time for local festivals.
Bagan Transportation
Hire a bicycle. This is the cheapest way to get around, and also allows you the most freedom to do as you choose; the plain is too large to explore by foot, but getting around by bike allows you to get to most of the temples. Almost all hotels and guesthouses have them for hire, as do various restaurants and shops.

Go on a horse and cart guided tour. This is many people’s favourite, and certainly the most romantic way to see the temples. Most drivers speak at least some English (it is worth checking before you agree the price), and will of course know good routes around the temples and some hidden gems. However, horses have to follow more well-trodden tracks than bicycles, so there are areas they cannot reach. 

Take an air conditioned taxi, if you want to avoid the heat and dust completely. This is naturally the most comfortable way to get around, and most drivers speak English. 

The most exotic and spectacular way to see the temples is to head to the sky for a hot air balloon trip. These cost US$305 per person, and offer a unique view of the plain and temples. 
Things to do and see in Bagan
Wake up early for the sunrise
The early bird gets the worm in Bagan, as one of the best times to view the amazing Bagan Archaeological Zone is at sunrise. Visitors will likely have to get up at 4:30 a.m. or so to give themselves enough time to get to the temple of their choice to watch the sun come up. There are some popular temple destinations in which the majority of tourists seem to flock to for this stunning affair; however, it is better if they sort out an off-the-beaten-path temple to frequent, as one too many people all trying to get a photograph of the same thing can certainly be a frustrating endeavor. There are thousands of temples and pagodas scattered across the plains of Bagan, giving people plenty of options.

Cycle to the temples and pagodas on an electric bike
Myanmar is leading the way to a more greener form of exploring cities with loads of electric bikes, or e-bikes, available in Bagan. Visitors cannot venture far into the city without seeing an e-bike shop lining one of the dusty roads in town. This form of transportation is almost identical to mopeds, except for the fact that they run on batteries as opposed to gasoline. In addition to being better for the environment, they are extremely quiet and do not go as fast as their noisy counterparts. The absence of the roar of an engine makes riding along the winding, dirt roads to visit all the temples certainly a relaxing experience.

Go on a free tour of the archaeological ruins
The Bagan Archaeological Zone is some 26 square miles (67 square kilometers) in size. These amazing ruins dot the city in the most random and odd of fashion, with no rhyme or reason as to why the religious structures sit where they do. 

Eat authentic Burmese cuisine
Cuisine does not get much better than what the locals in Bagan are cooking up in the many eateries found around the city. From streetside shops equipped with nothing but a chef and some plastic seating to European-Burmese fusion restaurants serving up some unique finds, there is a restaurant or stall ready to please all appetites in this historic city. Some of the best restaurants in town include Weather Spoon’s Bagan, Be Kind to Animals the Moon, and Seven Sisters Restaurant. Myanmar has a number of famous dishes, so be sure to try at least one of these before leaving this fascinating country.

Visit Mani-Sithu Market
The Mani-Sithu Market is a wonderful spot for visitors who find themselves growing a bit tired of exploring the temples. There is a wide variety of Burmese handicrafts to browse through, with some unique finds including the bark needed to make thanaka, the face mask many Burmese men, women, and children wear. Vendors are friendly, speak a fair amount of English, and are ready to barter as people take to the many stalls in hopes of finding souvenirs, delicious Burmese snacks, and more. Mani-Sithu Market also has its fair share of faux lacquerware, one of the most coveted Burmese handicrafts in the country. Real lacquerware can cost upwards of hundreds of dollars, while the very realistic-looking and stunning pieces found at stalls across this market will leave shoppers with plenty of kyats to spare. This market sits at the very end of Lanmadaw Road; visitors will know they have arrived when they reach a small roundabout, and there is a covered bazaar straight ahead. The market is open every day (except Sunday) from 6 a.m. until about 5 p.m.

Stop by a lacquerware workshop
The lacquerware found in shops around town as well as the Mani-Sithu Market are certainly convincing; however, those on the lookout for some authentic dishware and pieces need to check out one of the lacquerware workshops in the city. One of the most noteworthy places in the city is the Bagan House Lacquerware Workshop found in New Bagan. Lacquerware is specifically unique to the area, though visitors will find it in cities around the country, in locals’ homes, inside ancient temples, as well as in the monasteries in Bagan. People who frequent one of these workshops will watch as locals craft the bamboo base of each piece, then later glaze and paint it, store it in a dry cellar, and decorate it with traditional designs made with a needle. The crafters glaze the pieces at Bagan House Lacquerware Workshop anywhere from eight to 16 times, and their elaborate and stunning pieces can take up to one year to finish.

Get the best views of Bagan’s sunset
As incredible as the sunrise is over the Bagan Archaeological Zone, the sunset is seemingly even more incredible, and visitors do not have to get up at an ungodly hour to capture a photograph of it. Head to any one of the religious structures at around 5:30 p.m. in order to watch as the sun falls over the rustic, red-brown temples and stupas that dot the desolate plains of Bagan. For those on an e-bike, be sure to head back to your accommodation as soon as the sun sets; the bugs seemingly all come out after dark and love nosediving into drivers as they zip back home.

Bagan Travel Tips
For most people the best approach to seeing temples is to go with a guide, get some advice from a friendly local, or just start exploring. But there are some sites that should not be missed. These include:
The huge and beautifully preserved Ananda Pagoda. In late December to early January, there is a huge festival centred on this temple celebrates the traditional lives of farmers in the area; locals come from the surrounding villages in their decorated bullock carts and camp on the plain for the duration. Entertainment is provided by theatrical troupes and on the final daybreak there is a formal alms giving to the monks who live in the nearby monastery. 
The Gawdaw Palin temple, which sits on the banks of the Irrawaddy.
The teak-built Myoe Daung Monastery and Tharabar Gate in Old Bagan.
The imposing, red brick Dhammayangyi temple, which covers the largest area of all the temples in Bagan.
The That Byin Nyu temple, the tallest monument on the plain.
The Shwesandaw Pagoda, with its five stepped terraces.
Viewing hills and platforms are located at Ko Mauk Lake, Oh Htein Kone, Nyaung Lat Phat Kan and Sulamani Kone. 
Of all the pagodas in Bagan, the Shwezigon pagoda in Nyaung U is most like a traditional Myanmar temple complex. This, as well as the other pagodas in and around Nyaung U, typically attract the biggest tourist crowds.
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