Bagan Pictures Guide, Myanmar

Irrawaddy River and Bagan view from hot-air balloon, Myanmar

Myanmar’s premier attraction, the stunning ancient site of Bagan in rural countryside beside the Irrawaddy River. Photo by Christopher Michel.

How to get the best from Bagan

Few ancient sites have such incredible 360 degree panoramic views or have great sunrises and sunsets like Myanmar’s Bagan (formerly Pagan). In one of the world’s most peaceful, spectacular locations, Bagan is one of the three best Buddhist archaeological sites in the world, along with Angkor (Cambodia) and Borobudur (Indonesia).

Thousands of tourists still come here every year – in spite of the disgraceful government – but quickly disappear into the 40 sq km (16 sq miles) mass of 2, 500 pagodas and stupas built between the 11th and 13th centuries, surrounded by the Irrawaddy River (aka Ayeyarwaddy), peanut and sesame fields.

It’s not difficult to feel alone here, except at the best sunset spots, but even then, sitting on a temple, watching the shadows lengthen and the oxcarts trundle home, it’s simply stupafying.

Pagan is probably not included in UNESCO’s World heritage sites for due to Myanmar’s unsavoury government and their erratic restoration procedures.

Bagan things to see and do

Bagan Horse cart, Myanmar

Horse carts and bicycles are the best transport systems in Bagan. Walking is good but distances are great.

Hiring a horse cart is strongly recommended for super ambient relaxation on winding and complex dirt roads. And don’t hesitate to ask the driver to put the roof down! It can be done easily, though few do. Hire is not expensive.

Cyclists on Bagan dirt road, Myanmar

Easy cycling and eco-mentalist too, though a bit hot around midday. Photo by GoMyanmar.

Cycling is also popular and useful for distant destinations but only with a good condition machine. Don’t accept an old bike. Rental costs are inexpensive.
Some keen cyclists fly in their own bikes for extended rides. Go-zones are a little restricted and roads are frequently narrow with poor surfaces, but car and truck drivers are very careful of cyclists because punishment for hitting one is draconian.

Sightseeing Tips

Get up early and see the sights till 11am, have lunch and good rest, or even swim if you can (you could pay a few dollars to use the heavenly pool in the Sakura Hotel, Old Bagan). Then back on track from 3pm to a 5. 30pm sunset.

Cycling is a terrific way to get around this large but flat area so be prepared to rent and ride a bike. Your hotel/hostel will probably have some on offer. Check lights and tyres before setting off! Alternatively horse cart taxis are excellent, especially with young kids who may enjoy taking the reins occasionally.
Four items are essential for Myanmar sightseeing survival, especially Bagan: A torch (no street lights and very few illuminated buildings here! ), a hat, sun lotion and mosquito repellent. Don’t go without them!

More Transport Options

Walking along dusty rural paths – empty save for the occasional ox cart – and stumbling across temples and stupas is a terrific way to feel a part of Bagan, at least to start with. Then the size of the place becomes an issue. . .

Boating on the Irrawaddy. There are some local river cruise boats at the jetty near Bu Paya. You can rent there for 30-45 minutes ride around sunset or wait for Mandalay where the river trips get more interesting.

Hot Air Ballooning at sunrise is magnificent but really costly.
email advice: The cheapest option to get a place on the balloons is to contact an agent rather than booking direct, they’ll be able to slice quite a few $$$ of the ticket price. Just send an email to a few agents here & see what prices come back, plenty of agents on a google search, they’re all pretty much the same.

Sunset viewing

Sunrise shot from the top of Shwesandaw Paya, Bagan, Myanmar

Sunrise shot from the top of Shwesandaw Paya. Photo by Christopher Michel.

Some guides suggest that the best place for this vital part of the day is Mingalazedi Pagoda but from there the west view includes no pagodas and east view includes telephone wires.
Views are far better inland from the popular Shwesandaw Paya, the highest accessible pagoda, with terrific all around views.
A less crowded pitch is the smaller, more peaceful Ywa-haung-gyi Pagoda (located between Ananda Temple and Sintgu Pahto).
And don’t rush off as soon as the sun has set, wait half an hour for pinky/purple colours to appear.
Bring a torch with you for post-sunset walking or cycling and don’t forget to take pictures from ground level for dramatic pagoda silhouettes.

The best three structures in Bagan

*** Ananda Pahto (pahto = temple), this 11th century temple is the finest, most beautifully balanced in Bagan, with added interior interest from varied, meaningful buddhas and ceramic plaques.

***Shwezigon Paya (paya = stupa/pagoda that is basically solid), an elegant, 12thC bell-shaped design, near the new town of Nyang-U.

**Thatbyinnyu Pahto, this 12thC temple is the tallest in Pagan but sadly climbing it is not currently permitted, nor is entry.

Ananda Temple

Ananda Temple, Bagan's best, Myanmar

Ananda Temple, built in 1090. Photo by Francisco Anzola.

The most interesting of Bagan’s many religious structures is the massive Ananda Temple, a double-terrace pagoda that represents the infinite wisdom of Buddha. King Kyanzittha was so delighted with the temple design that he had the architect executed to avoid any possibility of competition. The building is laid out in the shape of a Greek cross and decorated with 1, 424 different statues of Buddha.

The south-facing Buddha in Ananda Temple, Bagan, Myanmar

The south-facing Buddha in Ananda Temple, one of the two original buddhas there. All four buddhas are made from solid teak wood. Photo by Gerd Eichmann.

Among many other statues in Ananda are four large standing Buddhas facing the four points of the compass and representing nirvana. The south facing one pictured looks sad from close up but cheerful from a distance. Lower sections of Ananda are decorated with hundreds of glazed tiles depicting scenes from Jataka, tales of Buddha’s previous lives in India.

Being Bagan’s primary attraction Ananda also attracts the pushiest of the region’s hawkers and plenty of them. They tend to congregate on the north side, the direction from where most tourists approach, so if possible approach and enter the temple from the east side.

Thatbyinnyu Pahto

Thatbyinnyu Temple, the tallest building in Bagan, Myanmar

Thatbyinnyu Temple, 61m (201ft) high, the tallest building in Bagan. Photo by Gerd Eichmann.

The 12thC Thatbyinnyu Pahto is the tallest temple in Bagan but climbing it is not currently permitted. Its three terraces are bordered with spires and lead to a gold-spearpoint 207ft high. The structure is impressive and only 500m (1500ft) from Ananda so it’s worth a stroll to look it over from close up, but there’s nothing to see inside. Move along now.

Shwezigon Pagoda complex

Bagan's Shwezigon Pagoda complex, Myanmar

Shwezigon Buddhist Pagoda complex, near the Irrawaddy River and Nyaung-U new town. Photo by Gerd Eichmann.

The Shwezigon Paya, finished in 1102 but damaged and repaired many times since by earthquakes is Bagan’s second favourite tourist attraction, features dramatic and dazzling terraces, a stupa covered with 30,000 copper plates gilded with gold leaf and a mass of small temples, shrines, statues of Buddhas and nats, traditional guardian spirits.

Bagan's Shwezigon carvings, Myanmar

Carvings of Buddha tales and nats in the Shwezigon Pagoda complex. Photo by Gerd Eichmann. Locals believe that bones and a tooth of Gautama Buddha are contained within the pagoda.


December-January, the Ananda Festival, when thousands of monks and locals gather for a huge pagoda festival. Three days at the full moon.

The full moon time around May-June and November-December. Two big spiritual festivals (Nat Pwes) are held at Mt. Popa.


Stay in Old Bagan if you can afford it and don’t mind feeding the government. There are only a handful of top end hotels in the area.
The 5/ 6 km distance to the New Town or Nyaung U is quite a hike especially at the end of the day after dark, so bike rental and a torch is the cheap way home.
Avoid the out-of-the-way bigger hotels in Nyaung U (aka Naung u and variations! ) that charge prices similar to the great hotels of Old Bagan.
If you like a lively evening atmosphere, stay in Nyaung-U which has a lot of tourist-oriented facilities such as guest houses, restaurants and money changing, in addition to the airport.

monk's bell souvenirs, Bagan, Myanmar

Monks around Burma request food offerings daily by ringing crude bells, like these, which are a popular tourism souvenir offered on the way to various temples and stupas. This shot was taken on the way to find sunset shots at Shwesandaw Paya.


Lacquerware is the most popular Burmese souvenir and mainly made in Bagan.
There are many workshops and sellers in the area though you can buy the same stuff in Yangon or Mandalay, and the price is not so different.
n. b. the finest quality goods are often kept in back rooms of many shops so ask if you are interested in the best items.

Getting to Bagan

• Flights. most people choose to hop around Burma by domestic airline due to the condition of roads and slow speed of trains. Several reliable airlines fly to Bagan from Yangon, including Yangon Airways, Air Bagan and Myanmar Airways.

• Trains run overnight from Yangon leaving at 10pm and arriving about 8am. Sleepers are not currently available so this is not a comfortable option. Trains also run to Pagan from Mandalay, twice a day, taking 7 hours. Tickets are cheap but conditions more like cattle cars than passenger cars that westerners are used to, with little or no space for bottoms or baggage storage.

• Buses are the backpacker’s best friend, with good ones leaving Yangon in the afternoon and arriving the next morning.

• Ferries. The last interesting public transport option is a ferry downstream from Mandalay, taking five hours. Upstream is also available for less cost but a lot more time, maybe up to two days.

Mt Popa

the monastery on Taung Kalat, near Mount Popa, Myanmar

The picturesquely situated Buddhist monastery on Popa Taung Kalat, just beside Mount Popa. Photo from Mt Popa by Ralf Andre Lettau.

A Side Trip to Mt Popa

A couple of hour’s drive from Bagan is Mt Popa and a steep climb up to the top of the rock gets you to Taung Kalat monastery. Sadly the old saying that it is better to journey than to arrive is true in this case as the drive is more interesting than this geological oddity and its dilapidated shrines, though the views are excellent, especially from the gorgeous Popa Hill Resort hotel.
Mt. Popa is the centre of Myanmar’s Nat spirit worship, with the most important and biggest Nat shrine in the country at the base of the rock, the Mahagiri shrine. A nat shrine on Mt Kyaiktiyo

Getting to Mt Popa

Mt Popa is 50km (30 miles) southeast of Bagan; a bus goes to Popa Taung Kalat daily from Nyaung Shwe. There is a superb resort hotel, Mt Popa Resort, adjacent to Taung Kalat, from where the picture was taken (in case you thought we hired a helicopter).