Myanmar / Travel

A Photo Journey Through Bagan, Myanmar’s 1000 Year Old City

Nick Paul

Nick Paul

June 19, 2019

I probably first saw a picture of Myanmar’s Bagan – a vast plain of 900 year old semi-ruined temples – about 10 years ago and it’s been lurking on my travel bucket list ever since. It was one of those places you say you’ll definitely see one day but secretly believe you never will.

So when the opportunity to visit Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) for work came up, I jumped at it. I knew of very few people who’d made the journey out there and I was determined to clear the mystery for myself and capture some great images while I was at it.

If you’re looking for tips on getting to, getting around and staying in Bagan, scroll on down…

 

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14 Photos to capture what Bagan is all about

Shwezigon Pagoda Bagan

I arrived in Bagan before sunrise on an overnight bus. The hotel was kind enough to allow us to leave our bags and we ran off to explore the nearby Shwezigon Pagoda. It is almost 1000 years old and attracts pilgrims daily. To watch the first golden rays of light spill over the stupa was incredible!

 

A dry field in Bagan with temples in the background

Bagan is vast – it used to house around 10,000 temples in its peak. Nowadays some 2000 remain, they’re scattered far and wide, most are in between fields tilled by locals who live in the villages amongst these ancient structures. I went during the dry season in April, you’ll find things to be a lot greener if you come between June and December – you’ll find the least rainy days between December and May.

 

View of the Sulamani temple in Bagan

Comparatively newer than the Shwezigon temple, the Sulamani temple was built in 1183. You’ll pay an entrance fee to Bagan when you arrive and that goes toward the upkeep of these priceless structures. The green shawl around the top of the structure is part of the ongoing restoration efforts.

 

Ceiling frescoes in Sulamani Temple Bagan

Many of the larger temples have managed to preserve their hundreds of years old Buddhist frescoes. Pictured here is the vaulted ceiling of the Sulamani Temple but it also houses several impressive frescoes of various mythological Buddhist scenes.

 

Exterior of Ananda Temple, Bagan

The Ananda Temple has recently been meticulously restored. It’s a great example of what Bagan is famous for – its incredible composite of mixing cultures – and features architecture typical of Burma and various contemporary Indian kingdoms.

 

Kids playing in the temple grounds of Ananda

One of the things I love most about Buddhist temples is that while there is a definite reverence for the image of Buddha, they’re also such joyous places. People take selfies, smile, laugh, enjoy an ice-cream in the sun and so on. Here at Ananda Temple, these kids were having the best day, running around in the massive courtyard which surrounds the 12th-century building.

 

Golden North-facing Buddha in Ananda Temple

The Ananda Temple also has some of the most impressive Buddha statues. Typically in each major temple, there’s a statue for each cardinal direction. This is the North-facing one and it’s truly massive.

 

It’s important to explore all the surrounding buildings of the big temples, many of them house fascinating secret statues, frescoes or relief carvings. This reclining Buddha is at the ziggurat-shaped Shinbinthalyaung Temple. Most reclining Buddha statues are a depiction of the Buddha’s death and passing on to parinirvana (the after-death state of someone who attains nirvana on while alive). This statue is oriented with its head facing south, indicating the Buddha is merely resting.

 

Thatbyinnyu Temple Bagan

Thatbyinnyu Temple represents a transition between the old style and more modern style temples in Bagan. It’s one of the most prominent, built on a small hill, you can see it for miles around. Cars have to park some distance from the temple and you’ll walk in the hot sun to reach it, but thankfully there are ice-cream sellers at the end!

 

Nuns at Manuha temple

Manuha temple is in the heart of the village of Myin Ka Bar and is famous for its golden Buddha statues, but what I loved most was that when we arrived, these young Thilashin (sort of like a nun in western culture) were busy offering donations to the temple by climbing the stairs and dropping notes into the giant golden bowl pictured here. They clearly enjoyed the outing here – everyone had broad smiles on their faces.

 

Dhammayangyi temple Bagan

It was so incredibly hot when we visited Dhammayangyi temple, I climbed atop this mound in the courtyard to capture this shot as the whole temple appeared to glow in the afternoon sunlight.

 

photographer looking over Bagan

At Dhammayangyi, perched atop one of the crumbling ruins was this photographer who our driver told me was really really famous in the country. Bagan attracts some of the most exceptional photographers from all around the world.

 

Detailed woodwork at the Mya Thida Monastery

One of the highlights of the day was a stop at the Mya Thida Monastery, one of the only working monasteries in Bagan, we were told. Its old wooden buildings are decorated with the most intricate hand-carved filigree.

 

Balloons rising over Bagan

One of the biggest highlights was this surprise on my last day in Bagan to view this sunrise. No one knew the balloons were still taking off (they prefer cool weather) and no one knew we could climb a temple to view this sunrise. Our driver took us to a field in the dark, we got out and he used a headlamp to lead us to a small stupa. Giving us a leg up, we scrambled to a small level spot and sat and waited for the first rays of dawn light to trickle through and the balloons to rise across the plain.

 

Getting to Bagan from Yangon

So there are a bunch of ways to get up there, but arguably the best – in terms of price and comfort – is actually by bus. I did a bit of research and found the best was supposed to be JJ Express.

I booked my tickets online which came to less than $20 for a one way – not bad for a 10-hour journey.

JJ Express Bus

JJ Express was the bus company I used and I was super happy with the service.

All buses leave from the Aung Mingalar Highway Bus Station which is nowhere near downtown Yangon, located some 23 km (14 miles) from the old town center. Expect a 1-2 hour taxi ride through Yangon’s somewhat hair-raising boulevards and side alleys to get there – at some point our driver even had to go off-road to get around some roadworks.

The bus station is an experience in itself. It’s massive, messy and chaotic so tell your driver exactly which bus company you’re going with. Getting to the wrong side of the station will see you dragging your nice luggage through muddy puddles for ages looking for the correct company, meaning you could even miss your bus.

Despite the initial shock of getting to the bus station the bus itself was like it came from a different country, possibly even a different planet! You have pre-assigned seats which are laid out 2 – aisle – 1 meaning there’s tons of space and great options for solo and couple travelers.

Each seat has a screen on the back for watching movies, they’re cushy and soft like a lazyboy and recline (almost) fully flat for a very comfy sleep. You’ll get a blanket, snack box, water, and little candies our cabin attendant (yes) told us were medicine: “Good for stomach”.

Interior of the JJ Express bus

I didn’t manage to get a picture of my own for the interior of the bus, but this captured my experience perfectly – the super professional cabin attendants handing out snack boxes and a glimpse of the big comfy seats.

Speaking of cabin attendants, the ladies on this bus would not be out of place seeing to Singapore Airline’s First Class private suites – friendly, super neatly dressed and uber-professional.

The bus left at 8pm and stopped twice on the journey, once at a lux KFC after about 2 hours and then again at about 2 in the morning for a loo break at a roadside service station in the middle of nowhere.

The bus arrives at about 04:30-05:00 in the morning at the BaganShwe Pyi Highway Bus Station, also several kilometers outside of Bagan town, sandwiched between the train station and the end of the airport’s runway. Be prepared to haggle and probably fail at negotiating a less-than-tourist price to town in your groggy 5am state – even the tourist fares won’t break the bank.

Staying in Bagan

So if you haven’t worked it out yet, Myanmar is crazy affordable; even Bagan, the tourist Mecca of the country, while pricier than the rest is still really reasonable. I stayed at a glorious 4-star hotel with a pool, gym, and free bikes, walking distance from the spectacular 900-year-old golden Shwezigon Pagoda in Nyaung U Town. It cost me just around $45 per night per room, including breakfast for two people!

Hotel in Bagan

I stayed at the Ananta Hotel in Nyaung-U. It was exceptional value for money, pretty much like any hotel in Bagan is.

You could also opt for a bed in a dorm in a hostel (with a pool) for around $15 per person per night or one without a pool for around $6 if you’re on a serious budget.

As I mentioned, Bagan is a vast plain, full of fairly evenly spaced temples. It’s bounded by the massive Irrawaddy river to the North and West, the highway and airport on the East and to the South it just sort of fades into endless crop fields.

Sunset over the Irrawaddy River

The Irrawaddy River is Myanmar’s largest river and bounds Bagan on two sides. Definitely worth visiting at sunset! This spot was on the steps next to the Shwe Kun Cha Hpaya shrine.

There are 3 main towns that one can stay in, Nyaung-U, closest to the transport hubs is at the northeast corner. Old Bagan is at the northwest corner – don’t be fooled this doesn’t mean it has more temples, it’s just the older of the modern villages. New Bagan is the furthest from the buses, planes, and trains in the southwest corner.

Getting around Bagan

Again, Bagan is huge. It’s spread over 104km² (40 sq mi), so you can’t simply arrive and walk around. You’ll need help.

e-Bike

Tourists may not drive motorbikes and so you have to use e-bikes which you can usually hire through your hotel/hostel. They cost very little (around $5 per day), have batteries which last up to 8 hours, are slower than a normal bike and much quieter.

You’ll be able to go where you please when you please if you know where you’re going.

Private driver

Okay so, if you’re like me and not a big fan of riding motorbikes – I had a nasty accident several years back and never quite gotten over the fear – a private driver may be a great alternative. I was skeptical, and ready for a hefty bill, but was very pleasantly surprised. Daily trips, spread over 4 days with a driver in an airconditioned car came to just around $60. He took us to places we would have struggled to find, let alone think of ourselves such as a monastery with incredibly ornate carved woodwork, an epic sunset spot overlooking the river and ancient temples hidden down back alleys with strikingly well-preserved frescoes inside.

Mount Popa as viewed from a nearby temple

The temple at Mount Popa sits atop an ancient volcanic plug. You can climb the winding staircase to the top, just watch out for the monkeys. It’s an hour’s drive from Bagan and up a steep hill, so it’s best done with the help of a private driver.

We managed to go as far afield as Mount Popa, an extinct volcano with a prominent rocky plug with a striking golden temple on top – a 1-hour drive by car. The driver took us to nearby villages he knew had the best views and even drew a map for us on how to ascend the mountain and where to find him at the end. This would have been far out of reach by e-bike!

Myanmar food

And, super important not to leave out is the food! Myanmar is a mixing pot between Thai, Chinese and Indian cuisine. It’s heavily reliant on veg and fish, so vegetarians need not worry. The Indian food is some of the best anywhere in the world and the local food pictured here (these are just the sides for two people) is truly unique. Try the tea leaf salad!

Got any questions? Ask in comments below!

 

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