Bagan: 8 Terrific Temples, Super Stupas
Pretty much all the best Bagan itineraries can be summarised like this: Breathtaking Sunrise, Fascinating Temples / Stupas, Amazing Sunset.
I’ve previously written about how every single Bagan sunrise and sunset I experienced was perfection, so lets talk temples.
OK wait. You might have heard the term ‘temple’, ‘pagoda’ and ‘stupa’. What’s the difference?
Temple: Probably what you think it is. Where the faithful enter and engage with the Buddha directly in meditation.
Stupa: Also known as ‘zedi’ in Myanmar (and ‘chedi’ in Thailand, ‘that’ in Laos) The concept originated from burial mounds (pre-Buddhism), but essentially they are a solid-core monument that act to remind you of the Buddha’s teachings, and walking around them is a meditative practice. You can find out more from this excellent article.
Pagoda: Most commonly associated with the East Asian practice of Mahayana Buddhism, where the stupa developed to have roofs and reach up to the heavens. Although the names of some monuments in Myanmar are ‘Pagoda’ (like Shwezigon and Shwedagon), I think they’re actually more accurately stupas so I’ll stick to calling them stupas.
Bagan has over 2,000 monuments dotting the landscape, which coincidentally is why photos of Bagan look so incredibly mystical, especially at sunrise and sunset.
And while 2,000 is definitely a lot less than what is believed to have been 10,000 (!) temples and stupas in Bagan’s heyday, I found it a challenge to decide which ones to visit.
When I visited Angkor (Cambodia) in 2017, I found the most amazing guidebook - “Focusing on the Angkor Temples: The Guidebook” by Michel Petrotchenko - which had a great selection of temples with great floorplans and descriptions of each.
So I tried to find something similar for Bagan, I ended up with ‘Myanmar (Burma): Temples of Bagan’ only available in e-book form by Approach Guides. Sadly, as I discovered, not only was the writing of this a lot more dry, it was also out-of-date (common theme with Bagan info?!) and I ended up going to a few stupas that were no longer accessible in some way when I visited in December 2018.
But don’t fret, at the end of this blog post I’ll show you a free online resource, which I think is just as good (if not better) and much more interesting.
So here’s my list (ranked with my favourite first) of all the Bagan temples / stupas I visited.
1) Ananda Phaya (Temple)
This one is a definite must-do!
This was the first of the Bagan monuments I visited but my clear favourite.
Its design will remind you more of a cathedral than a temple, but there’s just so much wonder in every corner.
Ananda Phaya is built around the 4 standing Buddhas (each around 9.5m tall!) that face North, South, East and West. Gazing up each of the statues, I challenge you not to feel a sense of awe.
You might be lucky and witness a group of novice monks chanting their prayers.
Please don’t be like some of the tourists who stood right in front of the monks (literally between them and Buddha) to take photos.
I found it quite amusing that the offerings of cash at the footprints of the Buddha seems to have evolved into some kind of a game to get the money through the metal grill.
I also really loved the harmonious colour palette applied at Ananda Phaya.
Ananda Phaya usually ranks highly on pretty much any list of the best temples to visit in Bagan, and I can only wholeheartedly agree! I ended up spending 90 minutes here and could probably have easily spent another hour.
Definitely make sure you visit it when you’re in Bagan.
2) Shwezigon Pagoda
At first glance, the stupa looks identical to Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon.
But I felt Shwezigon had a calmer atmosphere.
Also, interestingly, at Shwezigon, Nats (the indigenous Burmese spirits) are formally recognised and continue to be worshipped alongside Buddhism.
And although Shwezigon isn’t as jewel-studded or as large as Shwedagon, at least its dome was not covered in scaffolding (Shwedagon was under renovation when I visited).
So while similar in some senses to Shwedagon Pagoda, Shwezigon still warrants a visit as it is quite different to the other monuments in Bagan.
3) Payathonzu (Paya Thone Zu)
This one is set a little away from most of the other main temples/stupas, in the east of Bagan. Actually just getting there is a rather nice ride on an e-bike, and would be a good one to do after watching sunrise (check out my article here on Bagan’s best sunrise/sunset locations).
Payathonzu has some of the most beautiful (and original) mural paintings in Bagan.
But unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately for the paintings’ sakes), no photography is allowed in the temple nowadays. This site gives you an idea of what you can see.
Personally, my favourite painting (in all of Bagan) was located in the Eastern temple (there are 3 interconnected ones). If you’re going from the middle temple, go all the way until you get to the window (with the Buddha statue on your right). It’s on the wall between the window and the Buddha.
Two other temples are also nearby: Thambula Temple, and Nanda Pyinnyar Temple (see number 6) and Cave Monastery, which in themselves are probably not worth the journey, but in combination, they are a nice trio to visit.
Note: Thambula is closed and no longer accessible, which is a shame since it is meant to house some really high quality art.
4) Dhammayazika Pagoda
Also out of the way, this stupa is pretty unique in the Buddhist world in that it has a pentagonal (rather than square) base.
The fifth side of the base includes Maitreya, the future Buddha.
For me, a walk around (‘circumambulation’ if you like big words) the stupa in the morning sun was the closest I’ve gotten to understanding the meditative nature of this practice.
5) Pahtothamya Temple
The reason I like Pahtothamya is because it’s pitch dark inside.
One of the features of early-period temples is a cave-like, mysterious atmosphere, with only dim light coming through some slit windows.
Actually this photo I took above is rather overexposed and looks brighter than it actually was.
A cute little girl at the temple (her family was there selling things) showed me around the place with a flashlight.
If you have one, I would highly recommend bringing a good torch when exploring the temples. At Pahtothamya you can find some interesting, original paintings / frescoes on the walls and the light on your mobile phone isn’t going to do it.
It’s also a really nice quiet temple with few visitors, so a nice way to vary the pace of your temple explorations.
6) Nanda Pyinnyar (Nandamannya) Temple
There are two parts to this complex.
The first is a small temple, which houses some really good murals. Most noteworthy is the “Temptation of Mara” where the Buddha is tempted by images of nubile women during his quest for enlightenment.
No photos are allowed, so you’ll have to check it out and see what 13th century erotic images might have looked like.
The second part is the Kyan Kan Kyaung underground monastery where monks continue to live today. This includes a cave (although I think man-made) where the monks live and meditate.
It’s not a particularly impressive looking monastery or cave. Someone on TripAdvisor even called it “awful”, which I think is both harsh and missing the point. Meditation and the practice of Buddhism doesn’t require the gold and shininess of the other monuments, and I found it interesting and calming to have a look around.
I took a few photos but they didn’t turn out well, so instead, you can have a look at this cute pup I found playing at the stairs leading down to the monastery.
7) Dhammayangyi Temple
Dhammayangyi has a rather blood chilling history.
King Narathu, who had the temple built, murdered his own father to ascend to the throne. And in the construction of Dhammyangyi, the masons who did not perform to his exacting requirements were executed. With such behaviour, I’m not particularly sorry to also learn that Narathu himself was murdered (in revenge for having an Indian princess executed) in the very temple.
I don’t particularly recommend going into Dhammayangyi itself.
Not because the place is cursed or haunted. Even worse, there wasn’t that much I found of interest in the temple, and the interior decoration itself is a bit meh (especially after visiting some of the other temples I’ve mentioned above). The best thing in the temple was the traditional puppets hanging in the trees in the temple’s compound.
The view of the temple from a distance, however, is magnificent.
It’s the most massive structure in Bagan, and I can highly recommend you see it at sunset when it is at its most mystical.
The temple is also lit up after dark.
Want to know where to see this sunset view?
8) Shwesandaw Pagoda
The main attraction of Shwesandaw is its 5 stepped terraces.
As you can imagine, this would be an obvious place to watch sunrise and sunset, and seemingly a whole bunch of blogs online still suggest it.
However, you cannot climb Shwesandaw Pagoda anymore. It is forbidden.
And because there was an actual structural collapse, I think it’s highly unlikely that Shwesandaw will be open to visitors going up anytime in the near future. This is low on my list as I think you can pretty much skip it as the only thing really interesting are the terraces.
Top Tip: None of the major temples (i.e. pretty much all the named temples you can find on Google Maps) are climbable anymore. Even where there are internal staircases, most of these have been closed to visitors since 2016/17.
If you are looking for the best places to watch sunrise and sunset in Bagan, check out my list of some amazing (and secret) places I found - click here now.
I visited the 8 temples / stupas above over 2 days. This doesn’t seem like a lot, but bear in mind that they are spread out, and because I was watching sunrise AND sunset every day, I also needed a nap during the day.
Check out this video I made of my 2 days in Bagan:
Please do subscribe to my YouTube channel now if you haven’t already.
There’s a huge variety in Bagan’s monuments and are well worth seeing, at least once in your life.
Top Tip: I mentioned at the start a great free online resource that is even better than the online guide book I bought. Check out the travelmyanmar.net where they have a detailed description of all the main monuments, including the interesting back story.
Coming up next: I head to Mandalay and take the very scenic train to Lashio, over the Gokteik Bridge.
You really don’t want to miss hearing about that adventure and seeing the beautiful scenes I captured there. Sign up to my mailing list now and I’ll let you know as they’re out.