Temples of Bagan
Marco Polo, who may or may not have visited on his travels, described Bagan as ‘one of the finest sights in the world’. Despite centuries of neglect, looting, erosion and regular earthquakes, not to mention questionable restoration, this temple-studded plain remains a remarkably impressive and unforgettable vision.
In a 230-year building frenzy until 1287 and the Mongol invasions, Bagan’s kings commissioned more than 4000 Buddhist temples. These brick and stucco religious structures are all that remain of their grand city, with the 11th- to 13th-century wooden buildings long gone.
Many restoration projects have resulted in a compromised archaeological site. Often the restorations bear little resemblance to the original building styles. Still, Bagan remains a wonder. Working temples, such as Ananda Pahto, give a sense of what the place was like at its zenith, while others conceal colourful murals and exterior platforms with jaw-dropping views across the plain.
The bulk of Bagan's temples are scattered across the vast northern plain between Nyaung U, Old Bagan and New Bagan. This broad area runs between the Old Bagan walls and Nyaung U, and (mostly) between the two roads that connect the two.
Extending from the edge of Old Bagan, this vast and lovely plain (roughly south of Anawrahta Rd between New Bagan and Nyaung U) is home to a few must-see temples that everyone visits (for example, Shwesandaw Paya and Dhammayangyi Pahto) and many pockets of temples that few ever see. It’s a great place to follow your own whims. You’ll find goatherds and some village life out here but no restaurants or lunch options. Some temples are locked, but a ‘keyholder’ should be in the area.
This rural area, along Bagan’s southern reaches, follows the main road between New Bagan and Nyaung U's airport, passing Pwasaw and Minnanthu villages on the way. Other than a few places, such as Payathonzu, most sights have few tourists. Many horse-cart drivers will take in the cluster of sights north of Minnanthu and go via dirt paths towards Central Plain sights, such as Sulamani Pahto. If you want to see the sheer scope of the site, the views west from some of the temples here rival any others in Bagan.
Keyholders & Souvenir Hawkers
Major temples that remain active places of worship, such as Ananda Pahto and Shwezigon Paya, are always open during the day. For many others you must first find the ‘keyholder’, who is the caretaker of the site. Often they (or their kids) will find you first and open the gate for you. A bit of ‘tea money’ (say K500) is appreciated. We’re told that the keyholders are assigned by the archaeology department.
The other constant of Bagan temples – even relatively remote ones – are souvenir hawkers, often selling (and sometimes creating) colourful sand paintings. Some of these replicate parts of the murals from inside the temples and are quite skilful, with prices starting as low as K1000 for smaller canvases but rising sharply for more detailed and larger works; other images are pretty generic and found across all temple sites. Although some hawkers can be persistent, if you’re not interested in buying, most will leave you alone.
We’re told that official souvenir hawkers at the temples pay a sizeable licence fee, but it’s likely that there are many more unofficial vendors, given the potential for relatively easy money. Compared to often arduous work on a farm, selling souvenirs seems like an easy job to some. Unfortunately, a growing number of children in Bagan are quitting school in order to work as hawkers.