Those who have explored the magnificent plains of Bagan agree that there is no place like it in the world. Located on the banks of the Irrawaddy River, Bagan is breathtaking look into a ancient world of ruling dynasties and the once bustling Silk Road between India and China. To travel Myanmar without a journey to Bagan is a missed opportunity if there ever was one.
With around 3000 of the original temples scattered across “Old Bagan”, it’s no wonder that this vast landscape of ancient architecture is considered the historical heart of Myanmar. Most travellers end up spending around 2-3 nights – ample time to visit the main temples in the Bagan Archaeological Zone. But not everyone has so much time to spare, but aren’t willing to forgo the opportunity see Bagan for themselves. It’s possible to take in the very best of Bagan in only a day, but only if you plan your precious 24-hours the right way. Here’s how even a single day in Bagan could be your most incredible day yet.
Hot Air Ballooning at Dawn
Undoubtedly, the best way to see Bagan’s temples is from the air. For first timers, Bagan is also the perfect place to do it. For one, the setting is sublime. Thousands of temples rising from a verdant canopy of palm and tamarind trees against a backdrop of distant mountains and the nearby Irrawaddy River, form an otherworldly silhouette that will stay etched in your mind forever.
Flights are around 45-60 minutes long and – depending on which direction the wind is blowing – will see you drift over the main temples of Old Bagan into the outlying farm districts nearby. Oriental Ballooning provides state-of-the-art balloons and a professional crew of pilots from the UK and operate flights from around mid-October to mid-March. If you’re including a trip to Bagan on a full tour in Myanmar, adding in this little element for your first hours in the area is well-worth the investment.
Mid-morning at Nyaung U Market
Nyaung U Market is located in the northeastern part of Bagan, in Nyaung U Village. This bustling community market, where buyers and sellers mingle under covered stalls and away from the dry heat, is the perfect opportunity to escape the sun and get a feel for Burmese culture. Plus – with so many fresh fruits and veggies stocked in heaps under closed stalls – you won’t have a problem grabbing a snack to keep your energy up.
Everything from catfish to cucumbers are sold here, alongside a host of other ingredients that form an integral part of Myanmar’s exotic cuisine. Mounds of fish paste and burlap sacks overflowing with dried chillies lounge next to bamboo baskets heaped with everything from tomatoes to long beans. Don’t be surprised to find hawkers selling the traditional longyi and other clothing made nearby – a great place to stock up on souvenirs during your Myanmar travel.
Noon at Shwezigon Pagoda
Shwezigon Pagoda is one of 43 enclosed pagodas in Bagan, and is believed to enshrine a bone and tooth of Buddha. With construction starting during the reign of King Anawrahta and continued by his successors, most would say that it was completed in 1102AD. Around lunchtime, the temple is at its most glittering gold thanks to the mid-day sun overhead.
The pagoda’s gilded, bell-shaped dome is one of Bagan’s most recognisable landmarks and is an impressive example of a Burmese stupa: a circular gold leaf-gilded pagoda surrounded by smaller temples and shrines. The pagoda is also known for its Nine Wonders, including khayey and chayar trees that bloom year round, and a drum beat that can only be heard on one side of the pagoda.
Afternoon at Ananda Temple
Ananda Temple is one of four temples in Bagan that survived the devastating earthquake of 1975. Equal parts Burmese stupa and Indian temple, it has since been titled the “Westminster Abbey of Burma” and houses four standing Buddhas, each one facing the cardinal direction of East, North, West and South.
Completed in 1091AD, it houses a comprehensive collection of ancient Burmese art, stone masonry, terracotta works and sculptures – earning it a place among Myanmar’s most revered temples. Better yet, Ananda temple is a perfect place to escape the mid-day heat in Bagan, since much of it is under the cover of ancient architecture and shielded from the worst of the sun.
Late Afternoon at Sulamani Temple
Also known as the “crowning jewel”, Sulamani Temple is one of the most visited temples in Bagan. Built in 1183 by King Narapatisithu, it houses some of Bagan’s finest ornamental work, including a collection of ancient Burmese frescoes, terracotta plaques and carved stucco.
From the air, Sulamani’s two-storey, broad pyramid-like appearance towers over the surrounding landscape, encased by an impressive high wall, elaborate gateways and individual pagodas at each corner. Arriving in late afternoon is a perfect time to see it while the sun is still hot, since it wouldn’t be difficult to avoid the sun’s rays along one of its towering walls.
Early Evening Cycle through Old Bagan
When the heat dies down in the afternoon, nothing beats cycling through Old Bagan’s ethereal plains. Most of Bagan’s thousand-year-old temples, stupas and pagodas remain largely unexplored by tourists,so cycling is the perfect opportunity to go off the beaten track with your guide. Electric bikes (or “e-bikes”) and bicycles are widely available for rent in Bagan for around US$10 a day, but tagging along with a guide who knows the terrain and trails makes for a cycling trip that hits the very best spots in the plains.
Sunset at Shwesandaw Pagoda
Come 5 o’clock and there begins a mass pilgrimage to Shwesandaw Pagoda, otherwise known as “sunset pagoda”. Built in 1057 by King Anawrahta, the five-terrace pagoda is said to house the sacred hairs of Buddha and a bejewelled umbrella at the summit.
This aside, it is also the best spot to enjoy Bagan’s iconic red sunset. If you’re with a guide, they’ll help you scope out a spot on the third level (second from the top) and sit back to watch the sun fade over the beautiful horizon. With thousands of temples rising out from the ground in front of you and the Irrawaddy River flowing nearby, this stunning scenery will be an image that stays with you forever.