A Little Photoessay… The Ancient Temples of Bagan, Burma

When I left nearly four years ago to travel, I wasn’t sure what pieces of the travel experience would most pique my interest … would it be the varied landscapes, the new foods and flavors, or perhaps new friends? In the intervening years, I learned that I am most engaged in my travel experience when I look for stories from friendly people willing to share a meal. In some places, however, the fascination truly lies deep within the history—often the living history—of a place.

The living legacy left in Bagan, Burma (Myanmar) was visible for miles when I entered the Bagan Archeological Zone, a region of the country with more than 2,200 temples and stupas remaining; the earliest of these structures date back to beginning of the 11th century. As Ana and I traveled through Burma, luck was with us that our visit aligned with the GotPassport family’s travels in Burma as well. The mother, A, is Burmese-American and has family still living in the country; when our visits coincided, they offered us the chance to travel with them on their pilgrimage to Bagan’s holy temples.

bagan temples

Starting in about 1044, Bagan’s wealthy rulers spent 250 years building up this ancient city. At the height of Bagan’s place in history as a seat of power in Southeast Asia, the city had more than 10,000 temples and 1,000 stupas. Building temples is a way for wealthy citizens to build merit, and for this reason temples both large and small were built and donated over the past century.

We spent a whirlwind two days from sunup to sundown visiting the holiest temples, and learning about why these temples are still today used in modern worship.Though renting bicycles is the most popular way for tourists to see navigate the dusty roads and fields of temples, we all drove around in the cushioned bed of a truck so that we could visit many of the temples spread over the 40-square miles of land within the ancient city.

The thing I found fascinating about the temples in Bagan, in contrast to other temple complexes in Southeast Asia (namely Angkor Wat, which I took Ana to see two months after Bagan), is the fact that many of the temples were reconstructed for modern use. There were plenty of crumbling, pumpkin-colored stupas contrasting the fields of dull grass burnt dry from the strong sun, but a great many of the holiest temples were modern places of worship with re-gilded exteriors, Buddha statues, and Nats.

Below I’d like to share a photo journey and the story of our days visiting the monasteries and stupas of ancient Bagan that form the country’s living history. Bagan is incredibly photogenic, so I’ve shared the highlights (21 photos and mini-stories!)  from two full days below (sunrise to sunset), but there are more Bagan travel photos if you’re keen.

Monks almsgiving Bagan, Burma

Our small group prepared for our first day at the ruins as dawn settled over the region; these monks passed our guesthouse in the early morning hours on their almsgiving walk through town. Giving alms is a daily ritual throughout most of Southeast Asia and the act of giving builds merit for the giver. Locals give rice and food into the bowls of the monks as they pass by homes and shops; in this way, they pay respect to the monks and connect to their spirituality.

Shwezigon Pagoda, Bagan

The beautiful, gilded complex of temples and stupas at Shwezigon Pagoda attracted a handful of tourists in the dawn hours. The quiet energy humming through the temple captivated us. Sunrise hot-air balloons would have no doubt been a magical way to experience the first hours of lift shining over the 40 miles of temples, stupas and monasteries dotting the plains around Bagan, but we opted to stay on the ground this time.

Dhammayangyi Pahto

These twin images side-by-side are an uncommon representation of Buddha. I have seen the Buddha depicted in hundreds of positions and facial expressions over the years, but these beatific smiles at Dhammayangyi Pahto temple shine with peace and happiness.

Dhammayangyi Pahto temple

The stunning, cavernous hallways at Dhammayangyi Pahto temple. This is a highlight and a a beautiful temple.

Ananda Paya temple

The  quite sunrise hours have given way to the tour buses by mid-morning, and locals and tourist alike mix and merge on the paths leading to Ananda Paya temple.  Of note, and particularly interesting to the children in the group, was that this temple’s gilded top looks like a corn cob. :)

Popa Taungkalat Shrine

The Burmese are generous with water and basic necessities. There were many instances where they could have charged for water, but instead the active temples and monasteries offered up jugs, canisters, and containers filled and free so that no one should go thirsty on their pilgrimage–some temples had very steep hikes!

Thatbyinnyu Temple

Ana and I posed for a shot together with the photogenic Thatbyinnyu Temple temple in the background.

Hgnet Pyit Taung temple

Two doorways from two beautiful temples. The left is looking out at Thatbyinnyu Temple. The second one is the ornate entrance to the Hgnet Pyit Taung temple.

Temple in Bagan, Burma (Myanmar)

Different animals represent different days of the week in the Burmese zodiac. The week day of your birth dictates which station and animal you should visit at the temples. There are eight stations because Wednesday is split into two different animals. This creature is the tiger and represents Monday; it’s worth researching your day of birth before you travel through Burma so you can pay respect through their cultural beliefs to your zodiac animal.

vendor, burma

A vendor sells bouquets of flowers to pilgrims making their way up Mt Popa to the Popa Taungkalat monastery.

footwear prohibited sign

You must have bare feet when entering any Buddhist temple. In this case, the sign is a reminder to the pilgrims hiking the stairs to the very top of the mountain that they must do so barefoot … while dodging monkeys!

monkeys in myanmar

The temple monkeys are aggressive and hungry; they pester the pilgrims slowly making their way up the 777 steps that are carved into the side of  Mt. Popa, all leading to the Popa Taungkalat monastery.

Htilominlo Temple

Intricate paintings inside of Htilominlo Temple have survived the centuries. This was just one of the many frescoes lining the walls. The most delicate and intricate of the paintings in some of the other temples are only lit by flashlights and prohibit photography as a way to ensure future generations can witness the beautiful artwork.

thanaka powder

The thanaka powder that the Burmese use on their faces actually comes from these sticks. They grind the thanaka on the stone, add water (or other creams in modern instances) and then apply to their skin for beauty, tradition, and skin protection.

Hand-rolled sour plum candies made in the Bagan region of Burma.

On the side of the road a candy maker sells hand-rolled sour plum candies; although sweet candies from jaggery are popular all over the country, the sour plum flavor is unique to this region and it’s worth sampling some from many vendors as they come in varying levels of sour and sweet!

burmese boy

This young and eager boy was our impromptu tour guide through one of the temple complexes.

Buddha Manuha temple, Popa

Buddha on the left is from the Manuha temple, and the right one is very unique. This Buddha sits in the Taung Kalat monastery on Mount Popa–the Buddha statue is adorned with hundreds of tiny Buddha images.

 Irrawaddy River or Ayeyarwady River

The Irrawaddy River runs along Bupaya pagoda and provided a welcome and cool breeze in the hot, late afternoon sun. Ana and I learned a lot before we left for Burma about the effect that major rivers have on trade and development within the countries in Southeast Asia, so it was interesting for us to watch the slow pace of life on this section of the river.


A loaded truck on the dusty roads

As the day started to wind down, the pickup trucks began to ferry all the locals back to their homes just as we (Ana, A, M and I) rented a horsecart to take us to a sunset spot. Though tourists are common in Bagan, friendliness is an inherent part of Burmese culture and we got waves and smiles from every single passing truck.

Horse carts sunset

Our second night in Bagan we picked a sunset spot that only had a handful of tourists sitting on the ledges. Because the trip back is in near darkness, tourists take the horse-drawn carts to and from the sunset spots.

Sunset in Bagan, Burma (Myanmar)

The horse-carts give a bit of perspective on the size of these temples. Though some of the ruins are small stupas, others are massive temples that date back to the kings and rulers in the 10th and 11th centuries.

Sunset temples in Bagan, Burma (Myanmar)

The hundreds of temples shift and change in the setting sun and allow for a different and beautiful sunset spot each night.

Sunset in Bagan, Burma (Myanmar)

We perched on the ledge of the temple and watched the sun sink across the sky.

A temple silhouetted in Bagan, Burma (Myanmar)

The last fragments of daylight left the sky and silhouetted the iconic temples.

Bagan was such a special stop on our trip. The temples were incredible and though they are not yet registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site (politics), this counts as a unique place in our cultural heritage.

Which photo struck you the most and why? Would you like to visit Bagan?



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  • The temples of Bagan are currently the backdrop on my computer screen. :) It’s a place I’m really looking forward to experiencing for myself. And I like your photo of the hot air balloons rising in the background – it makes the pagoda look like a magical setting!

    • ShannonOD

      Thanks Audrey, that’s one of my favorite’s too — if I had the money (it was really pricey) I would have loved to have done the sunrise balloon ride. Do you have plans to go there soon?

  • My mothers side of my family is Burmese and I now live in Chiang Mai. Haven’t seen this side of Burma yet. Can’t wait to go here with my mum. J

    • ShannonOD

      Going with your mum will surely make it more memorable. If you’re interested in a tasty, tiny Burmese restaurant in Chiang Mai, just outside of the old city is FreeStyle. The woman who runs it is lovely, and if you know a dish you’d like, she can often make Burmese dishes that are not on the menu.

      • that sounds amazing, do they speak any english there? or just Thai & Burmese? Unfortunately my mum never taught me so i’m trying to learn now. (at the age of 28) its took me that long to realise i should’ve asked her to teach me years ago. Never mind. It’s never too late right ;-)

        • ShannonOD

          Yes, they speak English! The woman who runs it used to work here: — which is a non-profit cafe/school that helps Shan and Burmese refugees learn English and find work. She branched off when she was settled enough and started her own. I don’t speak anything but English either, no worries, both have English menus :) Good luck!

          • That sounds awesome. Can’t wait to visit. Actually we might be getting sponsored to do a Video series on CM soon so if we like it we could do a feature on the place. I love local gems. Thanks for the advice. Need to get more in touch with my Burmese side. :-)

          • ShannonOD

            If that’s the case, you must, must, must go visit Akha Ama coffee. Not Burmese, the man who runs it was born and raised in the hills north of Chiang Rai — he is the face of a co-op of sorts for his hill tribe village, and they sell coffee. He has a great story and is super personable, it’s my favorite coffee shop in town ( ) Good luck! :)

  • me

    thank you so much for this, it was nice to step away from the day here in America…
    and put things back into perspective.

    • ShannonOD

      I am glad you enjoyed. I often find just stepping away and taking a few minutes to immerse in something interesting/new/beautiful can re-calibrate. Hope your week went well. :)

  • bessiejulia

    These photos brought tears to my eyes. Simply beautiful. It’s a place in my heart.

  • Beyond, beyond gorgeous. That sunset shot is one of the best I’ve ever seen!!!!!

    • ShannonOD

      Thank you Andi! I appreciate your support and positivity, I hope we can meet one day soon! :)

  • I agree with Andi. The sunset photos are fantastic. Especially the ones with the “horse carts”. Safe Travels !!!

    • ShannonOD

      Thank you Mike, when I faced opposite the setting sun, the orange ochre temples in the sunlight were so beautiful. Cheers and thanks for stopping in :)

  • Beautiful! I would love to visit here. The sunset photos are beyond gorgeous. I’d love to spend a few days exploring here!

    • ShannonOD

      Thank you Sky! Burma is a remarkable country, and a highlight. Best of luck on your upcoming travels, looking forward to hearing more about your work within Habitat in Ghana! :)

  • Keith

    Traveling in Southeast Asia I was use to leaving my shoes at the bottom of the stairs to the temples. I don’t think I went into any temples with a lot of monkeys around but I know they can be little thieves. Did you have to carry your shoes with you in this temple or are shoes the one thing monkeys have no interest in stealing?

    • ShannonOD

      The monkeys are after the peanuts that sell there, so shoes are generally safe. We actually left our shoes in our truck, but they have little areas near many of the temples in Bagan with shelves for footwear so that it doesn’t get too unmanageable. The monkeys can be vicious though–at the temples in India they were ruthless in trying to steal anything in my hands … even non-food!

  • Such luck hooking up with GOTPASSPORTFAMILY! wonderful photo essay!

    • ShannonOD

      Thank you! They are such a lovely family, and we were so fortunate to count them as friends and see Burma with them. :)

  • eriksmithdotcom

    These are awesome. I especially like the one of you and Ana. That’ll be a cherished memory forever. How’s the readjustment to school & America going for her?

    • ShannonOD

      Thanks Erik! Readjustment to the US was rough, after the initial rush of being home wore off, she realized in some ways in can be a lot more dull! But we hare restarted another year of homeschooling, and that has been going very well :)

  • Dar Japan

    Wonderful pictures and make me miss my country. I love sun setting and riding horse cart around is also fun.

    • ShannonOD

      I do hope I did you country justice, it was so beautiful– the people, culture, and architecture. :)

  • mina77

    That sunset… how amazing. Looks like you had a great time.

    Hope you’re well, Shannon.

    • ShannonOD

      Thank you Mina, it was such a beautiful country to visit. Your exploration of Canada this summer yielded some beautiful photos. When I pass through Montreal next summer, I would love to meet you both :)

  • Hariram

    Reading through this beautiful article only makes me realize that I’ve been spending too much time at work! The Thanaka powder on your tour guide’s face reminds me of the Sandalwood paste we Indians use! You & Ana are having a blast alright :)

    • ShannonOD

      Thank you! The aesthetic of the powder is so beautiful, and I do remember seeing similar in India. It’s been wonderful to travel with my niece and I actually hope to take her to India in the next few years to experience your country :)

  • Jo

    I’m going there in January! I honestly can’t wait!!!

    • ShannonOD

      That is a great time of year to be there (pack some cold weather clothes for the freezing cold nights!) and enjoy, it was a beautiful country. Safe travels Jo :)

  • This looks amazing, great photo’s! I can’t wait to travel here in spring 2013… This makes me want to book a flight for tomorrow!

    • ShannonOD

      Thank you Michelle! Not sure when you’re going, but if you’re there in April you might time your visit for Thingyan, their annual New Years water festival: :)

      • That looks really interesting! The original plan was to go around March, but April would be very doable…
        Also, I just posted a tiny piece about Bagan on my (newbie) blog. Would you be okay with it if I add a link to this photo essay?

        • ShannonOD

          Sure thing Michelle! Go ahead and add it :)

        • NyoChaw

          April is the month of Myanmar New year which is Water festival where water are splash through out the country no matter who you are.
          Just another things to take note is that April is hot season in Myanmar and the Bagan region is very hot at that time.
          Anyway, enjoy travelling and welcome to Myanmar

  • Beautiful pictures, I’m missing Asia so much!

    • ShannonOD

      I know just how you feel! I’ve been having pangs for it all week, and looking at photos just makes me wonder all the more when I can make it back there soon! Any plans to return soon?

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  • Addison S. @ Visa Hunter

    The first sentence of this post is so true. Inspirations from traveling can change from one day to the next, even from morning to night. Personally, I find it difficult to choose between the people, cuisine, landscapes and architecture and have decided to accept that it is the curious blend of everything that makes our travels so fascinating.

    • ShannonOD

      It is difficult to choose, and I find that the place usually dictates which of these pulls to the forefront of focus–a place like Bagan just begs to be studied from a historical and architectural perspective! Thanks for stopping by and weighing in :)

  • Chris Pearrow

    Wow! Really inspirational photos. One thing I was wondering about is the amount of people out there among the stupas. Many of the world’s holy places (Hagia Sofia, Angkor Wat, etc.) are so full of visitors that it can get tricky to find a moment of peace for yourself to just soak it all in. It’s doubly frustrating because of teh natural inner-quiet those places inspire. What was it like in Bagan?

    • ShannonOD

      Hi Chris–you have a very valid concern, because it can get very overwhelming with people. In Burma right now, the tourism is only just starting to pick up, so it’s not remotely to Angkor Wat levels … yet. It will get there though. There are a lot of temples to visit in Bagan, and they are generally closer than in Angkor Wat … so you can beat the crowds more easily. But at sunset, if you choose any of the major sunset spots there are a lot of people. But, not all are foreign tourists, many are the Burmese on their pilgrimage. This ration will change, but the feel and quiet was much different than other big spots. :)

  • Loren


    Your writings, taking your niece on this adventure and pictures are all amazing. My wife, myself, our friend Susan who left burma when she was 13 (35 years ago) and her sister Caroline (she was 11) are going to Burma January 2013. It will be their first times back.

    What camera did you use? I have a DSLR but am leaving it home, I want a camera that fits in my pocket and want to take pictures somewhat discreetly.

    • ShannonOD

      Hi Loren! I use a Lumix GF1, which is not quite pocket-sized. But, if you are looking for a great camera that won’t make you really regret leaving your DSLR at home, I would look at the Cannon S95. I hope your travels to Burma go wonderfully, enjoy the trip and the planning! :)

  • robert

    Aww! Amazing place!

  • Information Center

    I work at a school full of Burmese refugees. I would like to use one of your beautiful photos in a display. I would like to give you credit for it but I cannot find your full name on your website.

    • ShannonOD

      Hi, thank you please use whichever you would like! My name is Shannon O’Donnell :)

  • Sam

    The pics are very nice and post are also very nice too, thanks for sharing.

  • patty

    The temple know as “GU” this means they inspired by rock caves of Buddhist. This place is for workships that included the richly frescoed corridors with sacred shrines images and workshipped. They have symbolic home of god. their temple is very simple.

    • ShannonOD

      Thank you for sharing that insight Patty, the frescoes were so beautiful to look at and it was surprising that many of the small temples had these wonderful works of art inside!

  • NyoChaw

    The Zodiac in your picture is actually Tiger which represent Monday.

    Lion – Tuesday
    Elephant – Wednesday morning to afternoon.
    Elephant (with tusks) – Wednesday evening to midnight
    Rat – Thursday
    Porcupine – Friday (Many people on internet describe mistakenly with Guinea Pig if you do research on internet)
    Dragon – Saturday
    Garuda – Sunday

    Sometime in marriage, people like to calculate their fortune depending on which day their partner born. Whether he/she would be match in the aspect of health, wealth, whether the marriage bring luck and happiness. Even though nowadays people are not that superstitious to extreme extinct. Check out yourself which day you were born? it’s interesting to know about yourself when you didn’t notice until you found Burmese zodiac. At least for my Singaporean friend, they didn’t notice which day they were born.

    • ShannonOD

      Thanks for the update and letting me know it is the tiger! I asked when I was there but forgot the answer. Also, I looked up my birthday day just before I went to Shwedagon so that I would have the right day (Wednesday morning).

      I appreciate your insight and that you shared some more about Myanmar culture.

  • Rafael

    GORGEOUS pictures! First time I’ve been to your blog ever (just came from Go, See, Write) and these pictures stumbled upon me. Together with the text, it caught me. Congratulations!

    • ShannonOD

      Thank you Rafael, and good to have you here from Michael’s site, his storytelling is a bit different than mine, so I’m so glad you enjoyed the post! Cheers, and please don’t hesitate to send me an email if there is ever anything I can help you with :)

  • I’d love to visit Burma and Bagan. I love your photo of the sunset over the temples – reminds me of when I visited the Mayan temples in Guatemala.

    • ShannonOD

      There are similarities in the feeling–these beautiful temples surrounding by trees and some are even similarly buried in the dirt from hundreds of years without use. I hope you make it there soon :)

  • Stephen Schreck

    wow you have a great photography eye. What a stunning place This has to go onto my bucket list. I love watching sunsets at places like this. The first time I was in Rome I watched the sunset over the colosseum for four days straight.

    • ShannonOD

      Thanks Stephen, it was beautiful an so much calmer at the untouristy temple, it meant we could quietly watch the sun set and just take everything in–it’s a bucket list place for sure. As for Rome, where did you watch the sunset from? I spent a couple weeks in the city but I think I missed out on that view?!

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  • ShannonOD

    Are cars really do often isolate us from connecting and sharing experiences with others — from be able to look at the people surrounding us and not only be able to ask about their story, but then be immersed enough to care about those in our towns and cities living right alongside us. Thanks for stopping in and sharing Jen :)

  • Brian See

    some of the photos were taken from elevated points, are there hills or buildings?

    • You are allowed to climb to the top if a few of the huge ones, especial popular at sunset. An Mt. Popa is holy and a hike many do to the top. :)

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  • PeteNYC

    Wow, bicycles in Pagan! AND Hot Air Balloons!! In 1979 there were only a small handful of the horse drawn carts and virtually no backpackers. The military was ubiquitous and the people were supremely gracious…..I also read ur piece on Africa….After a year in Asia I spent 6 months traversing that incredibly beautiful, but often hostile, continent. (In short: That was a searing experience…..) Well, great/informative blog, thanks for sharing. Stay safe & be Well, Pete

    • Well, though the bicycles have changed, people are still extremely gracious, that has not changed at all! I appreciate you reading along and sharing your own journey — I would have loved to see the region before rampant tourism hit Southeast Asia.

  • Bas Kroese

    Great photos!

  • Thanks for sharing Richard, Bagan was such a stunning site.