A Little Photoessay… The Ancient Temples of Bagan, Myanmar
Last updated on May 9, 2023
When I left to travel the world in 2008, 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 listening to friendly people share their stories over 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, Myanmar (formerly Burma) 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 my niece Ana and I traveled through Burma, luck was with us that our visit aligned with our friends’ family travels in Myanmar as well. The mother is Burmese-American and has family still living in the country; when our visits coincided, she and her family offered us the chance to travel with them on their pilgrimage to Bagan’s holy temples.
The History of Bagan, Myanmar
In the 13th century, Bagan was invaded by the Mongols, and the city fell into decline. Many of the temples were abandoned and left to deteriorate over time. Today, the site was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2019, recognizing its outstanding universal value as a cultural site.
For the Burmese people, the temples of Bagan hold great spiritual significance, and they are actively used for worship to this day. Resident monks who live and study in many of Bagan’s temples, and visitors can often observe them performing their daily rituals. The temples are also popular destinations for pilgrimages, particularly during major Buddhist holidays.
Best Temples to Visit in Bagan
Our group 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 navigate the dusty roads and fields of temples, we drove around in the cushioned bed of a truck so that we could visit many of the best temples spread far away over the 40-square miles of land within the ancient city.
In contrast to other ancient temple complexes in Southeast Asia crumbling into ruins and used primarily by hordes of tourists (namely Angkor Wat, which I revisited two months after Bagan), the temples in Bagan have been 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 are modern places of worship with re-gilded exteriors, Buddha statues, and Nats.
These are the best temples that should be on your radar when visiting. Then below I share more about each key temple, photos, stories, and why you should include it on your Bagan itinerary.
Shwezigon Pagoda: A significant religious site believed to enshrine a bone and tooth of Buddha. Visit early in the morning and you’ll avoid the crowds—it was virtually empty while we were there as it opened.
Ananda Temple: A masterpiece of Mon architecture known for its stunning Buddha images and architecture. Visit in the late afternoon and watch a beautiful sunset.
Dhammayangyi Temple: The largest temple in Bagan offers unique architecture and a fascinating history. Visit in the morning to avoid the crowds and heat.
Sulamani Temple: A beautiful temple with intricate carvings and frescoes. Visit in the morning or late afternoon to avoid the heat of the day.
Thatbyinnyu Temple: The tallest temple in Bagan with a unique architecture and stunning views of the surrounding area. Visit early in the morning or late afternoon for the best light. And go further afield for a shot of you with this photogenic temple in the background.
Gawdawpalin Temple: A large temple with beautiful carvings and a great viewpoint for watching the sunrise or sunset. Visit early in the morning or late afternoon for the best light.
Bu Paya Pagoda: A unique temple built in the shape of a gourd with a beautiful view of the Irrawaddy River. Visit in the evening to enjoy the peaceful atmosphere, cool breeze, and a beautiful sunset.
Lawkananda Pagoda: A popular temple for locals and tourists alike because of the beautiful river views and peaceful atmosphere. Visit in the evening to avoid the heat and crowds.
Myazedi Pagoda: A small but historically significant temple with inscriptions in four different languages, including Myanmar’s earliest written records. Visit in the morning to avoid the crowds.
Dress modestly for your days of temple hopping, and always remove your shoes before entering the temples as a sign of respect. Be mindful of the impact of your visit and follow responsible tourism practices—leave no trace, trash, or mark on Bagan.
Photos and Stories from the Temples of Bagan
Below is a photo journey through our days visiting the monasteries, stupas, and temples of ancient Bagan that form the country’s living history. Bagan, Myanmar 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 travel photos from Bagan, Myanmar and its temples if you’re keen.
Bagan was such a special stop on our travels through Myanmar and an real highlight of our time traveling the region. The temples are 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.