A Little Photoessay… The Ancient Temples of Bagan, Myanmar
Last updated on January 21, 2023
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, 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.
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, 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.
Photos and Stories from the Temples of Bagan
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.
70 thoughts on “A Little Photoessay… The Ancient Temples of Bagan, Myanmar”
Hi Shannon, very nice sharing. I especially like the scene of monks walking in line for alms and a few years back, I joined the people giving food to the monks in Luang Prabang. Where in Bagan did you see this activity the most?
It is so beautiful to see, and how wonderful that you were able to join the people offering alms. In Bagan, it’s less touristy that Luang Prabang, it happens in the very early morning and they monks quietly passed by our guesthouse, there wasn’t another person outside as they walked back to their monastery. If you ask at your hotel, they will know a route the monks take locally.
Thanks for sharing Richard, Bagan was such a stunning site.
wow shannon! awesome!
My favorite place in Myanmar was Bagan, and I enjoyed reading your stuff as well.
Hope you enjoyed :)
Seeing this post, i really excited to visit bagan in burma and i also visit most fascinating historical sites in southeast asia.
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.
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. :)
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 :)
I really like the one with all of the people heading home from work etc. packed into a truck. I really enjoy seeing everyday people going about their business, as well as HOW they go about it. In the West we often get tunnel vision and avoid the glance of strangers instead of giving them a friendly smile and wave. Because of this, we probably miss a lot of opportunities to begin new friendships. I think that any of us take having a car all to ourselves for granted, and we are probably a bit safety-paranoid too. I really would like to visit Myanmar and have been reading a lot about it lately. Hope I get to do it some day. I also saw a lot of interesting things about the country here: http://www.myanmarburma.com
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.
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?!
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.
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 :)
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!
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 :)
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.
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.
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.
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!
The pics are very nice and post are also very nice too, thanks for sharing.
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.
Hi, thank you please use whichever you would like! My name is Shannon O’Donnell :)
Aww! Amazing place!
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.
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! :)
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?
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. :)
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.
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 :)
Beautiful pictures, I’m missing Asia so much!
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?
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!
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: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thingyan :)
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?
Sure thing Michelle! Go ahead and add it :)
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
I’m going there in January! I honestly can’t wait!!!
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 :)
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 :)
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 :)
That sunset… how amazing. Looks like you had a great time.
Hope you’re well, Shannon.
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 :)
Wonderful pictures and make me miss my country. I love sun setting and riding horse cart around is also fun.
I do hope I did you country justice, it was so beautiful– the people, culture, and architecture. :)
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?
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 :)
Such luck hooking up with GOTPASSPORTFAMILY! wonderful photo essay!
Thank you! They are such a lovely family, and we were so fortunate to count them as friends and see Burma with them. :)
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?
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!
Beautiful! I would love to visit here. The sunset photos are beyond gorgeous. I’d love to spend a few days exploring here!
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! :)
I agree with Andi. The sunset photos are fantastic. Especially the ones with the “horse carts”. Safe Travels !!!
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 :)
Beyond, beyond gorgeous. That sunset shot is one of the best I’ve ever seen!!!!!
Thank you Andi! I appreciate your support and positivity, I hope we can meet one day soon! :)
These photos brought tears to my eyes. Simply beautiful. It’s a place in my heart.
thank you so much for this, it was nice to step away from the day here in America…
and put things back into perspective.
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. :)
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
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. https://www.facebook.com/FreeStyleChiangMai
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 ;-)
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. :-)
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 ( http://www.akhaama.com ) Good luck! :)
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!
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?