Myanmar Travel Tips

Majestic Myanmar: The Ancient Temples of Bagan (Part 1)

May 5, 2016

Myanmar is a majestic and mysterious country. It was only recently when it opened up to the rest of the world. Formerly known as Burma, one of Southeast Asia’s most ancient cities is now a popular destination for travelers.

One thing to expect in Myanmar is the abundance of temples — there are thousands of them here, especially in the old city of Bagan, where we stayed for most of our trip.

TSM Myanmar Temples 4

In fact, Bagan is known as the “Temple Town.” And this is not an exaggeration. Temples can be found almost everywhere! It is an ancient city; it was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan which unified the regions of what was to become known as Myanmar.

Between the 11th and 13th centuries, over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were built in the Bagan plains alone. Today, over 2,200 temples and pagodas survive.

We actually found this beautiful cluster of 10th to 11th century temples while driving around the city!

TSM Myanmar Temples 1 TSM Myanmar Temples 2 TSM Myanmar Temples 3

Our Hotel in Bagan:

The Areum Palace

TSM Areum Palace Hotel 2

Even from our hotel (specifically the poolside), we had a good view of some of the city’s majestic temples. We stayed at the Areum Palace Hotel, a resort located right amongst some of the city’s most famous temples.

TSM Areaum Palace Hotel 3We were surrounded by beautiful Burmese architecture in and around the hotel.

TSM Areaum Palace Hotel 4 TSM Areaum Palace Hotel 5 TSM Areaum Palace Hotel 6

Important Sights in Bagan:

Shwezigon Pagoda

Very near our hotel, in the Burmese town of Nyaung-U, near the ancient city of Bagan, is the gold-plated Shwezigon Pagoda. This is one of the most significant structures in Bagan and in the whole of Myanmar.

It is a cylindrical Buddhist temple that features a circular gilded stupa encircled by smaller shrines and temples. Built in the late 11th century, it is regarded as the prototype of all stupas in Myanmar.

TSM Shezigon Pagoda

The Shwezigon Pagoda is home to ancient Buddhist statues, shrines, scripture, and relics. It is believed to be housing the frontal bone, collar bone, and a tooth of Gautama Buddha in a shrine within the temple complex. Because of this, Buddhists of the whole of Myanmar hold the pagoda in high regard. I highly suggest you visit this site! Is is stunning and majestic!

Ananda Temple

We also visited one of the largest and most beautiful temples in Myanmar, the Ananda Temple.  It is also considered as the finest, best preserved, and most revered of the Bagan temples.

TSM Ananda Temple 2

Tradition says that King Kyanzittha was inspired to build the Ananda Temple when eight visiting Indian monks spoke of living in the legendary Nanadamula Cave in the Himalayas, where they meditated.
TSM Ananda Temple 1

The Ananda Temple (built in 1090 – 1105) recreates their vision of the cave and was meant to reflect the endless wisdom of Buddha. It houses four standing Buddhas, each one facing the cardinal direction of East, North, West, and South.
TSM Ananda Temple 3

It is is one of the four main temples remaining in Bagan and is known as an architectural wonder in a fusion of Mon and adopted Indian style of architecture.

Dhamayangyi Pagoda

The largest of all the temples in Bagan is the Dhamayangyi Pagoda with its imposing facade made of red brick.

TSM Damayangyi Pagoda 1

It has a controversial story, as its builder King Narathu is known for his wicked rule. He ascended to the Bagan throne by killing his father and elder brother, and this temple was built to atone for that. However, the temple was allegedly never finished as the King himself was assassinated. One version says that when he had one of his wives, a former Indian princess executed for her Hindu hygienic rituals, he was assassinated by eight men, disguised as Brahmin priests, sent by the princess’ father. Another story claims that his death came at the hands of a Ceylonese mission that not only killed the king but sacked the entire city.

Still no matter which version is accurate, the temple stands magnificently today. Dhammayangyi’s brickwork is finely crafted and is considered as one if not the finest in Bagan. Legend, again, reports that Narathu would execute masons if he could stick a pin between the bricks.

Shwesandaw Pagoda

This rare white-colored temple is more commonly known as the Sunset Temple. A standout beauty in a mostly red-colored temple forest, it is named as such because this is the most famous sunset (and sunrise) viewpoint in the whole of Bagan. It is a favorite spot of tourists to visit and to take photos from the terrace.

TSM White Pagoda 1

This graceful white pyramid-style pagoda has steps that lead to five terraces to the circular stupa top, which offers a good 360-degree view.

The legend surrounding this temple says that a Buddha hair relic is enshrined in it, which was presented to King Anawrahta by the King of Ussa Bago (Pegu) to thank him for his assistance in repelling an invasion by the Khmers. (“Shwesandaw” actually means “golden holy hair.”)

Bagan House

There is obviously more to Bagan than the ancient temples and pagoda we have seen. We also took the family to the famous Bagan House to learn more about their culture and heritage.

TSM Bagan House 1

Bagan House features artistic lacquerware and traditional handicrafts. In fact as some of you may already know, Burmese lacquerware is quite known all over the world for its handmade, excellent quality and intricate design. (Lacquer is actually very expensive in other parts of the world, but very cheap here in Myanmar. So if you must buy lacquer, buy them here!)

TSM Bagan House 2

I took the kids to see how they are made and didn’t realize how meticulous and tedious the whole process was! Our visit was a great way to teach them the value of hard work, as well as creativity and love for one’s artistic heritage and culture.

TSM Bagan House 3After seeing what happens in the workshop, we were then led to a showroom filled with some of the most beautiful pieces of lacquerware!
TSM Bagan House 5

And guess who did some shopping here?? 🙂

Sutaungpyei Pagoda

After our temple exploration in Bagan, we headed over to the city of Mandalay, which is about a 3.5 hour drive.

We stayed here for a day and had only one stop: the Mandalay Hill. This is on top of one of their tallest if not the tallest hills, and it overlooks the entire city. It is an important pilgrimage site for the Burmese Buddhists for the last two centuries. It is abundant in beautiful stupas and temples.

At the very top of Mandalay Hill, past monasteries and pagodas lining the way up, is the Sutaungpyei (or Su Taung Pyi) Pagoda. Interestingly, the name translates to “wish-granting.”
TSM Mandalay Hill 3

Many people head to the top to enjoy the views from the terrace.

TSM Mandalay Hill 7

You get to see the flat plains below from here. Look at how far the eye can see! This is the city of Mandalay!

TSM Mandalay Hill 9

Ask your guide to help you spot the fortress surrounding the royal palace and the Irrawaddy River, which should be to the west.
TSM Mandalay Hill 5

But I have to add that the golden interiors of the temple here are too gorgeous to ignore.

TSM Mandalay Hill 6Look at these majestic colors! And the fine details!
TSM Mandalay Hill 8 TSM Mandalay Hill 10TSM Mandalay Hill 12

I must say that Myanmar was a big surprise to me. I’ve heard so many stories and seen so many photos of Bagan’s beautiful historic temples, but never did I imagine that this centuries-old Southeast Asian city, with its over 2,000 temples and pagodas strewn across its vast red plains, would be this mysterious and majestic up close!

Up next… my hot air balloon experience over Bagan. Stay tuned!

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