There are over 2000 temples and pagodas that still stand tall at Bagan… there are the large, famous ones… and then, there are the lesser known ones. Which ones to visit… and which ones to skip? I managed to visiting about 1% of the these pagodas in three days. Some of made me stop and admire the architecture… some stunned me with the sparkle of gold… some made me feel part of the local culture …and some calmed my soul with solitude.
Here are the ten pagodas of my choice that are a must visit if you are in Bagan…
Ananda Phaya …for the culture vulture
This is the first temple that I ventured into and I could feel traditions living and breathing in this temple… locals still come to worship here. The grand Buddha statues made me stop for a few minutes and let me ‘feel’ the dedication with which the locals prays. There are four such statues, facing each direction. Two of these statues are original and date back to the 12th century, while the other two are replacements after the originals were destroyed by fire. Each Buddha statue has a unique hand mudra. The south facing Buddha is unique… he looks sad when viewed from close quarters. However, as you step back and increase the distance, he seems to smile!
I got talking to a local at the temple who guided us through the temple and shared stories about the temple and the local life. One of the the stories talks about the construction of the temple. The temple was built by King Kyanzittha of the Pagan Dynasty. He instructed eight monks to act as architects and build the temple, which was duly done. The temple reflects a unique blend of Mon and Indian architecture and was a stellar work of art. The king wanted this to be unique and hence, got the architects killed! What a pity!
Shwe-gu-guyi …for a peaceful sunset
Every tourist heads to Shwe San Daw for the sunset… and I was headed there too. Blame my terrible navigation skills, I lost my way and ended up quite some distance away from the planned destination. With just a few minutes left for sunset, trying to get to Shwe San Daw seemed like a futile effort. Lost like a little puppy, I asked a local for the best place to watch the sunset. He insisted that I should head to Shwe-gu-guyi, where I would have great views without a crowd giving me company. I followed his advice… and here is a picture from the evening….
There were less than twenty people to share the sunset with me. I watched the sun go down with numerous pagodas in the foreground. Gaw Daw Palin temple to my right looked majestic… the Ayeyarwady river reflected the golden sky… the silhouette of the museum building made the entire scene look perfect. My first sunset in Bagan was indeed, magical!
Pya Tha Da …for the adventurous spirit
Getting to Pya Tha Da was a task… I rode my e-bike over sandy dust roads, sought directions from goat herders, referred to the map time and again… All this to find the route to the large and stunning Pya Tha Da that was visible from quite some distance. Long and short of it, getting to Pya Tha Da is a little bit of an adventure… but so worth it!
What I loved about this temple was the large terrace offering views of the plains of Bagan. I reached Pya Tha Da at about 2 pm, when most people had decided to take a break from ‘temple run’. As expected, there were no tourists around and I had all the time in the world to sit under the cool shade of an arch and soak in the views. It was here that the Sulamani temple caught my eye and I decided to head there next.
Sulamani …for paintings and frescos
The temple is named ‘Sulamani’ as it was built on a site where King Narapatisthu found a small ruby (Sulamani, meaning small ruby). This temple caught my fancy from a distance – a pyramid structure adorned with pagodas at the corner of every terrace. This is possibly the most photographed temple on my camera memory card. I took pictures of the temple from the hot air balloon, while riding past it, while entering it and while walking through its corridors.
There are few temples that have such a lot of paintings and frescos left behind after the 1975 earthquake rocked Bagan. Fine brick-work, glazed terracotta decorations and fine plaster carvings are seen on the exterior of the temple while large paintings are seen on the walls of the inner vestibule and chamber. These paintings have still preserved their colours, even after 1000 years!
Thisa Wadi …for the yogi
I never intended to visit the Thisa Wadi temple… but I just had to stop my e-bike when I saw this temple. It looked different! This three storeyed structure looked strong and stable, yet aesthetically so appealing! I climbed up the steps only to realise that a couple of locals to gave me company… No tourist in sight. It was an hour after sunrise and the soft light of the sun brought out the red colour of the bricks. The warmth of the early sun made me want to stretch, regardless of the nip in the air. It was the perfect spot to stretch my muscles with a few yoga poses and take a few deep breaths while taming my thoughts.
I was lucky to get this pagoda to myself. However, please note that this is a poplar spot for sunrise and sunset and tends to get really crowded at these hours.
Dhammayangyi …for a dark history
This temple would look more apt in the desert of Egypt, right next to the pyramids. Its shape is such that it seems to be the odd one out on the plains… there is no hti at the top. Well, the temple was never completed to get the hti in place!
The temple was built by King Narathu, who killed his father and brother to ascend to the throne. Skilled workers worked day and night to lay bricks so close that even a needle cannot pass through adjacent bricks till date. Any deviation in this standard resulted in execution of the mason by the cruel King. The temple has the finest brickwork in Bagan.
King Narathu also killed one of his wives (whose father was the King of Ceylon) for practising Hindu rituals. The King of Ceylon was enraged and sent eight assassins disguised as Brahmans. King Narathu was killed in the Dhammayangyi temple itself and the kingdom was briefly taken over by Ceylon. The construction of the temple stopped… and the incomplete temple still stands on the plains of Bagan narrating its tragic tale.
Dhammayazika …for opulence
This one of the most unique temples in Bagan as it has a pentagon base, while the others have a crucifix base. The shikhara of this temple is gold plated and reflects the rays of Sun during the day. The structure caught my fancy during the hot air balloon flight, when it stood out amongst the rest, flaunting its gilded top and pentagonal base.
For those who like spooky stories- this temple is supposed to be haunted by the spirit of a Captain. There have been instances when tourists have captured the ‘shadow’ on camera. So, remember to look at your pictures carefully when you get back… ‘someone’ might be posing with you in the picture!
That Byin Nyu …for grandeur
That Byin Nyu is the tallest temple in Bagan, with the hti reaching a height of about 60 meters. The four storeyed temple has a large base and seven terraces. It is undoubtedly the most impressive temple in Bagan!
That Byin Nyu is a transitional temple, similar to Ananda Phaya in many ways, yet different by being one of the earliest double-storeyed temples. Sadly, entry to the upper floors is not allowed any more, which would have otherwise offered stellar views of the plains. To the northeast of the Thatbyinnyu is the small gayocho or ‘tally’ temple. To keep count of the bricks in the building of the Thatbyinnyu, one brick was set aside for every 10,000 used, and this small temple was built with the bricks thus set aside.
Shwe San Daw …for a 360 degree view
Hordes of tourists get to Shwe San Daw to watch the sunset. There are so many people with the tripods and selfie sticks that the place loses its magic. However, it is an ideal place to get a 360 degree view of the plains of Bagan at any time, except sunrise or sunset.
Even if you do decide to go here for sunset, stay on for a few minutes longer. Most tourists run immediately after the sun goes down from the horizon and do not wait to enjoy the after light.
Temple 840 …for the explorer
There are so many temples and pagodas that I stopped by, just because they appealed to me. However, temple 840 stood out amongst them on account of the statues that were excavated here. There is one of Buddha, sitting cross legged and meditating… another one of him lying on his side…and the most interesting one is that of a couple. The details are amazing… the crowns, hairdos and the ogre faced belt buckles.
The pagoda is usually locked, but the key holder stays just around the corner. Just shout out ‘Hellooooo’ and the smiling middle aged lady will come pottering around.
I am sure each of us has our list of must see temples and pagodas in the magical plains of Bagan. What’s on you list?