Thousands and thousands of temples on the plains of Bagan, Burma

In researching our trip to Bagan I read a lot of different resources. Each of them dictated a specific list of which temples to visit and what order to see them in. We sortof took that advice, seeing most of what was on the lists. And having now done that myself the best advice I can give to others considering such a visit is to completely ignore the lists and guides. Take advantage of the details they offer about the history of the various temples they have information on but don’t consider them the complete story on what’s worth seeing. It turns out that some of the best moments we had at the temples came while visiting the temples which aren’t featured on any maps or guides.

It is not entirely clear why, over a 230 year period at the beginning of the last millennium, the kings of Bagan commissioned more than 4,000 temples to be built in the area. But, 800 years later, there they are. Some are tiny, barely large enough for the small Buddha inside. Others are huge, going up multiple stories and hosting giant icons covered in gold leaf. Some you can climb up on the outside and others are far out in the fields where getting to them is quite a schlep.

Another thing the guide books are big on is sunrise or sunset. To be fair, part of that is almost certainly tied to the fact that it gets quite hot mid-day on the plains and there is nothing in the way of shade available. Our experience at sunset, however, left a bit to be desired. Yes, the light was nice for some shots of the temples. But the sunset itself was rather disappointing. No clouds in the sky made for rather limited colors and virtually no drama in the sky which typically make for a great sunset. I got a few good shots playing with the color balance a bit but the overall experience left a bit to be desired. The part where we then had to get back to our hotel with our bikes on dark roads with no shoulders was also a bit unnerving.

There are two main roads heading south-west from Nyaung U, the town where the airport and most hotels and restaurants are located. Rather than following the suggested routes in the guide books we simply chose to explore the temples on the main road the first day and the second road the second day.


We were riding on the quite unspectacular bikes the hotel rented us and with minimal navigational issues – the roads are basically long and straight – we were able to stop where and when we wanted along the way, unbound by a "circuit" we were supposed to be on.

We absolutely saw some of the big name temples. Unfortunately, to me, it seems that the main reason they are special is because they are bigger. And bigger is not always better. As we wandered amongst the dusty plains between the smaller temples we had the ability to better appreciate the history of the area and to experience the sites without the big crowds. And that covers both other tourists and touts.

Visiting these spiritual sites is more impressive to me when it can be done without aggressive hawkers as you come and go. By skipping many of the listed sites we got to see much of the same beauty and avoid much of the hassle.

After two days of all pagodas all the time I was pretty much done with Bagan. I was actually ready to be done with temples in general for a while given that they were basically all we’d seen over the prior week, far exceeding my usual tolerance for such. But there were more sights to be seen and many of them involved more temples. Time to press on…

LOTS more photos from the plains of Bagan here.

More stories from Burma here.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. A half-day on a bike at Bagan almost finished me. Much preferred to tour by horse drawn cart which was reasonable enough that we rented to — one for the grown-ups and one for the kids. Of course, I’m old and fat which makes a difference.

    I thought the best part of the experience was the temples away from the paved roads which you get to on bumpy dirt roads or paths. There’s also a village at the south-east end of the temples area which you can visit and where they’ve set up demonstrations of traditional agricultural operations and weaving techniques. It’s clearly intended for the horse-cart trade but seems to be a purely local endeavor and was quite nice and interesting.

    We found a decent mid range hotel that had a swimming pool — I’ll have to look up the name.

    Bagan is one of the great sights of the world.

  2. Kudos to you for cycling! I went a few years ago in May during the hot season and the only times I could visit the temples were during the morning or late afternoon.
    Having visited Angkor Wat and Borobudur in the past, I absolutely loved Bagan. Lesser tourists, more locals, and less hawkers. Actually, when I went in 2009 I probably saw only a handful of hawkers compared to 3-5 times more in Angkor Wat!
    By the way, your sunset photos look pretty good to me. By the way, does Myanmar still have no ATMs whatsoever? I recall making sure I had a stack of hundred dollar bills (freshly new) when I arrived.

  3. Seth, I am going to be there next month. Where did you stay? I’ve heard Nyaung U is the best place as there are some great restaurants around and the bike ride is really nice..any insight is appreciated!

  4. We had an amazing time in Bagan in 2007. I miss this place so much. Please rent bicycles! It is healthy and fun. Using horses is animal cruelty.
    We arrived in Bagan on the government ship from Mandalay. Took 15 hours and just an hour from Bagan we hit the sand and were forced to sleep on the ship all night. Great story.
    With Burma changing, I am sure it is no longer the place I visited. The temples are amazing during sunset.

    Nyaung U is were we slept. Sleep on the main road and you will see the priests in the morning walk in a line and get food. Lots of places to eat.

  5. @ikonos and TJ: I don’t know if you are locals, but I (a local) find it curious that foreigners have stronger opinions on our country’s name than we do. The reason may be that to us, “Burma” (an English name from the British, not us) and “Myanmar” (also an Anglicized name, from the current government) are actually the same word in our language! Things are a lot more nuanced then they seem — e.g., Obama uses both, Daw Suu Kyi has decided to use both too, “myanmar” is actually more inclusive of our minority races while “bama” from which “Burma” is derived refers to the majority race, some saffron monks that foreigners thought are pacifist Buddhists (I’m Buddhist) belong to the 969 movement that are terrorizing our Muslim brothers, etc. It’s complicated. I personally find the following a more respectful position:

  6. The world should have some order. Everyone calling a country by it’s offical name would be a good start.
    obama calling it both just makes him look a little more ignorant then he is. There is no Burma , no Persia , no colonies and no Easter Bunny.

    1. There are some cars for hire but not many. And many of the smaller sites are not easily accessible by car. I have no idea how expensive it would be but I doubt it is completely unreasonable.

  7. Seth, thank you for this brief travel report and for letting the GREAT shots tell the alluring story of your visit. Myanmar is on my list of places that I want to explore. I just need to work it into my schedule sooner!

  8. Having a guide is helpful. Having a guide with a car is even more helpful. When I was there I had a guide with car for a day and half and then the other half day we did the horsecart thing in the afternoon.

    At sunset I pretty much turned around and shot the temples in the warm light rather than facing the sun like everyone else was.

    The Balloon Over Bagan flight is totally worth the expense too as far as I am concerned.

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