When Jean blurted out “Bagan has2,000 temples” during talks about Myanmar and where to go, I knew we had to go. Not because of the amount, trust me I’m way over my temple visiting threshold, but I had seen pictures of the dust and ancient crimson temples and it looked otherworldly and fascinating. If you know me, you know I like fantastical places.
To be honest, just the mention of temples in Southeast Asia makes me cringe. My friend Zach and I (that crazy ginger dude pointing in the photo) have a policy about NOT visiting temples ever since traveling through Thailand.
At one point, we couldn’t remember one temple visit from another given there are hundreds in each city. It seemed like every corner had an old temple or a new temple being built — as numerous as coffee shops in Los Angeles. Which I guess could be considered a form of temple. In Chiang Mai alone, a city I love, there were over 400 temples. I can’t stand that aspect of it.
When you wander around cities in Southeast Asia and see flashy golden temple after golden temple, and monk after monk in the electronic store rocking a better smartphone and camera than yourself, but right outside there are limbless homeless beggars dying in the heat — you get over temples fast.
The Bagan temples and region seemed different. Maybe it was all of those hot air balloon photos over Bagan at golden-hour that piqued my interest, I don’t know, but something felt different. Like Angkor Wat without the enormous amount of selfie sticks threatening to THWACK ya’ upside the head around every turn. Different enough for myself and Zach to break our no temple rule to visit.
So our troupe would crack on out of Yangon on an overnight bus and head to Bagan, just as the Thingyan Festival was beginning, with the hope that we’d have a little time to explore before that water soaked madness kicks off.
Want to see the madness of Thingyan New Year? Watch Myanmar’s Wild Water Festival Video!
THE BEAUTIFUL TEMPLES OF BAGAN
We’ll keep the beginnings short and sweet because the bus ride was another one of those “I think I’m going to die” crazy journies in Asia. It was of course packed with numerous random stops at a rest areas (probably the driver’s friends) to munch on bad fried rice, observe the stray dogs lurking in the dark, and think about all of those moments you thought the bus would flip.
As it turns out, I’ve misplaced a lot of the photos that would add context to story for things like motorbike rentals, places to stay, and myself actually adventuring about, so this will be more of a photo essay. Still, there are heaps of goodies to ogle.
I do have plenty of video footage of this, so subscribe to know when it goes live!
After arriving and checking into our hotel that was surprisingly still available, even with Thingyan approaching, we had to first deal with a looney woman who was a guest that thought she booked the whole 6-bed dorm to herself. Once that was accomplished, it was time to explore. Our chariots of choice: a few trusty ole’ (rickety and untrustworthy) motorbikes. Soon we were zipping off at 15 mph under the 120º pounding heat in search of temples.
OUR FIRST TEMPLE AND A LOCAL ARTIST
Just moments after leaving our hotel in a plume of red dust, we were bouncing and bobbing on the soft red-orange dirt like we were on dirt bikes to get to the first temple that caught our eye. It was down what we think was a path, but mostly it was a hidden yet awesome discovery.
When we arrived the temple was locked, but moments later a woman approached and unlocked the temple for us. Inside was a massive cool chamber that was a welcome escape from the heat, with the same crumbling red brick found at most of the temples to come.
What made this first temple special was the woman who helped upkeep it. We came to find out that much of the temple upkeep is given to families responsible for taking care of it and making sure it isn’t vandalized. This also gives them the ability to use the temple in hopes of selling homemade goods or paintings. This is a perk, but if the family commits a crime or for some reason gains a negative reputation, they can lose this honor.
The woman who opened the temple for us is an artist that paints beautiful and elaborate traditional Burmese art and it was so fresh you could smell the paint on them. She was all smiles and so grateful for us to be visiting that temple we each bought pieces of art to send home. I’m not one to buy souvenirs, especially at big stands aimed at tourists, but this local artist inside that small temple was reason enough.
EXPLORING THE OUTLIERS
After each of us buying a handful of art pieces we said goodbye and hopped back on our motorbikes. We wanted to get enough exploring done before high-noon hit and it’d be unbearable to keep going.
There are so many temples to stop at that eventually we had to vote as a group which ones to check out. Some were the hidden and off-path temples that lead us through bramble and sand to get to, and others were massive temples perfectly intact. All of them were enough to bring the Indiana Jones (or Jane) out in you.
We didn’t raid them, more so climbed up them, but many of the temples off of the main circuit looked abandoned or were crumbling. Those were some of the most memorable we explored; we were left alone, crawling through small hallways and it felt more like an expedition than a tourist stop.
Though there was that one encounter with bats that sent us running…but that’s a story for another time.
After a late lunch and a flat tire we hit the temples again, cruising deeper into Bagan. Now that some of the offbeat temples were explored , we decided to visit the more elaborate and massive temples marked on our maps. Most likely they would be packed with people, but they were each fascinating in their own feel and architecture.
A BIT OF BAGAN HISTORY
Bagan was once a completely separate kingdom called Pagan, and eventually, would spread the other regions that is now modern Myanmar. Most of the temples date back to between the 9th and 13th century, and at its peak, Bagan had more than 10,000 Buddhist temples in the area. Now, a little over 2,000 remain — many of which are crumbling.
Not all of the temples are made of that distinct red brick. Some temples were white stone or marble, cool to the touch, and adorned in incredible carvings and details built by various rulers for different gods or purposes.
Yep, lots of people around.
Funny people watching moment: You have to remove your sandals here, and then make your way across the searing stones into the temple. Standing here and watching people run across in pain was quite hilarious…until it was our turn.
Around Bagan and the temples, often you spot the traditional nomadic herders and their flock roaming the area.
As the sun dropped lower and the temperature became bearable, more people flocked to the main temples to get in for sunset. We decided to head to the temple on our map marked “for sunset” and of course it seemed everyone else had that same map.
A steep climb up to the top the highest temple in Bagan gave panoramic views of the valley, with temples large and small as far as the eye could see in every direction. Though it was a fight to get a view, eventually we got to the edge and sat watching the sun fall beyond the valley and the sky turn pastel colors for one of the most breathtaking sunsets.
We were in Bagan for a couple of days before making our way to Inle Lake and Mandalay where we celebrated Thingyan, and a lot more temple exploring happened that I’ll make into an awesome video.
See highlights of Myanmar in my Travel Super Cut Video!
Unfortunately, when we arrived it was the end of the hot-air balloon season because it was too hot, and the entire valley was dry and arid. So no epic balloon ride at sunset. During the wet season, you can visit when the entire valley is covered in green, and I’m definitely looking to go back to Bagan someday just to see that.
Bagan was different from most temple complexes I’ve visited, possibly because it wasn’t overrun by people for the most part and they weren’t modern flashy temples. It takes a lot of effort to explore, especially during the dry season and summer, but it’s worth fighting the heat to wander around at times completely alone.
As I said, I’ll be putting up more guides and information in other articles for Bagan and Myanmar, but comment below with any questions you may have.
Do you want to explore the temples of Bagan?
GET CAUGHT UP! Late to the adventure and want more of Myanmar? See read about the Thingyan Festival and watch the epic water fight celebrations HERE!