Probably the most common image of Myanmar is a sunset or sunrise view over Bagan’s plane of ancient temples. You might notice that these images, provoking a sense of timelessness and mystery, are usually shot at a time of year when fresh green growth is sprouting healthily across the land and between the temples. The rainfall – mostly between the months of May and October – is markedly lighter than in other parts of Myanmar. The showers transform the otherwise dusty, arid land in a dramatic and beautiful way so much so that we believe rainy season is actually the best time of year to visit Bagan.
More than 2,000 of the 10,000 religious monuments once built on these lands are still standing dotted around an area of 26 square miles.
They were built mostly between the 11th and 12th centuries while Bagan was a powerful kingdom and a centre of religious learning for the whole region.
Bupaya was one of the oldest stuppas in Bagan and it has a unique location on the river bank at a bend in the mighty Irrawaddy. It was destroyed in the infamous 1975 earthquake and rebuilt with a gold finish. From the foot of the stuppa you can watch the hustle and bustle of boats, passengers and goods being loaded and offloaded at the bank below.
Ananda Pagoda is a large whitewashed temple topped with an unusual gold sikhara– an architecture influence from northern India. In the inner room of the temple are four huge standing Buddha images measuring 9.5 metres in height made of teak and gilded in gold. The four images are said to represent the four Buddhas who have reached nirvana.
The king who built Sulamani Pagoda named it after a small ruby he found on the site. It is one of present-day Bagan’s more impressive pagodas and is appreciated for its elegance, beauty and scale. The stories of Buddha’s previous lives, the Jataka Tales, are told on terracotta plaques around the pagoda and there are some well-preserved wall frescos.
Dhammayangyi Pagoda is the largest pagoda in Bagan and has a unique appearance because of its unfinished top structure. The king responsible for the construction of this temple murdered both his father and brother in order to claim the crown. It is said that the king later took his own life and that this is the reason for the temple structure never being completed.
In October 2017 climbing on most temples was officially banned and though the decision was met with some adversity, it makes sense to protect the temples from the damage caused by high numbers of visitors on such ancient and sacred structures. The measure was also taken in order to protect the visitors – Bagan is located in an area with frequent earthquakes and many structures became especially vulnerable to collapse after a 6.8 earthquake in 2016. Five pagodas were considered safe and have not been added to the ban: Shwesandaw, Pyathatgyi, North Guni, South Guni and Thitsarwadi temples.
With temples scattered over such a large area, you won’t be able to visit them all and very few by foot. Cycling is a cheap and peaceful way to get around and the traditional horse and carts are another bumpy but bucolic option. Tuk tuks are becoming a common sight at Bagan and visitors requiring aircon and extra comfort may hire a car for the day. Having a driver or tour guide is useful for finding your way around. Our favourite option, however, are the e-bikes which are noiseless, environmentally friendly and inexpensive. Note that foreigners are not allowed to drive or ride on a motorbike in Bagan.
The skies over Bagan fill with hot air balloons each morning at sunrise (weather permitting). Watching the sun rise on the temples below as you float through the air is a highlight of any trip for those who are looking to splurge on a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The trip costs around US$300 per person.
Watching the sunset from the river is a great option if you’ve already had the experience of joining the crowds at the famous temples for sunset viewing. You can hire a boat to take you out on the Irrawaddy river a little north of Bagan and watch the sun set over the hills on your right and the temples and river life on your left as you float back downstream. Alternatively, enjoy sundowners and snacks on the boat restaurant called ‘Erawati’ moored just downstream of Bupaya.
If you’re a history buff (or you just need an air-conditioned break from the sun or rain) the Bagan Archaeological Museum is a great way to spend some time gazing at displays of ancient texts and artifacts. It costs K5,000 for foreigners and is closed every Monday.
For the ideal weather conditions, the fresh green landscape and the peace and tranquility so deserved by these ancient structures, Bagan is truly a wonderful place to visit during the rainy season.