Dreamed of seeing Bagan temples? Well then, you are in luck. In this post, an anthropologist and Myanmar expert, Monique Skidmore, shares the best temples in Bagan to visit, including insider tips, Myanmar history + a great itinerary for temple hopping for two days.
With well over 2,000 temples, you could spend weeks – even a lifetime – exploring Bagan, Myanmar and its historic treasures. However, you can uncover a lot about the temples that litter the Bagan Plain in two days. Here’s what you need to know, including the best temples in Bagan you just cannot miss.
For centuries, faith and devotion have been key tenets of Myanmar’s Theravada Buddhist culture. It’s why you should not miss the most important and lavish Buddhist pagoda in Myanmar, the Shwedagon Pagoda. In Yangon, the Shwedagon dominates the skyline but in Bagan the merit-making of the Buddhist Kings has influenced the very face of the landscape – they have created a sacred geography of 40 square kilometres.
Over several centuries, thousands of temples were carefully constructed as symbols of devotion and political power. The result is an incredible place dotted with pagodas, stupas and other structures in various states of preservation.
Many people who spend two days in Bagan explore the temples and are dazzled by the beauty. However, by just looking at the temples you will miss much of the intrigue and history behind them. This two-day Bagan temple itinerary is designed not just to wow you with the most impressive temples to look at, but also to unearth the stories behind them.
Table of Contents (skip directly to the info you're looking for)
- 1 A very brief history of Bagan
- 2 How long should you spend in Bagan?
- 3 2 days in Bagan itinerary for temple lovers: Where to visit
- 3.1 Day one in Bagan
- 3.2 Day two in Bagan
- 4 Tips for two days in Bagan
A very brief history of Bagan
It is hard not to be dazzled by the sheer numbers of temples located in the Bagan area. They number well over 2,000 – but even more incredible is that this is thought to be just 20% of what it once was.
Most of the temples were built between the 9th and 13th centuries. This period began with the conquest of Thaton (in what is now southern Mon state) in 1057 A.D. and ended when the Mongols, led by Kublia Khan, invaded in 1287 A.D. As a show of devotion, wealth and political might, up to 10,000 pagodas, stupas and other religious buildings were constructed during this time, led by King Anawrahta who became King in 1044 A.D. This great period is known as the First Buddhist Empire.
Unfortunately, time and earthquakes (and some very dodgy restorations by successive Burmese military juntas) have reclaimed or fundamentally altered many of the temples – however there are still thousands of impressive structures on display. You could spend a lifetime exploring this relatively compact area, and learning about the stories, characters and buildings that eternally shaped the face of Myanmar.
How long should you spend in Bagan?
This depends a lot on your own interests and itinerary. Many visitors choose to just see the highlights in a day, especially if they are short on time. However, if you have longer you will be able to see more temples. This will allow you to visit some ‘off the beaten path’ beauties, and also begin to appreciate the different styles on show in Bagan.
For this reason, I recommend spending 2 or 3 days exploring the temples in Bagan. This will allow you to see many of the most beautiful temples, but also leave plenty of time for you to explore elsewhere in Myanmar.
2 days in Bagan itinerary for temple lovers: Where to visit
With this two-day itinerary for the Bagan temples, we will take not just a journey through the Bagan Archaeological Zone, but also through Myanmar’s history.
While this is designed to be a two-day itinerary, you could pick one day or the other, or compress them, to make it a one-day trip instead. Likewise, you may like to stretch out this itinerary over three days to give yourself a little extra time at each place. If you prefer to have a tour guide with you, you can easily book a private full-day tour.
Day one in Bagan
For your first day exploring the temples in Bagan, I need to warn you: you’ll want to get up early! As tempting as it is to enjoy a sleep in, trust me – you won’t want to miss the sight of the sun peeking up over the pagodas (It also gets incredibly hot in the dry season).
Dhammayangyi (late 12th century)
To start off your adventure in the Bagan Archaeological Zone, let’s start big (literally) with the Dhammayangyi Pagoda. It is the largest of the pagodas in Bagan, and certainly one of the most impressive. It’s even more beautiful as the sun appears over the horizon in the morning.
Dhammayangyi is also a good place to be introduced to the drama and intrigue of Bagan’s temples and the ruling families who commissioned them. It is believed that the reason this temple is so large is that it was built by King Narathu in 1167, who was looking to atone for his sins. And they were some pretty dramatic sins – he’d killed both his father and brother to claim the throne. Unfortunately, this is not the only time that relatives have been killed to secure the succession to the Burmese throne. Apparently, his attempts to restore his karma were not met with good fortune: he was killed before the pagoda was completed.
Aside from the dramatic backstory, Dhammayangyi is also unique as a large portion of it is blocked up for unknown reasons. Perhaps you will solve the mystery?
Ananda (early 12th century)
Although slightly smaller, the next stop at Ananda Pagoda is no less impressive. It is one of the most beautiful pagodas in all of Myanmar and is a famous icon of the country itself. Both locals and international visitors are wowed by this beautiful temple, which has been nicknamed ‘the Westminster of Myanmar’ due to its intricate carvings.
Ananda was constructed around 1105 AD, under the watchful eye of King Kyanzittha. It is a perfectly proportioned pagoda and in 1990, when it turned 900, its spires were covered in gold. The inside of the pagoda is the shape of a Greek cross and the outside of the pagoda has 554 glazed tiles known as jatakas. Jatakas tell the story of the life of Buddha.
The pagoda certainly is a striking and unique pagoda in Bagan. On show is the best of Myanmar’s craftmanship, with features including sculpture and stucco. The temple was significantly damaged in an earthquake in 1975 but has been restored.
Thatbyinnyu (mid 12th century)
Towering over most of Bagan’s temples with a spire that is over 60 metres high, Thatbyinnyu is one of the most striking temples to visit with your two days in Bagan.
Thatbyinnyu Pagoda was built in the middle of the 12th century by King Alaungsithu. At the time it was unique as it was one of the first two-story pagodas in Bagan, and is beautifully decorated. It is constructed as two large stacked cubes. Some of the treasures have been lost over the centuries, but you certainly get a feel for how intricate and elaborate it would have been.
An important feature to keep your eye out for are the statues of animist (and pre-Buddhist) Nat spirits, another important aspect of spirituality in Myanmar.
Shwesandaw (late 11th century)
Shwesandaw is another striking temple, a circular stupa with an octagonal base, five-layered terraces and a rounded dome on top. It is yet another iconic view that is known throughout the world as Myanmar; and a must-see during your two days in Bagan.
Built-in 1057, Shwesandaw can tell us a lot about the history of Myanmar. One of the most significant features of this pagoda is that it is believed to house a relic of the Buddha, in this case, a hair of the Buddha. This hair was gained by King Anawrahta after his conquered Thaton in southern Myanmar, expanding the kingdom. It is one of several pagodas containing relics of one or more (of the current and past three) Buddhas in Myanmar.
Myauk Guni Temple (mid-12th century)
This temple may not be as well-known as the others on today’s itinerary, however, that means you’re more likely to have space to explore. One of the unique features of this temple was that it was Queen Pwasaw who ordered it to be built, around 1241. You can find it by looking southwest from Dhammayangyi.
Although it is the Kings who get much of the attention, Queen Pwasaw was powerful in her own right. She was the Queen consort to King Narathihapate, who was said to be erratic and greedy. By contrast, Queen Pwasaw was kind yet politically cunning, and navigated the kingdom through a difficult period. An inscription was found inside the pagoda detailing the slaves, land and other donations made to build the pagoda by Queen Pwasaw. Clearly not a woman to be messed with!
There’s said to be a curse on anyone who destroys the temple; so you’d best just enjoy the views from it instead.
Bupaya (mid 9th century) – for sunset
This is, I think, my favourite pagoda in Bagan simply because it is the oldest, The first of the pagodas built in the Pyu style at a time when Bagan was establishing itself as a regional power, around 850 A.D.
One of the most unique pagodas that we will see during our two days in Bagan is also an ideal spot to watch the sun go down. This gilded pagoda is nestled on the banks of the river, and as the sun descends it casts a beautiful red glow on the dome. It’s no wonder it’s one of the most popular sunset spots in Bagan.
There is some debate over when and why this pagoda was originally built. Legend says it was as early as the 2nd century, and it was built to congratulate a local hero who had rid Bagan of a rapid-growing plant known as a gourd (a cucumber!) However, most historians believe – based on its architectural style – it was built in the mid-9th century at the same time as the city walls of Old Bagan were built.
The original pagoda was nearly destroyed during the 1975 earthquake. It has been restored, however, and again is one of the top spots to take in a seriously beautiful sunset.
Alternative option: I personally went on a beautiful sunset cruise tour with a local guide. The sunset was simply stunning.
Day two in Bagan
For your second day in Bagan, we’ll head a little bit further out to take in some hidden gems and learn more about Myanmar’s history. The distances between temples are a little bit further – but trust me, it’s worth it.
Thitsarwadi Temple (mid-14th century)
If you can, a hot air balloon over the temples of Bagan is truly spectacular. However, if you’d rather keep your feet on the ground then the next best thing is getting a gorgeous view of them during the sunrise. One beautiful place to see them (and the amazing landscape) is from the Thitsarwadi Temple.
The temple itself is one of the smaller ones in Bagan, and many people don’t pay much attention to it once sunrise finishes. However, you still may like to head inside to snap a few photos of the murals and stucco.
Sulamani (late 12th century)
First built in 1183 by King Narapatisithu, Sulamani Pagoda is a fascinating stop on our two-day tour of Bagan’s temples.
If you look closely, you will see a number of similarities with yesterday’s Thatbyinnyu and Dhammayangyi temples. However, its design is even more intricate and ingenious, showing how temple design and construction advanced over the years.
It’s been studied by many experts as it is considered one of the best examples of decoration, with beautiful carvings out of stucco and stone. Its stately dimensions show an interesting evolution in aesthetic dimensions and visual appeal from the wonderful earlier Dhammayangyi pagoda, including more light infusing the interior of the pagoda. Some of these were lost during the 1975 earthquake that damaged the pagoda, but significant restoration has occurred and makes this a must-see pagoda once again.
Gawdawpalin (late 12th or early 13th century)
There is just something quite magical about visiting this pagoda late in the afternoon. It might be its location and its relationship to nearby pagodas and the mountain range in the distance. It’s just very special when the lighting is right.
The second tallest temple in Bagan, construction began on the Gawdawpalin Pagoda during the reign of King Narapatisithu, of Sulamani fame. However, he died before it was completed and it was finished off by another King, Htilominlo.
Visiting Gawdawpalin after Sulamani allows you to compare the different style of the two. Although Gawdapalin was built later, it is slightly simpler – but larger, while the gilded dome has some similarity with Ananda.
Inside the temple, you’ll find many beautiful Buddha statues sitting side-by-side with Nat (animist) spirits. The worship of both Nats and Buddhism is one of the most unique features of Myanmar’s everyday spiritual practices and is definitely on display at Gawdapalin.
Mingalazedi (late 13th century)
I first photographed this pagoda in 1994 and it is a relief that it has escaped the “renovations” of the military regimes in their quest to make merit and atone for their atrocities. Mingalazedi is one of the last temples that were built during the golden age of Bagan. As you stare up at its imposing façade, it’s quite moving to think how not long after it was built, the Mongols would pillage Bagan, leading to the fall of the empire.
Due to its later construction, the Mingalazedi Pagoda shows some of the most advanced construction techniques in Myanmar. Another highlight of this temple is the jatakas, the glazed terracotta plaques that show stories about the past lives of the Buddha. Over time, many have become faded or damaged, however there is still enough to serve as a reminder of the grandeur of the past.
Mingalazedi is definitely one not to miss during your two days in the temple zone of Bagan. For me it epitomises the spiritual quietness that it is possible to experience in this deeply Buddhist country.
Htilominlo (early 13th century)
Another of the large and imposing temples in the Bagan Archaeological Zone is Htilominlo, at about 46 metres tall. The design is similar to that of Sulamani that we saw earlier, however it is about three decades younger.
This majestic pagoda is named after the King who ordered its construction, and there is a special significance to its location. Legend says that five sons of King Narapatisithu were considered for the throne, so Narapatisithu had them stand in a circle with a white umbrella in the middle. Whomever the umbrella titled towards would assume the throne – and it was Htilominlo who emerged a heir-apparent.
As a result, he had the impressive brick pagoda built on that very spot. Highlights of the temple include the four Buddhas facing each other inside, as well as the elaborate stupa on top of the pagoda.
Shwezigon Pagoda (late 11th century)
The last temple to explore during your two days in the Bagan Archaeological Zone is quite the show-stopper. Fair warning – it’s a bit of a drive to get to the village of Nyaung-U, but be assured – it is absolutely worth it.
Not only is the gold-covered Shwezigon Pagoda one of the most beautiful, but it is also one of the most significant spiritually. This is because it is believed to contain two relics of the Buddha. The location is also significant; it is thought that a white elephant was given the bone relic, and the temple was built on the place he stopped. The bell shape of the Shwezigon Pagoda is considered the prototype of all future pagodas.
The pagoda is one of the most beautiful, covered in gold plates that shimmer as the sun begins to set. It’s therefore the ideal location to end your two days with the temples of Bagan.
Tip: If you have an extra day, you should take a day trip to Mount Popa and Salay
Tips for two days in Bagan
- This Bagan temple itinerary is designed for the pagoda enthusiast wanting to make the most of a short time in Bagan! If you have more time or would prefer to take things at a slower pace, you could easily extend this over three days or perhaps cut out some of the sites to avoid becoming “templed out”!
- Some of the pagodas are still active as Buddhist pagodas so please act respectfully. Clothing that covers your shoulders and knees is a must (and also great for avoiding sunburn), and please be considerate when photographing the sites. The Burmese are very accommodating about these kinds of issues but showing disrespect for Buddhism is one of the few things Burmese people are less tolerant about.
- You may like to take a guide with you who can explain even more about the history of Myanmar and how each pagoda fits in. A more independent (and increasingly popular) option is to rent an electronic bike and do it yourself! Just keep in mind that the distances are quite long, especially on the second day.
This is a guest post by: Monique Skidmore from the blog Tripanthropologist.com
Author bio: Monique Skidmore is an award-winning cultural anthropologist and a prize-winning writer. An Australian and a long-time expert on Myanmar, Monique blogs about the culture, history and scenic beauty of some of the world’s most fascinating and iconic destinations.
Enjoyed reading? Save it for later on Pinterest