The highlight for many first-time visitors to Burma, Bagan is a collection of more than 2,000 religious monuments dotted across a sprawling dusty plain backing onto the Ayeyarwady River to the north and west. It is a memorably evocative place to visit and explore -- be it for two days or 10.
Set at the heart of Burma's "dry zone", on first impression Bagan seems to be a particularly inhospitable spot to develop a major centre. This is the driest part of the country and can be brutally hot in April and May before what little rain that does fall arrives. Wrapped on two sides by the Ayeyarwady River, the dusty plain, dotted with brick ruins interspersed with sparse outcrops of straggly trees, Bagan is almost the polar opposite to the lush, heavily forested stone monuments at Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
Between the 11th and 13th centuries, a series of Bagan's kings constructed a mind-boggling number of temples, mostly of brick and covered in stucco. Initial construction efforts began within the walled city of Old Bagan, but over time monuments were constructed across the plain. Over time, some fell by the wayside as benefactors passed, only later to regain attention, be renovated and then to lapse once again.
Set to the west of a major faultline, Bagan will always be subject to earthquake risk while the alluvial sand that many of the monuments near the river are built on doesn't make for the best of foundations. While a series of earthquakes in the 13th century didn't help matters, it was the arrival of Mongols from Yunnan in the latter part of the century that really brought matters to a grinding halt. The capital was moved, first to Pinya and then later to Ava (located to the south of modern-day Mandalay) in the 14th century.
With the capital -- and importantly, the temple's benefactors -- moved, Bagan's monuments were largely left to the elements -- and they didn't fare well. Minor monuments in particular were totally abandoned though some of the grander affairs remained active religious sites.
Bagan (then Pagan) became a part of the British Empire in 1885 and following the formal annexation of the country by Old Blighty, Bagan fell under the care of the Department of Archaeology, which was responsible to the Brits in Calcutta. Charges of looting of both murals and statuary have been levelled at both foreign and local thieves back in this period and, as with Angkor, much has sadly been lost forever. While some restoration work was undertaken during the British period it wasn't till a devastating earthquake in 1975 that more attention was focussed on the temples.
A relationship with UNESCO developed and a number of sites that were most at risk were repaired. What started as agreeable cooperation deteriorated though in the face of an ill-considered and widely criticised rebuilding campaign in the early 1990s pushed by the junta. The generals also thought it would be a good time to add a golf course, a highway, an eyesore of a viewing tower and kick out the residents from Old Bagan to New Bagan a few kilometres down the road. This far-reaching campaign resulted in restorations that bore little if any resemblance to the original monuments.
The hangover of this later "restorative" effort remains today, and it is often difficult for a casual visitor to comprehend what has been done as there are no displays on site of photos of what originally stood (that is before the botched restoration). In some cases what was originally nothing more than foundations and a few lower walls (if that) have been "restored" into fanciful temples as much to the donor's taste as to any nod towards the archaeological truth.
Nevertheless, Bagan remains an impressive site. With such a vast number of sites it isn't difficult to find your "own" monument to explore, away from the crowds, and while sunrise and sunset can get busy, the light is often magical after and before these lightshows -- and the temperatures kinder. While it's possible to explore by hired car or horse cart, we recommend bicycle as the best way to explore.
Bagan is hemmed in on two fronts by the Ayeyarwady river with three main areas: Nyaung-U and Wetkyi-In (which we're going to refer to as just Nyaung-U) to the northeast, Old Bagan to the northwest at the bend in the river and New Bagan to the southwest. Broadly speaking, Nyaung-U has the bulk of the budget accommodation, New Bagan has the midrange digs that tend to appeal to tour groups and Old Bagan caters solely to the more upmarket traveller.
There is at least one ATM in Nyaung-U and money exchange facilities in both Nyaung-U and New Bagan. Free WiFi is widely available both in guesthouses and hotels along with some restaurants and cafes.