Old Bagan Walled City

The heart of Bagan

Photo of Old Bagan Walled City, , Bagan

What we say: 4 stars

The starting point is Tharabar Gate, but we'd suggest actually kicking off about 150 metres to the southeast of there at either Star Cafe (orgasmic cheese baguetes) or at the mohingya stall under the tree in front of Abeyadana Pahto. Either way, once you're sated, walk up to the main road, take a left and follow it till you reach Tharabar Gate.

Only the two flanks of what would once have been one of the primary gateways to the walled city remain at Tharabar Gate (monument 1634) and while the wall dates back to the ninth century, this gate is most notable today for its nat shrines.

The two shrines, one on the left and one on the right, were added in the late 18th or early 19th century and house brother and sister nats. Aside from the nat shrines, this is also the site where ceremonies are held when boys enter the monastery and you may observe locals making offerings of bananas and the like.

Custom has it that whenever a local passes through they should beep their horn, though while we were checking it out we heard few beeps from the bikes zooming past. Allow 10 minutes and don't forget to beep your horn.

Walk through the gate and follow the road and you'll reach the squat Pitaka Taik (monument 1587) just to your left after entering Old Bagan via Tharabar Gate. Completely renovated and altered substantially in 1784, the original purpose (and design) of Pitaka Taik is unknown -- though an information slate on site notes King Anawratha used it to store some of the gear he brought from Thaton in southern Burma on the back of 32 white elephants.

Keep an eye out for the decorative stone windows that are thought to have been taken from other ruined sites during the 18th century renovation along with the peacock designs along the roofline. Aside from the windows, there is little to see here -- allow 15 minutes before moving on to Shwegu-Gyi.

Shwegu-Gyi (monument 1589) is a little further down the road on your left. Thrown together in a mere seven and a half months, and today still active as a religious site, Shwegu-Gyi has been dated to 1131 with a subsequent refurbishment in the 18th or early 19th century.

Visitors were once permitted to climb to the upper level of the Shwegu-Gyi to gain commanding views over the surrounds, but this wasn't permitted when we visited, so you'll be stuck with the ground floor. Built during the reign of Alaungsithu (1113-1169), construction began on April 19, 1131 and it was completed on December 16, 1131, and unlike many of Bagan's monuments, the design called for plenty of doors and windows, which flood the inner chambers with light -- no need for a torch here.

The whole structure is weirdly reminiscent of a European gothic cathedral with an Asian spin on it; the 18th/19th century restoration saw the interior whitewashed and the addition of enormous teak doors to each of the entrances, which only adds to this feel. While not as large as those at Ananada, these are still impressive.

Continue on behind Shwegu-Gyi and you'll come to one of Bagan's greatest monuments, That Byinnyu (monument 1597). In an ancient city where monuments rivalled one another for claims to fame, That Byinnyu leads the pack in the height category, stretching to the equivalent of over a 20-storey building -- too bad visitors were not allowed above the ground floor when we visited.

Dated back to the 12th century, That Byinnyu is peculiar for its main Buddha image which rests on an upper floor (out of sight of visitors) and, as the walls have all been whitewashed, there is little to see here – you'll likely just gawk at its sheers size.

At a distance, it is impressive, with its whitewashed walls and gleaming gold spire supported by many smaller spires at each of the three descending levels below. Close up though, it disappoints -- the bathroom tiles on the floor which wouldn't be out of place in a cheap Yangon flophouse are probably not original. That Byinnya is a hit with the tour bus circuit and it can get very busy here, even in low season.

The beauty here is all in the approach rather than on close inspection -- allow 30 minutes before pressing on to Pahtothamya.

One of the oldest of Bagan's temples, dating to the late 11th or early 12th century, Pahto Thamya (monument 1605) is also home to some of the best examples of early fresco painting that you'll see within the old walled city. As with many temples in Bagan, the spire collapsed in the 1975 earthquake, but unlike many this has been faithfully restored to the original.

While much of the stucco has eroded from the exterior walls, exposing the brick, this was never an externally decorated temple. The very dimly lit interior however is where the true beauty lies, with some of the best examples of early period fresco painting in Old Bagan. While a substantial number of the frescos have not survived and those that have aren't in the best condition, there is nevertheless some fine artistry that even a novice can pick out. On the northern wall of the outer corridor look for the famous illustration of the Buddha cutting his hair.

This site is often locked, but the keykeeper should be around and will happily show you around -- you'll need a torch to get the most out of the frescoes. Allow at least 30 minutes and bring a torch.

A natural next stop after Pahto Thamya is Nat-Hlaung-Kyaung (monument 1600). This is the sole temple dedicated to Hindu worship within greater Bagan and is well worth a visit for a change in scene from the more repetitive styles and reliefs you'll see at many of Bagan's temples.

It is not known if this temple-anomaly was constructed in order to serve Bagan's Hindu/Indian community of merchants and residents alone or the greater population, but it has held some lovely Hindu sculptures over the centuries -- though much of what you see in the temple today is a reproduction as many of the most valuable materials have been carted off to the museum or, by looters and others, further afield.

One interesting point here is the reproduction of an original carving that shows the creationist Hindu myth. In it, Vishnu is awakened by Brahma, who then emerges from his navel -- consider it Hinduism's "big bang". In the representation here though three deities emerge from his navel -- Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva (yes Vishnu from his own navel) -- it's considered to be quite a curiosity.

You'll need around 30 minutes to take in the main points here. The vendors out the front of Nat-Hlaung-Kyaung tend to give an especially good tour of the site, walking you through numerous parts of its history and also pointing out interesting photographic angles -- such as the one through a small window to the summit of That Byinnyu (though we botched that particular picture). They can though be quite aggressive with a follow up sales pitch, so be prepared.

From Nat-Hlaung-Kyaung it's a bit of a walk to the large, two-storey Gawdaw Palin Pahto, one of the largest of the monuments within the walled city, though it wasn't always one of the tallest -- the tower collapsed in the 1975 quake.

Gawdaw Palin's tower, like the rest of the monument, has seen a few renovations and additions over the years and it appears to be one of the most repeatedly whitewashed sites in the entire greater Bagan area. Gleaming white from the outside, interrupted only by grey concrete (apparently indicating restored areas), it is all the more striking as you walk the interior ground floor passageway, which is very well lit thanks to the numerous doors leading in from the greater courtyard. While the monument has a second storey, it was closed to visitors when we stopped by, so you're quite limited in your options for discovery here.

One thing we did like was that due to how the cardinal Buddhas have been placed, there is little wiggle room between the statue and the wall -- you'll see the statue's knees have become brightly burnished by the thousands of visitors who have squeezed by, resting their hand on the knee as they pass.

The monument's tower completely collapsed in the 1975 tremour and you'll see on your left upon entering a series of photos showing the damage -- compare those to what you see today and you'll see aside from the tower itself (whose renovation was, let's say, designed on the back of a Myanmar Beer coaster) that there are many other spires and ornamentation that have been added into the monument you see today. When the tower crumpled in 1975, its metal finial tumbled with it -- you'll find it set aside, gathering dust, in one of the alcoves midway around the ground floor.

Because you are very limited in how much of the monument you're actually able to explore, 30 minutes should be sufficient for most casual visitors. This is a popular site on the tour bus circuit though and can get very busy -- bide your time and wait for them to leave before exploring it yourself.

Once you are done with Gawdaw Palin Pahto, strap on your walking shoes and head to the Bupaya Stupa. It's a solid 30-minute walk -- when you reach the "Nuclear catastrophe overcome pagoda" sign just keep walking -- but there are thankfully food and drink stalls just before you arrive. Impressive and glistening Bupaya stupa (monument 1657) sits on the bank of the Ayeyarwady River within the walled city of Old Bagan and is a popular spot both for the highly revered stupa itself and the pleasing views over the river, especially at sunset.

As far as stupas go, the golden Bupaya falls firmly into the bulbous variety, though what you're looking at is a pretty new bulbous stupa as the original tumbled into the river thanks to the 1975 earthquake. The new stupa, built on a reinforced concrete base, will hopefully better withstand the next quake to hit the region.

The story goes that a votive tablet found several metres below the site during the post-earthquake rebuilding attributed the stupa to the fictional King Pyusawthi -- we say fictional primarily because his parentage was apparently a sun spirit and a snake princess -- who was kicking around in the third century. Other scholars date the original stupa more around 850 AD.

The name, Bu-paya, refers to gourd (bu) and an English signboard at the site has an interesting section reading "...after King Pyusawthi conquered the enemies such as huge bird, huge tiger, huge pig, huge flying squirrel and very great creeper of gourd growing where he built Bupaya."

Somewhat oddly this can also be a good spot to rustle up a driver to Mt Popa -- a driver here offered to take us there for $25.

Once you're done you need to backtrack to the main road, take a left, then the next left to reach the Mahabodhi (monument 1670), one of a number of similar monuments across the Buddhist world. Bagan's Mahabodhi commemorates the Mahabodhi temple in Bodhi Gaya India.

Frequent travellers to the region will have seen similar inspired attempts in Thailand in Chiang Mai (Wat Jet Yot) and Ubon Ratchathani (Wat Nong Bua), but this is believed to be the oldest in the region -- and the most true to the original.

The example in Bagan is thought to date to the 12th to 13th century, perhaps during the reign of King Zeyatheinkha, but there is no concrete proof of this. As with virtually all the monuments at Bagan, it has undergone a number of changes over the centuries.

The differences between this and many of the more commonly seen temples in Bagan are obvious; note the Buddha niches that surround the exterior base and the pyramid-styled tower. Overall there are 465 Buddha images in various poses on the surface of the tower. At the rear of the main site is a smaller secondary building that has a cylindrical shaft rising to the sky -- it is thought this may have been to house a live (or artificial) Bodhi tree.

From here you can backtrack to Tharabar Gate, and, if it was us, go and have another cheese baguette.

Last updated: 29th December, 2013

About the author:
Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton and he spends most of his time in Bali, Indonesia.
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