Central Plains of Bagan
Some true crowd pleasers
What we say:
The following monuments are spread out by considerable distances. You'll be needing at least a bicycle and most certainly a hat and a good supply of water -- the trails can be a little confusing at times.
First stop is Shwe-San-Daw (monument 1568), one of the very few monuments at Bagan that visitors are still permitted to climb. The multiple levels of 11th century Shwe-San-Daw offer commanding dawn and sunset views and the much later added reclining Buddha is well worth a look as well.
One of the earliest of the large stupas in Bagan, Shwe-San-Daw is believed to have been built to enshrine a sacred hair relic of the Buddha, which was presented to King Anawratha, though its actual construction period is estimated via similarly designed sites rather than legend.
Being one of the few monuments in Bagan that visitors are able to climb to a reasonable height, this site can get quite busy for sunset, but we shared it with barely a half dozen others for an impressive dawn viewing in low season. The stairs approach the stupa from the four cardinal points and you're able to exit at each level to circumnavigate the monument and take in the view either on the way up or the way down.
Regardless of if you're visiting for dawn or dusk, be sure to admire the view in all directions -- as the monuments can be magnificent both when highlighted and silhouetted by a low sun. For dawn, if you want to take in the full light show get here no later than 05:00 -- ideally even earlier -- you can go back to bed later!
The reclining stucco-covered brick Buddha behind Shwe-San-Daw is believed to date to the 18th or 19th century, a contemporary to the similar-sized reclining Buddha to the rear of Manuha Paya.
Aside from the time to observe the sunrise or sunset, set aside 30 minutes for the site itself and the reclining Buddha.
Next is the Dhammayangyi (monument 771), which looks like the sandcastle you've never quite been able to pull off. Construction commenced under the reign of Sithu I, but was never completed as Sithu's son, Narathu, smothered him on his death bed in the Shwegu-Gyi.
The curiosities of Bagan's largest monument don't stop there as the entirety of the inner corridor was bricked up for reasons unknown. Theories involve a magician monk, rampaging Ceylonese raiders or the upper structure just needing additional support. The Dhammayangyi is the only one of the major monuments that didn't have its spire restored after the 1975 quake.
This is the single most massive site within Bagan. It took three years to build to its current state. With at least six tiered levels running up to the summit, Dhammayangyi is particularly famous for its brickwork, put together without mortar, with the brickworkers suggesting not even a pin could pass between the bricks. Our inspection suggested they must have had a javelin-sized pin in mind.
Within the outer passage, visitors will appreciate the towering (and bat-infested) ceilings and the murals, some of which were added much after the fact between the 14th and 16th centuries. As the interior lighting is poor a torch is a good idea.
The forecourt of the Dhammayangyi can be pretty heavy going with touts and vendors, which makes this a good spot to visit early in the morning before you head on to Sulamani.
Easily one of Bagan's most magnificent temples, the grand Sulamani (monument 748) is very well regarded for its remaining stucco and a series of more recent frescoes that date to the 18th century. The wealth of attractions means one can easily spend upwards of an hour here. The site can get quite crowded – with tourists as well as the volume of souvenir vendors also in residence. If crowds bother you, get here early.
The original edifice is dated to 1183 and much of the remaining exterior stucco is in remarkable condition, but the real attraction are the more modern (18th century) frescoes that line the inner corridors. Look for the king's white elephant with a bulbous forehead and a litter on top while another interior section has a large reclining Buddha. Entranceways feature fanged demons and snarling red nagas.
Allow at least an hour to fully take in the site.
Dating back to the 13th century, for the grand monuments Pyathada Paya was our favourite. The large upper level terrace allows for spectacular photos of the surrounds and the mostly brick bare interior brings to mind a Moroccan castle as much as it does a temple in Bagan.
This is a popular sunset spot, so we'd be inclined to get hear a little early to reserve the best position. We were there in low season with barely a dozen others, but with the large deck area, this is a tour group favourite and in high season apparently can be a bit mental. If big mouth tourists edging you out of the way to make way for their tripod bother you, this may not be the best option for a sunset.
Last stop on a central plains road trip, Payathonzu (monument 477-479) is one of the crown jewels for mural junkies. Set well out of the way from most of the main Bagan sites, Payathonzu is worth the (lengthy) bicycle diversion from Pyathada Paya for its beautiful murals. Note that no photography is allowed within the temple.
This is an unusual site as it's three shrines joined together by a common corridor and, while no inscriptions revealing its founding date were found, it is thought to date to the 13th century -- the three towers are an imagined reconstruction as they collapsed pre-20th century. The murals were never completed here, with only the first two temples being decorated to some degree, the last temple (and a portion of the second) only reached a preparatory stage.
Despite its unfinished state, for those interested in a closer look at Bagan's mural paintings, this is worth a look (and a pedal) for those with a solid interest in murals. It is a long pedal home from here -- regardless of where you are staying in Bagan.
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