Old Bagan can be toured on foot or by bicycle. Lying between Nyaung U and New Bagan, the old city is easily reached by bicycle from either. Here's our suggested itinerary for a half-day or so spin around, seeing the major highlights.
Since the carpark just outside Tharabar Gate is where the best cafes are located, that’s where to begin, and end the tour. You can do this route on foot though pedal power’s the easiest. The brick gate would have originally been one of four entrances to the old walled city, though the entire western half of the walls has long since subsided into the swirling waters of the Ayeyarwaddy. Tharabar Gate is most notable today for its pair of adjacent nat (spirit) shrines added in the late 18th or early 19th century and consecrated as brother and sister nats. Custom has it that whenever you drive through the gate you should beep your horn out of respect, though we’re a bit sceptical about how many horns there would have been in the late 18th century.
Walk through the gate and follow the road until you see the squat Pitaka Taik temple off to your left. Completely renovated and substantially altered in 1784, a sign claims King Anawrahta used it to store some of the loot he brought back from Thaton in southern Burma on the backs of 32 white elephants. Historical evidence of Anawratha having sacked the Mon city of Thaton, however, is flimsy at best.
Keep an eye out for the decorative stone windows that are thought to have been purloined from other ruined sites during the 18th century renovation along with the peacock designs on the roof. Aside from the windows it’s of minimal interest so head on to Shwegu-Gyi a little further down the track, again on your left. According to inscriptions, Shwegu-Gyi was thrown together in a mere seven and a half months. The temple has been dated to 1131 with a subsequent refurbishment in the 18th or early 19th centre. Today it's still active as a religious site.
Visitors were once permitted to climb to the upper level of the Shwegu-Gyi to benefit from the commanding views over the surrounds, but not anymore, so you'll be stuck with visiting the ground floor. Built during the reign of Alaung Sithu (1113-1169) 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. While not as large as those at Ananda, these are still impressive.
Continue on behind Shwegu-Gyi and you'll come to one of Bagan's greatest monuments, That Byinnyu Phato, in the southeast corner of the old city. 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 a 20-storey building -- visitors were not allowed above the ground floor when we visited. Dated to the 12th century, That Byinnyu’s main Buddha image rests on an upper floor (out of sight of visitors) and, as the walls have all been whitewashed, there is little to see here – just appreciate its sheer size.
It is most impressive at a distance, with whitewashed walls and a gleaming gold spire supported by many smaller spires at each of the three descending levels below. Close up though, it disappoints somewhat and the floor tiles -- clearly not original -- wouldn't be out of place in a cheap Yangon guesthouse bathroom. That Byinnyu’s dramatic exterior is a hit with the tour bus circuit and it can get very busy here, even in low season.
Next up, following the wall west, you’ll come across Nat Hlaung Kyaung. This is the sole Hindu temple within greater Bagan, and is well worth a visit for a change in decor. It is not known if it was constructed in order to serve Bagan's Hindu/Indian community of merchants and residents or the general population. It has some lovely Hindu sculptures though much of what you see in the temple today are reproductions, as many of the most valuable have been removed for safe keeping. Note the copy of the birth of Vishnu. You'll need at least 20 minutes to take in the main points here and the vendors out the front can give a good tour of the site. If you do take their tour, the follow up sales pitch can be tough, so be prepared.
Immediately to the west, and dating to the late 11th or early 12th century, Pahto Thamya is home to some of the best examples of 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 one has been faithfully restored to the original.
While much of the stucco has eroded from the exterior walls, exposing the brick, this was apparently never an externally decorated temple. The very dimly lit interior 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 images haven’t survived and those that have aren't in the best condition, there is nevertheless some fine artistry remaining. On the northern wall of the outer corridor look for the famous illustration of Buddha cutting his hair. This site is often locked, but the key keeper shouldn't be far away and will show you around for a small gratuity. You'll need a torch to get the most out of the frescoes.
From Pahto Thamya it's a short walk across the main road to the impressive, two-storey Gawdawpalin Pahto, one of the largest of the monuments within the walled city. Gawdawpalin'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 from the outside it’s also striking as you walk the interior ground floor passageway, well lit thanks to the numerous doors leading in from the great inner courtyard. While the monument has a second storey, it is closed to visitors.
The monument's tower completely collapsed in the 1975 temblor and you'll notice, on your left upon entering, a series of photos showing the damage. Compared to what you see today you'll find, in addition to the tower itself (whose renovation was, let's say, designed on the back of a Myanmar Beer coaster), that many other extra spires and ornamentation were renovation add-ons. As you’re very limited in how much of the monument you're able to explore, 15 minutes should be sufficient for most visitors.
Strap on your walking shoes and head back across the old town to the riverbank Bupaya stupa. It's a 20-30 minute or so stroll but there are thankfully food and drink stalls on the way. Impressive and glistening Bupaya sits on the bank of the Ayeyarwady River, still within the walled city, 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 pretty new as the original tumbled into the river, thanks again to the 1975 disaster. The new stupa is built on a reinforced concrete base.
The story goes that a votive tablet found several metres below the site during the post-earthquake rebuilding attributed the stupa to the mythical Pyu King Pyusawthi. (We say mythical since his third century parentage is said to be a sun spirit and a snake princess.) Even though there is thought to have been an older Pyu settlement on the site of Bagan, most scholars date the original stupa to around 850 AD so, pre-Anawratha and still one of the oldest at Bagan.
Once you're done, you need to backtrack towards the main road, taking a left behind the archaeology department buildings to reach the Mahabodhi Pagoda. This is one of a number of similar replica monuments across the Buddhist world inspired by the original Mahabodhi temple in Bodhi Gaya, India. Frequent travellers to the region may 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. Bagan’s example is thought to date to the 12th or 13th century, perhaps during the reign of King Zeyatheinkha.
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 Bodhi tree.
Exit to the south and turn left when you hit the main road. From here it’s a 10-minute or so walk back to Tharabar Gate and a well-earned lunch. This will have taken up a morning so have a break before checking out either the Old Bagan to Nyaung U or Old Bagan to New Bagan section in the afternoon, if you'd like a temple-packed full day tour.
By Mark Ord.
Last updated on 11th September, 2016.
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.