Our suggested central plains circuit begins close to Old Bagan, covering numerous sites on the wide plain.
Unless you’ve managed to find an unusually good quality bike, we’d say an upgrade in transport is required. An air-con taxi is the easiest and most expensive; an e-bike might be a bit tricky battery and sandy track-wise; a horse and buggy will be cheaper, and the driver will know the back ways, but they are slow and, after a short distance on rough tracks, can become seriously uncomfortable.
Whichever you've chosen, exit Ananda by the south and turn right onto Anawrahta until you see signs on the left for our first stop, Shwe San Daw. This monument can still be climbed, so it's best known for its sunrise and sunset views. Its wide vistas are worth taking in at any time of day though and outside of dawn and dusk it’s a peaceful spot. The multiple levels of the 11th century, bare brick pagoda offer commanding views and the much later reclining Buddha out front 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.
Next is the Dhammayan-gyi which looks like the sandcastle you've never quite been able to pull off. This is the big one with the truncated, worn stupa. Construction commenced under the reign of Sithu I but was never completed after his son, Narathu, apparently smothered him on his death bed to speed things up a bit. The curiosities of Bagan's largest monument don't stop there as the entirety of the inner corridors was bricked up for reasons unknown. Theories involve a magician monk, rampaging Sri Lankan raiders or the upper structure just needing additional support. The Dhammayan-gyi 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 but is said to have taken only three years to build. With at least six tiered levels running up to the summit it’s also famous for its mortar-less brickwork, with the workers suggesting not even a pin could pass between the bricks though things have loosened up since then. Within the outer passage, visitors will appreciate the towering (and bat-infested) ceilings and the murals, some of which were added between the 14th and 16th centuries. As the interior lighting is poor a torch is a good idea. The forecourt of the Dhammayan-gyi can be pretty heavy going with touts and vendors, which makes this a good spot to visit early in the morning before too many people are about.
Next, head northeast to Sulamani. We last visited Sulamani before the 2016 Bagan quake, a 6.8-magnitude temblor that damaged several monuments. Sulamani was among the worst hit, but we haven't yet seen firsthand how badly.
Easily one of Bagan's most magnificent temples, the grand Sulamani is well known for its remaining stucco and a series of more recent frescoes that date to the 18th century. The site can get quite crowded, with tourists as well as the volume of resident souvenir vendors. If crowds bother you, this is another worth getting to early. The original edifice dates to 1183 and much of the remaining exterior stucco is in remarkable condition. The real attraction though are the more modern frescoes that line the inner corridors. Look for the king's white elephant with a bulbous forehead and a howdah on top while another section has a large reclining Buddha. Entranceways feature fanged demons and snarling red nagas.
Heading back into the Central Plains, Pyathada Paya lies southeast of here and is one of our favourites among the larger sites. It’s also popular for sunsets as its staircase is open to visitors, and being a bit out of the way helps to keep crowds down to acceptable levels. 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.
Last stop is Payathonzu (monument 477-479), 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 diversion from Pyathada Paya for its beautiful murals. Note however that no photography is allowed within the temple. This is an unusual site as it’s formed by three shrines joined together by a common corridor. No inscriptions revealing its founding date have been found and it's 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 either, with only the first two temples being decorated to some degree, and the last temple (and a portion of the second) only reached a preparatory stage.
It’s around six kilometres from here to either Nyaung U or New Bagan. If the latter’s your choice, then we recommend breaking up the return journey with a peek at the spectacular gold domed Dhamma Yazika for some fine views back across the plain as well as Thitsar Wadi Paya for some of the best sunset views. Close together, these temples are approximately 2/3 of the way to New Bagan just aside the main road.
By Mark Ord.
Last updated on 11th September, 2016.