Bagan has a lot of temples! Certain temples stand out due to their unique architectural style or by virtue of their size alone but to the uninitiated, a lot of them do look very similar.
If you take all the larger and better known ‘important’ sites, then you’ll still have a pretty unwieldy list, and sometimes it’s the smaller sites that makes for the most rewarding visits anyway — a stop at that forgotten, unrestored chedi or the unassuming brick stupa offering stupendous views, or the standard looking temple with an interior revealing ancient murals could be your favourite stop. So what’s the best way to “do” Bagan?
Comparisons with visiting Angkor are inevitable thanks to the sheer size of the site and the variations in style due to several centuries worth of building — but at Angkor individual sites are generally larger and less numerous. Unless you’re waiting round for dawn or dusk or are a fanatic for religious architecture there are very few Bagan sites that will keep your attention for more than 30 minutes or so, thus a full day tour could easily include 20 sites — now that will test your temple tolerance levels.
As with Angkor we think it’s foolish –- having gone all that way -– to then try and squeeze it all into the space of a day. You could spend a lot longer exploring but two days is a realistic minimum.
Even with a good map the myriad sandy tracks weaving between stupas can get confusing. Possibly the most impressive feature at Bagan will be the overall views of the site, with hundreds of stupa spires emerging from the acacias and palms dotting the plain as far as the horizon. This is something you’re not going to get at Angkor -– there are too many tall trees! For conservation reasons you are only permitted to climb up certain stupas though it seems to us that permission varies with each visit. (There’s little point in telling you now which ones you can see at dawn or dusk, since by the time you visit temple X may be covered in scaffolding or temple Y may have had some new access stairs added. )
We wouldn’t suggest two days of a guided tour –- you’ll have seen enough Buddhas and stupas to last a lifetime — but a short, introduction or orientation tour is worth the investment. Get an overall view from someone who knows the place or explain to the guide what you’re interested in.
Do perhaps only a half day –- get the ‘biggies’ out of the way — after which you’re in a much better position to wander around on your own or just peek into Bagan’s nooks and crannies. Leisurely exploring back lanes, stopping at a village, checking out everyday life and discovering a picturesque, rarely visited temple can easily keep you busy for a couple of days and may prove to be the most memorable part of your visit.
It would be a shame to leave Bagan disappointed, having missed some key sites or not having a clue as to what you’ve visited, so put some thought and planning into it -– it’s worth it.
By Mark Ord
Last updated on 29th December, 2013.