One of Southeast Asia's architectural wonders, in the exalted company of the temples of Angkor in Cambodia and the Budhhist masterpiece of Borobodur in Indonesia, Bagan is Myanmar's headline attraction. Imagine transporting all of Europe’s medieval cathedrals to Manhattan island and throw in some major churches or abbeys for good measure, and you start to get a sense of the ambition and scale of Bagan. The 4400 temples here date from around the same period as the majestic temples of Angkor, more than 800 years ago. Angkor's temples may be individually more spectacular, but collectively Bagan delivers wonderful views of stupa upon stupa dotting the plain.
The 60m-high Gawdawpalin Pahto is one of the finest late-period temples. About 200m south, a dirt road leads to Thatbyinnyu Pahto (Omniscience Shrine). Bagan’s highest temple, dating from 1144. It has a square base, surrounded by diminishing terraces and rimmed with spires. Another 200m north of the Thatbyinnyu is Shwegugyi, a temple dating from 1131 with lotus sikhara (Indian-style temple finial) atop and stucco carvings inside.
East of Thatbyinnyu lies the 52m-high Ananda Pahto, with its golden sikhara top and gilded spires, and among the most popular temples at Bagan. Finished in 1105, the temple has giant Buddha images facing each of the four entranceways. On the full moon of the month of Pyatho (between mid-December and mid-January), a three-day paya festival attracts thousands of pilgrims. Just northwest is Ananda Ok Kyaung, with colourful murals detailing 18th-century life, some showing Portuguese traders. Midway between Old Bagan and Nyaung U, the terraced 46m-high Htilominlo Pahto was picked by 1218 by King Nantaungmya, using a ‘leaning umbrella’.
South of Thatbyinnyu, the 11th-century five-terraced Shwesandaw Paya (1057) is a graceful white pyramid-style pagoda with 360-degree views of Bagan's temples. It is packed for sunset, but generally empty during the day. South of here, the ever-visible, walled Dhammayangyi Pahto has two encircling passageways, the inner one intentionally filled. It's said that King Narathu was so cruel that the workers ruined it after his assassination in 1170. East of here, the broad two-storeyed Sulamani Pahto (1181) is one of Bagan’s prettiest temples, with lush grounds and carved stucco.
The most popular temple in this village is Mingalazedi (1274), with three receding terraces lined with 561 glazed tiles and panoramic views of the nearby river and surrounding temples. North of town, Gubyaukgyi (1113) sees a lot of visitors thanks to its richly coloured interior paintings. About 400m south of town, the Sinhalese-style stupa of the 11th-century, Abeyadana Pahto, was likely built by King Kyanzittha’s Bengali wife and features original frescoes.
About 3.5km east of New Bagan, Dhammayazika Paya (1196) is unusual for its five-sided design. It’s very well-tended with lush grounds and lavish attention from worshippers. An excellent cluster of sites is about 3km east. North of the road, Tayok Pye Paya has good westward views of Bagan. To the south, 13th-century Payathonzu, a small complex of three interconnected shrines, draws visitors to its murals.