When you say Myanmar everybody will instantly think about Bagan. The countless Buddhist temples, famous for being depicted in all the travelers’ photos that venture there. The Bagan temples are on almost every traveler’s bucket list. And if you experience a sunrise and sunset in Bagan, you will immediately understand why.
But what makes Bagan so famous? Yeah, yeah, it’s that place with tons of temples, but at the same time, it hides details that conquer and fascinate us. The temples of Bagan didn’t appear overnight. It took over 250 years, starting with the 11th century, to build them. This was also the period when this region was the capital of the Pagan Empire.
The Pagan Empire is well-known because it’s the one that managed to unite all the regions that today comprise Myanmar. And also because it incorporated as the main religion Theravada Buddhism. This lead to the building of over 10,000 religious monuments, including the temples of Bagan that we see today (unfortunately there are less than 2,500 standing).
And trust me, Bagan deserves its place in Myanmar’s hall of fame. It’s no wonder that’s it’s always included in lists of Myanmar’s best places. The temples are not the only ingredient that should make you want to visit Bagan. The people, the food, the culture, it is a mix that will fascinate you. And this statement applies to entire Myanmar. Actually, if you want to find out how to plan an itinerary and how to include the thousands of temples in your visit without booking a Bagan tour, check out this article.
“Why So Many Temples?”
The most frequent question heard wandering around the famous pagodas in Bagan was “How come there are so many temples?” Before talking about this, I remembered a funny answer we heard, a guide that smiled to his tourists and answered them: “How come Christians build so many churches?”
But coming back to the Bagan pagodas and their impressive number, they are connected to the Buddhist belief according to which what we do in life decides our fate after we die. Long story short, good deeds give you the chance to a better reincarnation. If not, chances are that you will die and reincarnate into something not that nice. And building temples is definitely one of the good deeds.
As such, the Kings made sure to build as many temples as they could. A way to ensure a favorable balance sheet, one that could eventually erase their sins acquired through wars. And the strange thing is that even the controversial military regime that dominated Myanmar starting in 1962 was a fan of good religious deeds and encouraged them.
Thus, every now and then you can spot a new temple, full of gold and elements that surely won’t make you think of a country as poor as Myanmar is. But this might be the representation of a certain general’s hope to a successful reincarnation.
UNESCO’s Waiting List
Bagan has a well-deserved spot in the top of must-see places in South-East Asia together with Angkor Wat in Cambodia and with the Borobudur Temple in Indonesia. But unlike the ones mentioned, the temples of Bagan are not included in the UNESCO World Heritage List.
This is because getting on the list depends on a number of criteria. And in Myanmar’s case, the restoration projects performed in a rather chaotic manner are amongst the reasons that still keep the temples of Bagan on the waiting list. We got to witness with our own eyes what restoration sometimes means. Because you get to see floor tiles in places where they certainly shouldn’t be. Or you see a shred of concrete instead of bricks.
Best Moments of the Day in Bagan
But I don’t want to get you bored with all these details, let’s jump into action. After you set your itinerary, perhaps plan a three-days Bagan trip, surely you will get some impressive moments. And if you wonder what to do in Bagan, you should know that the highlights are the two key moments of the day: the sunrise and the sunset.
If you wander around the temples of Bagan during the day there are high chances you will be the only tourist even at the famous temples. But enjoying a sunrise or a sunset in Bagan all by yourself is pretty much impossible.
Each tourist struggles to find that one temple that can provide a spectacular view but also a bit of privacy. We got to feel that it is really hard to discover such a place, but definitely not impossible. From all the sunrises and the sunsets we got to witness, we chose one for each to decide which moment is more amazing.
A Sunrise Surrounded With Balloons
When you look at the temples on a Bagan map, you will notice that a lot of them have signs either for sunrise or for sunset. But it is actually very hard to stumble upon a temple not offering a great view. As such, we focused our search for temples providing intimacy, where we wouldn’t be surrounded by tons of tourists. And we actually hit the jackpot with one sunrise when we were literally the only ones there.
We found that particular temple during a sunset but we thought that it could also be a good candidate to beat the sunrise as well. We checked our Bagan temples map to see the route of the famous hot air balloons and it won us for the next day sunrise.
When we reached the temple it was pitch black, because we let our excitement rule over us and left the hotel much earlier than we should have. We parked our electric motorbike and started sneaking in the temple as high as we could.
We weren’t expecting it to be so cold (it was mid-January). I didn’t think I will get to wear my down jacket there, but luckily I had it with me as it was really freezing. We waited and we waited. And all of a sudden we saw a spot of light.
And with it the first hot air balloon starting flowing up in the air. Followed by another one and another one. And before we realized it we had tens of balloons flying in front of us, as in a march specifically made to take our breath away.
I really cannot tell what impressed us most – how the temples in the huge field started to slowly take shape or the dance of the balloons between us and the sun. I actually think that everything combined got to win us over. And we also realized that all those Bagan images with colorful balloons are not Photoshopped at all.
It’s hard to say whether the sunrise at the temples of Bagan would be so spectacular without the flying balloons. Or I might be biased because of my fondness for sunsets. But thank God, there are still a lot of tourists eager to pay impressive sums for a Bagan balloon ride (more than 300USD per person) and thus offering a memorable view.
The Magical Spell of a Sunset in Bagan
And then comes the sunset. After spending a mesmerizing sunset at Angkor Wat, we always try to repeat that experience. However, in Bagan finding a sunset temple all to ourselves was impossible.
But this didn’t make any less impressive the game of shadows that played right in front of our eyes during a sunset in Bagan. If during the sunrises we couldn’t get our eyes off the balloons, during the sunset we really didn’t know where to look.
Because everywhere around you, the darkness starts to swallow the temples. And the contrast of lights and shadows is the one hypnotizing you. Out of all the sunsets witnessed at the temples of Bagan, our favorite one has to be the one spent on the Ta Wet Hpaya Temple.
It was at this temple that we were sure lucky and got to see two young Buddhist monks playing around the temple. It was impossible to not get photogenic shots with those guys around. They were actually enjoying the sunset as much as we were.
When we talk about Bagan things to do, people ask us to recommend the sunrise vs sunset. It is really hard to decide between them, you need to witness both, as many times as you can. Get an e-bike and chase that sun no matter whether you are staying in the New Bagan or in the Old Bagan area.
Only after witnessing both a sunrise and sunset in Bagan decide which one gets your vote. We will thus let our Bagan photos speak in our names and find a verdict in your eyes.