Asia Walking Among the Giants of Bagan

Bathed in the glow of the blushing pink and orange tints of an Asian sunset, Bagan looks like a city you’d find in a fairytale—a hodgepodge town speckled with some 2,000 temples, rolling mountains cloaked in a hazy grey hue, and a history that’s equal parts fascinating and mystical. However, everything about Bagan is real, down to its lacquerware shops and roadside stupas.

Once the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan, Bagan is now Myanmar’s most famous attraction, thanks to its rich cultural heritage, bustling markets, and inherently spiritual ambiance that takes hold of you as soon as you arrive. Although you can certainly discover the city via horse-drawn carriage, coach, or hot-air balloon, the best way to see what makes Bagan so awe-inspiring is by foot. Whether you’re with a guide or wandering on your own, don’t miss these ancient and enlightening sights.

THARABAR GATE

Many start their tours around Tharabar Gate, the only surviving portion of Bagan’s 9th-century city wall. Old stucco still clings to the arched gateway, where two carved nats, or spirits, guard the entrance, which superstitious locals pay offerings to before passing through. Once through, your eyes will be drawn to the larger temples, yet the smaller ones found throughout the picturesque plains are equally beguiling. For the best photos, plan to explore this area around sunset, when the pointed tops of the temples create an enchanting silhouette against the ever-changing sky.

HTILOMINLO PAHTO

Towering 150 feet above Bagan, Htilominlo Pahto stands regally amid dozens of smaller temples, as if they are paying homage to this astounding structure. Vastly more impressive on the outside, the terraced, muted-gold exterior and 140-square-foot base make it an ideal spot for photo-hounds. Easily walkable, the temple touts ancient plaster carvings, sandstone decorations, and incredibly detailed carved doorways that beckon an up-close view. Inside, you’ll be humbled in the presence of four large Buddha statues that adorn the upper and lower floors, alongside traces of centuries-old murals.

MOUNT POPA

Not a walk for the faint of heart, a visit to Mount Popa and its infamous gilded monastery takes some serious stamina. Sitting Parthenon-esque atop a massive, shrub-covered outcrop, the views looking at the oddly shaped volcano are just as incredible as the ones you get from the very top. Once you tackle the daunting steps, walk around the monastery to catch the 360-degree views spread out before you. Beyond the gold-plated monastery, the lush forests and parks surrounding the volcano are also worthy of exploration.

TOWN OF NYAUNG U

A little outside of Bagan’s main district you’ll find the small riverbank town of Nyaung-U. Home to a handful of temples, a vast collection of handicraft stalls, and a lively market, it’s a mini-city on its own. Since Bagan lacks the bars and restaurants of other Myanmar cities, you’ll find a large influx of backpackers and tourists flocking the streets and stalls here to get their shopping and food fix. After filling up on mohinga noodles and grilled skewers, walk to the nearby Dhammayangyi Temple, the largest in Bagan, built by King Narathu to atone for his sins, which, judging by the temple’s size, were numerous.

SHWESANDAW PAGODA

Built in 1057 by King Anawrahta, the Shwesandaw Pagoda is one of the crown jewels of Bagan’s impressive collection. The pagoda’s bright white exterior isn’t the only defining factor of this mystical temple, as the bell-shaped structure boasts five terraces that once bore the faces of terracotta statues. Viewed up close, you’ll notice the statues have long been worn down due to weather and earthquakes, yet you can still see glimpses of the detail that made them once so formidable.