The ancient city of Bagan, set on the banks of the Ayeyarwaddy River, is one of the world’s most fascinating archaeological sites, on par with Peru’s Machu Picchu, the Pyramids of Giza and Cambodia’s Angkor complex. The region is home to the largest concentration of Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries in the world. Over 2,000 monuments rise out of the dusty red earth and dot the area as far as the eye can see.
Bagan is more like a large village than a town. While hawkers are common around the busier temples, the rest of the area is relatively sleepy. Don’t expect to find a bustling restaurant strip, although there are some wonderful places to eat in Old Bagan, this area retains much of its yesteryear charm.
An abundance of temples
With such a dense concentration of religious monuments, you don’t have to go very far before bumping into an ancient relic. The 40-square-kilometre area once contained almost 4,500 temples, built by the kings of Bagan between 1057 and 1287. Today, just over 2,200 remain, due to devastating earthquakes, invading armies and military unrest. After spending some time exploring Ananda, Thatbyinnyu and Gawdawpalin, visit nearby Mt Popa, an extinct volcano with a monastery nestled on top. Mt Popa holds great spiritual significance to the people of Myanmar; it is believed to be the home of the country’s most powerful nats, powerful spirits who exhibit human characteristics.
The best way to see the Bagan Archaeological Zone is from above, on a hot air balloon ride. Setting off from the hotel before sunrise, watch as the shapes around you become bathed in morning light. Drift silently over thousands of Buddhist monuments, and witness the day slowly comes to life: birds singing their morning song, dogs trotting along dusty lanes, and children begrudgingly heading off to school. The return to earth won’t be too much of a jolt, as we enjoy breakfast and champagne when we touch down. Hot air balloon trips are available between October and March, and should be booked early to avoid missing out.
When to go
November to February are the best months to travel to Bagan, when the temperature peaks at around 30°C and is usually quite dry. Highs between March and May can reach the mid-40s, so it’s best to avoid travel between these months (unless you’re a fan of the heat!) The chance of rain is highest between June and October.