The ancient city of Bagan is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is one of Myanmar's top attractions, with its ancient pagodas scattered across the plain by the Ayeyarwady River. You can easily spend a week if you want to visit all the different temples, though a day is enough to visit the top three or four. While you'll find places to stay all the way from basic guesthouses up to top-notch resorts, one of the nicest things about the area is its relaxed rural feel.
Top attractions near Bagan
1. Shwezigon Paya
Shwezigon Paya is the largest temple in Bagan to be linked with the worship of the Nat spirits. But at first, you'll see only a Buddhist temple; immense white lions guarding the entrances, huge Buddhas, and the gleaming central stupa.
Four huge bronze Buddhas - the earliest still to survive at Bagan - face the cardinal directions under beautifully carved and gilded shrine roofs. At the centre a beautiful gilded Zedi spire shines in the sun, soaring above its three terraces. Smaller shrines and pavilions cluster around the main Zedi, but the complex feels spacious, never crowded. Ladies in bright Thanaka face paint sell souvenirs in the shady arcades that lead to the paya, but they don't try too hard; the atmosphere is always calm.
If you're looking for the nats, you'll find their yellow-painted compound tucked away in a corner. The first Kings of Bagan, recent Buddhist converts, struck a deal with the 37 indigenous nats, and this was the first temple to endorse their worship. The nats have been happily co-existing with the Buddha in Myanmar ever since.
2. Ananda Pagoda (Ananda Festival)
You can see Ananda's high corncob spire from far across the plains. This beautiful white temple is one of Bagan's earliest and most revered spiritual sites. It's based on the Indian idea of the sacred cave and the sacred mountain Meru. The pyramidal massing of the construction represents the mountain. Inside, spacious aisles surrounding the central kernel symbolise the cave.
Huge gilded Buddhas look down toward you as you move from the dappled light of the outer aisles towards the dimmer, cooler centre of the temple.
Come at festival time (late December and early January). Monks chant holy texts, actors and dancers strut their stuff, and villagers camp out for the duration. The normally calm temple grounds are filled with pilgrims, but inside the temple, the Buddhas still smile down with millennial serenity.
Tip: If you come at festival time, have plenty of small change or food to give to alms-seeking monks.
3. Bu Paya Pagoda
Bu Paya isn't one of Bagan's most popular tourist attractions, but it's got real character. Dating back to the third century, it's one of the oldest of the Payas. Its cylindrical stupa is quite different from the corn-cob and bell-shaped Zedis you'll see elsewhere in Bagan.
However, it sits in a very favorable location, raised high on a bluff above the Ayeyarwady River. The area is particularly beautiful at sunrise or sunset, but it's also a great place to laze away the hot noonday. You'll be in good company with friendly locals who may demand selfies with you, or show you the temple library including books on self-help for dental patients!
4. Exploring the Temple Plain
While you can take a tour to visit three or four of the major pagodas, exploring the Bagan plain yourself is far more rewarding. Rent a bike or electronic bike and take to the sandy trails. Impressive structures like Htilominlo Paya, one of the tallest on the plain, shelter beautiful wall paintings and glazed tiles showing the Jataka stories of the Buddha's lives.
More modest temples like the two Seinnyet Pagodas, built for a queen and her sister, are spruce little affairs in red brick tricked up with white stone. Little no-name temples almost overgrown by grass and thorn bushes have a melancholy appeal.
On the tracks, you'll see ox carts and local farmers. Depending on when you go, the fields may be bare-ploughed furrows or bright green with vegetation. The ground here may look dry and dusty, but peanuts do well in the local soil - something to remember when you taste a local salad with peanuts crumbled on top.
Special tip: Start off with the pagoda nearest your hotel or guesthouse. You can tiptoe out in the early morning to catch the sunrise and avoid the crowds. If it's a 'living' temple you'll see early morning prayers and offerings being made.
5. Hot Air Balloon Flight
Drifting over Bagan in a balloon gives you a completely different feeling for the place. You'll see the full expanse of the plain, the great meandering ribbon of the River, the far mountains, and the pagodas from above. From here, the mandala-like quality of their ground plans is clear. Go at sunrise to see the pagodas emerge in silence from the twilight mists - it's a really unforgettable experience.
However, remember that flights are often booked months in advance. You might be lucky enough to get tickets while you're in Bagan, but it's probably best to reserve them when you book your tour.
6. Explore the Local Market
Many of the pagodas have small markets attached. Though they're aimed at the tourist trade, they're often good quality. Lacquerware is a particular strength here, ranging from small boxes and delicate tea sets to impressive temple offering urns with ornate spires which are almost mini-pagodas in themselves. If you want to see the very best lacquerware, many shops have a special room where they keep their highest quality pieces - just ask to visit. You'll also see colourful sequinned puppets, as well as local artists' copies of the paintings in some of the pagodas.
7. Salay (120 km south of Bagan)
Salay is like a miniature, lower-key Bagan, with over a hundred Bagan-era ruins and a stunning wooden monastery. Here, monks still live in many of the monasteries, and locals smoke giant cigars or sip tea under the arcades of old colonial houses. If Bagan is too touristy for you, you're bound to fall under the spell of Salay's old world charm.
8. Mount Popa (50 km southeast of Bagan)
This Buddhist sanctuary is perched atop a rocky pinnacle, reached by a covered staircase. It's a tough climb, with the added challenge of greedy local monkeys and the poop they leave on the stairs. That said, the views are worth it. Buddha shares the temple with a number of nats, and there are more nats in the Mother Spirit shrine in the village below. Heavy drinkers should make the acquaintance of whisky-tippling nat Lord Kyawswa, about to topple off his horse - he also looks after gamblers. Stick a few kyats in his fist for luck.