Bagan, located on a wide plain east of the Ayeyarwaddy River in central Myanmar, is home to more than 2000 temples and pagodas dating back about 1000 years.
The breathtaking site is not only the most popular tourist destination in Myanmar, but also a huge draw for religious pilgrims who come from far and wide to pray, meditate and make offerings to the Buddha.
Bagan took form as the capital of a Burmese kingdom whose heyday occurred from the 11th to 13th centuries AD. During that time, powerful kings such as Anawrahta and Kyanzittha oversaw the construction of hundreds of temples, enshrining themselves as divine beings yet sharing the merit of their construction projects with everyone in the kingdom.
The surviving temples range in size from small structures just big enough for a single Buddha image, to huge edifices that tower above the plain and can be seen from miles away. Famous examples include 170-foot-high Ananda Temple, which shelters four revered standing Buddha statues, and golden Shwezigon Pagoda near the town of Nyaung Oo. Gubyaukgyi is famed for its vivid murals depicting scenes from the life of the Buddha, while Dhammayazika Pagoda is said to be haunted by the ghost of a general who died during its construction in 1196 AD.
The importance of Bagan as a religious site is most apparent during festivals, which usually fall around the time of the full moon and attract visitors from around the country. One of the biggest is the Ananda Temple Festival, lasting for about three weeks around the full moon of the lunar month of Pyatho, which usually occurs in January. Temporary stalls are built for vendors to sell food, household goods, handicrafts, agricultural tools and local produce, while bowls filled with portions of the local agricultural harvest are offered as alms to local monks. The Shwezigon Pagoda Festival leading up to the new moon of Tazaungdine in November showcases offerings of candles and fireworks. At night, there are shows and dances that last until sunrise.
Visitors to Bagan will be impressed by the comfortable coexistence of modern and traditional lifestyles. The temples and pagodas overlook vast plots of farmland, where farmers plough the fields using horses and bullocks, boys herd goats and cattle, and men use bamboo ladders to climb high into toddy palm trees to collect sap to produce sugar and wine. Nearby, women wash clothes in the Ayeyarwaddy River and early-rising fishermen use nets to pull their catch from the water. Traditional handicraft industries thrive, and small workshops making lacquerware souvenirs can be seen throughout the region.
The Bagan region is also an important part of the country for the worship of powerful spirits called nats, and shrines to these supernatural beings can be found at Shwezigon and several other pagodas. The most famous nat shrine lies at the base of Mount Popa, an extinct volcano located about 25 miles east of Bagan. The mountain itself is a protected nature reserve, and one-day or overnight trips there from Bagan can include hikes on its forested slopes. Other noteworthy options for excursions from Bagan include Salay, a quiet town 40 miles to the south with beautiful 19th century wooden monasteries and Bagan-era monuments, and the leafy village of Pakokku, 20 miles north along the Ayeyarwaddy River.