The incredible ancient city of Myanmar

Temples of Bagan, Myanmar

The incredible ancient city of Myanmar


Bagan, Myanmar

It’s not clear exactly what happened to Bagan and how one of the greatest cities in Southeast Asia was left abandoned. Perhaps it was an invasion by the Mongols… perhaps it was the fear of an invasion by the Chinese.

Regardless, historians agree that sometime towards the end of the thirteenth century the population fled and left the enormous complex of incredible temples and palaces to the will of fate.

Temples of Bagan, Myanmar

As it so happens, much of ancient Bagan has survived until today and it’s now one of the most important sites in Myanmar – if not the whole region. The grand palaces, monasteries and official buildings would all have been made of wood and have been destroyed but the temples and pagodas were all made of stone and are still standing in surprisingly good condition.

Temples of Bagan, Myanmar

Temples of Bagan, Myanmar

From the top of the taller temples you can look out across the lands and see the religious structures for as far as they eye can stretch. It’s said there are more than 4,000 temples over an area of more than 20 square kilometres… but when you’re talking about numbers that large, it’s hard to be exact.

Temples of Bagan, Myanmar

All through the bushland of the region, the buildings poke out, different shapes and sizes, like grand old monoliths breaking out through the ground.

For about four centuries after the builders of the great city left, the area was left relatively untouched. It was considered to be haunted and the local people avoided it as much as possible. It means that newer developments and communities didn’t overtake the land, so between each temple is just empty open space.

Temples of Bagan, Myanmar

You could spend as long or as little time as you choose to explore the area. In one day, you can get around on a bicycle and see a large number of temples. Or you could spend several days and really explore the variety on offer. Inside many of them, small and large, are the faded remnants of murals on the walls and ceilings, or the religious relics the buildings were originally made to hold.

Temples of Bagan, Myanmar

Temples of Bagan, Myanmar

It truly must have been a grand city once. The main period of construction here was begun in the 11th century by a king called Anawrahta who had been converted to Theravada Buddhism and wanted to prove his devotion to his newfound faith. The building programme was continued by his successors during a period that would rival any great imperial expansion of the modern era.

Temples of Bagan, Myanmar

The scale can seem daunting at first and it’s difficult to truly get a sense of how large the whole area really is. But slowly you begin to feel comfortable in the surrounds of the ruins. They have a calming effect – especially the smaller ones where quite often you will be the only person there. Walk inside and cool air will give you some respite from the beating sun outside. The noise of the world will disappear and the Buddha statues will almost speak to you with their ancient tongues.

Temples of Bagan, Myanmar

Temples of Bagan, Myanmar

The local Myanmar people were on to something when they felt that Bagan was haunted – but it’s not by evil spirits, as feared. It’s by the spirituality of a land where the total is more than the sum of its parts.

Temples of Bagan, Myanmar

These days people still come and worship at the temples. It doesn’t matter they were built almost a thousand years ago – this is still a special and sacred place and to see it as a collection of ruins is to underestimate the connection between the earth and the divine.

Interested in more about Myanmar? Then you can check out my free Myanmar Travel Guide!
  • Illumi Arzia | Feb 7, 2013 at 12:02 pm

    More than 4,000 temples.
    Thats awesome.
    Really-really want to go there.
    Illumi Arzia recently posted..Solo Berduka Banjir JakartaMy Profile

    • Michael Turtle | Feb 9, 2013 at 3:43 pm

      It’s a pretty breathtaking place. You should try to get there before it becomes even busier!

  • Sophie | Feb 7, 2013 at 6:07 pm

    Enjoying your observations from Burma, Michael.
    Sophie recently posted..Kids and animals in AustraliaMy Profile

    • Michael Turtle | Feb 9, 2013 at 3:45 pm

      Thanks. It’s a fascinating country and one that many people haven’t had a chance to come to yet. I’ve got a bit more to share and hopefully it gives people a good sense of the place.

  • Jennifer | Feb 8, 2013 at 1:20 am

    That’s absolutely incredible. I really wonder what happened to make the people abandon such a city.
    Jennifer recently posted..Flying in a Seaplane Over the MaldivesMy Profile

    • Michael Turtle | Feb 9, 2013 at 3:46 pm

      Well, it has something to do with invasion… the historians just aren’t exactly sure whether he place was invaded or whether everyone fled before it came to actual conflict. It’s a bit sad that it was built up with such dedication and then they just had to leave it.

  • Neelima | Feb 10, 2013 at 12:24 am

    Lovely images. Have always been intrigued by ruins and ghost towns. Who knows what secrets such places hold. Bagan has to be my top reason to visit Myanmar. I could explore these temples for days together.
    Neelima recently posted..Postcards of a different kind from RajasthanMy Profile

    • Michael Turtle | Feb 16, 2013 at 5:36 pm

      A lot of people do explore the temples of Bagan for days. Once you get away from the dozen really popular ones, there are hundreds you can go into and see without any other people there!

  • Vinay | Feb 11, 2013 at 1:00 pm

    This is really wonderful, mesmerizing and so beautiful. What a beautiful landscape, a wide spread area dotted with tiny and big beautiful temples. I think Began should stand out as one of the top most world heritage sites. I am scratching my head, why I did not hear about it before.

    Best part is that it has survived and exists completely untouched and in such a fine shape. Thanks Michael for this wonderful blog!

    • Michael Turtle | Feb 16, 2013 at 5:47 pm

      Hopefully Bagan will end up on UNESCO’s World Heritage List at some point. It was considered and rejected quite a few years ago because of the way it was being conserved… but there have been a lot of changes since then and another attempt would probably be successful this time, is the general feeling.

  • Cam @ Traveling Canucks | Feb 12, 2013 at 11:24 am

    Beautiful! That’s one place that’s high on our SE Asia travel list.
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    • Michael Turtle | Feb 16, 2013 at 5:48 pm

      Personally I think Angkor in Cambodia is more impressive – but there is something really exotic about this one. And it doesn’t have nearly as many tourists, which really adds to the experience!

  • Vera | Feb 13, 2013 at 3:32 am

    How impressive is that! And quite enigmatic… Would love to spend a couple of days there, wandering around (and probably silently dying in the heat)!
    Vera recently posted..A review of Nern Chalet – a bit of luxury in Hua HinMy Profile

    • Michael Turtle | Feb 16, 2013 at 6:01 pm

      You need to take lots of water. That’s my tip for you! You can buy drinks near the big temples but not always once you venture outside to explore the cool smaller ones. I repeat, take water. Urine is not tasty, I’ve been told, so don’t let it come to that!

  • Angela | Feb 14, 2013 at 10:33 pm

    Fantastic, it’s my dream to go to Myanmar, I hope I’ll make it this year.
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    • Michael Turtle | Feb 16, 2013 at 6:06 pm

      Let me know if you decide to go. I’ve got so many things to tell you (although I’ll probably end up writing them all on the blog eventually, I suppose…)

  • Yenny Lee | Feb 15, 2013 at 7:02 pm

    I know a lot of people who wouldn’t bat an eyelash on Myanmar because it’s ‘too quaint’. Perhaps, they couldn’t stand being away from the modern lifestyle. I was really too engrossed on their opinions that I start to believe. But thanks to your pictures, I thought that perhaps, Myanmar is a good place to visit. 🙂

    • Michael Turtle | Feb 16, 2013 at 6:12 pm

      It would be tricky to be away from the modern lifestyle if you’re not comfortable in uncomfortable situations. Doing Myanmar independently takes some effort – but doing it as a package tour doesn’t let you get to the heart of the culture. It’s a great place to visit if you want a unique experience, though.

  • RaW | Ramble and Wander | Feb 22, 2013 at 3:22 pm

    Niceee! Looking forward to going there next month! 🙂
    RaW | Ramble and Wander recently posted..Malaysia International Tourism Bloggers Conference & Awards (MITBCA) 2013My Profile

    • Michael Turtle | Feb 23, 2013 at 1:48 pm

      You’re going to love it! Hopefully I’ve been able to provide a little bit of inspiration for some things to do off the beaten track.

  • Fahmi | Feb 22, 2013 at 7:02 pm

    GOD !! Bagan !! Stunning, Mystic & Poisonous hahaha
    Fahmi recently posted..Cerita Dari Selatan IndonesiaMy Profile

    • Michael Turtle | Feb 23, 2013 at 1:50 pm

      Stunning and mystic, yes. Poisonous… well, maybe…

  • Susi | Feb 25, 2013 at 5:21 pm

    Wow, seems like you’ve had much more luck with the weather, the view of the temples etc. than Miss JustTravelous and me in November! I still feel a little ambiguus about Bagan and the whole of Myanmar. Your posts make me want to go back and give it a second try – it was a special, kind of magical place after all.
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    • Michael Turtle | Feb 26, 2013 at 3:22 pm

      I definitely had luck with the weather. Not a drop of rain the entire four weeks and pretty much bright blue sunny skies every day. February is traditionally the best time of year to visit, though, so no surprises there.
      I remember reading some.. let’s call them ‘ambivalent’ thoughts from you guys when you were in Myanmar. But honestly, having been there for a month, I don’t understand them. I fell in love with the place and it’s been one of my favourite countries to visit for quite a while. Of course there were some negatives, but that goes with the territory.
      Maybe you’ll get back there under different circumstances sometime.

  • Apol of Wanderful Together | Jun 20, 2013 at 1:20 am

    I’mvery interested to know about the history of this place… such vast land with so many pagodas… who wouldn’t be interested to know?

    Going here next year and it will be a dream come true!!
    Apol of Wanderful Together recently posted..Khmer New Year | Snapshots from Siem Reap, Cambodia IIMy Profile

    • Michael Turtle | Jun 23, 2013 at 1:24 am

      You will love it there next year! There is so much to learn and see!

  • Jonie Villareal | Dec 28, 2013 at 2:53 am

    Are bikes available for renting to go around?? Will be in Myanmar on March2014.

    Thanks a lot!

  • Liam Carter | Feb 1, 2014 at 7:44 am

    This is awesome i wish we could get a more detailed view into the everyday life of these places

    • Michael Turtle | Feb 10, 2014 at 4:22 pm

      It’s incredible to think about how it would once have been, isn’t it? I bet it was a pretty impressive place when it was full of people. And, yeah, everyday life would have been very interesting!

  • tega | Apr 27, 2014 at 10:13 am

    what deities apart from buddha were worshiped at this particular time in myanmar

    • Michael Turtle | May 4, 2014 at 8:35 am

      Hi Tega. Buddhism was definitely by far the most important religion in Bagan – althought there were a few different strands that people followed.
      There were also some influences from Hindu religions and from indigenous pagan religions… although these were all fairly minor in comparison to Buddhism.

  • INLE LAKE, MYANMAR | Jusgoblog | Sep 14, 2015 at 1:14 pm

    […] is probably the (optional extra) trip to Inthein, which has been described by some as a miniBagan. Shops line the arrival area of the boats and the path to the main pagoda but then they fade away […]

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    […] Things you need to know before travelling to Myanmar A quick guide to Bagan Bagan: the trip of a lifetime Bagan temples tour […]

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  • Maro | Feb 17, 2017 at 11:39 pm

    love your articles, heading there for 17days. thanks for sharing such a great experience you had have. Thanks Michael

    • Michael Turtle | Apr 2, 2017 at 3:08 pm

      Thanks Maro. I really appreciate the comment. 17 days is a great length to be there. I always advise people to go for more than just a few days. Hope you have a great trip!

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