Bagan will undoubtedly be a major highlight of your Irrawaddy river cruise. Practically every itinerary sailing the river stops here at some point and it’s easy to see why. This ancient site and former capital of the Pagan Empire is one of the most spiritual places in Myanmar and a centre of pilgrimage for people all over the world. Many of the thousands of temples and pagodas which stand here may have fallen into ruin, but there are still so many spectacular Buddhist structures to admire. Some can only be viewed from the outside whilst others are open to be explored from within.
Their glistening embellishments, religious importance and intricate design tell a unique story and the views across the Bagan plains are fantastic. With so many different temples to see and a relatively short time in this port, it’s impossible to discover everything. However, here are five that you definitely shouldn’t miss.
One of the most popular sites in Bagan, Shwesandaw Pagoda is a covetable spot from which to watch the sunrise or sunset. The crowds are typically large at these times of day but the experience is definitely worth it if you get the chance. There are other temples in Myanmar, such as the famous structure in Pyay, that share the same name – a name which means Golden Hair Relic. It is therefore said that this Bagan pagoda is home to sacred hairs belonging to Buddha. Built on the outskirts of the ancient city, Shwesandaw Pagoda provided protection to Bagan.
If the only temple you see during your Irrawaddy cruise is this one, you would not go home disappointed. Not only is it one of the most popular visitor spots, it is also one of the best-preserved structures in Bagan, something which owes a lot to the restoration work done following an earthquake in 1975. The two standout features are the gilded spire, which was only added in 1990 to celebrate a landmark 900th anniversary, and four golden Buddha statues. Located inside, the statues each face in a different direction to represent four different teachings of the Buddhist faith. They were designed to look stern up close but to greet you with a wide smile from way away.
Whilst Ananda Temple stands out because of its glistening spire, it is the sheer size of Dhammayangyi Temple which draws attention. It may not look bejewelled from the outside but the majestic corridors and high ceilings inside definitely give it a feeling of grandeur. Another key feature is that it is the only temple in Bagan to show two Buddha figures side by side. Built by the tyrannical King Narathu, who killed his father, brother, queen and hundreds of slaves who didn’t carry out the work as he demanded, many believe the temple to be haunted.
No matter where you are in Bagan, it’s easy to spot the golden spire of Thatbyinnyu. As the tallest monument here, it is fitting that the name is related to the Omniscience of Buddha. Unfortunately, earthquake damage now means that you cannot climb the temple’s exterior but there is still plenty to see inside. You will notice that the brickwork is a different colour to the other temples around – black and white rather than red. The splash of colour inside also offers a different experience to some of the other structures.
Gawdawpalin Temple was supposedly built by King Narapatisithu after he had committed a terrible crime. He was made blind as a punishment and told to atone for his sins by building a temple and dedicating it to the idols of his ancestors. After doing this and continually praying for absolution, the King was granted his sight back and the temple was given a name which means ‘forgiveness’. The architectural style is one associated with the later period of the Pagan Empire and the design promotes meditation and devotion to Buddha.
There are so many other pagodas and temples which are worth visiting during your Myanmar river cruise, but as there’s a chance you’ll get ‘templed-out’ it’s best to start with the most alluring examples. You could also choose to avoid the crowds at busy parts of the day and visit some of the lesser-known monuments instead. Either way, we have some fantastic Irrawaddy itineraries for you to choose from. Call 0808 250 1953 and speak to our team who can talk you through the various options.
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