Secrets of Bagan: City of Two Thousand Temples

Bagan is the highlight of the Myanmar tourist trail. An ancient city once containing 4000 temples (2200 remain), built between the 11th and 13th century AD, Bagan has a lot to offer. The most popular things to do in Bagan are to rent a bike or horse and cart to explore these temples, and to watch the sun set over the fields full of temples from the top of the ever-busy Shwesandaw Pagoda.

Sitanagyi Paya

On our second night in Bagan we were out to find a temple we could climb to get a good view of the sunset, without being squeezed in among a mass of people. Our search brought us to Sitanagyi Paya, a few km south of New Bagan. Constructed in the 13th century AD, this temple seemed perfect for us: while we couldn’t find the usual grand entrance containing stairs to the top, there was some bamboo scaffolding going up the side of the temple. As we climbed up the scaffolding a local man stopped us and told us that climbing was not allowed — but there was a way in.

He brought us to a small window in the side of the temple, which he said gave access to a network of tunnels covering the whole of the temple, and led us inside.

Window to the inside

The inside was pitch black and felt like a very narrow cave filled with almost unbearably dense, dust-saturated hot air. He drew a map of how the tunnels were laid out and explained the route we would take. Following him further inside, I became very aware of the immense weight of the temple towering over us. The guide (who is there daily and maintains the temple) was extremely friendly and concerned for our well-being as he led us on, checking with every step that we were ok and happy to go on further.

Our guide’s map and one of the crawl spaces between tunnels

As we adjusted to the darkness in the temple and shone our torches around, we noticed the various forms of wildlife residing there. Our guide quickly put us at ease and assured us that neither the cockroaches, spiders or bats bite humans and demonstrated this by taking one of the spiders in his hand and letting it crawl off.

We entered several different tunnels separated by smaller crawl spaces, as the light from the small window to the outside faded away and the air became even more stifling. As we entered new spaces the bats would fly within inches of our faces— again our guide assured us that they would not get any closer.


The tunnels themselves had been entered and ransacked by the Japanese during WWII, leaving little of interest other than a headless statue of the sitting Buddha. Despite this the whole experience certainly made this the most memorable temple visit for us in the whole of Bagan, and we would highly recommend it.

A few more general tips for Bagan

  • Though we were reluctant at first, we really enjoyed the half-day horse and cart tour we did. It cost us $12, and allowed us to see all the main temples in a short time while being out of the heat for most of it. Do take care when picking a driver; the first one we spoke to seemed very loud and aggressive and turned out to be drunk.
  • Some people rent bicycles, but the E-bikes (bikes with an electric motor) offer the same freedom, are not much more expensive, and won’t tire you out. We rented ours from Than Dar in New Bagan (061 65272, 09 256228575). The battery lasted for about half a day; when it ran out we just called them and they came to replace it at no extra charge.
  • Be Kind To Animals The Moon in Old Bagan is a great restaurant with a wide range of vegetarian food and lots of great fruit shakes,. We also liked Pwint Mar Lar in New Bagan, which serves local food in large portions.
  • Buddhist temples require you to remove footwear upon entering. Wear shoes that you can easily slip on and off.
  • Check out other resources on the web — I would recommend George and Heidi’s blog and Phil’s blog.

Our friendly cart driver by the full moon

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