By Amanda Little
Some may be confused by the difference between Burma and Myanmar, but those countries are one and the same! No matter what you call it, Myanmar has some of the most spectacular Buddhist temples you can visit.
Explore the finest and largest of the four surviving temples in Bagan. Known for the four Buddhas, each facing a cardinal direction (North, South, East, and West), Ananda Pahto also features exquisite stone carvings depicting Buddhist imagery. The gilded spires and ornate stupa studded with diamonds give way to a peaceful courtyard, smaller temples and shrines, and eventually to those selling souvenirs for those up for bargaining.
Stroll along the riverbanks as you explore the magnificent golden towers of Shwezigon Pagoda. Topped with a glittering gold dome built without any iron buttresses, the Pagoda is an impressive architectural marvel as much as a delight to see. Surrounded by shrines and temples built over the years and visited by worshippers daily, this stunning 12th century structure is the second largest temple in Myanmar!
Time your trip right and scale the stunning Shwesandaw Pagoda to catch what just may be the best sunset views across the plains of Bagan. With temples dotting the landscape, rolling fields, and clusters of lush trees, the views beg to be photographed. While sunrise offers just as beautiful a view, it is often packed with visitors all vying for a photo of the same view. Once the morning crowd dissipates, it becomes much easier to make your way along the steep pagoda steps and explore the four nearby pagodas that are said to provide spiritual protection for Bagan.
TIP: Those looking for a crowdless sunrise might seek out Lawkaoushaung Temple which is nearby, but you may need to find the hut of the keyholder and ask for entrance if it's closed. The extra work is worth the amazing sights, unmarred by tourists.
Wander through temples and ruins as you make your way to the main building that makes up the Dhammayangyi Temple. Be weary of the many vendors throughout the outskirts pushing their wares, but don’t let them detract from the ancient beauty surrounding you. Looking like a pyramid from a distance, the temple is known to be haunted among the locals, who claim the massive structure remembers the sins of King Narathu, who killed his queen, father, and brother within its walls. Whether or not that is true, the temple is home to the rare double Buddha statues!
Kyaiktiyo Golden Rock
Journey up to an altitude of over 3,600 feet on Mount Kyaiktiyo to a beautiful temple, small shrines, and a pagoda, but that isn’t the main attraction among the soaring mountains. The Golden Rock, a massive, gravity-defying granite boulder leans out over a ledge on Mount Kyaiktiyo, and legend says that it stays where it is because of a single thread of Buddha’s own hair holding it in place. Men pilgrimage to the gold wonder to ask Buddha for wisdom and are allowed to approach, while women are forced to observe from afar. The area is surrounded with beautiful sights, and the view is stunning.
Look out to the horizon at any point in Yangon, and you’ll see Shwedagon Pagoda glistening. At nearly 330 feet tall, this 2,500-year-old temple is the biggest golden tower in the world. The impressive complex is composed of hundreds of precious stones set into the glimmering gold as well as a myriad of surrounding towers. Rumor has it there are untold riches, even a single hair from the Buddha himself, sealed away within the stupa.
Enter Mahamuni Paya to stand in awe and reverence before the 2,000-year-old, 13-foot-tall golden Buddha. Surrounded by shrines and temples, with an art gallery in the temple courtyard depicting the Buddha’s history, the Mahamuni Paya is an amazing sight to see. Many Buddhist come year round to pay their respects to the statue plated in 6 inches of gold. Situated in Mandalay, Myanmar’s capital, the temple is easy to find and a sight to see.
Popa Taung Kalat Monastery
Spend your time seeking spiritual enlightenment from the stunning heights of the Popa Taung Kalat Monastery. Sitting nearly 5,000 feet above sea level, those in the monastery can look out over lush forests that go on for miles. This site is sacred to the people of Myanmar, who believe it was the birthplace of the Nats, which are power spirits. Reaching the summit of this amazing structure is no easy feat, involving nearly a thousand stairs and mischievous monkeys. Those who reach the top all say it was worth the trek, and maybe even made better by it.
Sein Nyet Sister Temples
For those looking for a set of temples away from the crowds but still featuring the beauty and traditional motifs can go in search of the Sister Temples. Sein Nyet Ama is the elder sister, and is a temple featuring the typical square structure with four entrances. Sein Nyet Nyima is actually a spire, however both sisters show off delicate and ornate stucco work, featuring ogres clinging to garlands, and both real and mythical animals gamboling along the structures.
Step through the red-brick entrance composing the Sulamani Temple and explore a world apart from our own. Because this is a favored temple, there are many pushy hawkers, but most will happily give you a tour through the temple with local knowledge for a dollar. With beautiful vaulted openings, light pours in throughout the temple, but the south-facing frescoes bear damage from time and weathering. Still, this temple is a lovely sight to see.
This single story temple was built by Queen Thembula in the 13th century and stands apart from many of the other single story temples by being beautifully well lit, and featuring Chinese influences among the murals and Buddhas adorning the Temple. The use of the color yellow as well as the features of the people in the murals make Thambula Temple stand out, and make it an excellent stop that won’t be overcrowded by visitors.
The title of second-tallest temple in Bagan goes to the Gawdawpalin Temple, built by King Narapastisithu. The legend behind this king ventures into myth, saying he went blind as punishment from the gods for terrible crimes against his ancestors. He made idols of his ancestors, placed them on thrones, and begged them for forgiveness, then miraculously regained his eyesight. Ever since, the pagoda is rumored to have healing powers, but that isn’t the most mysterious feature of the temple. An earthquake revealed a secret passage withing the pagoda!