Search site

Explore Bagan

Explore Bagan, a cultural and artistic wonderland, on a small group tour The opportunity to explore Bagan, a cultural and artistic wonderland, on a small group tour does exist. Odyssey Traveller has offered small group…

6 Jan 20 · 8 mins read

Explore Bagan, a cultural and artistic wonderland, on a small group tour

The opportunity to explore Bagan, a cultural and artistic wonderland, on a small group tour does exist. Odyssey Traveller has offered small group cultural and history tours of Myanmar for several years. Our collection of small group tour packages appeal to mature travellers, particularly to new destinations such as Myanmar. The temples of Bagan is truly one of the world’s premier archaeological, artistic and historical wonders, and one of the main highlights of a visit to Myanmar. At the end of this post we will share a collection of tours offered by Odyssey Traveller to Myanmar and the rest of Asia.

Bagan Myanmar
Bagan, Myanmar

The Plains of Bagan

Bagan or Pagan in central Myanmar located on the left bank of the Ayeyarwady River (Irrawaddy River) was recently named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Built in the 9th century, it was capital of the Bagan kingdom which was roughly the size of the modern-day republic of Myanmar. The Bagan kingdom reached its peak in the 11th to 13th centuries, until it was overrun by the Mongols. It is now a site of Buddhist pilgrimage and archaeological site, with its wide, verdant area covered with temples, stupas, and monasteries. (Stupa is Sanskrit for “heap”, referring to the architectural structure.) Many of the temples house important Buddha statues, Buddhist frescoes and sculptures. The Dhammayangyi Temple was the largest of these temples.

Scenic sunset view of ancient temple Dhammayangyi in Bagan
Scenic sunset view of ancient Dhammayangyi Temple in Bagan, Myanmar

Myanmar’s kings built over 900 temples, 500 stupas and 400 monasteries in an area roughly 13 by 7 square kilometres. This acquired merit — not just for themselves, but for their kingdom and subjects too, ensuring everyone would be reborn into a higher plane of existence in their next life.

Construction at Bagan reached its zenith during the 11th and 13th centuries following the adoption of Buddhism by King Anawrahta, who rose to power in 1044. In the following centuries, Bagan grew into a story of brick transfigured into religious merit. Today, over 3,500 monuments remain standing. Some are small and graceful, others soar towards the heavens. One of the most beautiful sights in Myanmar is a panoramic view of the plain at sunset and sunrise, where one can see temples, stupas and monasteries scattered across the landscape as far as the eye can see.

Myanmar’s kings ruled by virtue of the merit they accrued during previous lives. Donating religious monuments acquired merit for the royal donor, and provided his subjects with places to learn about and practice Buddhism. In turn, they too would acquire merit, and Buddhism would thrive. Bagan’s building boom bears testimony not only to the strength of Buddhist belief, but to the remarkable mobilisation of people and resources required to create this great religious and cultural centre. Today, many of Bagan’s main monuments are still places of pilgrimage for Buddhist faithful from all over the world.

Bagan’s art and architecture

Bagan’s monuments survived for centuries owing to their construction in well baked brick, combined with stone for structural soundness. One of their most striking architectural features is the regular use of true vault arching, a technique almost unknown elsewhere in Asia. These vaults could span large interior spaces. They needed to be lightweight, but still sturdy enough to support the massive superstructures above. The technology allowed the construction of distinctive temples entered through wide hallways, where the pilgrim comes face to face with a statue of Gotama, the Buddha, whose face is often gently lit from narrow skylights set high in the walls. The vaulting also permitted wide encircling inner corridors, which became canvases for Bagan’s artists to create statuary and frescoes celebrating Gotama’s previous lives, and important events from his last earthly existence prior to obtaining nibbana.

Explore Bagan, a cultural and artistic wonderland

Pagoda, temple or stupa?

The English term ‘pagoda’ is often used to describe both temples and stupas throughout the Asian world. However, temples and stupas are built with very different religious aims in mind. Stupas, known as zeidi in Myanmar, are solid structures, usually shaped like a graceful bell. In essence, they are a giant reliquary, containing objects of value and reverence. The most auspicious of these are, of course, remains of the Buddha himself, such as strands of hair or a tooth. Others may be associated with his followers or other revered monks. The relic chamber lies deep within the stupa itself, or below ground level. As well as a relic of the Buddha, images, plaques, votive tablets, precious jewels and manuscripts may be interred. An inscription dated 1227 CE gives us an idea of the sacred objects interred within just one stupa’s relic chamber:

” … the bodily relics of the Lord (ie, the Buddha); then the image of the Lord made from the branch of the sacred banyan tree; the image of the Lord cast in gold; the image of the Lord in ivory bezoar; and the image of the Lord made of sandalwood. [Underneath] all these were spread gold cushions and silver cushions and these are covered with gold umbrellas. Parched rice of silver, gold chandeliers and silver chandeliers are also offered. When these gems are enshrined the relic chamber is closed with bricks.”

The floor plan of a stupa

The ground plan of a stupa is usually square, surmounted by a terraced base reflecting the tiered slopes of Mt Meru, the cosmic mountain where the gods dwell. The uppermost platform becomes the base for the bell-shaped superstructure, known as the anda. Its supporting terraces serve a practical as well as symbolic function. Many provide an open air art gallery depicting Buddhist teachings and texts. The terraces at the Shwezigon stupa at Bagan, for example, bear ceramic plaques showing scenes from the Jataka tales, the 550 tales of Gotama’s former lives.

Explore Bagan, a cultural and artistic wonderland

Buddhist devotion at stupas involves a circumambulation of the stupa itself, usually on its main ground level platform or occasionally via its terraces. As well as paying homage to the stupa itself (and hence the Buddha), the pilgrim can take in the moral messages displayed in the decorative artwork. Unusually, at Bagan’s East and West Hpetleik stupas, the andas are set atop a solid core surrounded by a corridor, filled with rows of Jataka plaques. This design combines the main votive focus — the stupa — with the ambulatory corridors more normally found in temples.

Temples: sites of quiet contemplation

Temples are religious buildings with an interior designed to facilitate quiet contemplation, meditation and paying homage to the Buddha and his teachings. Bagan’s temple prototypes derive from those at the ancient capital, Sri Ksetra, which flourished between the 4th and 9th centuries. These simple structures are known as lei-myet-hna (four-faces), as they consist of a square central block with four sides. Perforated windows around the outside admit light. A cella, or large niche, is cut into the central block to contain the statue of Gotama, and devotees sit respectfully before this image to conduct their devotions.

Other simple temples contain images of the last four Buddhas of the current age: Gotama, who faces west; Kassapa, who faces south; Konagamana, who faces east; and Kakusandha, who faces north. These four-faced temples evolved to a five-faced model in the 12th century, allowing the inclusion of an image of Mettaya, the Buddha of the future.

Explore Bagan, a cultural and artistic wonderland

The temples held precious items

While temples are places for devotion and meditation, they may also contain relic chambers. Donors sealed up precious items within their architecture. These gifts are recorded on stone inscriptions that often included the item’s cost, as all merit was (and still is) accounted to the donors. Enshrining precious objects contributes to the potency of the temple. This potency then radiates outwards to all who worship within it. Donated images of the Buddha and his predecessors are placed in niches around the central block, usually made of brick covered in stucco, then painted; and the corridors surrounding the central core covered in painted murals. These murals are an artistic highlight of a visit to Bagan, and are not necessarily always religious in nature. Many feature scenes from daily life, such as monkeys frolicking in palm trees, gossiping women making pots, dancers and portraits of the donors themselves.

The pagoda was central to village life

Bagan’s pagodas, whether stupa or a temple, were covered in plaster and whitewashed, then decorated with coloured stucco ornamentation. They remain surrounded by monasteries, rest houses for visitors and houses for pagoda slaves and monastic servants. Entire villages were dedicated to their upkeep, and their incomes were exempt from tax — a circumstance that may have contributed in part to Bagan’s decline in the 14th century.

Explore Bagan, a cultural and artistic wonderland

Odyssey small group tours in Myanmar

Odyssey offers two fully escorted small group tours in Myanmar, ‘Discovering Myanmar’ and ‘Myanmar’s Art and Archaeology’. Each escorted small group tour in Myanmar takes a maximum of 16 people. The tours are suitable for mature couples or single travellers seeking to learn as they travel.

Small Group tour discovering Myanmar

Our ‘Discovering Myanmar’ small group tour takes in the highlights of Myanmar from Mandalay to Bagan over 14 days, allowing us to learn more about Burmese culture, the roots of Theravada Buddhism, and the beautiful Burmese archaeological wonders, especially during our time in Bagan. Commencing in Yangon, our group tour will visit Inle Lake, Pindaya, Mandalay, Pyin Oo Lwin, and Bagan. Mature Travellers can choose from one of three departures scheduled each year: in February, March and November. To see the full itinerary for this tour please click here.

Explore Bagan, a cultural and artistic wonderland

Odyssey’s ‘Myanmar’s Art and Archaeology’ small group tour

This escorted program for mature travellers departs every year in February.

It focuses on a detailed study of the country’s art and archaeology. Commencing in Yangon, the tour first visits the ancient capital at Bagan. From Bago the small group tour continues on to the UNESCO world heritage listed first millennium city of Sri Ksetra. We continue on to Bagan and explore its cultural and artistic wonderland. The group learns about Bagan’s history, in particular the thousands of Buddhist monuments built to acquire merit for Myanmar’s kings and their subjects.

We then cruise upriver on the mighty Ayeyarwaddy River to Mandalay. Mandalay is the last royal city, still home to many of the country’s finest artisans working in traditional materials. From Mandalay we return to Yangon to learn about that city’s colonial heritage. In Yangon our small group of mature travellers take in Myanmar’s thriving modern art scene. This tour does also include plenty of general touristy things to avoid ‘pagoda fatigue’. For example, we visit to local markets and villages. To see the full itinerary for this tour please click on this link.

About Odyssey Traveller small group tours

Odyssey offers some 150 small group tours to mature travellers each year. Our packaged tours are small group tours with local guides sharing their knowledge. Odyssey has more than 35 years experience in small group travel. It remains passionate about providing affordable educational immersion style tours in a pleasant environment for mature travellers. For more information about the organisations collection of tours please click here. This link takes you to the about Odyssey Traveller page of the website.

The following links provide additional information to assist you in planning your trips. For an article about what it is like to join a small group tour click here. For tips on what to footwear to pack then please click here.

Originally published on June 20, 2017

Updated on January 7, 2020

Articles about Myanmar published by Odyssey Traveller.

External articles to assist you on your visit to Myanmar.

Related Tours

North East India small group

15 days

Oct

North East India small group escorted cultural tour

Visiting India

A unique small group cultural tour visiting the North East region of India, this tour was created for seniors travelling as couples and solo travellers. As we journey through the magnificent landscape and culture we stop to explore Darjeeling, which shares history with Bengal, Sikkim, and Nepal, as well as Tiger Hill, where we witness the changing colours of the sunrise in the Himalayan Range.

From A$8,450 AUD

View Tour
Pre-guaranteed
Mongolia and Russia small group tours

30 days

Jul

Journey through Mongolia and Russia small group tour

Visiting Mongolia, Russia

This escorted small group tour traverses this expanse, from Ulaanbaatar to St Petersburg; from the Mongolian Steppes to Siberian taiga and tundra; over the Ural Mountains that divide Asia and Europe to the waterways of Golden Ring. Our program for couples and solo travellers uses two of the great rail journeys of the world; the Trans Mongolian Express and the Trans Siberian Express.

From A$17,850 AUD

View Tour
Mongolia cultural history, small group tour for mature travellers

20 days

Sep

Mongolia Small Group Tour | Discover the history and culture of Mongolia

Visiting Mongolia

Mongolia is a relatively unexplored country for travellers but it has many diverse landscapes to explore, and interesting cultures to become acquainted with, all existing in a country with few cities and towns but with extensive rural lands that remain the domain of nomadic herders. Small group tour for couples or solo travelers

From A$10,750 AUD

View Tour
Gobi Desert Mongolia Dinosaur dig

16 days

May, Aug

Mongolia Dinosaur Dig Tour | Small group tour in the Gobi Desert

Visiting Mongolia

The first dinosaur nest of eggs was discovered in Mongolia during 1928.Following an introduction to Mongolian history, culture and desert landscapes, participants will Experience eight days on a paleontological dig. Small group tour for couples and solo mature travellers interested in Mongolia and Dinosaurs.

From A$14,250 AUD

View Tour
India tour

11 days

Nov, Mar, Oct

India Short Tour | Small group tour for seniors

Visiting India

A short small group tour for Mature and seniors couples and solo travellers of India and its icons. Bounded by the majestic Himalayan ranges in the north and edged by an endless stretch of golden beaches. India is a vivid kaleidoscope of landscapes, magnificent historical sites, such as the Taj or red fort royal cities, such Dehli, Jaipur , Agra and Madras colourful people, and rich culture.

From A$8,150 AUD

View Tour
Mizdakhan Cemetery, Nukus, Uzbekistan

27 days

May, Aug

The Stans Small Group Tour: Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan

Visiting Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan

This Odyssey is designed for the adventurous traveller, a couple or solo traveller on a small group tour who is prepared for a range of accommodation styles, for walking excursions and some long travel days in 3 Central Asian countries. The program combines experiences with great scenery, ancient and modern histories, family visits and lifestyles that differ dramatically.

From A$14,350 AUD

View Tour
India tour

22 days

Nov, Mar

Cultural and History Tour of India | Small Group Tour

Visiting India

Small group tour for mature and senior couples and solo travellers to India. Visiting Delhi and the red fort, Jaipur, Agra and so much more over 22 days explore the world of the Mughal.

From A$10,450 AUD

View Tour
Myanmar, Temples of Bagan

15 days

Feb

Myanmar's Art and Archaeology | Small Group Tour

Visiting Myanmar (Burma)

This is a wonderful small group program for seniors and mature couples and solo travellers focussed on the art and archaeology, designed to take you chronologically through Myanmar’s history. From Yangon to Pyay, where the 4th-9th century walled city has received Unesco World Heritage status, on to Bagan’s 10th-13th century pagodas, to Mandalay’s last royal dynasty and the 18th-19th century colonial era returning to Yangon for the colonial heritage and modern art scene.

From A$7,250 AUD

View Tour
Specialist Escorted Small Group cultural Tours exploring Japan

12 days

Sep, Mar

Japan Odyssey - Small Group Tours for Mature Travellers

Visiting Japan

During this small group program we encounter history from ancient periods; religions such as Buddhism and Shintoism; the philosophy of the people through visits to world renowned temples and shrines; and old towns full of ancient legends of Samurai and more in Japan. Together we, as mature and senior couples or solo travellers will share some traditions which the Japanese have inherited. A variety of sites including UNESCO World Heritage sites, has been chosen for this tour, all filled with clues such as Hanami or forest bathing to understand the essence of Japan including astro boy.

From A$12,750 AUD

View Tour
Taiwan tours

13 days

Sep

Taiwan culture and history escorted small group tour

Visiting Taiwan

This small group program for mature and senior travelers, couple or solo includes many of Taiwan’s natural wonders; from Taroko Gorge, one of the seven wonders of Asia, to Sun Moon Lake, Taiwan’s largest lake; Kenting National Park, with its 60 kilometres of coral-rimmed shoreline to the East Coast National Scenic Area, stretching 170 kilometres. Fully escorted tour of Taiwan

From A$7,250 AUD

View Tour
China Dinosaurs

12 days

Oct, Apr

China Dinosaurs small group escorted palaeontology tours

Visiting China

During our small group Dinosaur Odyssey study program for couples and solo travellers, we will visit two of the most exciting dinosaur sites in China - Zigong Dinosaur Museum. Your program leader will take us to behind-the-scenes places, field studies in the Sichuan Province and Dinosaur Valley, and in the Yunnan Province. Go behind-the-scenes places, field studies at the dig sites, with first-hand experience at palaeontological dinosaur digs.

From A$9,250 AUD

View Tour
Silk Road specialist small group history tours for mature travellers

29 days

Aug, May

Travel on the Silk Road with Odyssey Traveller | Small Group Tour for Seniors

Visiting China, Kyrgyzstan

The Silk Road is an ancient trade route linking China and Imperial Rome through Central Asia. Few areas in the world remain as unexplored or offer such richness in terms of ancient and modern history, culture, and scenic diversity as Central Asia. Our Small group Silk road tours itinerary explores the Road through remote deserts and mountainous environments as we visit key sites between Xi'an and Bukhara.

From A$15,750 AUD

View Tour

Asia and the Orient

Silk Road View 63 articles

Myanmar (Burma)

Bagan Myanmar View 4 articles

Join 22,383 like-minded travellers receiving our weekly newsletter.

Special offers and promotions
A$350 AUD first trip travel voucher
The latest tours and articles