For those not yet worn down by “yet another temple”, Bagan is one of the best places to go. First, it was a pleasant country retreat from the bustle of Yangon, but the history on display and in spoken recounting is fascinating. While there is a large pagoda, what makes Bagan unique is the 3,000+ monuments / stupas scattered around the landscape. There are also stories of ruthless ancient kings, the influences of past invaders from Mongolia and China, and sunsets that you will not see anywhere else. My schedule did not allow for the balloon ride over Bagan, but I suspect it is special as well.
First, to get one piece of unpleasantness out of the way. In some temples, the matts are laid out nicely for visitors. This was not the case in any I visited in Bagan. Barefooting across sometimes broken / rocky paths, that can be hot in the middle of the day, may be a little uncomfortable, if like me, you have spent most of your life wearing indoor office attire. It was never a deal breaker, but I did find myself sometimes scampering towards shady spots of the path. Your mileage may vary.
In addition to Bagan temple style, there is some interesting and old artwork to be seen, including one painting whose eyes follow you regardless of what position you view it from.
Many of the most impressive temples and artwork date to the 11th century. Some artwork and Buddha images/statutes from later dates can also be seen, allowing for comparisons of the Buddha form over time, and through the influence of Mongolian and Chinese occupation. Typical of the Bagan style of Buddha is the three rings around the neck.
Some of the hallways in temples can be dark, so make sure you have your low-light game worked out before you go in. I don’t remember whether flash-photography is allowed in all the temples, and I have a vague recollection that some do not, so check that out. I found that the Apple iPhoneXS performed exceptionally well in some low-light situations – there is some nice tech in that product. I used my mirrorless in some situations as well, though my zoom lens does not work as well in those conditions as a good prime lens would, so it is a matter of whether you want to futz with that.
At the largest temple in Bagan, Dhammayangyi , I heard stories of the ruthless King who had the temple built. Apparently, if the bricks were not laid close enough together, as was the style at that time, he would cut the fingers of the worker off. It did make me think about the large and small acts of tyranny that many inflict on others, in the pursuit of a vision / in the pursuit of ego. I am no saint in that regard, but I do think it is worth a moment of your time to stop and think about that.
Then after you have enjoyed a day looking at history, temple, arts, and sampling the local cuisine, you have the sunsets to stand back and enjoy. If you find yourself at the most popular viewing spot where all the tourists are, you will get a great view, but you may also want to take a zoom lens to get really spectacular shots. The shots below were taken with a 18mm-135mm zoom.
For anyone who can only make a few highlights in Myanmar, put Bagan on the short list!