A Day In The Tomb Raider Movie: Myanmar’s Temple City, Bagan

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider is a 2001 action-adventure film based on the Tomb Raider video game series featuring the character Lara Croft, portrayed by Angelina Jolie. An international co-production between the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, and Germany, it was directed by Simon West and revolves around Lara Croft trying to obtain ancient artifacts from the Illuminati. Although the movie was originally shot in Cambodia, there are plenty of pagodas and temples in Myanmar that look quite like the movie scenes! 

And one that stands out of them all, is Bagan, a place where is called Myanmar’s temple city! The historical city has the largest and densest concentration of Buddhist sites and landmarks in the world – including more than 3,500 stupas, temples, monasteries, and other structures dating back to the 11th and 12th centuries.

Bagan still has over 2,000 temples remaining, down from 10,000-plus in its glory days. This temple town is one of Myanmar’s main attractions. Once the capital of a powerful ancient kingdom, the area known as Bagan (ပုဂံ) or, bureaucratically, as the ‘Bagan Archaeological Zone’ occupies an impressive 26-sq-mile area. The Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River drifts past its northern and western sides.

Modern tourists regard the remaining temples of Bagan as the equal of the Angkor Archaeological Park in Cambodia; in 2019, Bagan pulled alongside its Cambodian rival with its belated recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. UNESCO recognition or not, Bagan certainly belongs in any Myanmar itinerary worth mentioning, and indeed many travelers make sure to cover Bagan when exploring greater Southeast Asia. Make the most out of your Bagan visit by taking on one of the adventures listed here.

The thousands of temples that are spread across the plains of Bagan are the most impressive testament to the religious devotion of Myanmar’s people – and rulers – over the centuries. They combine to form one of the richest archaeological sites in Asia and provide views quite unlike anywhere else on earth.

(Photo by bckfwd on Unsplash)

Every one of the 2,200 plus temples, stupas, and pagodas has its own unique story to tell, and the interiors of many can be freely explored. Note that as of November 2017, the climbing of temples as been prohibited; you can find a list of purpose-built viewing platforms further down this page under ‘Individual temples and viewing’. The most spectacular time to see the temples is when the sun dramatically rises and falls over the plain at dawn or dusk. The large earthquake that hit Bagan in 2016 caused significant damage to some of the temples, but ironically much of it was to more modern additions to ancient structures. The view of many is that the quake may actually encourage more sensitive development in Bagan, and the majority of temples are free to be explored.

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List of temples to visit if you have no idea where to start

Sein Nyet Pagoda

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 built in the 12th and 13th centuries. 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 larking along with the structures. The Sein Nyet Nyima is widely considered to be among the finest stupas at Bagan.

Shwezigon Pagoda

Shwezigon was built in the 11th century as an important shrine in Bagan, a center of prayer and reflection for the new Theravada faith. The pagoda stands between the villages of Wetkyi-in and Nyaung U.

Sulamani Guphaya Temple
(Credit: Zeo trip)

The Sulamani Guphaya built in the late 13th century is one of Bagan’s premier temple attractions. The name itself means ‘Crowning Jewel’ or ‘Small Ruby.’ It was actually more than a temple, for the complex originally contained a large number of buildings, including a lecture and ordination hall, cells for the monks, and a library. The red brick temple is step pyramidal on a square base and is oriented to the east. There are two major levels with porches at each of the cardinal points and prominent eastward-facing doorways. Each of the ascending squares has pilasters in the form of stupas at the corners and a beautifully wrought sikhara, restored since the devastating earthquake of July 1975, crowns the entire complex. The first story corridors are lit well enough to give light to photographs of the frescoes.

Dhammayangyi Temple

Dhammayangyi Temple is the most massive structure in Bagan that has a similar architectural plan to Ananda Temple. It was built by King Narathu in the 12th century. He was also known as Kalagya Min, the ‘king killed by Indians. The temple is located about a kilometer to the southeast of the city walls in Minnanthu direction. After murdering his own king’s father, Narathu ascended the throne of Bagan and then he built this temple. The remaining western shrine features two original images of Gautama and Maitreya, the historical and future Buddhas.

Gawdawpalin Temple
(Credit: Asia Open Tours)

The Gawdawpalin temple was built in the 13th century. It is one of the largest and most imposing of the Bagan temples. The Gawdawpalin is a large eastward-facing two-story temple set on a low platform in the center of a walled enclosure with four gateways. Such a sublime style was never again attempted at Bagan. Unfortunately, Gawdawpalin was close to the epicenter of the 1975 earthquake; the tower was destroyed and its upper parts were heavily damaged. There were repairs done at different times after that. Almost half of the exterior stucco moldings are still in place.

Mahabodhi Temple
(Credit: Holidify)

It is the only specimen of its structure among thousands of surviving monuments in Bagan. Built in the 13th century, this temple is a replica of the famous Mahabodhi temple in Bodhgaya, Bihar State in India. The temple is a two-story structure about 43 meters high. Mahabodhi is unique among Bagan structures because of its extensive exterior ornamentation. Its numerous niches enclose over 450 Buddha images not only on the tower but also on the corner stupas.

Shwegugyi Temple

Located just to the north of Thatbyinnyu, the Shwegugyi was built in the early 12th century. It is a large single-story temple set on a large and tall platform. There are three square receding upper terraces with corner spires or stupas at each corner on top of the central block. A bright interior is created with wide corridors and eleven open arched windows. The temple is also famous for its fine stucco and carved wooden doors in the interior.

Thatbyinnyu Temple
(Credit: Yung Shun Hing)

With a height of just over 60 meters, the Thatbyinnyu Pagoda is towering above the other monuments of Bagan, Myanmar. Thatbyinnyu takes its name from the Omniscience of the Buddha. After the single-story pagodas built during the early period like the Shwezigon pagoda, the Thatbyinnyu built in the 12th century is one of the first two-story structures built in Bagan. The great height of the temple and the vertical lines of the ornamental features – the plain pilasters, the flame-like arch pediments, the corner stupas – give a soaring effect to the Thatbyinnyu.

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