Visit Bagan and find a pagoda paradise of thousands of glittering spires and gourd-shaped domes.

Hot air balloons are usually seen in the sky for the perfect birds-eye view of the wide landscape – and are as stunning to see from the ground as up in the air. As Myanmar’s first capital city, Bagan continues to inspire and attract some of the most celebrated thinkers, travelers, writers and artists. Explorer Marco Polo, in introducing Europeans to Asia, called the Bagan Archaeological Zone “one of the finest sights in the world.” English author W. Somerset Maugham stood in awe at temples which “loom huge, remote and mysterious, like the vague recollections of a fantastic dream.”

The splendor of Bagan is often compared in scope to Cambodia’s renowned Angkor Wat. Bagan’s temples and pagodas – many of them golden speckled -- are part of the sacred cultural heritage of the Myanmar people and the center of the first unified Empire of Anawrahta. Ancient architectural details and designs, Buddha statues, murals, paintings, precious frescoes and stone inscriptions tell of the living history of the Myanmar people. The empire was founded in 849 AD and flourished to the 13th century. Over 10,000 temples were built between the 11th and 13th centuries in Bagan, located on the eastern bank of the mighty Ayeyarwady River. Despite erosion, war and other elements of time, 2,200 still remain. Some have been restored to full glory while other smaller temples are intriguing for their exposed brick structural blocks and spectacular colors.

One of the most widely visited pagodas is the Shwezigon Pagoda, with its shimmering gold plated gourd-shaped dome that became a prototype for all other stupas. Construction began under the reign of King Anawrahta and was completed by his son (occurring around 1059-1099 AD) and is considered one of the holiest temples as it enshrines several Buddhist relics, a holy tooth among them. Its location was decided by an old Burmese tradition of letting a white elephant (with relics attached to its back) wander around freely until finding a place to stop. This spot is where the temple now stands.

The Ananda Temple is also considered one of Bagan’s holiest and most prominent temples. Built by King Anawrahta’s son, King Kyansittha, it houses four Buddhas facing the cardinal directions, representing the four Buddhas who’ve attained Nirvana and features elegant wooden carvings and figures on the door frames.

Beyond the many pagodas, the Bagan area is rich with rural village life and homes and businesses with palm-thatched huts. It is an area known for its manufacturing of artistic lacquerware products. Visit the workshops of master craftsmen of this art form that has been practiced here since the days of King Anawrahta. Or you can visit the lively Nyaungoo Market (sometimes called the Nyaung U Market or even the Nyaung Oo Market) and you’ll find lacquered bowls and jars and pots galore, along with beautifully woven rattan items like baskets, bags and toys, Burmese clothing, and puppets and marionettes. Fresh fruit, vegetables and other local fare is also readily available. Curious about Burmese delicacies like tealeaves, dried fish, and exotic fresh fruit, vegetables and spices: you can find it here! You can also choose to visit the shops and resorts at nearby Mount Poppa, the legendary Burmese pilgrimage site and home of 37 animist nat spirits. Shawls, purses, statues, dolls, toys and other tchotchkes are sold here. You won’t have to worry about souvenirs! Of course, you can also visit Mount Popa itself – climbing either the 250 steps to the observation deck or all 777 steps to the very top! Stunning views await.

Along with the fun shopping, these are also wonderful places to mingle with those who call Myanmar home and speak about their culture. Look for local Burmese (and tourists) who have adorned their faces with thanaka, a traditional yellowish paste made from powdered tree bark that serves as a handy and all-natural sunblock.