In Myanmar there is a place, known as Bagan, that is steeped in history. We had visited once before during monsoon season but, due to the weather, we couldn’t make the best of it. So, on our second trip to the country, we decided to return to Bagan to do it justice!
This incredibly popular town, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is full of temples. They are randomly scattered across a plain that was once home to more than 4,000 Buddhist temples. Some are little more than a pile of bricks but there are also some truly amazing brick and stucco structures that you can go inside and get a sense of life from a bygone era.
Many of Bagan’s temples are decorated inside with intricate frescoes and beautiful Buddha statues; some even combine Buddhist imagery with Hindu and local nat (spirit) beliefs.
Originally built during a 230-year building frenzy that lasted until 1287, the temples that you see today are all that remain of a once grand city. Even though much restoration work has been done at the site, Bagan remains a wonder.
Before you enter Bagan, you must purchase a ticket that gives you access to the Bagan Archaeological Zone and all its temples. The cost is $20 (25,000ks) per person. You should keep the ticket on you at all times as there are checkpoints at the larger temples.
Accommodation in Bagan
There are three parts to Bagan – Old Bagan, New Bagan and Nyaung U; Nyaung U is where most budget backpackers choose to stay and where you’ll find the liveliest restaurant scene. This bustling river town has some nice guesthouses and a local vibe. There’s also a lively market and a handful of temples to see, including the glittering modern Shwezigon Paya.
We stayed at a guesthouse run by a wonderful lady who spoke very good English; we are in fact still in touch with her to this day. Saw Nyein San is a great set-up with spacious, clean, air-conditioned rooms that come with fridges. The guesthouse has an open-air rooftop that looks out over Nyaung U; breakfast is served here each morning.
Eating in Bagan
Eating options abound in Bagan, especially in Nyaung U! Head to Yar Kinn Thar Hotel Road to find a strip of atmospheric restaurants geared towards foreign visitors. Although touristy, it’s the place to head for Western comforts such as pizza, burgers and salads. Don’t expect all fusion eateries to be authentic though!
If you prefer a more local experience, Bagan also has its fair share of roadside teahouses and beer stations that offer decent cheap meals. Going where the local people go offers a chance to interact with those who live and work in town; it’s an opportunity to learn more about Burmese culture and even make friends over a drink or two!
Local eateries offer Myanmar staples and, at teahouses, unlimited Chinese tea; a meal of soup and a full plate of veg fried rice or noodles with a fried egg is yours for only 1,500ks. The places may look run down and unappealing but the food is cooked well and tastes pretty good too!
By far the best way to get around Bagan is to rent an e-bike. E-bikes look exactly like your average scooter but they have electric motors and can’t reach the same high speeds. They are a pretty nippy way to get around, certainly beating walking or paying for a horse and cart. Bagan is very spread out, so covering the extensive ground would take too long on foot.
We rented an e-bike to explore the temples, using the map that our guesthouse had given us. We stopped at some of the smaller ones but it was the bigger, far grander structures that were the most enthralling. They all have their own character though.
Some temples have a ‘caretaker’ who looks after the building. They often try to make extra money selling items such as sand paintings, which are creatively made and a fantastic souvenir to take home or give as a gift.
Exploring the temples, it is obligatory for knees and shoulders to be covered. I wore trousers and a T-shirt and Lynette did the same. However, on days when it was just too hot, she wore shorts, putting on a local item of clothing, called a longyi, to enter the temples. It’s a long wrap-around skirt that ties at the waist and stops at the ankles.
Sunrise and Sunset
A big attraction in Bagan is to see sunrise and sunset from the top of a number of temples; the map suggests which ones are best for each. The romantic notion of sitting together, watching the sun gradually sink lower in the sky, sharing a tender moment alone… Does. Not. Happen!
The popular sunset-viewing temples are absolutely rammed with people – loud, inconsiderate people with camera lenses bigger than those used by the international space station, all trying to get a snap of the view. It’s crazy! That aside, it is worth seeing at least one or two if you can; the spectacle is mesmerising.
Getting to a temple for sunrise is a bit trickier, though we managed it on our last day. You’ll need to leave your guesthouse in the pre-dawn darkness, brace yourself for a chilly ride on your e-bike and then scramble up to the top of a temple. Funnily enough, it’s a lot less crowded up there at sunrise than it is at sunset!
Getting up extra early is wholly worth it though. As the sun slowly rises over the timeless plains of Bagan, so too do countless hot air balloons. It truly is a magnificent sight to behold.
Update 2020: Due to safety concerns, it is no longer possible to see sunrise or sunset from atop a temple. You’ll need to scout out some new vantage points or check with your guesthouse for spots locals recommend.
Sights around Bagan
Although exploring the myriad temples is the main reason to visit Bagan, there are a couple of places within the surrounding region that are also worth seeking out.
Mount Popa is a place of pilgrimage for those who worship the ‘nat’ (spirit beings). The famous Popa Taung Kalat is a towering 2,418ft volcanic plug crowned with a gilded Buddhist temple, which is accessed by 777 steps on the mountain’s lower flank. Taung Ma-gyi (Mother Mountain), or Mount Popa as it was previously known, refers to the 4,980ft extinct volcano on which Popa Taung Kalat stands.
The climb to the summit of Popa Taung Kalat should take you around 20 minutes, ascending the many steps under a covered walkway, past rows of trinket and souvenir vendors. This impressive rocky crag is crowned with an atmospheric complex of monasteries, stupas and shrines that includes the most revered of them all, Popa Taung Kalat Temple. Views from up here are stunning.
Also pay a visit to the Mother Spirit of Popa Nat Shrine that lies in the village at the foot of the mountain, across from the steps that lead up Popa Taung Kalat. Inside you’ll find a host of mannequin-like figures that represent some of the 37 official nat. Hindu deities and other nat not counted among the official 37 can also be seen.
Getting to Mount Popa
You can make a half-day excursion to Mount Popa by taxi or organised tour; your guesthouse in Bagan will be able to arrange it for you. Expect to pay 35,000ks-45,000ks for the whole car. Sharing the trip with other travellers is a great way to cut costs; guesthouses in Nyaung U can usually put groups together.
It’s also possible to reach Mount Popa by pick-up truck. Trucks leave Nyaung U’s bus station at 8:30am (3,000ks, 2 hours) and return from the mountain at 1pm.
Located 38 miles south of Nyaung U, the small village of Salay has a scattering of Bagan-era monuments that date from the 12th and 13th centuries. It remains an active religious centre, with around 50 monasteries in an area where there are fewer than 10,000 residents.
There are around 103 ruins in Salay, though little of their history is widely known. It is believed that most of the structures weren’t royally sponsored but were built by the lower nobility or everyday folk, which would explain why there is nothing on the grand scale of what you see in Bagan.
Visiting some of the Bagan-era shrines, as well as a handful of 19th century wooden monasteries and faded colonial buildings, makes a pleasant half-day trip from Bagan. The best part is that you’re likely to have this rural scene all to yourself! Despite its proximity to Bagan, few travellers make it out here.
Getting to Salay
It’s possible to pair Salay with a trip to Mount Popa, though the two are in different directions from Bagan. A full-day taxi trip combining both destinations will cost around 60,000ks; expect to pay about 40,000ks for a half-day visit to Salay. Reaching Salay by public transport is tricky; moreover you’ll need wheels to reach some sites once you reach the village.
Hot Air Balloon Trips
If your budget allows, taking a hot air balloon flight over the plains of Bagan is said to be a magical experience. It’s certainly something we’d love to do in the future!
Rides last approximately 45 minutes and operate from October to March. It’s possible to go at sunrise and sunset, though sunrise is preferable as the cooler dawn air allows pilots to fly the balloons at lower altitude for a closer view of the temples.
There are a number of companies that offer balloon trips; Balloons over Bagan, Oriental Ballooning and Golden Eagle Ballooning are three that you could check out. Take a look at their websites, compare prices and reviews and go with the one that feels right for you.
Bagan is definitely well worth a visit. It’s a unique place, steeped in history and ancient architecture. If you’re headed to Myanmar be sure to add Bagan to your itinerary!
To appreciate more of Myanmar’s unique history and temples, we would highly recommend checking out Mrauk U in Rakhine state. It’s much less visited than Bagan and the temples are totally different – for us it’s one of our Top 12 Travel Experiences in Myanmar!