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, we decided to return on our second trip to the country to do it justice!
This incredibly well preserved town, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is full of temples. They are randomly scattered across the plains, built long before any of the current residents arrived. Some are very small and insignificant but there are also much bigger ones that you can go inside and have a look around.
WARNING: Before you enter Bagan, however you arrive, be that by plane, train or bus, you must cough up a $20 fee (per person).
You have to keep the ticket on you at all times as there are checkpoints at the larger temples. If you wish, you can go round and see EVERY temple but, as there are in excess of 2000, you may be some time!
Accommodation in Bagan
There are three parts to Bagan – Old Bagan, New Bagan and Nyaung U; Nyaung U is the main area for tourists to stay. The town has a bit of everything including big hotels and inauthentic, expensive restaurants that boast food from all over the world. But it’s also got some nice guesthouses and a local vibe, especially in Nyaung U.
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 where breakfast is served each morning. You chose from the menu of local or western dishes and the staff also bring out extra little treats. You certainly don’t go hungry!
Eating in Bagan
You can eat pretty cheaply in Bagan; you don’t have to visit the big posh restaurants. We found a particularly good place that did a great Indian or Nepalese thali for a decent price. In our experience, go where the locals go. The people that live and work here don’t go to expensive restaurants. On the road-side there are open-plan tea houses with plastic chairs where a meal of soup, unlimited Chinese tea and a decent plate of veg fried rice or noodles with a fried egg is yours for all of 60p. The place 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 cannot reach the same 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 the guesthouse had given us. We stopped at some smaller ones but didn’t hang around long as it was the bigger, far grander ones that had our interest. They all have their own character though.
At some, you’ll find the temple “caretaker” who looks after the temple. They try to make extra money by selling sand paintings, which are very well made and are a fantastic thing to buy as a souvenir.
At the main temples, it is obligatory for the knees and shoulders to be covered. I wore a t-shirt and trousers and Lynette did the same. However, some days it was just too hot so she wore shorts and put 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 in Bagan
A big attraction in Bagan is to see sunrise and sunset from the top of one of the 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, it’s colour turning to a beautiful glowing red and 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 a telescope 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 more tricky, though we managed it on our last day. It involved a pitch-black scramble up to a temple top (funnily enough, not as busy as at sunset!) It was worth it though. You see the hot air balloons and the beautiful warm glow of the sun as it slowly rises in the sky. It truly is a magnificent sight to behold.
In terms of other activities there isn’t a great deal to do. If you want to see the temples from a vantage point and it’s in your budget to do so, a HOT AIR BALLOON RIDE at sunrise or sunset is a good option. You can also visit a LOCAL MARKET in Nyaung U, turning right out of the guesthouse I mentioned and following the road. It has a plethora of local products for sale, such as fruit and veg, and offers a wonderful window into local life.
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 favourite places in Myanmar!