Myanmar (also known as Burma) has been one of those mysterious countries that most people know very little about and few people choose to travel to. In the past, the military control of the country had most tourists afraid or unwilling to venture into the South East Asian country, and those that did dare to explore the country were restricted on where they could and couldn’t visit.
Since the November 2015 elections things have become a little easier and more accessible. There are still no-go zones but the country as a whole is now seen as safer, and since the start of 2016 Myanmar has seemingly become a travel hot spot. Having visited myself in 2015, I know exactly why. The people are amazing and although the parts of the country I visited were more touristic than I expected, it still retains a lot of it’s old-world magic. Especially Bagan. Without a doubt, Bagan is high on my list of absolute favourite places and is a must visit for anyone travelling to Myanmar. I suggest spending at least 2 days in Bagan- here are my recommendations.
There are four main ways to arrive to Bagan. The most expensive is by plane which arrived in Nyaung U, about a 30-minute drive to Old Bagan. It is important to note that, at this time, the Nyaung U airport is a domestic airport only. If you are looking to fly, use Skyscanner to find the cheapest flights.
There are plenty of bus options to Bagan as well; this is usually the cheapest option. There are different services and companies but many of them offer pick up and drop off at your hotel. Expect bus rides to be pretty bumpy, and depending on the service you choose, your bus may stop to pick up locals in smaller towns and villages.
The third option is to take the train. Burmese trains have quite the reputation, and not necessarily in a good way. Rides are bumpy and loud and there has been more than one story of baggage bouncing out the windows. However, those that have travelled by train say it’s an authentic Burmese experience that everyone should try at least once.
The final option is only available from Mandalay, and it is to take a boat down the river. The boat takes about 8-10 hours and leaves early in the morning to arrive in Bagan mid afternoon. Should you choose to take the boat make sure to arrive early to get a seat on the deck, and wear plenty of sunscreen because the sun is quite strong reflecting off the water. You should also bring a book or something to entertain you. This option does book up pretty quickly, so don’t leave it til the last minute. You can book the boat rom Mandalay to Bagan here.
Tip: The most picturesque part ride is the first hour or so and the last 20-30 minutes as you arrive in Bagan, so don’t nap during these times!
**Note: Bagan is an archaeological zone. You will be charged a one time fee to enter the zone. This is not a scam- everyone has to pay or else you cannot enter. In return you will be given a ticket-make sure to keep it on you for the duration of your stay should you be checked.
If there’s one negative thing about Bagan it’s that is it definitely not walkable. However, being home to thousands of temples, you can’t really expect that it would be.
The cheapest option to get around is to rent a push-bike. But you better be in some seriously good shape to spend two days cycling through dusty dirt paths to see all the temples. Bagan is huge, and the temples are very spread out so push bikes are quite limiting and not recommended to those who want to see a lot.
The most common (and most fun) option is to rent an e-bike. Basically a battery-powered moped. They can be rented everywhere and the small ones go for about $5USD/day while the big ones go for about $10USD/day. E-bikes are the most convenient way to see Bagan and offer the most freedom. Beware: Batteries die regularly so it helps to have a phone and be able to call the number of where you rented it (on your key or the bike itself) for them to bring you another battery. If you don’t have a phone flag down a local- trust me, they are used to it and happy to help. *Tip: You may be able to bargain on a multi-day rental for a discount.
If you are uncomfortable driving an e-bike yourself you can always hire a driver/guide. There are three ways of doing this. 1) Hire a motorbike guide (the cheapest option if you are travelling alone) 2) Hire a taxi or 3) Take a horse and cart ride. There are plenty of locals who act as guides for tourists so just ask other travellers who they have used or at your accommodations for suggestions.
Where to Stay in Bagan for 2 Days
Bagan is divided into four main areas in which tourists can base themselves.
Nyuang U: This is where the airport, main bus station, train station, and boat from Mandalay arrive. It’s about 20-30 minutes outside of Old Bagan. There are plenty of accommodation options here- especially for budget travellers- and ATMs. However, although it is the most convenient area for getting in and out of Bagan, it’s the furthest from the attractions.
Old Bagan: The most expensive spot to stay, but also closest to the main temples. Old Bagan is located within stone walls and is a beautiful place to base yourself in. Most accommodation options here are higher end hotels.
Myinkaba: Not too far from Old Bagan, Myinkaba is a busier area best known for it’s lacquerware shops.
New Bagan: Created in the 1990s, it’s the newest place to stay and furthest south (still closer to main temples then Nyuang U). There are plenty of budget and mid-range accommodation options here, ATMs, shops, and restaurants (both traditional Burmese and western-style). It was where I chose to stay (at Ostello Bello) as it allowed easy access to the main temples near Old Bagan but also the less popular temples further east, which are definitely worth exploring.
The Best Things to do in Bagan
Bagan is known for it’s temples and pagoda’s, so that’s what you are here to see. There are literally thousands. At one point, when the kingdom was in it’s prime, it is estimated that there were 10,000 temples. Today however, after time, weather, and the earthquake of 1975, there are a little over 2000 temples and pagodas perfect for exploring.
Important: These temples may be old, and some may be ruins, but they are still holy and sacred places. DO NOT wear shoes or socks inside the temples. Women must also dress appropriately; this means keep your shoulders and knees covered. Please be respectful during your visit.
Must-see Pagodas and Temples in Bagan
Ananda: Nicknamed the “west minister abbey” of Myanmar, it’s one of the most beautiful and revered temples.
Dhammayangyi: The largest temple in Bagan; however only part of it is accessible. For an unknown reason much of the interior has been sealed behind brick walls.
Shwesandaw: The most popular place to view sunset. Legend says this pagoda holds a Buddha hair relic, it’s name means Holy Golden Hair
Shwezigon: One of the most popular pagodas among tourists and locals. Probably your best chance at seeing local monks. Note: As one of the most popular spots it’s where you are most likely to get taken advantage of. Shop owners will greet you and take your shoes for you to find when you return outside their shops so you buy something. There is also a dragon “scam” where locals will bring you to a part of the temple for a little ceremony and expect money from you. If you are ok with paying a few dollars for the experience it’s kind of neat, if not just say no thank you.
Thatbyinnyu: The tallest temple in Bagan.
Htilominlo: A beautiful red brick temple best known for the elaborate plaster mouldings.
Sulamani: A popular temple with many frescos on the interior.
Thambula: Known for it’s obvious Chinese influence
Nanda Pyin Nya: Nicknamed the painted temple- the inside of this small temple is covered in painting telling legends and stories. No photos allowed though to better preserve the paintings. If you are lucky, Tin Tin will be there to explain.
*more about Tin Tin to come under the “Shopping” section of this guide.
Other Temples: Again, Bagan is filled with thousands of temples, so although the above temples and pagoda’s shouldn’t be missed, don’t forget to stop by and visit any interesting ones you pass by. There are too many to show on maps so embrace your inner Indiana Jones and go exploring!
I loved exploring Bagan’s temples by e-bike during my 2 day visit, but if you are looking for something a little more relaxed, check out this guide to Bagan which takes a more leisurely approach.
Sunrise and Sunset from the Temples in Bagan
The ultimate Bagan experience involves getting up super early to watch the sunrise. For those who have the money, hot air balloon rides over the temples are an incredible way to start the day. However be prepared for fork out $350USD+ per person, and book well in advance (weeks, if not months).
For those with slimmer wallets, you should head to a temple to watch the sunrise. You can rent your e-bike as early as 5am and ride out to one, or there are taxis that will take you.
Sunset is also beautiful to watch from the temples (no balloon rides). The most popular temples fill up quickly, so go early to get a good spot. There are also lesser known temples, including my secret temple that offer much quieter viewing opportunities. However, the country has recently put a ban on climbing all but five temples for sunrise. The allowed temples include: Shwesandaw, Thitsarwady, Pyathetgyi, Shwenanyinday, and Oah Chan Pae Kone.
A last option, for those interested in seeing the sunset, is to take a boat cruise and watch from the water. It’s a relaxing way to end your day.
A small village where visitors can be shown different aspects of traditional Burmese country life. From farming to making the traditional Burmese thanaka. There’s also a restaurant on site. Although it is meant for tourists it’s not very touristic. It’s a free ‘attraction’ but tips are welcome.
**Tip: Bagan is large, so it’s best to divide your days to explore the sites closest to each other together. For example, if staying in New Bagan, explore the temples and pagodas of Old Bagan and area Day 1 and Day 2 go the opposite way.
Shopping in Bagan
Bagan isn’t exactly a shopping mecca, but if you are looking for a special souvenir there are a couple of options.
As mentioned earlier, Minnathu Village is known for it’s lacquerware stores. There are many, so shop around, but most of them are run by families that have been artisans for years. Their work is beautiful and there are all kinds of things to buy from tiny tea cups and dishes to wardrobes and tables. Some shops to accept credit cards but have a minimum, so it’s best to bring cash.
Sand painting are also a great souvenir and can be found for sale at every major temple. There are all kinds of prints from Buddha to monks to floral designs, however, if you shop around at the temples you will notice they are all the same. If you want something really unique, go see TinTin who, as mentioned above, can be found in the Nanda Pyin Nya temple. He is an incredible artist who bases his work off the artwork found in the temple, meaning it’s all original to him as he refuses to sell his work to other locals to replicate. He has sand paintings and sandstone carvings on canvasses for sale. They are the perfect souvenir as you can crumple them up small to fit in your bag and just iron them out at home. Note: You will pay more for TinTin’s work than the knock-offs. My sandstone elephant carving (pictured below) was 30USD.
Of course, there are plenty of other vendors as well, many of which set up shop in front of the temples. They will sell elephant pants, postcards, books, thanaka, and sometimes even their services as a guide. It’s up to you whether you choose to buy or not and haggling is always an option, but keep in mind that this is the vendor’s livelihood and although a dollar may not be much to you, it is to them . As in any other country, please do not give money to the young children.
If you Have More Time in Bagan
For me, two days was the perfect amount of time to explore Bagan before getting ‘templed out’. Ho,wever if you do have a third day I would suggest hiring a taxi for a day trip to Mt Popa and Salay. Salay is about 30 minutes away and home to some incredible monasteries. It’s more spiritually important to the Burmese than Bagan. Mt Popa is an extinct volcano overlooking Salay. You can also ask your driver to take you to the nearby Tuang Kalat Monastery, known as the gathering spot for Burmese spirits known as the “Nats”. There are plenty of myths and legends surrounding this monastery, giving it the nickname the Mt Olympus of Burma.
Bagan is also home to a few museums including a museum of archaeology that might be worth a visit should time allow.
Bagan is one of the most magical places I’ve ever been- so enjoy!
For More Myanmar Inspiration
Many of Bagan’s temples are now closed off to climbing. Tourists that are caught trying to climb the temples may be fined. Please respect these rules to preserve these amazing structures.
A Note on Travel Insurance in Myanmar
Please, do NOT travel without travel insurance! I’ve had to rely on mine twice before (once for damaged luggage, once because I developed a lung infection while traveling). While the cost may seem annoying and better spent elsewhere, trust me when I say you’ll be sorry if you don’t have it. For just a couple bucks a day, you can save yourself a whole lot of stress and money. I like to recommend SafetyWingfor travel medical insurance. With prices starting at $37 for 4 weeks, they are one of the most affordable options I’ve found. Learn more about the importance of travel insurance here.