Beautiful Bagan – I have so much and so little to say about it. It is such beautiful place, so amazing that I haven’t the words to adequately describe it. But of course I will try (I will give some general info to start and a more detailed personal account further down).
To be honest we actually went to Bagan twice. We headed there from Yangon and after seeing a bunch of temples, I was like ”yeah I have seen it, we can move on” but after a few days at Lake Inle, I felt that I had actually been a bit rash in that decision and we booked a flight back to Bagan for another few days. The best decision ever!
From the 11th to the 13th century Bagan’s kings commissioned over 4000 Buddhist temples covering an area greater than 20 square miles. The temples have suffered damage from earthquakes, as well as neglect and some questionable restoration, yet they are still breathtaking to behold. From anywhere in Bagan you can look out across the plains and see hundreds of temples. Many of the temples look similar at first glance, but they all have slight variations and features that make each one unique and interesting.
Arriving in Bagan:
To enter the Bagan region you must buy a ticket for $15USD, there is a booth at the airport where this ticket can be purchased. If you arrive by train (and I assume bus station) your taxi driver will stop at the ticket booth by the roadside.
These tickets may be checked, ours were checked twice, both times at popular sunset spots.
However you arrive, you will be approached by a myriad of taxi drivers asking you which hotel you want to stay in and to come with them. The airport, train station and bus station are all quite a distance from both towns, so I would recommend a taxi.
Riding in the back of a pickup we paid $10USD (10,000kyat) to get from the train station to Nyuang U and $7USD (7000kyat) to travel from the airport to New Bagan. When some fellow travellers hopped in a proper car as opposed to a pickup they were charged more money for travelling the same distance as us. It may or may not a correct assumption, but I feel that cars may be more expensive.
When our hotel in Nyaung U booked our bus trip for us the ride to the bus station was included in the ticket cost, and when our New Bagan hotel organised a taxi back to the airport I think we paid $20USD (20,000kyat).
So basically, in low season I think you can expect to pay anywhere between 7000 and 20,000 – but I recommend bartering a bit for a good deal.
Where to stay:
Having been to Bagan twice in the one holiday, we stayed in Nyuang U and New Bagan.
I feel that Nyuang U had a few more budget accommodation options and perhaps a few more restaurants. It was a bit further from the temples than New Bagan, and when returning in the middle of the day or in the evening, it was a slight uphill ride the whole way. There were also fewer random temples by the roadside.
In New Bagan we stayed on the outskirts of town, there certainly were fewer restaurants than Nyaung U, but it had a more chilled out feel to it. There were fewer people around which I didn’t see as a negative. Between New Bagan and Old Bagan, the distance was shorter and there were more things to see along the way.
Purely based on distance to the temples and things to see along the way, I would recommend staying in New Bagan.
If you aren’t on a backpacker budget, then I would highly recommend finding a hotel with a pool!
Tours and Transport:
All the hotels have the facilities to book any kind of transport for you, both locally and in helping you reach your next destination. Their prices are competitive and the staff are very helpful, we got some great advice this way! We rented bikes, e-bikes and booked tours, cars, buses and flights through our hotels and they were great.
For a half day trip to Mt Popa we needed a minimum of two people and I think it was going to be 8000kyat each, then once more people joined the group it was reduced to 6000Kyat per person. (I didn’t write down the prices, so I am going from memory on this one)
Bagan is hot! I really mean that, it’s crazy hot. We travelled to Bagan in July, rainy season, though we felt humidity but no rain. The days were 30 degrees Celsius by 7am, and temperatures increased to 36, with a heat index of 41. There were a few (ok multiple) occasions where I got so swept up in “I want to look at that temple and that temple and that temple” that it got to the middle of the day and we were stuck out in the baking heat with no respite. I don’t advise this. Restaurants don’t have air conditioners for a start, and if you are looking at temples there is often no shade to hide in. In being respectful to the culture and taking off your shoes before entering a temple complex you very quickly burn your poor little feet! If you absolutely must visit temples in the middle of the day, I strongly advise sticking to the white tiles.
My hot tip for visiting Bagan: get up crazy early and start sightseeing around 6:30am. Head back to your hotel for a siesta around 11, then head back out in the late afternoon and stay out for a sunset.
It is appropriate to dress modestly, try to have your shoulders and knees covered, take off your shoes and socks when entering temples. I recommend keeping a scarf or sarong in your bag so you can cover up when entering temples, if you aren’t already wearing the right clothing.
If you are sitting on the ground, be mindful not to point the soles of your feet at anyone, a buddha image or a pagoda. Also do not offer to shake hands with a monk or nun, and don’t touch their robes.
How to plan your day:
My initial plan was to seek out a combination of “One day in Bagan” and the “Temples of Bagan Highlights” listed in my Lonely Planet, but visit them in the order that was closest to the hotel and work my way out from there.
After a few days of exploring the temples, I think the best advice is to take your time, don’t try to visit too many temples in one go. Be smart about what time of the day you go sightseeing.
A plan that worked for us was to head to the furthest most temple on our ‘to see’ list in the morning and work our way backwards, that way we cycled the longest distance before it got too hot. In the afternoon we did the opposite, cycle short distances and work our way out towards the furthest point. So by the time we cycled back it was cooling down.
While it is probably obvious, decide what order you want to see things in based on their proximity to each other and their location ie. don’t ping backwards and forwards.
My top temples list:
- North Guni
- Pyathada (We had our tickets checked here at sunset)
- Sulamani Pahto
- Gu byauk gyi: The temple looks quite lovely from the outside, but has no stand-out aspects. Inside however, it has well preserved paintings and is quite amazing.
- Thabeik Hmauk: I thought it was fabulous but possibly more for the gorgeous people who were looking after it, than for the temple itself
- The cluster of temples on the opposite side of the road to Upali Thein: Hti lo min lo, Paya nga zu group of temples and Khay min ga
This list is based more on my personal experiences at these temples, rather than the temple architecture or artwork. Most of my favourites were less popular temples and I enjoyed them because they didn’t have many tourists or hawkers.
Other temples worth seeing:
- Ananda Pahto: While I didn’t love it, I think you’ve got to see it, but it doesn’t have the same charm as the smaller temples
- Shwe san daw: It is a nice spot to view a sunset and as it is quite high it provides a really good view over the plains, but be prepared to deal with larger volumes of people and hawkers (We had our tickets checked here at sunset)
- Na ga yon and Abe ya da na: on opposing sides of the road, were both really lovely to visit and not too busy.
- That byin yu and Shwe gu gyi: These temples were very close to each other and were quite similar styles. Shwe gu gyi also had roof access and That byin yu had more interesting things to see inside the temple.
There are a few options: private car, horse and cart, bicycle, e-bike and walking; and it’s worth being aware that there are only two main sealed roads and a lot of time is spent on sandy paths.
Everything is very spread out and it’s crazy hot, so I would strongly advise against walking.
If you are very pressed for time then perhaps consider a private car.
Horse and cart, if this is your scene, go for it, but I felt that they were just for tourists and I wasn’t comfortable with the idea. I feel that the horses are poorly cared for and are not supposed to be in the area.
So that leaves two options: bike or e-bike.
My personal choice was good old bicycle, I felt that an e-bike was a cop-out. Bike rentals were $2-$3 (2000-3000 kyat) per day. I really enjoyed cycling around and the slow pace allowed you to take in the surroundings, but I will say that it was exhausting!
After two full days cycling (I expect we did around 15km’s per day), we succumbed to the easier option of renting an e-bike. Rental was a bit more, $8 (8000 kyat) per day, but my goodness me it made getting around so much easier, you were also able to go faster which meant that you experienced a light breeze and had more time to explore the temples!
Child beggars / hawkers:
This is my own point of view, but it does stem from things I have seen in my travels as well as blog posts and articles I have read. While the children asking you to buy things from them or asking if you have any of your local currency are cute, “Do you have Australian dollars, I have never seen Australian dollars”, please don’t give them any. You are essentially paying them not be in school and it can make the problem worse.
My Personal Bagan Adventure
The train ride from Yangon was rather epic. We had a small sleeper car with some seats, bunks and a teeny tiny bathroom, with a leaky roof (the 10+ hour torrential downpour posed a minor problem). The toilet in true Asian style, dropped straight onto the tracks, which meant I avoided using it for as long as possible! We had expected a 14 hour train trip and were a little cranky that it took closer to 20, with no access to the rest of the train and no real stops – food and water were a bit of a problem ie. there was none. A 4 minute train stop around 10pm gave us the opportunity to quickly buy a few samosas though the window, but we were otherwise on an involuntary hunger strike until early afternoon the following day. The train ride itself was “bumpy” and that is probably putting it mildly. The train was bouncing up and down or wobbling from side to side. I slept like a starfish, my arms and legs braced to keep me on the bunk. Numerous times I was convinced we were about to derail, and clearly the train driver agreed because each time it so bad I was starting to freak out, the brake was applied.
Small piece of advice for overnight/long haul train travel (and bus travel) – pack food, drinks, tissues and hand sanitizer!
As the train neared Bagan the red, dry savannah-esque landscape provided such a stark comparison to the damp, green Yangon. Few of the roads were sealed, most of the cars were pickup trucks that locals seemed to use as taxis, the tourists were riding bicycles and e-bikes with the occasional one being driven around with horse and cart. We suspect that the horse and carts we saw everywhere were specifically for tourists, and other than tethered to a cart we did not see any horses whatsoever in Myanmar. If locals were riding some kind of cart, it was usually being pulled by bullocks.
With so much to see, we made a ‘plan of attack’ for sightseeing. Cycling down Bagan-Nyaung U Road I almost instantly diverted from our plan, as I saw a temple with people on the roof. It was a small temple, the name of which I don’t recall and can’t find on a map. Many of these smaller temples are managed and maintained by families. These smaller temples are often locked up and you have to find the “key holder” if you wish to go inside the temple. It is polite to give them some ‘tea money’ or buy one their souvenirs as a thank you. This particular temple is managed by a lovely young man and his brother, he explained how his family had managed the temple for years, by their father before them and their grandfather before him. He gave us a personal tour of the temple, pointing out the original structures and art work as well as showing where restorations had taken place. Something interesting that he shared about the construction was that the original plaster contained palm sugar or something similar, this meant that the bees would fly into the temples, eat the walls and also construct their hives on the them. You could still see the remnants of deserted hives. Atop this temple was our first real view of Bagan and we stood there mouths agape for a few moments just taking it in.
After the first diversion we continued on to the plan and we visited Ananda Pahto, after which we passed through Tharaba Gate into Old Bagan where we visited That byin yu and Shwe gu gyi.
Ananda Pahto is Bagans “most popular temple” which means that it has the most hawkers selling things. According to the lonely planet it is the “largest, finest and best preserved” of the temples. Thankfully we weren’t too harassed by the hawkers, and we got the chance to appreciate the temple. I found it to be a visual contrast, the lower section was all block work, originally a light colour but stained with black streak from, I assume, rain. The centre spire of the temple was vivid gold and red, in great condition, seemingly belonging to a different temple. Inside were four large standing Buddha’s, one for each compass point, and some large hallways. The high ceilings housed some bats and birds, but overall the temple was in good condition.
I’m not quite sure why Tharaba Gate is listed as something to see as it’s rather unimpressive, we headed through into Old Bagan. Just inside the gate and to the south were That byin yu and Shwe gu gyi. Both temples were pretty cool and had the same streaky white and black, square blocky look of Anando Pahto. That byin yu also had a golden spire but it was less elaborate than that of Anando. Pahto. We wandered the halls of That byin yu and checked out the different styles of Buddha’s. Comparatively, Shwe gu gyi was less about the inside and more about the roof, we headed on up and wandered around checking out the view and taking a few photos.
By this stage in our sightseeing adventure the sun was at its peak and we were rather exhausted, so we headed to a great vegetarian restaurant just near Anando Pahto, called Be kind to the animals The Moon. Fantastic place, the staff are really friendly, have good English, provide awesome service and they also put a cushion on your bike seat to protect it from the hot sun. When we ordered beer, we were advised that beer wasn’t on the menu as it was a bit too close to the temples and may be seen as disrespectful. Instead we were served ‘special juice’. This special juice was in glass bottles wrapped in black plastic bags and tasted remarkably like beer! As I said, great staff!
Post-lunch the explorations continued. We headed to a small golden temple by the river, called Bupaya and promptly burned our feet on the hot stone ground as the sun was still at its peak. Bupaya looks pretty, is in a great location with a lovely view of the Ayerwaddy River, but is otherwise not very exciting to see.
We cycled past Shwe san daw (the popular sunset temple) in search of Dhamma yan gyi, but got waylaid by another smaller temple called North Guni. There were a few people there when we turned up, but pretty soon we were there on our own, we had a look around and found our way up to the roof, we then found another stairway leading to a higher tier and then a third, we ended up at the spire of the temple. Sitting on the shady side we were able to look across the plains and see cattle herders, ploughed fields and of course temples as far as the eye could see. There was a light breeze and the sound of birds chirping in the distance, but it was otherwise completely still. Such a sense of tranquillity and peace as we sat there. I think we sat there for at least an hour just absorbing this amazing place.
As the sun started to sink we decided it was time to hop back on the bike, we made a quick visit to Dhamma yan gyi, I believe it is one of the largest temples in the region. While it did look impressive, we were actually rather disappointed with it, it was beautifully made but it didn’t have its own special charm. The other factor was that we were being hassled a bit by the locals to buy things. So we walked a quick loop and were happy to have said that we’d seen it. Back on the bikes we made a beeline for Shwe san daw. This was another sealed temple (At least I don’t recall it having entry points) with a big set of stairs on each side. The base of the temple was square and right up the top it had a conical spire. The lower levels were red brick while the upper levels were painted white, but cracked and chipping. Needless to say, as it was the ‘sunset temple’, this is where the hoards of tourists could be found (however after spending a sunset atop a popular temple in Cambodia a few years ago, this was comparatively quiet with hardly any tourists). Everyone was sitting at the top waiting patiently for the sun to set, each person trying to claim the best seat. The sun began to light the plains with an orange glow and then a huge, thick cloud blocked the sun. It was pleasant and certainly a fantastic spot to be for a sunset, but the sunset itself was not amazing, but we didn’t mind at all.
Our second day of exploration started at Upali Thein and worked back towards New Bagan. Upali Thein is a cute, squat rectangular temple that apparently houses some beautiful art, but is often locked up, as it was on this occasion. We left our bikes here and crossed the road and had the most wonderful morning wandering in and around a cluster of temples including Hti lo min lo, Paya nga zu group of temples and Khay min ga.
Further down the road we stopped at Min o chan tha where we were hassled by some pushy ladies who gave us a flower to give to Buddha for luck and then asked for money for it, which of course we refused. We had some more peace and quiet at a cute little white-yellow temple called Hsu taung pyi. We paid a visit to Gaw daw palin phaya and then a fleeting visit to Mingala zedi a gorgeous cute bell shaped temple surrounded by a beautiful lush garden. The visit really was fleeting because the sun was at its peak, there was no shade and we completely roasted our feet. I had of course pushed our exploration into the peak of the day and we were both completely cooked and exhausted, not to mention nursing sunburn, so we cycled as fast as we could (crazy slow!) the 5kms back to the hotel for a swim and a lie down.
We put a little less on the ‘to visit’ list for the afternoon and just went to two temples: Na ga yon and Abe ya da na, though we couldn’t find them and were very grateful to a local who pointed us in the right direction. At Na ga yon a very friendly lady gave us a tour of the temple and pointed out all the interesting things, she let us wander and take our time and wasn’t pushy in the least. Over at Abe ya da na the local who had helped us earlier was sitting trying to sell some of his artwork, but next to him was a woman doing the same who rudely kept speaking over the top of him. Thankfully they didn’t follow us into the temple and we were able to look around at our leisure. This was also a gorgeous temple, and unless I got them muddled, had some great art work inside. All these temples were very well built to suit the climate, there is good airflow and somehow they are all nice and cool inside, while outside it is sweltering!
Our second sunset in Bagan was spent at Pya tha da. After a day of cycling, we actually hired a driver to take us to this temple as it is quite a bit further out. I found the architecture of this temple to be quite different to the others and at the rear it had a series of interesting arches – arches that were decorative, seemingly modern. Most of the stairs in temples are internal, but this temple was half-half, also to roof had a very large flat area with a small spire, off centre at the top. It has also become known as a good sunset destination and there were a number of tourists, but far fewer than Shwe san daw. It isn’t as high as Shwe san daw, so it doesn’t have as good a view over the top of everything, but honestly any view in Bagan is stunning. The sunset here was also hampered by cloud cover, but we had the most fantastic time chilling out and taking photos, including some fun handstand pictures silhouetted against the sky.
On our last day exploring Bagan we had become a little wiser to the perils of the hot, long days and were a little more chilled in our approach. We saw a quiet little temple called Mya zedi which had a beautiful golden spire. We visited its neighbour Gu byauk gyi which had the best original paintings that we had seen, stunning to see the designs and work that was well preserved. We then headed further afield to Sulamani Pahto which I found to be gorgeous and very well maintained. By this stage it was probably only 8am so the hawkers hadn’t set up their stalls and there weren’t many tourists to be seen. Sulamani has an outer wall, you enter the temple complex through a large arch and walk down a tiled path to the main temple. The intricate block work was lovely to see and there were a number of art works inside to be seen. It was gorgeous to wander around such a beautiful temple at such a leisurely pace.
Hiding behind the Sulamani complex is another temple, it was on our list but quite challenging to find. We think it was Thabeik Hmauk. Inside the small outer wall were some reed huts where the family who managed the temple lived. We were welcomed to the temple by a woman and her young son. They pressed frangipani’s into our hands and put frangipanis in my hair (my favourite flower – these guys won me over instantly!) They showed us around their temple and while we weren’t able to communicate in any common language they were so welcoming and grateful to be able to share some time with us. Their friendly faces were so warming and we thoroughly enjoyed visiting this temple.
Having learned about the perils of midday we pre-empted the exhaustion by heading back to the hotel by around 11am. We booked some flights, a hotel, caught up on journal writing, swam and napped. We really took some time out to recharge.
Our afternoon excursion was a simple one, we cycled out to Bupaya by the river, where we enjoyed a sunset cruise up and down a stretch of the Ayerwaddy River. The sunset was of course affected by clouds (monsoon season is probably not the best time to go if sunsets are your thing) but it was probably the best sunset we saw in Bagan. It was quite cool on the river, with a bit of a breeze. It was relaxing to sit still and just take in the surroundings, see the people by the river side, washing their clothes, bathing (they bathe fully clothed) and the children playing.
One of the things we also did was a half day trip to Mt Popa. The drive was pleasant and it was great to see the countryside and also to be able to see how the locals lived, as we whizzed past. We made a brief stop at one point to see peanuts and sesame seeds being ground to oil by bullock. We saw palm sugar being made as well as a local whisky. It was quite interesting.
Mt Popa is an extinct volcano covered in lush forests. On the slopes of Mt Popa is another, smaller, mountain that just kind of pops up out of nowhere. On top of this mountain is a monastery, accessed by 777 steps. Mt Popa is apparently a very significant religious place for the people of Myanmar, and travelling there on the day of new moon was simply crazy. There were people everywhere, the entire road was blocked by vehicles and we had to walk a few kilometres to get there, leaving our driver behind. The walk up the stairs was long and hot but the view from the top was rather stunning, looking up towards the top of Mt Popa and back down across the green landscape. While it was kind of interesting to have been and seen it, I was appalled at how filthy the place was, rubbish everywhere, people spitting and throwing trash on the ground, throwing things at the monkeys and being generally loud, rude and obnoxious.