The soft shades of light shine through the tall, prickly trees, dropping shades of orange and yellow along the dusty road. The warm air breezes past my face as I ride my electric scooter. Traditionally dressed farmers with baskets balancing impossibly atop their heads, push cattle and goats through the fields beside me. In the distance, hundreds of temples dot the horizon. I stop my bike, and close my eyes. The only sound is the odd bleating of a goat or moo from a cow. This place is magical.
This is Bagan in northern Myanmar. Its gaining popularity fast, but the Burmese are doing everything they can to control the massive influx of tourism. Only electric scooters or bicycles are allowed in effort to keep the air clean and noise level down. While the main road is paved, the rest are dirt. In between the thousands of temples are farmers’ fields, rather than shops or hotels. You can spend weeks exploring these cultural treasures!
I absolutely love Bagan. I have been there twice now, and plan to return very soon. Both visits were unique experiences, but what makes me love this place the most is how tranquil and peaceful it is, even when the tour buses arrive. Keep in mind, though, that the majority of tourists are here on private tours. This means that once the tourists have taken their photos and climb aboard their bus, you usually end up having the place to yourself!
Getting to Bagan
Getting to Bagan is actually quite easy. You have many options! The first and, in my opinion, the best option, is to take the train. The train from Yangon takes about 16 hours… Yes I know. Long. But the journey is incredible! And rather bumpy. You will slowly pass by golden fields of rice and small, quaint villages. You can hop off the train at each one and explore for a few minutes at a time. If you opt for a cabin, you usually will share it with a friendly local or another traveler who you can enjoy a few brews with. The train only costs about $12 US, making it a bargain.
The second option is to take the bus. The bus takes only about 10 hours. It makes the journey at night, so you wake up in Bagan in the wee hours of the morning. The bus prices vary from Yangon, depending on the quality of the bus. Most travelers opt for the VIP service which feels more like an economy air plane rather than a bus (comes with an in cabin attendant and snacks!). These buses can sell tickets as high as $40 US!! If you go for the cheaper bus, don’t expect much comfort… and the possibility of breakdown is very real. These buses are a fraction of the cost.
Lastly you can fly, but this option can be expensive. You also miss out on Myanmar’s gorgeous, rural scenery. Flights from Yangon, depending on the season, sell for about $100 – 130 US.
Yangon to Bagan Train
Nyaung U, Old Bagan, or New Bagan?
New Bagan: When the government came in and told the locals to move from Old Bagan, they created what is now New Bagan. New Bagan is a cluster of houses with dusty roads and the odd chicken or pig wandering the streets. The accommodation here is spread out and, quite frankly, hard to find. There are few restaurants here, but New Bagan is located very close to the temples, making for easy access in the wee hours of the morning. Accommodation has really begun to spring up everywhere here. There are some great deals to be had, but, in all honesty, if you are traveling alone you might be the only solo traveler here. Tour groups tend to stay in New Bagan, so you might be joined by some snap-happy seniors.
Favourite Accommodation in New Bagan: Kumudara Hotel – $50 US per night.
This hotel is only my favourite because of the great temple views. I think it is much overpriced for being in Myanmar, but it’s definitely the best priced in New Bagan for what you get. The restaurant is decent, but the hotel feels kind of isolated, there is a pool here for when it gets hot. www.kumudara-bagan.com
Old Bagan: In the heart of all the action in the centre of the Bagan Archaeological Zone is Old Bagan. It’s incredibly expensive accommodation is packed full of tour groups during the high season. Staying here feels like more of a resort retreat than a temple adventure. If you want to splurge, then Old Bagan does offer quite a bit. You get to stay right beside many of the amazing temples. Accommodation offers great views over the archaeological zone and there are plenty of spas and swimming pools overlooking the beautiful Ayeyarwady River. There is not much for restaurants or tourist services here, so you are left to eat at your hotel. The food in the hotels here is great, although a little over priced for my liking.
Favourite Accommodation in Old Bagan: Bagan Thiripyitsaya Sanctuary Resort – $120 – 180 US.
I did not stay at this hotel as I could not afford it. I did, however, swim in their giant pool, have a cold beer overlooking the river, and enquired about the rooms…which look amazing by the way. If I had the money and was forty years older, I would definitely have stayed here. This place would be great if you wanted to splurge and dust off from exploring temples all day. www.thiripyitsaya-resort.com
Nyaung U: This is more my style. Nyaung U is the main centre of Bagan. It’s equipped with plenty of restaurants serving up delicious local delicacies for very low prices. It has scooter rentals, cheap hostels/guest houses and plenty of interesting little markets. If you are a budget traveler, backpacker, or just want to stay in the real Myanmar, then this is your place. The only downside is it’s around 3km away from all the temples. With a bicycle or scooter this short distance makes for a pleasant early morning or sunset ride. This is definitely my preferred place to be.
Favourite Accommodation in Nyaung U: Eden Motel – $15 US.
Why do I love this hotel? The walls are made from cheap looking bamboo, the toilets smell funky, and I found the owner drunk on the floor one night. This doesn’t sound appealing, but bear with me. This hotel is awesome. The owner will often offer you whiskey, the young staff are very knowledgeable about the area, and they will find you a scooter to rent from across the street for very cheap. I love this place for the hospitality. They always make me feel at home.
Getting Around Bagan
The temples of Bagan are very spread out. The main temples and largest ones are located in, and around Old Bagan. Getting around to see all the temples can be a frustrating experience if you do not know how.
Scooter or Bicycle?
When the realization of how spread out the temples are finally dawns on you, the first thing you will ask yourself is: How will I ever go see them all? Well, there are a few options, but the best two are renting a bicycle or scooter. During my first visit to Bagan, I opted for the bicycle. At times it was great! You quietly coast past fields dotted with temples and locals carrying baskets. Then the mid-day sun hits you. It’s hot and the struggle becomes real. The bicycles are old, and do not function well. After a long day you will be exhausted. Most of the roads here are sand or dirt, making a bicycle very frustrating at times.
During my second stint in Bagan I rented a scooter. All the scooters are electric to keep pollution and noise down. They run great and can handle the bumpy roads well. In just a few days on the scooter you will be able to take in most of the major temples and explore lots of the unknown ones. I loved my scooter! The scooter has to be charged at night, but my battery lasted quiet a long time. If you happen to kill the battery, there are pedals so you can ride it like a bike. Go for the scooter!!
When to visit Bagan
Dry Season (Mar-May) – Bagan is incredibly hot at this time. It’s very dry and the sun is relentless. The upside is that there are little to no tourists, leaving the temples empty and fun to explore. Avoid the middle of the day when it can get stifling. Bring lots of water!
Wet Season (Jun-Oct) – Less tourists at this time as well. It rains for about half the day and the fields are very green. Many of the temples are reached by dirt roads, making it almost impossible when they are wet. It’s very humid and hot at this time making it feel like a sauna. Upside is that you will most likely have many of the morning viewpoints to yourself.
High Season (Nov-Feb) – Weather is great, sunrises beautiful and temperatures is comfortable. This is the best time to visit for season wise. This, however, is common knowledge within the travel community. With the huge influx of tourism here, you will have to share the temples with plenty of other backpackers, not to mention those lovely, huge tour buses filled with pleasant travelers… I’m being sarcastic…they suck. It can be an overwhelming time to visit. Try to get an early start and beat all the tour buses. The majority of tourism here is still on guided tours, so the other backpackers will not cause too much crowds.
So many Temples, Where Do I Go?
With over three thousand temples in Bagan, it can be incredibly overwhelming when it comes to deciding which temples you should visit. I have been to all the major temples and many of the unknown temples and I can barely remember the names of many of them. In one day on a scooter you can visit over twenty temples if you keep at it. There is, however a few tips and tricks to visiting the temples. Some are better to visit at different times of day. Here’s a list of a few temples I particularly like and why.
Ananda Pahto – Easily recognized by its huge, white body and golden roof, this temple can be visited at any time of day. The inside is huge! It houses four massive Buddha statues made from teak and different tunnels leading to the entrances. There are many shops here selling odd trinkets. Get ready for a lot of sales pressure.
Dhammayangyi Pahto – It looks like a pyramid of red bricks. This massive temple located south of Ananda, is great to visit in the early morning or at sunset. Unlike the other temples that are also good options for seeing at this time of day, Dhammayangyi tends to have less crowds fighting over the view. Sometimes the stairwell to the roof is closed so best to enquire beforehand. This temple also has some very creepy empty halls. If you visit mid-day when everyone is having lunch, you will feel like Indiana Jones exploring this empty temple.
Shwesandaw Paya – This white stupa/temple has stair cases on all sides leading up to the top for incredible views. It can be visited at all times of day. From here, you can get a very good perspective of how many temples are in Bagan. The best times to see the views are, of course, sunset and sunrise. You will want to claw your eyes out when you see how many tourists come here for this, but they come for a reason. It really is spectacular. People who took the hot air balloons told me that the views here were just as good as from the balloon. Try to come a few hours before sunset or sunrise to get your spot!
Sulamani Pahto – This temple is filled with beautiful and intact Buddhist paintings. Come here at any time of day to enjoy the stories painted on the walls. Many of the balloons take off from near here in the morning, making for a unique viewing experience.
Exploring the Central and South Plain – This is where the true magic of Bagan exists. Putting down the dusty roads on your scooter, looking for lost temples, passing by buffalo ploughing fields and locals carrying baskets on their heads is an amazing experience. During sunset, I got lost here. The colours in the sky were stunning and the setting was perfect. This was my favourite experience of Bagan. There is little to no tourists here as they are all piled on top of the major temples for sunset. Come here and see the real Bagan, and soak it all in.
Side Trip to Mt Popa
Mt Popa: home to the famous 37 Nat gods. The Temple is located atop a 740 m tall volcanic hill. To get to the top there are 777 gruelling stairs that are covered in shops, and monkeys jumping around. While visiting, you should follow local custom and not wear black or red, or bring any meat products or you will be cursed. On the way here you will find yourself at the top of a hill, at which point your taxi can stop to give you a perfect view of the temple and mountain. Stopping at this view point also gives you a great perspective of the surrounding landscape and makes it easy to visualize how it was created.
At the base of the hill, you will pass by a smaller temple that is filled with all 37 Nat gods. You can enter here and ask for an explanation about the Nats and what their position is in Burmese beliefs. There are, as I already mentioned, 777 stairs, but you will have plenty of stops on way to the top. The stops will give you beautiful views over the valley, time to spend with the crazy monkeys and quirky shops selling all kinds of stuff. Near the top there are a few smaller temples. It’s best just to follow what the locals are doing to try and understand their purpose. On the top of Mt Popa Temple, your hard efforts to get here will be rewarded with as-far-as-the-eye-can-see views of the area. It’s also amazing to see the locals worshipping here.
Mt Popa is easily reached by a half day trip from Bagan. It is best just to take a Taxi which will cost around $30-40 US for the whole day. This price can be split between however many people you can fit in the taxi.
Bagan cannot be summed up in this post. No matter what I write, it will not tell enough. No matter what photos I show you, it will not let you feel how special this place is. There are many places in this world I make return trips to. Bagan is one of these places. Marco Polo visited here. He also was drawn to these magnificent temples, as I am. Whatever it is that makes this place special, I am hooked.
As the warm air breezes past my face while riding that scooter at sunset, I pause. All around me are temples. The sky is shades of yellow, orange and red. I close my eyes and listen. Complete silence. When I open my eyes this dream like landscape almost brings a tear to my eye. “How can one place contain so much beauty?” I think to myself.
Location: Bagan – Central Myanmar/Burma
Transport: Get around with Taxi, Scooter, Bicycle
Costs: Average Guest house: $10-20 US. Balloon ride: $350 US (yikes!). Taxi: $8 US.
Recommended Guide Book: Lonely Planet Myanmar
Tour Companies for Bagan: G Adventures