2,200 Temples: A Bagan Travel Guide
Out of the countries we’ve visited so far, few places surprised me as much as Bagan did. Sure, it’s just old pagodas, no big deal, I’ve seen those before. But still – looking around and seeing literally hundreds of spires popping out of the green plains around you has a different feel to it than imagining a bunch of old ruins. And it’s not just the history that makes for a wonderful travel experience – the area around this ancient religious sitelends itself perfectly to leisurely exploration at your own pace, with as much or as little downtime as you want.
Take a look at my Bagan travel guide if you’re thinking of visiting this gorgeous slice of Myanmar. I’ll go over the highlights as well as some hidden gems and give you a few Bagan accommodation tips for travellers on a budget.
Bagan accommodation: Lot of budget options and some very high-end digs
Though Myanmar hasn’t been as prominent on the travelers’ radar as, say, Indonesia, it has a fair share of established hotel and service industry – though it does feel that catering to backpackers and flashpackers is more a recent development, while some high end, all-inclusive resorts seem to have been around for a bit longer.
In a nutshell, you’ve got three zones to look at: New Bagan, Old Bagan and Nyaung U. What’s with the old and new, you ask? Well, Old Bagan was where the locals lived prior to when tourism started kicking off. The village got moved to New Bagan, where you’ll currently find a big chunk of accommodation and amenities. There are hotels in Old Bagan as well, but these seem to cater to a more affluent group of travellers (not saying you won’t find any good deals there though) who might prefer riverside resorts. Most (but not all) of the backpacker-friendly Bagan accommodation can be found in Nyaung U, the town closest to the airport and the bus terminal.
We stayed in New Bagan, which seemed to be a decent midway between hostel and hotel vibe. Plenty of homestays and guesthouses around, and the village is easy to get around on foot or with your rented e-bike. Our homestay at Bagan Nova was more than a decent stay, at cca. 17.5 USD for an air-conditioned room with a small balcony and TV, and filling breakfast included in the price. For solo travelers and Bagan budget travelers, Ostello Bello was a local favorite with not one, but two locations in New Bagan. If you’ve ever considered shelling out extra bucks for the comfort of a cool pool on a hot day, Bagan is the place, and Ostello Bello Bagan Pool has got one. I have never been more jealous in my life.
In terms of food, there’s a good bit to choose from in New Bagan – though we were surprised that he prices here were double or even triple of what we usually went for in Mandalay. After exchanging info with some fellow travelers, it seemed to be the norm in the general Bagan area, not just a ‘new Bagan thing’. For a Bagan budget travel fans, head to Myinkaba, the local village sitting halfway between New Bagan and the bigger temples, before you hit the main road that takes you to Nuyaung U. San Thi Dar was a restaurant that stuck out for me: local-owned, tasty and fair-priced, with big portions, with free fruit for dessert. After we paid and were on our way out, the owner went after us with a bottle of water, clearly observing how parched we were after a long day of dusty pagoda exploring.
Bagan Travel Advice for Beginners: What to Consider Before you go
Myanmar, although still not a wildly developed travel destination, has got a lot to offer. From Inle Lake, to numerous caves and temples, to the gorgeous nature around Hpa-An, there’s a lot to be explored in this less slightly less travelled corner of southeast Asia – Bagan being probably the most prominent destination, to be honest. And there’s no wonder why – the architecture here dates to the middle ages, with some pagodas donning facades and frescoes from 11th or 12th century! Now, before you surround yourself with pagodas, you should take into account a few logistical things.
Allow for plenty of travel time and downtime
First off – travel time to and from might be a bit stretched than what you’re used to, even if you’ve already travelled around SE Asia before. Though there have been significant investments in Burmese infrastructure, it has been somewhat lopsided, favouring the capital Nyapiydaw, while the rest of development has only slowly trickled down. That means that not all roads in Myanmar will be as nice as in, say the northern part of Thailand. Take that into account and allow for delays and time buffers when booking any bus tickets. Also, book assigned seats near the front of the bus – especially if you’re traveling with a smaller bus or a van. This will somewhat reduce the bounce caused by shoddy roads and/or bad vehicle suspension.
Prepare to ride around
Secondly, be aware of where you’re headed. Bagan is not HUGE, but you’re still looking at up to 10 miles of distance when temple hopping. I had the foolish idea that a bicycle would be fine. And it might be for you, surely. If you’re ok with spending three times as much time in the scorching heat, getting your arms and neck fried. If that’s you’re plan, do like the locals do and cover up head to toe.
I was happy that I ultimately got convinced of renting a motorbike (or e-bike, as they’re referred to locally, due to them being battery-powered scooters, rather than fuel). We still spend a good chunk of time riding around – especially when looking for ‘hidden’ temples – and trust me – you do not want to trudge through the sandy mess of a road with a bicycle. We saw way too many poor souls, pedalling for their lives, looking absolutely miserable. The sun and the heat are no joke.
Be aware of expensive-ish zone entrance fee
You’ll have to pay an entrance fee for the entire archaeological zone. Frankly, I was a bit shocked at the hefty price for this, considering how cheap Myanmar is otherwise: all foreigners have to pay 25,000 kyat for a 3-day permit (which, I should note, got cut down from 5 days in early summer 2018, though the price stayed the same). You’ll be stopped at an entry point before you get dropped off at your hotel and will receive a ticket. Carry the ticket with you, as it will get checked at the major temples. To be fair, ours got checked TWICE. However, you can’t really get around it.
Bagan Travel Advice in a Nutshell
- Don’t plan a tight schedule on arrival day
- Wheels are the way to go
- Factor in the area entrance fee
- Dress respectfully when visiting the sites
- Don’t try to climb the pagodas
Bring appropriate clothing
The Burmese are slightly more conservative with temple attire than their neighbors. And though I haven’t seen anyone get kicked out of visiting a pagoda for wearing a tank top, the bigger sites will have a sign discouraging wearing of abovethe knee shorts and tank tops. Your best bet is to wear a simple t-shirt and a long loose trouser, though, if you’re anything like me and absolutely hate covering your legs in useless fabric, bringing a spare sarong will do the trick. Taking off shoes and socks is mandatory as well. These can be left at the entrance.
Climbing is pretty much forbidden
And finally, know that you can’t just climb the pagodas willy-nilly. This used to be somewhat standard practice for a while, with daredevils of different iterations doing the most to get an amazing Insta shot. Besides that fact that many pagodas are not meant to be climbed at all, out of respect, in 2016, an earthquake caused huge damage of the already sensitive structures. As of August 2018, there were only a couple of climbable pagodas. One pagoda even got shut down a day before we arrived! It’s not really clear if some will reopen, or if the local administration aims to ‘rotate’ which ones stay open. Ask your hosts about which structures are climbable, and they’ll point you in the right direction.
Bagan Activities: Sightseeing in different ways
This one’s not a very difficult nut to crack: you come here for the pagodas, that’s just what you do. But there are different ways to go about that. The easiest is to rent the aforementioned e-bike (or bicycle – if you hate yourself), and explore whenever you want, wherever you want. This is what we did, and it was indeed quite nice to do things at our own pace.
The easiest to start with are the biggest temples, the must-sees of the crowd. Hit up Ananda, the flashiest of the bunch, donning stunning contrast of off-white walls and golden top.
My personal favorite was the Dhammayangyi temple, which seems to be the most massive one, occupying an unrivalled amount of visual space in the Bagan panorama. It’s hard to miss. The Manuha temple in Myinkaba was another highlight – an 11th century temple hosting a remarkable, 90-foot-long reclining Buddha, along with 2 other Buddhas.
There are several other hard hitters of course, but what I actually found the nicest was to get off the beaten path and explore the smaller pagodas interspersed throughout the plains. Even though you can’t climb them (apart from the few ‘secret’ ones), it’s amazing to just explore the topography of the area and wander into abandoned temples on your own, coming face to face with a 12th century Buddha among fading frescos. Skiddish tray dogs might keep you company here and there.
The banks of the Ayeyarwaddy River are a nice stopover as well. Look for the golden stupa in Old Bagan for stunning views of the sprawling river! Many locals come to pay respects here as well, so dress respectfully, just like when visiting the pagodas.
There are, however, organized tours you can join to take you around some of the harder to reach spots, or to do the dreaded sunrise or sunset viewing. These are usually easiest to organize with the help of your guesthouse or hostel – depending on the size of the accommodation, they will either organize their own trips or work with a local transport/tour company to sort you out.
And if you’re after finding a lookout spot of your own, there are plenty of locals who will offer to take you to a temple you can climb. I’ll be honest though – this can be a bit of a nuisance, depending on when you’re in Bagan. We were there in low season, to the locals were a bit hard up for work, as it seemed. So, our individual exploration frequently resulted in a being approached (or followed and approached) by a local on a motorbike, offering to take us to a secret spot to watch the sunset. Besides the fact that you might not be interested, this can be especially irritating if you’re not an expert motorbike driver trying to keep your eyes on the subpar road ahead of you, and suddenly someone rides up to you, asking you questions and offering services. When not approached mid-drive, we’d often stop at a lonely pagoda in the middle of nowhere, just to hear the hum of a motorbike 30 seconds later, expecting the rundown of questions: “Where are you from? How long are you in Bagan? Want to go to a secret sunset spot?”. It’s possible that this is happens less frequently in high season as there are a lot more people to approach without having to follow them on a motorbike, but my Bagan travel advice would still be to not let this affect your travel planning and go in low season. You’ll have some temples completely to yourself, while the big ones will host a dozen or so visitors – unlike the hordes of people I’ve seen in some travel blog photos.
A once-in-a-lifetime event: Pagoda topping ceremony procession
This is something we absolutely did not know was happening, but it was hard to miss the growing crowds gathering roadside in Myinkaba to see and/or participate in the pagoda topping ceremony. We happened to be in the village precisely when the festivities kicked off, and it was truly a big production to witness. The temple in the village was getting the roofs topped with new umbrellas – decorative toppers made out of gold. This involved a huge procession with serveral ornate floats, with dozens of dancers in bright outfits commemorating the event with choreography and singing.
Bagan Travel Guide Conclusion: Touristy? Yes. Worth it? absolutely!
If you prefer to stray off the beaten track and are a bit skeptical about the ‘must see’ locations touted in every guide book, rest assured that Bagan is very much worth the journey and the time. And since the area is so large and provides a wide variety of accommodation and activity options, you can organize your trip in a way that you avoid most of the hustle and bustle associated with highlight landmarks – if you want. Be prepared for hot, scorching sun and a considerable amount of dust, and keep an eye on the Bagan travel advice above. If you are thirsty for temples but also curious about other destinations in Southeast Asia, check out Ubud on the Balinese city of Ubud or get inspired by our temple run in other Balinese destinations!