Have you ever dreamt of seeing the temples in Bagan, Myanmar?
The ancient city of Bagan, Myanmar is one of the most unique and beautiful places we have ever visited. Getting lost down sandy tracks on our electric scooters, and finding hidden temples away from the tourist masses, was the best thing we did during our trip to Myanmar.
During it’s peak between the 9th and 12th centuries, Bagan was the region’s capital, until it’s abandonment due to fear of repeated Mongol invasions. At this time, over 10,000 buddhist temples and monuments stood in the ancient city. Today, there remains around 2200, in varying states of decay, but still impressive and often compared to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat.
Astonishingly, this 16 square kilometre archaeological zone isn’t currently on the UNESCO heritage list; severe damage from earthquakes led to restoration works that failed to use original architectural styles or materials and drew widespread condemnation. Work is underway to better preserve the site, most notably with the banning of tourists from climbing on the temples since 2018.
Having spent a week in Bagan in November 2018, we want to share our tips and experience so you have up to date information to help you plan your own itinerary.
A note on climbing Bagan temples
Whilst many visitors moan and ignore the ‘no climb’ rule, we feel that it’s ultimately the only way this amazing site can be preserved and move forward as increasing tourist numbers arrive. If you visit, please respect Bagan and don’t climb on these precious temples!
Where is Bagan?
Bagan lies in the vast expanse of the plains of Upper Myanmar (formerly Burma) at the side of the Irrawaddy river and is reachable by road, train, boat and air. Most visitors arrive from either Mandalay, Yangon or Inle Lake, as we did.
The area is centred around Old Bagan, with the town of Nyaung U to the north and New Bagan to the south. In our opinion, the best place to stay for seeing temples will come down to your budget and accommodation requirements. The whole zone can be accessed easily whether you choose to do an organised tour or explore under your own steam on an electric bike.
There is accommodation available at every price point. Old Bagan is the most expensive and has the largest concentration of high end hotels. It was also the busiest and, consequently, our least favourite area of the temple zone. New Bagan is more affordable and Nyaung U is the budget option, with the widest choice of restaurants and facilities.
Check out our map to see where we stayed, ate and some of our favourite temples.
When’s the best time of year to visit Bagan?
Bagan lies in the middle of the ‘dry zone’ in Myanmar, is hot all year and receives little rainfall.
There are essentially three seasons in Bagan:
High season is between Nov – Feb, with temperatures around 30C (86F). We went in November and the weather was hot, but lovely since there’s no humidity.
March – May is hot, with temperatures reaching over 43C (110F). Avoid this time because there is very little shelter on the dusty plains.
June – Oct is when there’s the highest amount of rainfall. We can only imagine how bad the sandy tracks would be with some rain on them! Not ideal if you’re riding e bikes.
How long should you stay in Bagan
Most people include Bagan and it’s temples as part of their Myanmar itinerary and you can certainly enjoy it’s sights if you only have 1-3 days. Our plan was to stay for four days but we actually changed our itinerary at the last minute and decided to skip Mandalay in order to have more time in Bagan. This meant we were able to stay in two different locations and had an entire week to thoroughly explore at a comfortable pace.
Whilst we would have loved to visit Mandalay, we don’t regret spending the extra time in Bagan as, in the end, it was our favourite part of Myanmar.
Our tip is; spend as much time as you can in Bagan, it’s totally worth it!
Accommodation in Bagan.
We used and recommend Booking.com to find hotels in Bagan.
If you use our link you’ll get 10% off your next booking too. Sweet!
Although we didn’t have any problems, it’s wise to book in advance since tourist numbers are increasing and it’s likely that hotels will get booked up during peak season.
We stayed in New Bagan at the Crown Price Hotel
Then in Nyaung U at the Regency Hotel
We decided to treat ourselves and stay in mid range, comfortable hotels with air con and, in the case of The Regency, a pool. Both hotels were very nice and in the case of the Regency, we were treated like royalty, with the staff going out of their way to look after us.
We never normally ask for help with anything at hotels we stay in, preferring to source tours, bus tickets, laundry etc independently. In Myanmar however, we found the staff at all the hotels we stayed in to be genuinely helpful and a great resource.
It’s true that the Burmese people are incredibly kind, so don’t be afraid to ask for help.
The pool at the Regency Hotel, Bagan. Perfect for cooling off in after a day’s temple exploring
Restaurants in Bagan
In general we struggled with the food options in Myanmar and Bagan wasn’t much different. A foodie destination this ain’t.
But if you like highly spiced, garlicky, oily fried food that’s often been left out for hours, you’re going to be fine.
I’ve added some of the restaurants we tried to the map above but we can’t really recommend anywhere especially good to eat. Western options are usually poor imitations and expensive. Eating local is the cheapest way to go but you need to like fried rice/noodles. The largest choice of budget friendly eateries is in Nyaung U, followed by New Bagan.
Luckily the food is made up for by the scenery and the temples.
The peaceful ‘Village House’ restaurant with views over temples at the back. We can’t comment on the food here as we only stopped for a drink.
Things to do in Bagan
Explore the temples
Duh! Of course, the number one thing to do in Bagan is to get out and see those temples.
To be more accurate, many of the buildings are actually ‘stupas’ rather than temples. The difference is that you can go in to a temple, it’s hollow. A stupa, or pagoda, is solid.
If you’re going as part of an organised tour, you’re probably going to be on a bus and your route will be planned out for you. If that’s your bag, good for you.
We saw many bus loads of tourists, but the good thing about them was that they all tended only to visit the same, larger temples. You can easily avoid them if you want to by either going early in the morning, or skipping those temples altogether. We found many smaller pagodas that were far more enjoyable to look around when there were no other people about.
We also saw several groups riding in horses and carts. There were always at least 4 people per cart and the horses were all small. If you’re tempted to do this, please think about the horse having to pull your weight around in the heat. Just don’t.
Hire an E (electric) bike
5,000-10,000 Kyat (£2.50 – £5) per day (8 hours)
Widely available from tour offices on the streets or through your hotel (compare prices before booking and inspect your bike carefully before you ride off)
The e bikes are a genius idea. Silent, no fumes and hands down the best way to cover the most ground on your own terms. It gets crazy hot through the middle of the day in Bagan, and walking or cycling would be super hard work. Trust me.
It’s kind of fun to just get lost and try and fid your own way to the temples. Maps of the area are available from your hotel however, or download Google maps for offline use if you don’t have data. Whilst wifi is patchy in Myanmar, we bought a SIM card at the airport (£10 for 30GB) and had 3 or 4G signal everywhere we went, no problem.
We’d read about the e bikes in Bagan when we were planning the trip and already knew this was how we wanted to get around. The reality, however, was a little different than we were expecting.
Getting away from the crowds on the e bikes. Some of the roads can be a little challenging however!
The thing is, if like me, you’ve never ridden a scooter (or motorbike) before, they do take some getting used to. As soon as I tried to drive away from the hire shop, I knew I was going to be in trouble. The roads in Bagan range from slightly un-level and potholed to unmade, narrow, deep sand tracks. Then you’ve got to negotiate hazards such as children running out, dogs sleeping in the middle of the road, chickens, other bikes (locals and tourists) plus tour buses.
We spent a good couple of hours on the first day with me just driving around the back streets of New Bagan, getting used to balancing and Steve trying to get me to go faster than 5 mph.
If we’d only had one day in Bagan, I would have been devastated. We did manage to go out and see some of the nearby temples but it was a tough day for me since I just didn’t feel safe enough to go on the main roads with traffic. Happily, the next day I was much better and by day 3 I was practically a pro.
In the end, the highlight of our time in Bagan was zipping along those quiet back roads on the e bikes, just the two of us, exploring the remote temples.
So plan wisely, depending on your experience and ability.
Beautiful Dhammayazaka Pagoda
Take a sunrise hot air balloon ride
Oh the hot air balloons! We so badly wanted to do this, the absolute iconic thing to do in Bagan, but in the end we just couldn’t justify the cost.
There are three companies that offer the 45 min, sunrise hot air balloon ride in Bagan, and they all cost approx $300 USD per person. Ouch.
If you want to read more from someone that’s done it, check out this article
What I will say is that even if you also don’t ride in one of the balloons, watching the sunrise from the ground is still breath takingly magical.
Where to see sunrise and sunset in Bagan
On that note, watching the sun rise and set is absolutely something you’ll want to do in Bagan. With the banning of temple climbing in 2018, you will be directed to the purpose made ‘mound’ along with all the other tourists. Don’t be put off by this. We still found it an amazing experience, watching the sunrise and the balloons slowing ascending in the pre dawn light.
Note that when we went, there was a man checking that everyone had their archeological zone tickets.
Whilst it sounds more romantic to find ‘your’ temple and clamber up to watch the sunrise, not only is it disrespectful (many tourists do not remove their shoes when climbing, which is a huge no no in Buddhist culture) and unsustainable (how long will these precious building last for with people scrambling all over them day in day out?) It’s also dangerous; an American girl died after falling off a stupa in 2017.
We also watched a rather lovely sunset at the aptly named Sunset Garden restaurant overlooking the Irrawaddy river. The food was expensive and mediocre, and the service terrible! But the views were truly beautiful.
Take a day trip over to Mount Popa
Shared minibus/taxi 15,000 Kyat (£7.50) per person. Entrance to Mt Popa is free but you will be asked for tips and donations
Perched atop a single mountain peak about an hours drive away from Bagan, is the fascinating golden shrine known as Mount Popa. To get to the top of this sacred temple, you need to remove your shoes and socks and climb the 777 steps barefoot. Sounds easy right? To make it more interesting, the temple is home to many macaque monkeys, who aggressively defend their territories and snatch food from wary temple visitors. As a result of so many monkeys being concentrated in one place, the steps become literally covered in poo! Although the steps are being constantly cleaned (and you will be asked for tips by the cleaners) getting dirty feet is inevitable, and all part of the fun.
Our tip? Take wipes and a sense of humour. The views from the top are worth it.
Things to know before arriving in Bagan
Archiological Zone Entry Ticket
25,000 Kyat (£12.50) valid for 3 day
However you arrive in Bagan, there are checkpoints where you will have to buy a ticket to enter the archeological zone. You are told to keep this ticket on you at all times as you may be asked to present it by temple security.
While we were there, presumably because we avoided some of the largest temples, the only time we were asked to present our tickets was at the sunrise viewing mound.
Support the locals
Buy from local shops, craftsmen and restaurants and try and stay at smaller, non government owned hotels. In this way, you’ll be helping the people, not the government.
Riding around on the E bikes under the blazing sun is a great way to get burned. Make sure you’ve got plenty of sun cream, a hat and lots of water with you. Some of the larger temples have little shops were you can buy drinks, snacks and souvenirs
Myanmar is one of the most devout buddhist counties in the world and Bagan is a sacred site. Always take shoes and socks off before entering any temple and remember to cover shoulders and down to knees. Ladies, I found that wearing loose trousers and a short sleeved loose top, both protected me from the sun and allowed me to enter the temples no problem. Double win!
So what do you think? Do you want to explore Bagan too? Hopefully this guide will help you plan your trip to Myanmar, but if you have any questions at all, just ask us in the comments.
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