Getting the best out of Bagan, Myanmar

Getting the best out of Bagan, Myanmar

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.

 How to get from Yangon to Inle Lake by bus

 How to ride the Yangon Circular Train

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.

 

restaurant with a temple view, the Village House in Bagan

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.

 

Hot air balloons over Bagan, Myanmar at sunrise

 

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.

 

The golden temple Mt Popa

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.

 

Sun protection

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

Temple ettiquette

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.

Happy travels!

Enjoy this article? You might like our other blog posts on Myanmar

 

Myanmar – How to get from Yangon to Inle Lake by bus

Myanmar – How to get from Yangon to Inle Lake by bus

Myanmar remains one of the least travelled countries in SE Asia and yet for us, it was the highlight of our whole trip. The most popular places to visit are the cities of Yangon (Rangoon) and Mandalay, and the historic cultural areas of Bagan and Lake Inle. Deciding on an itinerary and the logistics of how you get to these places can be a little tricky and will depend on how much time you have available and, of course, your budget.

When we were researching our trip to Myanmar, despite the fact that tourists have only been allowed in since around 2012, we found a fair number of blog posts and helpful advice that previous visitors had written online. Unfortunately, but inevitably given that we live in rapidly changing times, much of this advice was out dated. For example, it’s not necessary to bring pristine US dollar notes anymore since it’s straightforward to withdraw local currency (Kyats) from the widely available ATMs. 

This blog post details how we got from Yangon to Inle lake on our visit in November 2018, which will hopefully help you planning your own trip to Myanmar.

Travel options in Myanmar

If you’re looking at doing a trip to Myanmar (Burma) then you will most likely be arriving by plane into either Yangon (Rangoon) airport in the south, or Mandalay to the north. 

We flew into Yangon from Kuala Lumpur because it was cheaper than the flight to Manderlay, but either way, if you want to experience the highlights of Myanmar, you’re going to need to cover some serious ground with only a few options with how to do it.

 

Options for getting from Yangon to Inle Lake

Flight

If you are on a tight time table and/or can afford it, the fastest way to get between Yangon and Lake Inle is to fly. We looked at the price of these internal flights while we were there and they were approximately £80 per person. There are several internal airlines offering this service and daily flights. If you go for this option, remember to factor in that you need to get to Yangon airport, which is to the north of the city and can take over an hour to get to from down town with traffic. You’ll be flying into Heho airport which is also an hour away from lake Inle.

Train

Whilst there are trains they are not recommended by locals or by any of the travel blogs we researched. They actually take longer than the buses!

Bus

The most common way to traverse Myanmar and the route we decided to go is by bus. There are many bus operators available and we found that all the hotels we stayed in were happy to help us arrange tickets and provide advice.

After weighing up the pros and cons, we booked the overnight VIP bus with JJ Express

JJ Express office in Yangon bus station

JJ Express offer one of the best rated, safest and most comfortable bus options and the night bus meant that we could maximise our time in both Yangon and Inle Lake and save money on one nights accommodation.

We booked and paid for our tickets using their website which was easy to do and meant we could pay on credit card. The tickets were $19 USD each for the advertised 10 hour drive.

We took a Grab (Uber) from our hotel to Aung Mingalar Highway Bus Station, which is close to the airport and NOT in the city centre. We were advised to arrive around 5pm ready for departure at 6pm.

The bus station is chaotic and not the most modern. It’s spread out over quite a large area so make sure to ask for the company you’re travelling with to get to the correct office. JJ Expresses was basically on a narrow street with huge coaches trying to get past street vendors, travellers, locals and staff. 

Bus station Yangon

We checked in at the desk and were given stickers to wear so the staff could make sure we got on the right bus. There are basic toilet facilities available at the station, important since the buses don’t have loos onboard.

The bus arrived on time and we were able to stow our 40 litre backpacks in the hold and keep our day bags with all valuables with us onboard. The VIP bus has a 1-2 layout inside, meaning that that one side has single seats and the other has two so there’s plenty of room, comparable to premium economy seats on a plane. 

JJ Express overnight VIP bus from Yangon to Inle Lake

The seats recline, there’s screens in the head rests if you want to watch movies, blankets provided and air con (see below!) There are also UK plug sockets onboard for if you prefer to play on your laptop or charge your phone. There isn’t WIFI but we bought an inexpensive SIM card from the airport (£10 for 20GB) and hot-spotted off that no problem for most of the journey.

Reassuringly, there are two drivers and an English speaking hostess, who did a nice job of looking after us. She came round as soon as we departed with a small snack box (cake and a sandwich) bottle of water and generally made sure everyone was back on board after each stop.

In reality, the journey took 12 hours. We stopped 3 times at services, the first of which was modern and had decent toilets, a KFC and coffee shop. The second two services were more ‘rustic’ as we left the main road and headed into the Shan hills. By that I mean that there were only squat toilets and few food options.

While the bus itself was comfortable, the roads in Myanmar are really quite bad and the route to Lake Inle goes through the mountains, so expect a bumpy ride. If you suffer from travel sickness, dose up! Otherwise I wouldn’t recommend taking the bus.

 JJ Express VIP overnight bus from Yangon to Inle

Tips for surviving the overnight bus from Yangon to Inle Lake:

 

Take warm clothes. The air con is strong and the temperatures drop the further north you go, when we arrived in Lake Inle at 6am, we could see our breath.

Snacks and drinks. The snacks provided will not see you through the trip and you may not want to risk eating the local food at the services.

Bathroom essentials. Take loo roll, soap, hand sanitiser etc. We always travel with a little pack of bathroom essentials and on this trip most of the toilets had water and nothing else. Best to be prepared.

Ear plugs/eye masks etc if you need to for sleeping. You do get a blanket but I was glad I also had my wrap later on in the night.

A sense of humour and/or adventure! 

 

Finally, something we weren’t expecting as we arrived into Lake Inle. A man came on board at 5am and demanded everyone pay the 15000 MMK (£7.50) park fee. So make sure you have enough cash on you to pay this and keep the ticket to be able to show if asked. We never were however.

I hope this helps you planning your own trip around Myanmar. We can’t recommend this country enough if you’re looking for an authentic and less tourist tired south east Asia experience. Seriously, book now and beat the crowds!

Do feel free to ask us any questions in the comments section and we’ll do our best to help.

Myanmar – How to ride the Yangon Circular Train

Myanmar – How to ride the Yangon Circular Train

Is Myanmar on your travel list?

 

If it isn’t, it should be! 

Myanmar only opened it’s borders to tourists in 2012 and remains the least visited country in SE Asia. As a result, even the defined tourist areas such as Bagan, Inle Lake and the city of Yangon (formerly Rangoon) don’t feel touristy in the same sense as we’ve come to expect from the neighbouring countries. An authentic experience is easy to find here and we found the Burmese people to be genuine, warm and friendly.

Yangon, the former capital is a popular starting or finishing point for visitors to Myanmar because of the low cost airlines that service the airport. We flew into Yangon from Kuala Lumpur with Air Asia for just £50 each as we had a couple of weeks spare in our Asia tour and wanted to discover somewhere new and exciting. We were so glad we did! Myanmar quickly enchanted us as well as re-energising our wanderlust after a month in over hyped Bali.

There are easily enough things to do in Yangon for 2-3 days and it’s definately worth exploring. Recently, one of the popular ‘must do’s’ that’s emerged when visiting Yangon is to take a ride on the circular train.

 

Yangon Circular train platform

 

Interested in how to take a ride on the Yangon circular train? Here’s our experience from when we went in November 2018

 

The Yangon circular train is exactly what it says on the tin. It’s a train that does a loop around the city, starting and finishing at Yangon Central Railway Station. The whole trip takes about 3 hours and the train goes slowly, stopping frequently along the way.

It’s not a tourist train. It’s the train the locals use to get around and you’ll see the city and it’s surrounds in all it’s dirty, messy, smelly glory. There’s no air con and the seats are hard benches, but if you want to spend a few hours seeing the ‘real’ Yangon it’s a great experience. 

 

Yangon train station

 

In fairness it’s not hard to experience the real Yangon just by walking around the city. Tourism really is still relatively new here. To the extent that we had many requests for people to have their photo taken with us, which shows how westerners are still considered a novelty by some.

The circular train though will give you a real sense of the way people live their lives in Yangon as it wends through the city and suburbs, past shanty towns and out into the farmland towards the airport.

It’s not glamorous, it’s not even particularly exciting, and you’ll also be sharing the train with a fair few other tourists as it’s become a bit of ‘a thing’ to do. We even saw tourists bringing their guides along. We didn’t feel there was a need to do that as it wasn’t hard to work out what to do, but if you like to have support, or want to get a real insiders guide, hiring a guide is the way to go.

 

Tips for taking the Yangon Circular Train

 

When you get to the central railway station, head across to platforms 6/7 to buy your ticket from the booth on the platform. You can’t buy the ticket at the station entrance.

 

Tickets cost 500 kyat (about 25p) payable with cash only.

 

The ticket man told us where to stand to wait for the train and when one arrived which we assumed was it, another man actually got on and told all us tourists to get off since it wasn’t the right train! So don’t worry, they do look out for you.

 

The train leaves every 30 minutes or so but don’t expect precision. It comes when it comes.

 

We did have our tickets inspected soon after we left the station by a ticket inspector.

 

Go earlier in the day as it gets VERY hot on the train and there’s only the pane less windows and open doors for ventilation.

 

 

All aboard the Yangon Circular train

 

Take water and food with you, unless you’re happy to buy from the many vendors that hop on and off (often as the train is still moving.) We’d heard too many horror stories from other travellers that ate Burmese street food and got ill so weren’t brave enough to try. (This was true for our whole trip and we still got upset stomachs, so be warned).

 

Smile and engage with the locals. In general we found them very friendly, if a little timid. If you want to take their photo please always ask permission first though!

 

If you decide to get off at any of the stops, we believe you need to buy another ticket to get back on. It’s not a ‘hop on hop off’ ticket. Although it’s questionable whether anyone would actually check. There’s a large fruit and veg market at Danyingon about halfway, which is possibly the best place to get off and stretch your legs.

 

 

Yangon circular train route

 

We spent an enjoyable 3 hours on the train and also got chatting with some fellow Brits that were on holiday. It never fails to amaze us that we meet such interesting people in such random places but that’s the beauty of travelling, you never really know what, or who you’re going to find.

Hopefully this little blog post has given you some info and inspo for your trip to Yangon, Myanmar. Have you already been? Tell us in the comments or ask us any questions you may have about the Yangon circular train.

 

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