Bagan. It’s a name that evokes images of beautiful ancient temples as far as the eye can see, authentic villages, farmers working the land, ox carts slowly rolling by and mesmerizing sunrises and sunsets.
The name Bagan is often mentioned in one breath with Angkor Wat, Borobudur, the Great Wall of China, the pyramids of Gizeh, Petra or Machu Picchu (to name just a few) as one of the most amazing man-made sights in the world.
But does Bagan really lives up to its reputation?
Enchanted and impressed
Even the fact that most payas, pagodas and zedis (stupas) you see today are badly executed reconstructions and restoration work on many other structures has been poor (that’s why it’s not Unesco World Heritage), it’s hard not be both enchanted and impressed by the sight of so many temples spread out across the countryside, with farmers in small villages going about their daily lives as if no tourists ever visited.
The attraction of Bagan is not so much in the individual temples – only a few are really noteworthy if you’re not an archaeologist or history buff – but about the whole site. Visiting all 2.200 surviving structures, mostly brick pagodas dating back to the 11-13th centuries spread out over a wide area, would be undoable anyway.
E-bike is the way to go
There are three ways to explore the temples: by horse cart, bicycle or E-bike. After we arrived midday in Bagan we did our first afternoon exploring by bicycle in the vicinity of Nyaung U, where we stayed. The next two days we rented E-bikes (which are actually more like electric scooters) for about 5 USD a day, which was not much more expensive than a bicycle.
According to us it’s the best way to explore Bagan. It’s easier to cover big distances this way and get to the more outlying pagodas. The Bagan Archaeological Zone covers an area of 13 x 8 kilometers and although the main roads are tarmac, there are also many sand roads which are much easier to negotiate on an E-bike than on a normal bicycle. Besides that: instead of sweating from the exertion of cycling you’ll cool of while riding your E-bike.
Where to watch sunrise and sunset
The most magical moments at Bagan are sunrise and sunset. Getting up for sunrise at 5 AM was no easy feat (yawn), but seeing the sun go up from atop the Shwesandaw Pagoda was fantastic. It could only be surpassed by taking a hot air balloon ride, but at more than 300 USD per person that was a little too rich for us.
Despite the tourist crowds the Shwesandaw Pagoda is also the best spot to watch the sunset. Because it’s the most famous sunset viewing point in Bagan you have to get there an hour early for a good spot on the upper terraces. We liked the sunrise from here better though: much less people and the views the other way (especially with the balloons overhead) are more scenic.
A nice and much quieter sunset alternative is the Buledi stupa, which is also closer to Nyaung U. To avoid disappointment always have your Archeological Zone ticket with you. We got checked at both Buledi and Shwesandaw for sunset. As of March 1st 2016 only a few temples can be climbed, most being forbidden to climb now to protect the monuments. Check before you visit.
Just roam around
Be sure to at least visit the huge glittering gold stupa at Shwezigon Paya in Nyaung U, Thatbyinnyu Pahto and Mahabodi Paya in Old Bagan, as well as Ananda Pahto, Dhammayangyi Pahto, Sulamani Pahto and Dhammayazika Paya. But most of all just roam around and be surprised by each new sight, big or small, to create your own individual memories of Bagan.
Despite Bagan being the most popular destination in Myanmar and tourist numbers growing rapidly we were surprised at how easy it was to avoid tour groups and large crowds. It’s nothing compared to other temple complexes in Southeast Asia. And Bagan is so spread out that people almost automatically disperse and the further we drifted from the main sights, the more we could feel a little bit like an explorer (which we’re not of course, we were still on the beaten track).
We visited Bagan in November 2014
Travel tips Bagan
Sleep – There are three areas to stay for your visit to Bagan: Nyaung U, which has the most budget accommodation and restaurants; Old Bagan, which is mostly high end hotels beside the historic structures; and New Bagan, that was built for people relocated from the Archaeological Zone and mostly caters to mid-range visitors.
We stayed in Nyaung U, which is the most lively place, and spent three nights in a twin room at Hotel Blazing. It was the most expensive stay of our 4 weeks in Myanmar. From the outside Hotel Blazing looked very nice, but the room was just OK (with good working air-con), the bathroom being cheap guesthouse standard and not really clean. Breakfast choice was very limited (but filling). Wifi worked very poorly (even for Myanmar standards).
Tour – We didn’t use travel services or rent E-bikes at the hotel, because those were much cheaper down the road at Restaurant Row. That was the biggest plus of the hotel: it’s location at Restaurant Row, where small tourist bureaus can arrange anything from bus and plane tickets and bicycle rental to complete tours.
Eat – We ate most of our meals at one of the restaurant at Restaurant Row. There are many to choose from and most serve decent food at affordable prices. Near the entrance gate to Old Bagan there are some nice (but a little bit more expensive) places to have lunch when you’re out for a day exploring the ancient sites.
Transport – We arrived by bus from Monywa at the new bus station, which is quite far from Nyaung U. Waiting taxi drivers tend to charge too much for the ride into town, but when we visited no alternative transport seemed available. We left Bagan for Inle Lake on a direct bus. Included in the ticket was a hotel pickup. We were one of the first to be picked up at 6.30 AM and had to sit on the floor in the back of a pick-up truck for 1 hour and 15 minutes while collecting other bus passengers, freezing our butt off in the early morning cold. No fun. The following bus ride, however, was one of the best we ever had in Asia.
Bagan ticket – Foreigners have to pay a tax of 25.000 kyat (20 USD) upon arrival in Bagan. This so-called Bagan Archaeological Zone ticket is sold at ticket booths on the entrance roads to Bagan. Most taxi and motorbike drivers will stop (or be stopped) here.