When you do a search for a travel guide to Bagan online, images of hot air balloons magically floating above an abundance of temples will come up. These fairytale-like images are what really convinced me to visit this ancient city of Myanmar.
Home to the largest ancient temple complex in Asia, Bagan has a history that dates back to a thousand years. The city is surrounded by thousands of temples and stupas, spread across a desolate landscape. Some would say that it’s like the Angkor Wat, but with definitely less crowd so the atmosphere here is more peaceful and serene.
Being the budget traveller that I am, I went to Bagan on my own and managed to enjoy the city for two days with only a few hundred dollars in my pocket. So here’s my DIY travel guide to Bagan, Myanmar.
Getting to Bagan
So how do you get to Bagan? That’s probably the first question you have in mind. Like most travellers going to Bagan, I took a flight to Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city and the former capital. If you’re coming from Bangkok like me, you’ll find that there are plenty of cheap flights that you can book to Yangon. I flew through Air Asia and paid less than $100 for my return ticket.
From Yangon, the cheapest way to get to Bagan is by bus. It’s a 9-hour journey and I decided to book an overnight sleeper bus to save on my accommodation. I must say it’s one of the most comfortable bus travels I took in Southeast Asia. The bus is very spacious and the seats can be reclined so I slept for the whole duration of the trip. We left Yangon at 8 PM and arrived in Bagan at 5 in the morning. You can book your bus ticket online, although it’s cheaper if you book there.
Hire a Guide
You can choose to explore Bagan by yourself by renting an electric bike, but I’m not comfortable driving it myself so I decided to hire a guide. I’d say I made the right decision because the temples are far from each other and my guide is very knowledgeable. He knows the most significant temples to visit and even shared some interesting insights about Bagan’s history and some other facts about the temples we’ve visited. Of course, he also became my personal photographer and took a lot of great photos of me. J
I booked my guide several months into my trip and I was able to bargain the price to $40 and paid the rental fee of the electronic bike for $7. If you can’t bear the heat of riding at the back of an e-bike, you can hire air-conditioned cars with drivers, but of course, at a much higher rate.
Where to Stay
Bagan is divided to three main areas – Old Bagan, New Bagan, and Nyaung U. I stayed at the New Bagan area because it’s not too far from where the temples are concentrated in and the area is filled with several budget hotels. I stayed at Hotel Yadnarbon Bagan and paid $65 for a 2-night stay including breakfast. In my observation, hotels in Bagan are a bit expensive compared to the neighbouring Southeast Asian countries. But I managed to get a discounted rate because I booked my hotel for several months in advance.
Nyaung U is also a good base for your Bagan trip. It’s where the bus from Yangon will stop, though it’s a bit far from the main attractions. Yet, there are lots of cheap accommodations in this area and plenty of dining options as well. Old Bagan is the most strategic location in Bagan, but it’s also the most expensive. If you’re a budget traveller like me, this is not an ideal place to stay.
What to See
With more than 4,000 temples and pagodas scattered all over the place, Bagan is pretty daunting. If you will choose to explore on your own, expect to get lost. I’m thankful I have a reliable guide who took me to some of the best temples and attractions. If you’re exploring on your own, here are the temples that I would suggest you should visit:
Shwesandaw Pagoda – according to my guide, this is one of the first pagodas built by Anawrahta, the father of Burma (Myanmar’s old name). The pagoda can get crowded at sunrise since this is the best place to get a good view of the surrounding temples, although, after a few hours, the crowd will start to dissipate.
Ananda Temple – this is one of the most beautiful temples we’ve visited and understandably the most popular as well so expect to see a huge crowd of tourists when visiting this temple.
Thatbyinnyu Temple – measuring 61 meters tall, this is the tallest temple of all the Bagan structures. It’s just located right across the Ananda Temple.
Thambula Temple – unlike most of the temples, this temple is well lit so you can visibly see what’s inside. Interestingly, you’ll find a combination of Chinese and Buddhist influences inside, as evident by the murals and paintings on the temple walls.
Gawdawpalin Temple – my guide shared a lot of interesting stories about this temple. Built by King Narapatisithu, legend has it that the king has gotten blind as a punishment for his crimes. Astrologers advised him to build the temple and place idols of his ancestors and that is how he regained back his sight.
Sein Nyet Sister Temples – built in the 12th century, these temples are typically square with entrances on each side. What I love about these temples is that it’s a bit far away so we practically have them to ourselves and we were able to explore them without the crowd. Although I believe it’s kind of creepy if you’ll visit them alone.
Aside from exploring the temples, there is not much to do in Bagan, so spending a day or two in the city should be enough. On my second day, I rented a bike and pedaled my way to some of the city’s best cafes and restaurants, while dropping by at the temples I’ve passed by.
Tips When Visiting Temples
Here are more tips I would like to share with those who are planning to visit Bagan.
- Wear comfortable clothes especially if you’re visiting during the hot season. There are many instances when you need to climb to the top of the temples to get a good view of the city, so you should consider that when packing your clothes.
- If possible, wear flip-flops or sandals that are easy to take off because all temples in Bagan can only be entered barefoot. Carry cleansing wipes to clean your feet afterwards because the temple floors are really dirty and even have bird poops.
- Be careful with climbing temples and pagodas especially if you’re exploring on your own and have no guide who can advise you whether it’s safe to climb or not. Remember, these temples are ancient and are no longer that durable.
- Some of the most magical views of Bagan happen around sunrise and sunset. If you’re going there in the dark, consider bringing a torch or flashlight especially if you’re on your own. The streets and sidewalks are not lit so bringing your own light is essential.
When to Visit
If you want to avoid the summer heat, it is best to visit Bagan between November and January. It is also during this time that the skies are clear, and thus, hot air balloons are operational. However, this is also the peak season so accommodations and tours are understandably more expensive. Also, expect to share the temples with hordes of tourists if you’re visiting during this time.
Bagan is located in Myanmar’s driest region so it’s generally hot all year round, although the temperatures between March and April are extremely brutal. My guide said that the temperature during this time of the year could reach 45 degrees, which makes exploring the temples unbearable.
I went there in July, which is still a bit hot and unfortunately, there are no hot air balloon companies that are operating so I was not able to experience it. But I’m definitely coming back and will for sure experience the hot air balloon ride.
Bagan is definitely one of the most picturesque cities I have seen in Asia and I would recommend that you visit it now, while it’s still not as busy and crowded as the other Asian cities, like Siem Reap. Bagan is running to become the next UNESCO World Heritage site and when it does, it’s going to get a lot more crowded.
Myanmar has plenty of other exciting destinations to visit.