Travel Guide To Bagan, Myannmar
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With over 2,200 temples to visit in just a few days, a visit to Bagan can quickly get overwhelming. Here's my travel guide and tips to make your trip smooth and seamless.
How To Get To Bagan
Out of several options (boat, train, bus and airplane), we chose to hire a private car online at Viator. It was a 4-hour drive from our hotel in Mandalay to our hotel in Bagan. The cost was US $71.70 for the vehicle. We found this to be the best cost vs. time ratio. If you do decide to fly, Bagan's airport is called Nyaung-U airport.
Bagan Archeological Zone Ticket
All tourists must purchase a Bagan Archeological Zone ticket for 25,000 kyats (~US $18). The ticket is valid for 5 days from the date of the purchase. The other rules are the same as the Mandalay Archeological Zone ticket.
If you arrive Bagan via boat or plane, you’ll pay this fee before leaving the port or airport. Trains and buses stop at a checkpoint (no matter what time of day) for passengers to purchase this ticket. Our driver didn’t drive us past any checkpoints to purchase our ticket. But a ticket official was at the temple I went to for sunrise my first morning, and then another one showed up at sunset. They seem to visit the popular temples for sunrise/sunset to check and sell tickets. But aside from those two incidents, no one else asked to see our tickets.
Shoes and socks must be removed when entering all religious sites. Keep this in mind when choosing the footwear you bring.
Dress appropriately to visit religious sites. Knees and shoulders must be covered for men and women. You can possibly be denied entrance to the larger temples (more staff around). I kept a scarf with me and used it to cover my shoulders when necessary. Some people purchase a longyi (a piece of fabric locals wear wrapped around their waist like a skirt) and pull it out when they visit temples. Keep in mind that Myanmar is a pretty conservative country overall.
Be respectful of these ancient monuments and don’t climb on them beyond the allowed platforms. Scramble up onto the roof really don’t gain you much more of a vantage point, greatly insults the locals, and reflects badly on all travelers. Take one for the team and follow the rules.
There are scooter rental stands all over town. The person I rented our scooter from allowed me to keep it overnight and I’d bring it by the next day to exchange it for a freshly charged scooter. The cost was $5/day. Scooters are fairly easy to drive if you haven’t been on one before like me. My mom and I shared scooter and I only bucked her off once or twice while trying to get used to the brakes. The traffic wasn’t terrible, so it was fairly safe to drive on the roads. Honk to signal you’re trying to pass. The scooters are throttled so the max speed is 30 km/hr.
Most hotels have free bicycles available for guests to use.
Horse carts are also available for hire around the more popular temples.
We didn’t see any taxis around town. You can probably arrange one for daily use through your hotel. We asked our hotel to book us a taxi to the airport from Old Bagan (~7 miles away, US $10).
A detailed paper map of Bagan is available for purchase. I don’t recommend getting it for two reasons: Most streets/roads don’t have signs, and most pagodas don’t have signs (some pagodas don't even have names aside from being referred to as a number). This combination kind of makes a paper map useless.
Instead, what helped me keep my sanity was Google maps! I didn’t have my international data plan turned on my cell. But while I had Wi-Fi at the hotel, I downloaded Google maps onto my phone to use even without cell signal. Go into the app, type in the area you want, click the three vertical line icon next where you entered the city, select the “offline maps” option, and follow the directions. Even when you don’t have cell signal, the map will show you exactly where you are on the map, which direction you’re headed, and allow you to search for pagodas. (Note: not all cities/towns have an offline map option.)
Maps.Me is another offline map option. I didn’t use it for this trip, but Jerud used it when we were in Canada with the Toaster.
The paper map may be useful to use with an offline map because it has most of the pagoda names listed (Google maps didn’t).
Make a Plan
Trying to find and visit the pagodas can easily get overwhelming. The sheer number of pagodas, the lack of signs for streets and pagodas, and lack of names on Google maps made planning hectic. To prevent a lot of zig-zag driving, I’d suggest making a list of all the pagodas you want to see and planning out which ones are near one another the night before. This will also help you remember which ones you actually visited, because after one day the pagodas all start to look like one another (and I mean this respectfully).
Since there are fewer pagodas that allow travelers to climb for sunrise/sunset and most blog posts now contain slightly outdated information regarding it, it’s harder to figure out where to go. Make a note of the pagodas that other travelers recommend checking out for sunset/sunrise and then scout them out while you’re out and about during the day.
The afternoons in Bagan were warm, even in January. Head out early in the mornings (even if you don’t wake up for pre-dawn) while the air is still cool. The lighting post-sunrise is wonderful and the temples are quiet and empty. Head out again a couple hours before sunset for the golden hour and stick around after the sunsets. Give yourself a break mid-day from temples, you’ll need it.
Forget Your Plan
Bagan offers an incredibly unique opportunity – you’re given the freedom to go wherever you want in this archeological zone! And there are literally thousands of Buddhist monuments available to you. Tour groups and most people will head straight for the more well-known pagodas, but there are clusters of pagodas that rarely get visitors because they’re tucked away off the beaten-path. It’s easy to find yourself alone at a temple if you just pick a direction (away from the crowds) and start pedaling/driving.
Temples For Sunrises & Sunsets
The temples that allow access to the platforms have decreased significantly. Here are the temples I went to for sunrise and sunset photographs, but there were a couple temples I never knew the names of:
Shwegugyi Temple: It has a large platform and because of that it was the most crowded temple I experienced for sunrise.
South Guni/Taung Guni: This temple is great for sunrises and sunsets.
Temple 1457: A another good one for sunrises.
Length of Visit
We were in Bagan for 4.5 days and 5 nights and found that to be the perfect amount of time. It gave us enough time to get familiar with our surroundings, find our rhythm, plan out what we wanted to see, and the chance to explore. I’m pretty sure we would’ve gotten bored if we stayed longer.
Hot Air Balloon
I’m working on a separate post about our hot air balloon experience in Bagan and whether or not it was worth it.
We only came across one public bathroom in Bagan. It’s located directly across Thatbyinnyu temple. It cost a few hundred kyats (~US $0.20)to use it, it was very clean with toilet paper available, and there were slippers inside for you to use. I’m going to go ahead and assume that the other larger and more popular temples will have bathrooms nearby.
Where To Stay
There are three regions in Bagan: Nyaung-U, Old Bagan, and New Bagan.
Nyaung-U (where the airport and bus station is located) is ~6 miles away from the main archeological area in Old Bagan. There are a wide selection of budget hotels and restaurants to choose from here. Stop by Mani Sithu market, a local market selling fresh fruits, vegetables, meat, and other goods sprawled throughout several streets.
Old Bagan is located right in the heart of the temple zone. It’s extremely convenient to get to temples, but a bicycle or scooter is still necessary. The luxury hotels are located here and there are fewer restaurants to choose from.
New Bagan is ~3 miles away from Old Bagan and a good compromise. The hotels in New Bagan are more mid-range prices and there are more restaurant options than Old Bagan.
We stayed in Old Bagan at The Hotel @ Tharabar Gate. It’s pricey but a beautiful hotel! The hotel grounds were well-designed, the rooms spacious, good-size pool and lounge area, and a delicious buffet breakfast. Another reason why this hotel incredible was their eco-conscious efforts: trash cans in the rooms were lined with reusable cloth bags; shampoo and liquid soap were filled in locally made lacquerware; and complimentary water were provided in reusable glass bottles. I highly recommend staying here if you want to treat yourself.
Get $25 off if you use this link for Booking.com to book your next hotel stay. (We get $25 referral fee in return.)
What To Bring To Visit Temples
Clothes to cover your shoulders and knees (or a scarf)
Jacket (pre-dawn mornings and evenings were chilly, especially while riding a scooter and sitting around on chilly brick structures)
Spare camera batteries
Cell phone battery pack (your phone will be used a lot to get around)
Headlamp (or use your phone flashlight)
Nalgene water bottle (use the electric tea kettle provided by hotels to boil the water first)
Small backpack (to put all these items in)
There is a small lockable storage compartment under the scooter seats that can used to put extra items you might gather throughout the day.
We actually exchanged money at our hotel because the rate was good. There are ATMs around Bagan (one was right inside the entrance of The Hotel @ Tharabar Gate in Old Bagan). There will be a money exchange desk at the Nyaung-U airport and banks in Nyaung-U.
A lot of the restaurants in Old Bagan were empty every time we walked past them. We ate at Be Kind to Animals the Moon, a vegetarian restaurant, several times. They had delicious food that was fresh. I highly recommend their mango juice and tamarind curry!
Starbeam Bistro is right next door and has good food – especially their freshly made baguettes.
Potentially due to the Ananda Pagoda Festival, there were a lot of food street vendors set up near the pagoda throughout the day.
We also to Nyaung-U and New Bagan for meals but I forgot the names of the restaurants.
Fresh fruit juices are very cheap in Myanmar, refreshing and delicious. Drink at least one each day you’re in the country. But do ask them to keep the straw (they don’t need more plastic trash) and serve it in a reusable glass if possible!
Ananda Pagoda Festival
Ananda Pagoda Festival is the largest annual festival in Bagan that occurs around January (dates shift due to the lunar calendar it follows). It’s a 15-day festival that brings people from around Myanmar to Bagan. Endless activities occur around Ananda Pagoda, and the grounds are filled with food stalls, vendors selling a variety of goods (clothing to houseware to tools). We were in town for the festival. Aside from Ananda Pagoda, the rest of the temples didn’t seem overly busy. Our hotel was very near the festivities and this caused two sleepless nights due to the thumping music that went on until 2 or 3 AM – our hotel even gave out free earplugs in anticipation of this.
How to Get From Mandalay to Bagan: A good explanation of the different travel methods (boat, bus, train, plane, & car) to get to Bagan from Mandalay.
Bagan Pagodas and Temples: A list with detailed description and photos of Bagan pagodas and temples.
Bagan Super Travel Guide: A lot of overall information about traveling to Bagan, put what I found specifically useful was the section about the best pagodas to check out for sunrise and sunset photos.
Bagan After The Earthquake: Provides a list with the status of the more popular pagodas.