More often than not, Bagan is the highlight of any tourist’s Myanmar itinerary. Like most tourist spots in the country, it was once a royal capital in the olden days of the First Burmese Empire. Its main feature are the thousands of pagodas of various sizes that dot a vast plain adjacent to the Ayeyarwaddy River.
Get a map
The first thing to do when creating a Bagan itinerary is to have a good map in hand. This will enable you to see the locations of the important temples and the lodging houses, and consequently help you select which lodging house location is ideal for your purposes and what your tour route will look like. I was able to find a detailed online map that’s very useful. Click here. (Free maps are also available at the Yangon Airport upon your arrival, but it’s better to have a detailed one beforehand.)
Where to stay
Lodging houses in Bagan are mainly divided into 3 geographical areas. The following are their brief descriptions and advantages/disadvantages:
Nyaung U – The area where the bus terminal and many commercial establishments are located. This is where most of the budget lodging houses cluster. One can literally walk around Nyaung U to look for lodging houses if no prior reservations have been made, although the quality of what one gets at short notice can’t be assured. (It’s always best to make prior reservations, especially during tourist season.) Population density is higher than the rest of Bagan as it’s probably its most commercialized part.
Old Bagan – This is the Bagan of ancient/medieval times. It’s the most ideal location as far as lodgings go because many of the important temples are in this area. As such, one can save up on time and money as far as touring is concerned. However, there are very few budget lodging houses here. It hosts a number of hotels that are either controlled by the government or by well-connected Burmese businessmen, and lodging rates here are generally far from cheap.
New Bagan – This area was created to resettle families who once lived in Old Bagan in order to decongest the area and, presumably, to better preserve the pagodas. It’s quite far from both Old Bagan and Nyaung U, so it’s also far from the important pagodas. But it also has its share of ancient temples. its isolation is also its good point because it’s less-crowded by tourists. Lodging houses are budget to mid-range, with the occasional expensive hotel in the mix.
Obviously, if you have the extra cash, the best option is Old Bagan. But it really depends on your priority. If you value peace and quiet, then New Bagan is the perfect choice. If however you absolutely want rock-bottom prices for lodgings, Nyaung U is most convenient for you.
When we were there, we stayed at the Mya Thida Hotel (which is really more of an inn than a hotel) in New Bagan. In my research, it’s pretty much the most affordable lodging place in the area and it can be conveniently contacted through email/social media. They’re located in a very quiet part of the town in the corner of Nweni and School streets. Their rooms are air-conditioned with a bathroom each, and they offer free breakfast. But most importantly, they have an in-house van that can be rented out for tours (more on this on the succeeding sections.) Anyway, you can click their Facebook page to make inquiries.
What to see
A lot. But mostly temples. It is, after all, what Bagan is famous for. The more famous temples and their brief descriptions are the following:
Manuha Paya – peculiar interior construction
Mingalazedi – with terra cotta artwork; once sacked by Mongols
Gubyaukgyi Paya – for its delicate interior artwork
Dhammayangyi Pahto – the most massive
Thatbyinnyu Paya – the tallest
Gawdawpalin – replica of Thatbyinnyu, but with terraces
Shwezigon Paya – one of the most important
Shwesandaw Paya – good for sunrise/sunset viewing
Ananda Pahto – most beautiful
Thambula Paya – sad, tragic history
There are hundreds and hundreds of other temples that can be visited by anyone. At some point, you will definitely suffer temple overload if you fall in the trap of touring too many temples too quickly. So try to slow things down. It’s physically impossible anyway to visit everything even if you stay for an entire week in Bagan.
Note 1: Unlike in Yangon, there are no entrance fees collected in each temple. But rather, an archaeological zone fee is collected at certain spots where tourists converge, like the Bagan airport, major temples or even some lodging houses. It’s possible to go about Bagan not paying this at all, but at USD 15 for an entire zone, it’s a reasonable price to pay.
Note 2: Be on guard against unusually friendly locals (or monks) who seem very eager to explain stuff to you. What would appear to you as just someone being friendly might already be in the process of conducting a tour and would ask for a “donation” afterwards. Just politely but firmly decline if you don’t need their services. But if you think you need them, then it’s best to agree on a price beforehand.
Note 3: Temple vendors can be very persistent. The ones in Nanpaya in particular use hard-sell tactics. And amazingly enough, some of them can speak a variety of languages (Spanish ang French seem to be popular 3rd languages) and will use them to coax you to buy from them. Just be firm in refusing them if you have no plans of buying. If you show even a little bit of interest in their wares, they will use that as a cue to gang up on you. They’re not really that bad though. You can always just say no and walk away.
In addition to the temples, a half-day trip to Mt. Popa can also be arranged. It’s famous as the supposed dwelling place of 37 nats (gods of pre-Buddhist Burmese belief) and its rocky outcrop Taung Kalat contains many shrines that can only be reached barefoot via a stairway. Caveat: We found Taung Kalat to be unworthy of its reputation as a major tourist destination. At the time of our visit, the path towards the top of Taung Kalat was messy and even filthy due to the proliferation of trash, monkey piss and, well, shit. Interesting to visit if you have a lot of time, but if you’ll just be staying in Bagan for a couple of days, then better spend it all in Bagan proper.
Where to eat
Since we were staying in New Bagan, we only got to visit eating places within the immediate vicinity. We were able to visit only 3:
La Min Thit – As their byline says, they offer “Myanmar typical food”, which, for a tourist like me, wasn’t typical at all. Set meals range from MMK 3,000 to MMK 5,000. Very tasty and very filling, with the usual unlimited rice, dessert and side dishes. And we loved the personalized service by the waiter. We liked him so much that we even asked to have a photograph taken with him. (We ignored the owner completely, haha.) The drawback is they’re located in a very quiet and isolated part of New Bagan, on the far side of Nweni Street, that you’d actually be surprised that there are even restaurants located there.
Nooch Bagan – This is a Thai restaurant franchise owned by an actual Thai family which, for some reason, finds itself in Myanmar (but is originally from Malaysia. – Don’t ask me, I’m confused too.) They offer great variety of food and the ambiance is great. Servers are very attentive and they have a nice sound system, but expect to pay around MMK 1,000 to MMK 2,000 more here per head than in La Min Thit. The restaurant is located along the New Bagan rotonda at Khayae (Main) Street, so it’s very accessible. Their main restaurant apparently has a website but it’s not yet updated.
Good Morning Cafe – Also located at Khayae Street near the rotonda, this is where we had breakfast on our first morning in Bagan. It is open-air, very sparsely decorated and the crowd is mostly male, smoking and working class – definitely not a date-place. (Think along the lines of turo-turo.) The upside was that the food prices were very, very cheap (MMK 600 to MMK 1,000) and the taste wasn’t bad at all. The questionable hygiene though might be a concern, but we didn’t suffer any ailment at all after eating there.
Transportation within Bagan is dominated by horse carts, motorcycles and vans. We were not able to see any taxi at all in the 2 days that we were there.
If you take the night bus from Yangon, you are likely to arrive at Bagan very early in the morning (around 3am to 4am). Expect to be swarmed by horse cart drivers as you step out of the bus offering you sunrise or day-long tours. It can be chaotic but don’t be intimidated. If you are in a group, make sure to get your bags first and converge in an area away from the bus. The crowd will follow you, but you’ll at least have more breathing room. If you’ve made arrangements with your lodging house to be picked up, then it’s almost certain that the authorized representative would already be waiting for you at the bus station holding a sign with your name on it.
SUNRISE TOUR: If however, you are interested in doing a sunrise tour via horse cart, then here are some pointers:
1. Find a restroom at the bus station where you can relieve yourself. At that early hour, there are no restrooms open at the temples and it will be at least 3 hours before they do.
2. The crowd of horse cart drivers actually has a leader who speaks good English and who acts as an intermediary between the prospective clients and the drivers. If you have no prior contact with a guide, he’s the one you need to negotiate with on the price, duration and inclusions of the sunrise tour. The sunrise tour generally costs MMK 15,000 per horse cart, and a maximum of 3 adults can fit comfortably in it. That price is pretty steep as it only involves bringing you to the Shwesandaw Paya (for sunrise viewing) and then dropping you off later to your lodging house. Try to negotiate for a better rate, if you can.
3. If you can’t get a better rate than MMK 15,000 for the sunrise tour, then try to negotiate a side trip to the Shwezigon Paya prior to going to the Shwesandaw. The Shwezigon is very, very near the bus terminal and is well-lit at night. It will certainly be nice to take pictures of it up close. (We made the mistake of not passing by there because we thought we would still be able to go there later on. But as it turns out we never had the chance.
4. A number of temples are also lit up in the evening and you will pass by these on the way to Shwesandaw. You can actually ask the horse cart driver to stop at any point if you want to take photos.
5. Bring a flashlight/headlamp. The Shwesandaw Paya itself is not lit at night and so it would be dangerous (but still possible) to attempt to climb to the viewing deck before sunrise without any light source.
DAY TOUR: The following are the different options when touring Bagan for the rest of the day:
1. Horse cart – You can simply hire the same horse cart that you had for the sunrise tour. Last I checked, hiring a horse cart for an entire day costs around MMK 25,000. This cost is flexible though, and you can either negotiate this with the horse cart driver after paying for the sunrise tour, or at the very beginning when you can negotiate for a combined sunrise and day tour. Note: Horse carts are naturally slow. If you like to tour Bagan at a leisurely pace, then this is for you. Otherwise, read on…
2. Private van – A number of lodging houses have in-house vans that tourists can rent to tour Bagan. There are also private tour companies that offer this service. Most vans are standard-size, which can comfortably seat 7 people (excluding the driver). For our lodging house, Mya Thida Hotel, it cost us MMK 50,000 to rent the van for the whole day, inclusive of driver and guide fees. This is a much better option because we ended up paying less per person than if we hired 3 horse carts the whole day for the 7 of us. Plus, the van had aircon, which can be a blessing in the hot and dusty terrain during daytime.
3. Bicycle or Electric Bicycle – For a more personalized tour of Bagan, bicycles are the perfect means of transportation. They afford one flexibility and freedom in plotting one’s tour itinerary. They generally cost only MMK 2,000 to rent for the entire day. If you don’t think you’re fit enough to operate a bicycle over long distances, a better option would be to rent an electric bicycle. It’s very easy to operate and can run relatively fast at a constant pace (unlike a regular bike). It can also comfortably seat 2 people. It costs MMK 8,000 to rent for the entire day. In New Bagan, there are many bicycle and electric bicycle rental shops along Main Street.
Note 1: Foreigners are generally not allowed to operate any kind of motor vehicle (including motorcycles) in Myanmar. An electric bicycle constitutes an exception presumably because it is not considered a motor vehicle.
Note 2: It can be very hot in Bagan during the daytime, so wear a hat and bring a water bottle when touring, especially when riding a bicycle. No need to bring too much water. You can either buy bottled water from stores you pass by (MMK 300 per 1 liter), or you can have your water bottle refilled for free at the major temples.
Note 3: If you’re staying for at least 2 days in Bagan, I would recommend that you spend the first day on a guided tour via a horse cart or a private vehicle. That would give you an idea of the general layout of Bagan. Then on the second day, tour on your own using a bike or electric bike, to be able to return to those places you like, or stop over other interesting spots you were not able to visit the day before.
From Bagan, most tourists either go back to Yangon, or go further north towards Mandalay City. Either way, your lodging house will be able to help you make reservations with bus companies that ply both routes as long as you inform them at least 24 hours in advance of your expected departure date. Tickets to Yangon are presumably MMK 15,000 (same cost as Yangon-Bagan), and tickets going to Mandalay are MMK 8,000 each. For Mandalay, there are buses that leave in the afternoon at 4 pm, and in the evening 9:30 pm.
If you are staying in New Bagan and are going to continue to Mandalay, it’s not necessary to go all the way to Nyaung U to catch your bus. All Mandalay-bound buses pass by Main Street. You can ask your lodging house to arrange a pick-up at the corner of School and Main streets. (There is an are there in front of the store where you can use as a waiting area. The bus itself is air-conditioned and comfortable enough, and the trip is just around 5 hours long. You will reach Mandalay at around 3 am, if you leave Bagan at 10pm.
NEXT: Mandalay guide.