Of all the places to visit in Myanmar, Bagan has to be one of the most fascinating. With thousands of pagodas strewn across the rural landscape, it’s a compelling city in which to spend a few days soaking up some history and culture. Historically it served as the capital of the kingdom of Pagan which was the forerunner of modern day Myanmar, and during this time over 10,000 pagodas were constructed that demonstrate incredible craftsmanship. It was believed that building pagodas was a reliable way to demonstrate the strength of one’s Buddhist faith and would help to ensure a positive transition to the next life through reincarnation, hence the beauty and intricacy of the creations found in Bagan.
I am a great fun of various temples and by the time I arrived to Bagan I had already seen a great deal of pagodas, wats, stupas and the like. Even if it is your case, too, Bagan will surely impresses you anyway! The city lies in Myanmar’s vast plains alongside the Irrawaddy River, around 700km north of Yangon and 300km south of Mandalay. Its main attractions are its incredible history and of course, the pagodas, although following several earthquakes, it’s estimated that only around 2000 remain from the original 10,000. Whilst it is a popular tourist destination and some of the pagodas can get busy at peak times, it’s a charmingly rural area that shows a unique landscape compared with other spots on the Myanmar tourist trail.
The most popular and best time of year to visit Bagan is between December and February during the dry season. Temperatures are particularly high in the Bagan region and with its location in the plains you can expect hot, dry days but quite chilly mornings and evenings. Be sure to take plenty of layers when going to enjoy sunrise and sunset at the pagodas as temperatures change quickly. You’ll also need to be prepared to have bare feet when ascending pagodas in accordance with the religious rules of the sites so a warm jumper can help you from getting too cold.
Once you arrive, the first question is how to travel around the city to see the pagodas at their best and there are many options available. I’d recommend trying as many as possible as all have their advantages.
As for me, I try to explore on foot wherever possible, but Bagan is out of the question – well, I had to be content with a bicycle. The majority of bicycles in Bagan date back to dinosaur times, and this fact combined with the bumpy and dusty roads produce a tremendous effect on your small back. Bicycles cost 2000MMK per day and there also e-bikes for 8000MMK.
One of the most romantic and peaceful ways to see Bagan is by horse carriage, which costs around 20,000MMK for a full day’s tour of the temples and provides the opportunity to soak up the landscape at a slower pace. Due to my preferences – see above – bicycle vs horse carriage argument between me and my travel companion was really a heated one. We finally agreed to try both.
It’s also possible to hire a *car for the day which will tailor an itinerary to your requirements, and costs around 25000MMK. This will give you the opportunity to see more, and is the most comfortable way to travel.
The truly iconic sight of Bagan has to be the hot air balloons that float across the skyline over the pagodas each morning at sunrise. They offer incredible views of the landscape and really are a once in a lifetime experience. At around 300USD they are a little on the expensive side, and they also book up in advance so be sure to plan ahead if you’d like to enjoy a flight.
Accommodation in Bagan can be expensive, and the standards aren’t necessarily as high as in the cities or even Inle Lake where we found many hotels to be surprisingly modern and well kitted out. Old Bagan hosts some of the nicest hotels, with some even offering views of the pagodas, but expect to pay well into the $100s per night unless you stumble upon a good deal. Most choose to stay in Nyaung U, which offers cheaper guesthouses and hotels and is just a short journey from the historic city centre. It’s also possible to stay in New Bagan which is to the south of the old city and located alongside the river.
Food & drink
As with the accommodation, food can also be pricier than other places with plenty of upscale restaurants offering Western and Asian dishes well in excess of 15USD per head. That said, if you pick one of the smaller eateries located away from the main strip it’s still easy to pick up good deals on food – including traditional Myanmar dishes such as tea leaf salad – for just a couple of dollars each.
Flying is obviously the most time efficient way to travel around Myanmar and if you have the budget, it is an easy way to continue your journey from Bagan whatever route you are taking around the country. It takes around 1 hour 20 minutes to get from Bagan to Yangon, 30 minutes to Mandalay or 40 minutes to Heho with many daily flights available.
If cost is an issue – or if you, exactly like us, enjoy more of a local experience while travelling around the country – go by bus. It is also a great idea to get to Bagan by bus from Yangon: a night bus will typically arrive in Bagan around 4.30am, just in time to drop off your luggage and head straight to a pagoda to catch your first sunrise and get an introduction to the magical landscape.
Train travel is another option. It’s typically slower than the bus, but train journeys are always an interesting travel experience offering an opportunity to meet local people and see more of the culture and scenery along the way. Train tickets can be purchased from the station in the city you are travelling from or via our website, and there are many classes of seats available depending on your preference. The route from Yangon to Bagan takes around 12 hours with sleeper trains a popular option, and from Mandalay up to 8 hours in spite of the shorter distance.
If you’re travelling to Mandalay and aren’t on a strict schedule, a cruise could be the perfect way to reach the city – read our review on this experience. The cruise allows you to take in some beautiful scenery along the way. The express boats take an entire day to reach Mandalay with an early start at around 5am, but it’s definitely worth it for the landscapes you’ll see along the journey. Tickets can be purchased online or in advance from ticket agencies in the city, and cost around 30USD per person.
Finally, Bagan can be enjoyed as a very safe place to visit. The main dangers are climbing crumbling pagodas, so always take care to pay attention to any signs warning of restricted areas and take a torch if exploring in the dark. Additionally the air quality can pose problems so a bandanna or scarf is a useful investment. Theft and tourist scams are vanishingly rare, and whilst you will likely see local guides trying to offer pagoda tours or sell paintings, a simple ‘no thank you’ if you’re not interested is always accepted.