From the photos you have seen of Bagan, you may think it is a field dotted with stupas rising out of a tropical forest. In reality, Bagan is a former royal capital, a collection of 2200 stupas, monuments, and temples spread out over an arid plain covering several square kilometers. Most of these are small brick structures, in groups of 5 or so, and rising up to 5 meters. Some are groups of larger structures, and a few are very large, standalone temples.
You will need transportation between these groups, as they can be kilometers apart! Our first day, we rented e-bikes, which we rode 8km from New Bagan to Nyaung U to the northernmost temple on our hit list, Shwe Zigon (not to be confused with Shwe Dagon, which is the famous pagoda in Yangon). Shwe Zigon is a typical Myanmar [Burmese] temple complex, with a large, gold stupa in the center and several temples, outbuildings, and of course, shops surrounding it. The mix of religion and commerce can be a little amusing or off-putting, depending on your sensibilities.
A quick primer here: a pagoda is a place of worship — Phaya or Paya is the transliteration of the Myanmar word for pagoda seen on most signs here. Pagodas can either be temples, where you can walk in, or stupas, which are simply towers with no entry. Temples can have various shapes, while the classic stupa has a symbolic shape: a bodhi tree leaf, a lotus, a bell, and other symbolic elements. Traditionally, you walk clockwise around a pagoda, so you’ll see every family and tour group go that way. I advise going with the flow — not just for good luck, but because you won’t keep bumping into people.
You should be aware that you will need to buy a ticket to visit Bagan — while they only ask for the tickets at the largest and most famous temples, all foreigners are supposed to have tickets if they are anywhere in the area. Tickets cost 25,000 Ks. (about US$16), and you can only pay in cash in kyats. If you arrive by boat from Mandalay, you had better bring the cash with you, because you will not get off the dock without buying a ticket and there are no ATMs in the area. In fact, I don’t think there is electricity anywhere near the dock aside from a fancy hotel up the road which had its own generator (did I mention there is a lot of diesel pollution cancelling out the electric bike advantage?).
The Bagan pagoda area is well served by 1 or 2 main paved roads and a lot of dirt paths off of those. Again, e-bikes are your best bet — you can rent a bicycle, but it gets hot here in summer (like 35-40 degrees C or 90-100 degrees F) so that activity loses its charms very quickly, especially if you’re out after 10am or so.
Even with e-bikes, the heat got so bad that we had to quit after 2pm. We set off each day with a loose itinerary of 4-5 pagodas that we wanted to see. That was optimistic and we ended up seeing about 5 on the first day, 3 on the second, and 4 on the third but only because 3 were close together. That turned out to be enough Buddhas for us (figure at least 4 large Buddhas per main temple, plus dozens additional Buddhas in niches, next to, behind, and in front of the large Buddhas, and Buddhas on the outside, plus more if you consider frescoes).
The dirt paths vary from rocky to sandy, so it helps to have a little bit of experience, but none is needed, nor is paperwork. In fact, the hotel had no problem at all letting our kids (ages 12 and 15) ride around with flip-flops, shorts, and no helmets, as long as we were willing to pay the rental fee. As of April 2019, the rate to rent an e-bike was 8000 Ks. per day, which is quite cheap by any standard. Even in sleepy New Bagan, there was a rental stand on almost every corner. When I say “bike” what I mean is a Vespa-style scooter with a max speed somewhere around 70kph (we didn’t want to push much over 50 without helmets and all). Supposedly, foreigners are only allowed to ride the electric kind. I guess it’s to cut down on pollution around the pagodas, but there are so many diesel vehicles spewing out exhaust along the roads that any clean effects are canceled out.
Speaking of New Bagan, there are 3 towns in the area: Old Bagan, New Bagan, and Nyaung U. Of those, Old Bagan is the closest to the marquee pagodas. It’s a small town with a few expensive hotels and restaurants and none in the budget range. Nyaung U is larger and not too far from the action. It’s crowded and ugly, but with lots of reasonable hotels and restaurants. The bus station is also in Nyaung U. New Bagan is a newer settlement designed to handle the overflow from the other 2. It is a small grid of quiet streets dotted with a few dozen hotels and restaurants that run the gamut of pricing, but without the commercialization and noise of Nyaung U. There are pagodas at the north end of the town, in viewing distance of some hotels. Goldilocks would have stayed in New Bagan.
In addition to e-bikes and bicycles, there are a few more options available for pagoda hopping: tour buses, taxis, and horse-drawn carriages. Each of these has their own advantages and drawbacks. If you value air conditioning, you might want to take a tour bus or a taxi. However, those are limited to the main roads and a few of the larger dirt roads, so you will only see the pagodas that everyone else has seen. Maybe that’s not a problem for you and what you miss in serendipity you’ll make up for in creature comforts.
A horse-drawn carriage sounds like a lot of fun, but the reality is a cramped, bumpy ride without the air conditioning. And while the horse can go places the 4-wheelers can’t, you still can’t get on the smaller trails. We saw a lot of those carriages idling in the parking lot near the Ananda temple, waiting to pick up tourists who climbed off tour buses looking for an authentic experience. They took a short ride around the temple and the main road before heading back to their bus. We didn’t see carriages at any of the pagodas we passed, which is testimony to their impractical nature (and possibly the price). They do make for a nice photo, however.
Speaking of nice photos, the final option for seeing Bagan is hot air balloons. These leave at dawn and cost at least US $280 per person. This is a non-starter for most people, but we were shocked to see 5 balloons up one morning.
You have probably read some articles about viewing the sunrise or the sunset or both from the top of a pagoda. At the time of our visit, climbing pagodas was not allowed for safety (both yours and the pagoda’s). On our last day, Lili and I stopped at a small cluster of pagodas well off the beaten track. There were only a few locals hanging out there, and a house behind one of the pagodas. The guys asked us, from their palm-frond bed under the only tree, if we wanted to climb the pagoda. It was scorching heat at 11am, and we already knew we weren’t supposed to climb, so we said no. But apparently that stuff does still go on, discreetly.
At any rate, aside from possibly getting caught and fined, the logistics of climbing to watch the sunrise seemed tricky at best: rent a bike the night before, leave the hotel before dawn, drive over dirt and sand roads in the dark, climb the pagoda with a flashlight to watch the sun come up. Don’t fall on your way down. Way too much trouble for all except the intrepid. Sunset sounds easier, although you should be aware that, as I mentioned, it’s hot and you’re sitting on heated bricks, facing the sun for some time before it actually sets. Bring water.
There are a few pagodas that are on the must-see list, but I am not a huge fan of checklists. So instead of directing you to the same old sights that you can find anywhere on the Internet, I will tell you to make your own way, and stop where you want. Of those on the checklist, Sulamani and Dhammayan were our favorites although the best pagodas we came across were those that were not marked on the tourist map or recommended.
What I can recommend is the Black Rose restaurant in New Bagan, which was consistently excellent, with Thai, Chinese, Myanmar dishes and even an authentic pizza! Expect to pay 3000 – 5000 Ks per dish at a good restaurant here, less at local places, more at hotels and fancy restaurants. We stayed in the Kumudara Hotel, which is at the north end of New Bagan. You can see pagodas from the hotel and there is even a pool. We stayed in a bungalow which was very comfortable and spacious. There are even more spacious and views from the deluxe rooms, which were empty during our stay. We paid about US $30 per night including breakfast. Kumudara is in need of some maintenance, and it’s not for everyone, but there are many options for every taste and budget in Bagan.
Practical details: There are frequent to and from Yangon, Mandalay, and Naw Pyi Taw. There are flights from Yangon. There are boats to and from Mandalay most of the year but not between March and September or so. Check first. And remember, if you take the boat, bring enough cash to buy your Bagan pass.
Taxis have government-imposed prices, but they will find every reason to charge you more. I even confronted a group of taxi drivers lounging under the official price list. They swore up and down that the prices were only during certain hours, only for 2 people in a taxi, luggage cost extra — every lie in the book. Bottom line, insist on the official price — for everyone’s sake. There is no Grab or ride hailing service here (yet).
As of April 2019, Bagan is still a relatively unspoiled place. Please visit responsibly – be respectful, clean, and polite and you will be rewarded with an amazing experience!