All you need to know about visiting Bagan.
The ‘One and only Ultimate travel guide to Bagan’ title is a pretty bold statement, but it’s a fact that pretty much every Bagan travel guide is out of date. There have been so many changes going on at Bagan, that the entire experience is now a very different one, with different ways of going around and spending your time. Many temples are closed off completely and there is not a single temple left where you can still get to the top to enjoy sunrises and sunsets. Those beautiful views overlooking countless temples are no longer to be found. It’s a sad thing and you better know what to expect, or it’s going to be a disappointing surprise.
Everyone has always said you better visit Bagan rather sooner than later, because change is about to come and it’s not going to be for the better. That moment has come and the wild experience of climbing temples is over. That said, there is a lot of talk about how a few of the big temples will open. But that talk has been going around for years. In the end, it’s always all about money, so I’m sure some temples will open, asking a steep fee. I’ll update this travel guide to Bagan onze that happens.
Still worth the visit!
Despite the changed experience, Bagan is still worth the visit, don’t get me wrong!. Myanmar is a fascinating country that until recently (2010) was closed off from the outside world and was very hard to travel to. Things are changing in Myanmar and since the 2015 elections things have become a little easier and more accessible. There are still no-go zones, but the country as a whole is now seen as safer. Recent fights with the Rohingya people have caused many people to stay away from Myanmar. Understandable, but the tourism sector is struck hard by it and many locals who depend on tourism are having a rough time.
Having visited Myanmar 4 times now, spent 11 weeks at Bagan, I got to know Bagan/Myanmar a lot better than anyone else and have a lot more to say about this unique place and the things te people have to deal with. It’s a sad situation and people deserve our support. I highly suggest visiting Myanmar; it’s a safe place and you’re not even allowed anywhere near the troubled regions.Our media just wants to scare us. The local people are among the kindest you’ll ever meet and they need tourism to support their families.
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Travel Guide to Bagan: INDEX
History Of Bagan
Watching Sunrise And Sunset
Most Popular Temples
Sidetrips To Do From Bagan
How To Get There
How To Go Around
Best Times To Visit Bagan
Where To Stay At Bagan
Where To Eat At Bagan
Travel Guide to Bagan: History of Bagan
The Bagan archaeological zone is one of the largest and most important historical sites in South East Asia, located in the dry zone of Burma, on the East bank of the Irrawaddy river. The area receives very little rain and is dependent on irrigation for farming. The Bagan people managed to develop and improve water management systems to irrigate the land, building a system of dams, waterways and sluices, through which they were able to turn dry land into farmland.
Between the 9th and the 13th century the Pagan dynasty flourished and over 10.000 temples, pagodas and stupas were built in order to gain religious merit. It became an important center for Theravada Buddhism and attracted monks from far away countries. During the Kingdom’s most powerful period Bagan had up to 2 million inhabitants, the largest city on earth.
Towards the end of the 13th century Bagan was invaded several times by the Mongol armies, which eventually led to the end of the Bagan empire. After the 15th century Bagan was mostly deserted, but still a destination for pilgrimage.Earthquakes eventually destroyed almost all of it, but with the help of (questionable) restoration 2000+ have been erected and repaired.
Travel Guide to Bagan: Bagan today
My first visit to Myanmar was in 2012, when it had just opened up to tourism. Man, the country was a shithole, seriously. It was the worst of many things I had ever come across, the crappiest airport, a decaying capital, worst busstops and meals ever and the dirtiest rooms you’ve ever had. The country wasn’t prepared yet for the influx of tourism, so there weren’t enough rooms to accommodate all touriss. The result, US$30-60 minimum for the cheapest rooms, all sold out. Travelers were sleeping everywhere in hallways, at the temples, just everywhere.
Things have come a long way since and Bagan has seen an incredible rise in accommodation. Back then you only had 2 options of going around, either rent a bicycle or go around on a horse cart. Now there are ebikes, taxis, tuk-tuks etc. Everyone is using phones, which then cost US$3000. ATM’s everywhere vs almost none back then. You really needed crisp dollar bills, which is no longer necessary. So many changes, but not always for the better.
Politics aside, Bagan today (and the past few years) is a rather quiet place. With all political unrest and fights going on in the country, many tourists have been avoiding the country for the time being. The ones being hit by this are the locals who depend on tourists for their income. It’s an untold story that I’ve learned during my 11 weeks there. There really isn’t a reason to avoid the country, it’s actually a great time to visit it, now that it’s cheaper and quieter.
Temples roof access closed
It’s always been a crazy situation that people were allowed on these unsafe and ancient temples. After a number of incidents (even deaths) and damaged structures, the government decided to close off access to the top all temples. They took over a year to slowly do it, but now finally.
Unesco Heritage Site
There’s always been a lot of talk about it, but after a long time and certain improvements Bagan is now a Unesco Heritage Site. There’s a lot of talk about how one of Unesco’s requirement is that people who live in the archaeological zone will have to move out. Since land prices have gone up so much thanks to investors, not many will be able to buy a new place. The government has land south of New Bagan where people can move to. But there’s no business for them there.. I really wonder what will happen.
Bagan Archaeological Pass
Your driver will take you to the office where you have to buy the Pass. At various locations at Bagan will they ask for this pass, keep it on you and make a photo of it with your phone.
In the past few years they changed the validity from 7 to 5 to 3 (to force people to visit other destinations), back to 5 days (after many complained 3 days is too short). It will cost you K25.000.
Travel Guide to Bagan: VISITING BAGAN
A different experience
As I mentioned, the experience has changed. It’s no longer about exploring all the temples, going to the top and watching those magnificent views. You can still go into all the big temples and into many small temples, so you still have that. But most of the time you’ll find yourself going around with only shortly visiting the temples. It means you are able to cover a lot more ground. It’s kind of more about the journey (between the temples) than the destination (at the temple).
Pick your way of getting around and start exploring the place. If you have the time you should check out the inside of all big temples. The big ones are usually the most interesting ones, so you’ll simply want to visit them all, which is easy to do in a few days. You’ll still have plenty of time to check out whatever you come across along the way. Read about how to get around in the section below.
Illegally entering temples or climbing pagodas
You might come across someone who offers to take you up some temple illegally, to the roof. These people are putting themselves at major risk. The police starts patrolling the area at 7am and if they catch you with that local person up some temple, that person gets thrown into jail and you get away with it. They are risking it because they desperately need the income. I don’t think anyone should do anything that might put other people at risk, but if you do, make sure you pay these people well please. $5 for example is nothing for you for such a special/thrilling experience, but’s it’s big thing for them, risking their freedom and family and all!
In some situations someone might take you somewhere where you can iilegally get up some pagoda or something. The people who take you there often have to pay the caretaker of that little area like $1 per person that goes up (they stay on the ground actually). They don’t tell you this, they just hope that you will buy something from them. Be aware that if you don’t buy anything, you end up costing them money. Please just buy something for you mom, make 2 people happy with just a few dollars 🙂
I have so much to say about this. But I’ll keep it friendly and short. You have to realize most people only make roughly $100 here. That $1 tip won’t hurt you, but it’s a big money for them. Especially for the people that help you and are kind to you, show your best side, let karma work. Be generous you will be treated such, right?!
The motorbike people
You’ll come across many people on motorbikes asking you ‘Want to see sunset or sunrise’? I know special place. Well it’s not always that special or secret at all, but it’s all they got left to show you.
They have an interesting strategy for doing business. They want to help you buy showing you location with a nice view, free of charge. All they ask is that you have a look at what they sell, hoping of course that you’ll help them back by buying something. They really want to do some honest business this way. They’re not after a hand out. But if you let them help you, you should at least tip them a few dollar.
Most of these people will sell sand paintings, which is a longstanding tradition in the area and until recently there was a school for painting here as well. Some paint their own paintings, others sell family members’ paintings. Many are very similar, but there’s a few artists that are originals and sell quality work, you’ll notice them, their work stands.
One of my best friends in Bagan is Ruby. He’s one of the guys you see driving around on his motorbike with a bag of paintings. Ruby is a really good, friendly and honest guy, speaks english really well and I can highly recommend him if you’d like to meet up with someone to show you around some of the best locations. Note that he is not a guide, but knows the area like this back pocket and is good conversation. Contact him through +95 9259071687, tell him you got his number through me, the dutch timelapse man.
Watching sunrise and sunset
Sunrise and sunset are the big moments of the day, you shouldn’t miss them. Actually, you can rest/chill/sleep the entire day, as long as go out for that dusk and dawn magic. Where before it was all about finding the best spot with the best view and enjoy the moment from the top of a temple, that’s now changed a lot. Except for the 2 best remaining locations, there’s not a lot of good views left that allow you to get higher up. There are the artificial hills most people go to, but its not that great there.
Best remaining sunrise location:
Across the road from the Archaeological Museum you find Mimalaung Kyaung, which allows you up a few meters and give a great view on Thatbyinnyu Temple and some others.
Best remaining sunset location:
You can climb the ruins at Ashin Arahan Monastery in the west to have a pretty good view on the sunset. Here was the last ‘secret’ temple you could still climb, but word had got out when I was there and I’m sure by now it’s closed as well.
Watch sunset from temples or pagodas
There are a few other locations where you can get up some ruins or partially get up some pagoda. The views aren’t that great and it’s not really something to recommend. To find these locations, you’re best of asking one of the locals on a motorbike to show you these locations and pay him for it. But I honestly think you’re time is better spent getting different and better views from the ground while moving around on an e-bike or whatever.
From the hills
Since the temples were being closed, the government created a lot of artificial hills of a few meters high. The problem is you just don’t have any great views from these hills in the east, because temples are too far away. It gets crowded and there can be a lot of vendors. They should have just built 1 big hill in the middle of it all. Or even better, just open a few of the big strong temples, which they might, actually.
A very popular and nice activity is book a horse cart for a sunset ride. You can just chill and enjoy the views pass by. They used to be the most popular way to get around, but after electric motorbikes were introduced, they almost all disappeared. Now, they’re booming again and you might have to book ahead. The Chinese love them, I’ve seen traffics jams of 60+ horse carts full of Chinese people.
Personally, I think it’s the best time to just drive around on your motorbike and explore all the good photo opportunities you’ll have in this beautiful light. Most people are at some viewpoint, so it’s nice and quiet, no people in your shots woohoow!
Balloon ride at sunrise
Bagan is know as one of the top 3 best locations in the world for a balloon ride, together with Cappadocia in Turkey and Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. The balloon business has now exploded. There are 4 companies offering rides and on busy days you’ll see over 30 balloons. There are more promos now, if you’re lucky you can book a ticket for $250, but regular prices are around $350. It’s easier to get a last minute tickets these days if you haven’t booked ahead. It’s a lot of money, but a better deal now than ever before, since there’s no other way to get these kind of views.
Watch sunset on the river
You could also enjoy sunset from the river joining a sunset boat tour. There are also a few locations near the riverside, but there’s not much view on temples.
Most popular temples
Ananda: Nicknamed â€œwest minister abbeyâ€ of Myanmar, itâ€™s one of the most beautiful templesDhammayangyi: The largest temple in Bagan; only part of it is accessible though.
- Htilominlo: A beautiful red brick temple best known for the elaborate plaster moldings.
- Nanda Pyin Nya:Â Nicknamed the painted temple. Youâ€™ll find many old wall paintings here. No photos allowed though to better preserve the paintings.
- Shwesandaw: Legend has it that this pagoda holds a Buddha hair relic. Shwesandaw means Holy Golden Hair.
- Shwezigon: One of the most popular pagodas among tourists and locals, your best chance at seeing local monks.Â
- Sulamani: A popular temple with many frescoes on the interior.
- Thambula: Known for itâ€™s obvious Chinese influence.
- Thatbyinnyu: The tallest temple in Bagan.
- Other Temples: Bagan is filled with thousands of temples, so although the above temples and pagoda’s shouldn’t be missed, don’t forget to stop by and visit any interesting ones you pass by.
2-3 days is the right amount of time for most people to explore the temples. If anything, I recommend being out during sunrise and sunset. Have a nice long lunch at the hottest part of the day and take some time to chill before you head out. The hours after sunrise are the best part of the day. You’ll be hungry for breakfast as everyone, I know, but just bring some cans of ice coffee and some apples or other snacks like me and you’ll be fine.
There are plenty of ways to go around Bagan these days, as you can read in the How to go Around section a bit further down. By far the best way is an electric motorbike, they’re easy to drive and it’s fun to explore that way. But a great suggestion is to mix it up a bit during your stay, so perhaps start with a day in horse cart or tuktuk, spend a day on a motorbike and perhaps your last day walking or on a bicycle.
If you have time (slow-travel is the best!), I recommend spending 5-7 days here. It will give you time to take things easy and make it more enjoyable that way. You should explore some places outside of Bagan, doing some daytrips. Spend some time exploring the little towns as well, you get to experience local life and perhaps mingle with them. I really enjoyed meeting the locals in Myanmar, there’s something so pure about them.
Sidetrips to do from Bagan
Temple across the river
From the harbor at Old Bagan you can take/join a boat across the river, from where you can walk/ride up to the temple, which gives you a view on all of Bagan. I believe it’s something like $15 for the boat and $15 for the ride, but you can share it.
Easily one of the most popular side trips to do at Bagan, the photos of Mt Popa (2 hour drive) from a distance look amazing. But, reality check: to visit Mt Popa isn’t to watch it from that great view, but to walk up 777 stairs on barefoot through monkey poop to reach the temple. Some love it, most don’t.
About 50 km south lies Salay, famous mostly for its ancient 12-13th wooden century monasteries with intricate carvings in the courtyard and on the walls. The town is an important centre of learning for Buddhist monks.
You’ll find some colonial architecture, can visit the market, more pagodas, of course. We also stopped by a factory that makes tamarind candy and juices. But to me personally I enjoyed the ride most. It was lovely to see the landscapes and little towns, which you usually don’t get to see much on any of the big buses.
Side trip: Shan State
Shan State, west of Bagan, used to be a no go zone for tourists. It has now opened up and is an interesting travel opportunity. It is most famous for the old women with face tattoos. They are the last of their kind, as the government has banned the practice. It once originated as a way for mothers to make their daughters less attractive to men. Until the men started to like it…
It will take a full day to get to Shan State. You can do it with local transport (take a bus from Pakkoku) or hire a driver to take you there and back eventually. This will cost $50-100 a day (I estimate), depending on the amount of people.
How to get there
The fastest way to reach Bagan is to fly from one of the bigger cities. There are plenty of airlines to get anywhere in the country.
There are plenty of buses available to Bagan from any place. The local buses are very basic and old, but the VIP buses are the best I’ve ever had and you can sleep comfortably in them. They’re a good way to save time by taking a nightbus. Cold is a luxury in these warm countries, meaning they LOVE to crank up the air-conditioning. Bring warm clothes.
Train from Yangon
It’s possible to take a train from Yangon to Bagan, it takes 17 hours minimum and isn’t very comfortable. I met a guy who took the train, took him 27 hours. He said it’s a once in lifetime experience 😉
Boat from Mandalay
You can travel to Bagan by boat if you’re coming from (or going to) Mandalay. After reading the reviews, I decided not to.
I never hitchhike, but did meet a girl who traveled that way and she actually made it from Bagan to Yangon quicker than we did. She had only good things to say about hitchhiking in Myanmar. Be aware that you’re only allowed to sleep in registered places.
How to get around
Things have changed a lot over the years as how to get around at Bagan. During my first visit in 2012 you had only the option of a bicycle or horse cart.
A great, if not the best, way to get around. These bikes are easy to drive (less easy with 2 people) and only cost $4-5 a day. The downside is there’s a 40km limit to what you can drive, so make sure to make your way back before it runs it. If it does, you can call the rental company and they will bring you a new bike. Depending on where you are, it might be very hard for them to find you. Trust me, I know.
You’re only allowed to rent these from sunrise to sunset, as they have to charge at night. Some places though charge you more if you want to leave early (before sunrise) and return later at like 9pm. Ask before you rent one.
A bicycle is a nice way to get around, but this is a desert with a lot of sand. It gets bloody hot and there’s many patches with soft sand that are hard to drive through. I doable of course, but tougher than you might expect.
Walking is great here, but not so much between 10am-4pm when it’s at its warmest. If you’re only exploring on foot, you won’t ever cover everything, so spend at least one day on wheels.
These had almost disappeared, but now that the temples are closed, many people enjoy the horse cart rides early in the day and late afternoon. The horses rest halfway through the day, because it gets too hot. Distance is also limited and they tend to stick to certain routes to avoid the big traffic. But for a sunrise or sunset tour it’s great.
You’re starting to see more and more tuk-tuks now. I haven’t tried them, but hear they’re a bit cramped, in particular for long rides to Mt Popa for example.
A comfortable, more luxurious way, to get around is to hire a car with a driver. You’ll stay a lot cleaner and cooler, that’s for sure.
I’ve seen buses and minivans driving around, but I think these are only for tour groups or run by hotels.
Best times to visit Bagan
October to March (dry season) is seen as the best time to visit Bagan. There is little rain and temperature is 30-35 °C. This is also the balloon season. Although you’re not here to see balloons, they’re the icing on the cake, it’s spectacular to witness it at a place like this. During this season you’ll get the best sunrises and sunsets. Of course it’s the most crowded and expensive season, can’t have everything!
April to May is the hot season, temperatures can be well over 40 °C, feeling like well over 50 °C.
June to early September is the monsoon season. But since Bagan lies in a dry zone, there’s very little rain here. I really enjoyed how quiet it was during this season, but there were no nice sunrises at all. The clouds during the day were spectacular and íf you had a nice sunset, it was incredible. But it only happened about twice a week.
I enjoyed the monsoon season best. The whole experience was just more relaxed, felt more authentic, I made more contact with locals, because they didn’t have anything to do anyway, I guess. No annoying big crowds and buses, fewer people, cheaper accommodation. Driving around in high season with all that traffic on the dusty roads can be horrible, especially before/after sunrise/sunset.
That said, for you Bagan will likely be part of a bigger trip to other places. The monsoon will simply cancel some of your plans. If you’re on a tight schedule, that is not favourable. And if you want those nice sunrises and balloon photos, you’ll want to visit in dry season.
Full moon / end rainy season
Full moon night is a big night out for the people of Myanmar. All over the country they go to visit temples and monasteries to pay their respect and to donate to the monks. Many, like really a lot, come to Bagan. For a few days the place is absolutely packed and almost all rooms sold out. Avoid Bagan during those times.
The full moon at the end of rainy season (October or November) is a national celebration, it’s then when the Taunggyi Firework Balloon Festival is https://www.travelimagez.com/asia/myanmar/myanmar-fire-balloon-festival/ …………………………………………… It’s just crazy. It’s great to see the culture, as there are festivals and a lot going on. But, be warned, loud music starts at 6am. Don’t pull the plug https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-37576957 ……………………………………
Buying & Souvenirs
You’ll come across a lot guys who are selling paintings. Usually they will offer to show a good place (or more), free of charge, if only they can show you whatever they’re selling. Some make their own paintings, some sell their family members’ paintings. Painting is an old tradition in these are and there used to be a school. They all make their own colors using things from nature. You can crumple the paintings to fit in your bag and just iron them out at home.
I got to know and talk with a lot of these guys, they’re good guys and have a hard time making a living. To sell a painting is big thing for them. I really suggest to go along with one of these guys, ask him to show you some of the remaining good locations to watch sunrise and sunset, spend a few hours with him, mingle with a local, and eventually buy a painting from him. It will be a nice memory of that afternoon meeting a local supporting him.
You can buy all sorts of laquerware items everywhere. Several villages specialize in this technique that takes up to dozens of layers to complete, each taking time to dry.
The cream you sea people wearing on their face is Thanaka. It’s a cultural thing that serves as a sun-protection and mosquito repellent.
There’s all sorts of other stuff you can buy of course, from clothing to statues, dolls, jewelry, postcards, you know the stuff. I recommend some of light long-sleeve shirts to keep the sun off your skin. They’re only a few dollars each and make great travel shirts for when you’re out in the sun for a long time.
Travel Guide to Bagan: Where to stay at Bagan
You get to choose from 3 villages, Old Bagan, New Bagan and Nyaung-U. Each is at a corner of Bagan, so it’s just as far from the temples as any other place. No place really stands out as being much better than the others.
Old Bagan (northwest)
This lies right in the archaeological zone and is in walking distance from many temples. Accommodation is a bit more expensive here. Less shops and fewer restaurants compared to the other towns.
New Bagan (southwest)
The newest town, laid out in a grid. There’s a lot of accommodation here and plenty of restaurants and shops. But personally I don’t find this town very appealing.
During all my 4 visits I stayed at the same place in Nyaung-U, Shwe Na Di guesthouse. This is my favorite town, it’s a bit more concentrated, there’s plenty of nice restaurants and all the shops you could need in 1 street.
Recommended: Shwe Na Di Guesthouse is the only place I’m recommending here. I have never stayed anywhere else, for good reason. I’ve seen this local run place grow over the years and they have one of the best run guesthouses I’ve ever stayed at. Rooms are great, well priced, breakfast is good, staff is great. It’s owned by an old lady and run by her 2 daughters who were born right there. It’s among the top rated guesthouses at Bagan. I couldn’t even say anything bad about it if I wanted to.
Please do me a favor. Stay at a local-run place, don’t stay at some fancy hotel with a swimming pool, owned by the rich to make the rich even richer. SUPPORT LOCALS. I know, you’re able to get some fantastic deals at Bagan. But spending your money at smaller local businesses has the power to help many people. They need it. They deserve it. Please care.
Travel Guide to Bagan: Where to eat at Bagan
Hygiene is an issue in Myanmar. It pays off to eat at places with a good reputation. This is how I found the following 2 restaurants, which I enjoyed so much, I barely ate anywhere else. Not only did I find their menu great, their food excellent and clean, great value for price, but especially I really liked the people that run it. Eating there almost every day, we became friends.
I’m not even gonna recommend anything else, these are the place to go to:
Weather Spoon’s Bagan
Weather Spoon’s Bagan (Nyaung-U): a great ambience, packed during lunch and dinner (a good sign), a great selection of Burmese/Thai/Chinese/Western food. Great presentation of their food as well. Favorites: All curries (especially the Burmese curry), all burgers (even the vege), fish & chips (best ever), club sandwhich (I’m a specialist) and pretty much all of their salads
Khaing Shwe Wha Vegetarian Restaurant
Khaing Shwe Wha Vegetarian Restaurant (Old Bagan): Excellent food, large menu, low price, fantastic owners. What I love especially about this place is all the little extras you get. When you sit down, you get a frozen little towel to clean your face and hands, little bowl of peanuts, one with chips. Once you get your meal, they serve you one of their salads (all are great). Once you’re done, you get a whole collection of different fruits and coconut candy, banana with honey OMG. Very generous. There were times when I just went in for a coffee and had 5 side dishes, worth a whole meal.
That little frozen towel you get when you arrive all tired and sweaty and dusty and dirty and hungry and thirsty, is the best thing you’ve ever felt! I shit you not. That alone is worth going here for. No place gives you that.
Mohinga is the national dish of Myanmar, a soup with noodles, egg and all sorts of stuff in it. It is really nice and very cheap. Two shops left of Shwe Nadi Guesthouse in Nyaung-U is a little local restaurant that is said to serve the best mohinga in the area. For only 1500 kyat, you won’t find a better meal-deal anywhere. It’s great. I don’t really like soups, but this has so much in it, it’s good and healthy.
Dress appropriately: To enter temples your knees and shoulders need to be covered and shoes/slippers removed.
Tourist information: Find this in Old Bagan, just passed the old gate, behind the palace.
Using a map / simcard: There are a lot of little roads and it can get quite confusing to navigate. Of course you can buy a local simcard to use your online maps app, I advise you download an offline maps app like Maps.me.
Snakes: Not trying to freak you out here, but it doesn’t hurt to be aware that there are snakes around. The chance of seeing them during the day is very small. That said, in 2019 a tourist did die because of a bite. There is a hospital with antidote in Nyaung-U, but she didn’t reach it in time.
Bagan at Night: It is not desired that tourists wander around at night. The snakes are the main reason for that, they become more active. That’s why they have e-bikes that need to charge at night.
Don’t drink on tempples or temple grounds: You wouldn’t go drink beer in a church, so don’t do it at temples. It’s highly insulting to them.
Please be aware that there’s huge different between rich and poor in Myanmar. Anything fancy is either owned by the rich or the government, from nice hotels to fancy restaurants, even souvenir markets and shops. To spend your money at any of these place doesn’t support the locals, on the contrary. You can sleep just as good, eat just as well and buy the same souvenirs from locals and local-run businesses. Please, support the locals. Doesn’t cost a cent extra. They deserve our support.