Our most anticipated stop during our trip to Myanmar was undoubtedly the ancient city of Bagan. The city is comprised of thousands of temples from as long as a millennium ago, and although it’s an extremely popular destination within Myanmar, it’s still relatively quiet by international standards. Pictures of hot air balloons rising over a foggy morning, with temples in every direction creates an almost irresistible allure, and it is absolutely warranted.
After transiting through the old capital city, Yangon (formerly Rangoon), from The Golden Rock, we grabbed a night bus and settled in for the ten hour ride. Our ride with Elite Express Buses was surprisingly nice, with TVs in the back of the headrests, Hollywood movies loaded, and seats that reclined extremely far back. We arrived in Bagan at 5am, long before we were scheduled to, and easily grabbed a taxi to our guesthouse. On the way into town all taxis have to stop at a government ticket booth which collects the 25,000 kyat ($18 USD) pp entry fee to Bagan, and is valid for five days, which should be more than enough time in the town. Arriving at our guesthouse long before check in time, our cab driver offered to take us to a temple for our first sunrise in Bagan, which we happily agreed to.
Sunrise at Shwesandaw Pagoda
The temple that we were dropped off at was much busier than we had expected and it wasn’t even 6am yet. As many as a hundred people were climbing the steps of Shwesandaw Pagoda, which was covered in scaffolding due to a strong earthquake in August 2016. We joined the procession, climbing the steep brick steps, and when we reached the second to top level we saw why everyone was at this particular temple. A view over the town opened up before us, hot air balloons floated up from the fog, and the sun began to rise over the horizon, warming the freezing spectators below.
We were still half asleep since no night bus has ever provided us with a good night’s sleep, but in the half hour we watched our first sunrise over Bagan we were completely awake and in awe. During the duration of our stay we fell into the same routine as many other visitors: wake up and watch the sunrise, explore temples for a bit, grab lunch and a nap to avoid the heat of the day, explore more temples, watch the sunset, and head to bed way too early. Of the many great things to do in the area, partying doesn’t seem to be high on the list.
Exploring the Temples
Your main options for exploring Bagan are either by bicycle, or e-bike, which is an electric scooter/motorbike. We rented both and preferred our mountain bikes since the town isn’t massive and they fared better in the sand for us. Trying to decide where to start exploring can be a bit daunting when you have literally thousands of options, but we might suggest you start with Dhammayangyi Temple, the largest one you would have watched the sun rise over if you visited Shwesandaw in the morning. The temple is more impressive from the outside, which is a common enough theme in Bagan, and has multiple large images of Buddha in the corridors that are accessible. From Dhammayangyi you can easily visit the two smaller nearby temples, Myauk Guni Phaya and Taung Guni Phaya. These two temples can be climbed and have nice views for sunrises without the crowds that the large temples get.
In Bagan you can climb on many temples, unlike almost anywhere else in southeast Asia, and not have to worry about people getting upset. This is partially because they are constantly being maintained, and partially due to less mass tourism compared with nearby Thailand or Vietnam. Almost every temple in the town has been partially or fully restored, which has drawn sharp criticism over the years. A more positive way of looking at the current state of the town has been explained eloquently by a local, “These temples were built in tribute to the Buddha, and as they decay and crumble, we see the need to repair and rebuild them, to continue to worship our way.” In Buddhism donating what you can is looked upon highly, and a way of doing that is through building and restoring temples, as is seen throughout the countryside in Myanmar, with golden pagodas on every hill, rock, and ledge.
Ananda Temple is the massive white temple with a golden top that you’re likely to notice from just about anywhere in Bagan, and is a beautiful part of the skyline. While the temple was damaged in the 2016 earthquake, the interior is still special due to the huge number of Buddha images sitting within small cutouts in the walls. The way the Buddhas are organized looked like a library of small statues to us, it was just missing a ladder to wheel over to check out the statues.
Shwezigon Pagoda was another beautiful temple that was damaged during the 2016 earthquake, but was still very impressive despite the scaffolding surrounding it. The large temples tend to be surrounded by locals selling copies of the same paintings as each other, so prepare to have plenty of conversations lead to the person’s paintings that they want you to see. Sand paintings are popular in Bagan, and many of the people selling them will refuse donations and honestly do want you to buy their paintings instead.
A few special smaller temples were unnamed as far as we saw, but had some of the best ancient paintings inside. If you find Tham Bu La Temple, an open archway just down the road will lead you to the furthest temple back, which has some amazing artwork on the walls. The temple unfortunately was closed due to the earthquake when we visited, but you could still see in from the outside, and will likely reopen as soon as the structure is secured. While all of the temples in Bagan are special in their own way, this one was especially great in our eyes. It may have been the amount of plaster Buddhas painted gold that made us appreciate this one more, so don’t get your expectations too high, but we thoroughly enjoyed our short visit. Of course we use the popular offline GPS app Maps.me to navigate while traveling, which will help you pinpoint these temples.
While the sunrises in Bagan definitely steal the show due to the hot air balloons and the fog (actually more smoke from fires), the sunsets are pretty incredible as well. Our favorite temples to watch the sunsets were medium sized and unnamed to our knowledge. We found the smaller temples to be a lot more relaxed than the large ones and some has equally nice views. Shewsandaw was our favorite sunrise spot, but plenty of smaller temples offered equally nice sunsets.
Hot Air Ballooning
We were dying to try our first hot air ballooning experience with Balloons Over Bagan here, but unfortunately we didn’t book in advance, and the flights were booked over a week out. There are over 30 balloons that ascend every morning, which are typically completely booked, so make sure to book beforehand! We made up for missing this experience by ballooning with Balloons Over Inle, an extension of the same company at Inle Lake, where the flights are longer, higher, and possibly equally beautiful. Read up on that experience here.
Visiting Mount Popa
A day trip from Bagan will bring you to the pagoda near Mount Popa, which sits atop a steep hill in the shadow of the mountain. Our shared minibus ride to Mount Popa was 10,000 kyat each and took an hour and a half from Bagan. The stairway to the top of the hill is 777 steps long, and steep enough to make your calves burn. Macaque monkeys lined the path when we visited, snarling and baring their teeth at anyone with any food or drinks visible. Locals warned that the monkeys will bite, so it’s best to not have anything showing, or you can buy bits of food wrapped in newspaper to toss to the monkeys as you climb, but that will only make the problem worse for the next visitors.
Expect constant requests for donations from men who sweep the stairway, as well as a donation or two at the top of the hill to progress onward. Seeing the pagoda from afar was more impressive than reaching the top, however after spending a few days in Bagan it’s easy to feel a bit underwhelmed with “lesser” pagodas. Our descent brought us past some especially aggressive macaques, which brought us within a few inches of being bitten since Sissy was carrying an unopened soda. Some friendly shop owners warned us not to be aggressive back toward the monkeys since these monkeys tended to bite.
While waiting for our minibus we decided to grab some lunch at one of the many restaurants at the base of the mountain. From here we saw dogs and monkeys distributing their territory, with a few adventurous macaques running past where they should before a dog would chase them off. We also were able to see briefly into the lives of the family that owned the restaurant, including the grandma that was smoking a leaf wrapped cigar that is common throughout Myanmar.
While we only spent four nights in Bagan, we felt it was just about the right amount of time. It can be easy to get “templed out” when you’re surrounded by so many different places to see. With Mount Popa breaking up the visit a bit, three days would have been okay, and four was just right to know we didn’t miss anything we would’ve been upset about. Our next stop was the popular three day trek from Kalaw to beautiful Inle Lake, check it out in our upcoming post!