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A Complete Guide To Bagan Temples, Myanamar

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Shwezigon pagoda the closest big temple to Old Bagan.

Bagan is an amazing ancient city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Mandalay Region of Myanmar. If you are travelling to Myanmar or planning to in the future, this incredible town should be on your list!

After witnessing many breathtaking sunrises while travelling throughout Asia, I believe Bagan takes the top spot.Looking out on the flat plain ahead, you will see the cool morning fog hugging the pagodas ahead. As the warm glow of the sun starts to appear on the horizon, you will get your first glimpse of over 2000 silhouetted temples reaching as far as the eye can see.

As the sunrise begins to break, more pagodas come into view. Over to the side, you start to spot the first hot air balloons slowly floating into view, dancing around the sky in front of you. Soon the whole plain is a golden orange, and as the sun rises higher, the fog begins to give way and reveal the beauty of the temples of Bagan.

In this blog I will talk about travelling specifically to and around Bagan. I will be using my own experience and knowledge to make sure you are fully prepared for the journey to this magical place.

Morning mists hugs the temples in Bagan, Myanmar.

Let’s start with a little history

Bagan is over 1,000 years old! Most temples in Bagan were constructed between 1057 and 1287 during a building frenzy initiated by King Anawrahta, who formed the first Burmese kingdom in 1044.

The Pagan dynasty, the first dynasty in the history of Myanmar, flourished from the 11th to the 13th centuries and built the foundation of Myanmar culture. Bagan was the capital city of the Pagan Kingdom, from 1044 until 1287. Over the course of 250 years, Bagan’s rulers and their wealthy subjects constructed over 10,000 religious monuments.

The Pagan Empire collapsed around 1287 due to repeated Mongol invasions. Recent research shows that Mongol armies may not have reached Bagan itself, and that even if they did, the damage they inflicted was probably minimal. However, the damage had already been done. The city, that was once home to some 50,000 to 200,000 people, had been reduced to a small town, never to regain its pre-eminence. Bagan formally ceased to be the capital of Burma in December 1297 when the Myinsaing Kingdom became the new power in Upper Burma.

Today, the area is home to more than 2,000 Buddhist stupas, temples, and monasteries. This is the largest and densest concentration of Buddhist monuments anywhere in the world. However, at the kingdom’s height there were over 10,000 buildings, which is even more impressive.

Morning mists hugs the temples in Bagan, Myanmar.
These local children found it quite funny when we got a little lost and ended up in their front yard.

Why should you visit?

Bagan, as mentioned before, is the largest and densest concentration of Buddhist monuments anywhere in the world. It is comparable in size to Angkor Wat. Being the top tourist destination in Myanmar, it has soared in popularity in recent years, although it still lacks the crowds that damped its Cambodian counterpart.

Another reason is that you can drive up to almost all of the temples, have a look around, and then head to the next one. At $14 for five days, it is an absolute steal in comparison to the amount of history and temples you will see.

There is also some amazing food to be sampled around the town and ruins.

After exchanging picture this monk offered to pose for me.

Where is Bagan and how to get there

Bagan is located in the dry central plains of Myanmar, on the eastern bank of the Irrawaddy. The closest major city to Bagan is Mandalay, which is just a 5h30m bus ride or an 8h train ride away.

Most major cities will have bus links to Bagan. I myself took an overnight bus from Yangon, which arrived at 5am, taking 9 hours to get there. The bus is definitely the cheaper way, and the seats are not that uncomfortable. The only thing that really bothered me with buses in Myanmar is that they stop off during the night for a bathroom break and some food. The problem is that there is no option to stay on the bus; everyone has to get off. I figured it was for security so no one could take the opportunity to route through other people’s bags. I didn’t quite think like this after being woken up at 2 am and told to wait outside for 30 minutes. It was also January, so it was pretty chilly.

The speedier and more expensive option is to fly. There is an airport just outside of Bagan and airlines fly from Mandalay, Yangon, and Hoe Hoe. The flights are short and cost around $155 one way, depending on where you fly from. 

What to expect from the overnight bus

I took the overnight bus, so I will be exclusively talking about my experience. As mentioned before, expect late-night stop-offs along the way. We left from Aung Mingalar Bus Station in Yangon. A top tip for travelling by bus in Myanmar is to make sure your taxi driver knows which company you are travelling with and where you are going. The bus stations in Myanmar are hectic and not very well organised. You can easily lose an hour just trying to find the right bus.

The seats are fairly comfortable and recline a little. I have been on much worse. The journey will cost $9–$20 depending on the company. The buses usually arrive early in the morning in Bagan at around 5 or 6 a.m. Be prepared for the chill when you arrive at the bus stop!

Another tip for arriving: when you get to the bus station, you will most likely be bombarded by taxi drivers offering to take you into old or new Bagan. The best thing to do is to politely decline, grab your stuff, and walk out of the bus station towards the road. As soon as you exit, you will find Tuk-tuk drivers waiting outside, offering to take you for less than half the price. While traveling, I discovered that this trick works almost everywhere!

In January, the drive was a chilly one. We had a blanket on hand to keep us warm. It isn’t a very long ride to either Bagan or After a kilometre or two, you will come to a checkpoint. Here you will be asked to pay the entrance fee (25,000 kyat, or $14). I have heard of people dodging the check point and getting in without paying. I wouldn’t recommend this as my ticket was checked by inspectors three times in three days. It’s not worth the hassle for just $14. 

After passing the checkpoint, you will be on your way to old or new Bagan.

Old or New Bagan, what’s the Difference?

As the names suggest, Old Bagan is the older of the two, with New Bagan being more modern as it was built more recently to house the local population who were removed from Old Bagan.

I stayed in Old Bagan for the duration of my time there, and I’m glad that I did. Old Bagan is in a better location to visit the main temples, but both towns are close to different sites and have a wealth of hotels and guesthouses to choose from. Also, if you are going to rent a scooter, the distance won’t be that much of a worry.

I felt that Old Bagan felt more authentic, I really liked walking around after sunrise and watching the locals go about their mornings. There is also Mani Sithu Market which is a great place to get some souvenirs at a cheaper price than around the temples. I found there to be cheaper restaurants with delicious food such as the famous tea leaf salad.

New Bagan has better infrastructure and, from what I heard, decent internet in places. I found everything here to be more expensive, from hotels to shops and restaurants. I feel however, that the town is missing something. It somehow feels incomplete without the hustle and bustle that you find in other Burmese towns.

If you don’t mind the noise, dust and more basic accommodation and you are after a more authentic trip to Bagan, I would suggest Old Bagan.

If you prefer more comfort, a good night’s rest and you aren’t on a budget then New Bagan will suit you.

How to get around Bagan

The area around the temples are still use as farm land. Keep this in mind when you are whizzing around.

Here you have a few options available to you. Just keep in mind that it does get very hot during the day, there is a lot of dust flying around, and the dirt roads can get quite bumpy in places. You are never far from a street vendor or a restaurant, however.

E-scooter

Your first option is an e-scooter. As it is illegal for foreigners to ride motorbikes around Bagan, the locals found a workaround in the form of electricity. These are pretty cheap to rent ($4-$7 per day) and are easy to use. The bonus with the e-scooter is that you can ride right up to most temples, get off the bike, have a walk around, get back on and head for the next temple.

The best thing is that there is no effort required and you are free to travel at your own pace. However, if you are not comfortable on a bike or you haven’t ridden before, I would suggest caution. There is one paved road that loops through Bagan’s temples, but a majority are along dirt tracks. These aren’t too difficult, but now and again you will come across a section of road covered in sand. Here is where it is easy to lose control or fall off. Luckily, the bikes are pretty slow, but keep it in mind, especially if you are riding during dusk and dawn. That brings me to another point. It’s pretty hazardous to drive the side roads at night. In my experience, the lights on the bike are not the most powerful. One night, I had to use my phone’s light for fear of draining the battery. 

Bicycle rental

The cheapest option available is only a dollar or two a day. If you fancy a bit of exercise while exploring the temples of Bagan and you don’t mind a slower pace, then look no further. Make sure, however, you have enough water and something to eat. I was sweating just riding the e-scooter. The heat can really kick in around midday. Couple that with the dry climate and lack of a breeze and it can really take a toll.

Take into account the sheer number of temples, over 2500! If you really plan, like me, on seeing as many of these as possible and you only have a few days, I would suggest a bike for your first day and an e-scooter for the remaining days.

Tuk-tuk rental

If riding a scooter or bike seems like too much effort and you would rather leave the hard work to someone else, then you can rent a tuk-tuk for the day (driver included) for between $15 and $20. With this option, you will feel the cooling breeze as you dart from temple to temple. Don’t expect a high level of comfort, however, as many of the tracks are bumpy dirt roads. I see this as part of the fun. There is a lot of dust along the tracks and many of the tuk-tuks are open, so make sure to bring a scarf or something to cover your face in the dustier spots. For

 

the highest level of comfort, you can hire a taxi for $35 per day. If you feel like the heat might get to you or you just like to travel in comfort, then this is the option for you. With aircon for the scorching midday temperatures, the extra comfort of suspension and windows to keep the dust at bay,

This, of course, is the fastest, but also the most expensive option. If you are really short on time, then this could be worth it.

Horse & Cart

The last option on this list is the most traditional and the slowest. If you feel like taking up this option, try to do it responsibly. I did see many horses left to stand around in the burning sun, which I’m sure isn’t good for them. It can be a fun and memorable way to explore the ruins. The best thing about being driven around is that the driver is going to be a local, so you can ask them to take you to the best temples and skip the less impressive ones.

The horse and cart will set you back around $15 for the day.

My recommendation is the e-scooter. It gives you complete freedom to come and go as you please. You can also cover quite a lot of ground in one day. The other bonus is that it is one of the cheapest options while also being the most fun.

A traditional horse and cart parked in front of one of many temples.

When is the best time to visit Bagan?

Bagan is hot pretty much all year-round. The best time to visit is between November and February, when temperatures hit 30 °C, which is definitely manageable. From March to May is the hottest part of the year, with temperatures reaching 43C. If you choose the bike option, take care in these months. The rainfall is highest in June and October. From June to October, we have the highest rainfall, which can have an impact on the dirt roads. These months also tend to be the quietest, so it can be a good time to avoid the crowds.

How long do you need?

To explore the majority of Bagan you need at least two days and even then, you will either be rushing to see everything or have to skip some temples. Three to four days is sufficient to explore all the ruins while taking your time. This also gives you the opportunity to explore different sunrise and sunset spots.

Four days gives you the extra time to walk around Old and New Bagan and get to know each one a little, you can also try the different culinary delights that Old Bagan has to offer.

Things to keep in mind when visiting Bagan

You can find these Myanmar string puppets in various temples and they are pretty cheap too.

The first is the temperature.

If, like me you plan to spend all day exploring and zipping between temples, keep in mind how long you are spending in the sun and make sure to keep topping up with suncream and water. If you decide to rent a bike, this advice is even more prudent.

Don’t leave your bags unattended.

Never once did I feel unsafe during my time in Bagan or in Myanmar as a whole, but you always need to be aware of your surroundings. Don’t give an opportunistic thief the option of running off with your bag while you aren’t looking.

Be mindful of what you wear.

This is for two reasons; most temples have a dress code that you need to adhere to if you want to enter. The second reason is the weather, I would definitely suggest at least a hat to keep your head covered.

Don’t be an Evel Knievel.

Although the E-scooters don’t reach breath-taking speeds, they still go fast enough to do some damage if you crash or fall off. Remember, you are not the only ones on the road, and the small dirt tracks are busy with tuk-tuks, taxis, buses, horses, cows, and other scooters, all kicking up dust.

Be respectful.

This should go without saying, but I have seen some foreigners doing things they shouldn’t be doing while exploring the temples. It is important to respect the religious and cultural importance of Bagan while you visit and always stick to the rules.

Be aware of locals.

Much of the land around the temples is still used for grazing goats or sheep. You will frequently see local shepherds herding their flocks around the temples. Be polite and give way when you can. Most are interested in having a conversation too, even with their limited English.

There aren’t just temples to see.

Just outside of Htilominlo temple is a great little market that sells all kinds of foods and souvenirs as well as a lot of stuff for locals, when I went it was a mix between a local market and a tourist market.

There are also a few extra tours you can do around Bagan a sunset boat ride along the Irrawaddy River, or a day trip to Mt. Popa.

Keep your ticket with you.

In total, my ticket was checked three times during my three days in Bagan, each time was in a different place and by a different person. If you get caught out, you may have to pay for another ticket on the spot.

Beware of scams.

A common scam in Bagan is for someone to pull up on a bike and tell you that they know the best sunrise/sunset spot. It’s usually a “secret” spot that no one else knows about. This is usually a rouse to get you to go to their shop. Most of the time, they will take you to the temples they guard and try to sell you something. The worst thing is that you will miss an opportunity to see a good sunrise or sunset.

 

Get yourself some reliable gear.
A local market, you can find a few of these around Bagan.

A useful packing list for Bagan

I have compiled a packing list that will serve you well in Bagan. Make sure to leave a bit of space as you are almost certain to buy a few souvenirs while you are there. Here’s the complete list:

  • Spare batteries, for anything that uses batteries such as torches, headlight and cameras it’s always a good idea to have spares.
  • Torch/headlight, if you plan on seeing the sunset/sunrise, which lets face it you are then a head torch will come in very handy.
  • First aid kit, you never know when this might be useful. Wherever I go I always has a small one in my backpack ready to go.
  • Water and a little more water, as mentioned it is hot even in the cooler months make sure to take at least 1.5 litres of water with you.
  • Snacks, this isn’t a necessity just something to keep your energy levels up as you will be racking up the paces on your step counter.
  • Sun cream, this one doesn’t really need an explanation
  • Comfortable walking boots/shoes, you will be doing a lot of walking and blisters or uncomfortable shoes can put a downer on your experience.
  • Shorts or hiking trousers, as the temperature is around the mid 30’s and early 40’s you will want breathable cool clothing.
  • T-shirt or a breathable shirt, so goes for this recommendation, just don’t forget to slap on that sun cream frequently.
  • A warm jacket, this is a must have for early rides to see the sunrise. Even though it isn’t that cold the temperature drop will get to you!
  • Adapter, you just need one universal adapter to plug in your electronics in any country you are visiting. I expect any traveller to have this anyway.
  • Lightweight Blanket, this is mainly for the buses as they can get chilly in the nights. It will also come in useful if you plan on using tuk-tuks to see the sunrise.
  • Power bank, you will be out for a long time if not all day. With a power bank you get keep all of your electronic juiced up so you can keep snapping those shots for the gram.
  • Camera, if you want to get better pictures of all of the incredible places you visit then investing in a camera will help you to achieve that.
  • Tripod, either for your camera or smartphone a tripod will help you to get sharper more impassive shots during the low light around dusk and dawn. 
  • A suitable backpack, there are so many options on the market, If you plan on biking  then one with a camelback will benefit you most. Otherwise keep in mind comfort and accessibility. 
  • Sunglasses, you will want to shield your eyes from the sun as much as possible, that and look cool in your pictures.
  • Mosquito repellent, as the Irrawaddy River passes next to Bagan there are a few insects buzzing around in the evenings.
  • Microfibre towel, one of the best things to buy when travelling. It’s lightweight, small and fast drying, it comes in super useful.
  • Have a local sim card, as soon as I arrive in any new country the first thing I do is buy a local sim. Not only will you have access to the internet which but you can call local numbers without incurring large fees.
  • Neck gaiters, these come in useful in the cold morning and the dusty afternoon.
  • A good hat, protecting yourself from the sun is a must. Where possible stick to the shade and when in direct sunlight make sure to wear a hat.
  • Memory cards, as said before spares are a must. I speak from experience, arrived at a beautiful photo destination only to find out you forget your memory or there is an error is extremely disheartening. Don’t put yourself in that situation.
The back view from Bagan viewing tower.

What to wear while visiting Bagan

Pretty much all temples in Myanmar have some form of dress code. Around Bagan all temples have the same rules:

  • No tank-top on the temple ground.
  • No short shorts on the temple ground.
  • No shoes/socks on the temple ground.
  • Keep shoulder covered.

Be prepared to take your shoes on and off at least 50 times. Although the smaller temples aren’t as strict be sure to always stick to the rules and be respectful.

Sulamani Temple in the midday heat.

My best sunrise and sunset spots

After the complete ban on climbing, it became a little more difficult to find good sunrise and sunset spots. Having said this there are still a few good options. When I visited Bagan in 2020, there was no way to even go up the stairs in temples such as Shwe San Daw Pagoda, it is possible this has changed now, but I doubt it. Here are my top picks:

Bagan Viewing Tower, with a $5 entry fee, this is a much cheaper way to get a little higher. Towering 60 metres high and with viewing decks on the 11th and 13th floors, this spot gives you an elevated panoramic view of all of the temples. We arrived as they opened at 5am, and I would suggest getting there early, as after not long the place was pretty packed. If you go by e-scooter, it’ll take you around 15 minutes to get there along the main road.

Myaue Boydha Temple, while exploring the smaller temples on the second day, I met a very friendly local who guarded a cluster of temples. He gave us a little tour of his temple and told us that Myaue Boydha Temple is one of the best sunrise spots around Bagan, he sure wasn’t wrong!

Nyaung Lat Phet Viewing Mound, one of a few manmade hills to give a slightly elevated view it is a good option for the sunset. Both hills get rammed with people around sunrise and sunset. There tend to be ticket inspectors in these spots, so keep your tickets with you.

Sulamuni Manmade Sunset Hill, the second manmade hill. Both hills overlook small lakes, I went during the dry season, so there was no water, but I can imagine that you can some cracking shots during the rainy season at either hill.

Mimalaung Kyaung, with a sunrise viewing deck, this temple is also a good option for the sunrise. This temple tends to be less busy so if you want a more peaceful sunrise, head here.

Ko Mouk Pond Viewing Mound, located more to the south, it takes a little longer to get this viewing point. It is mainly off-road tracks to reach it so not many people venture there. This is a very quiet spot to enjoy the sunrise.

Dhammayangyi Temple, located directly across from this temple, is an old building that you are able to simply walk up. It was a last minute spot for me as I lost track of the time. I could be a nice sunrise spot as you can get some good up-close pictures of Dhammayangyi Temple.

You can also ask your hotel or hostel for recommendations.

Dhammayangyi Temple from above.

Which temples should be on your list?

  • Shwe San Daw Pagoda
  • Htilominlo Temple
  • Ananda Temple
  • Thatbyinnyu Temple
  • Dahmmayan Gyi Temple
  • Sulamani Temple
  • Shwezigon Pagoda
  • Mahabodhi Pagoda
  • Manuha temple
  • Dhammayazika Pagoda
  • Mingalazedi Pagoda
  • Shwegugyi Temple
Dhammayanzika pagoda

Other things to do

There aren’t just temples and pagodas to see in and around Bagan; there are a few other activities that may interest you.

Hike Mount Popo

Located just 50km south of Bagan, hiking Mount Popo is a half day trip. You can get there by hiring a taxi (1 hour) or, if you don’t mind the long journey time the local bus (2 hours). The peak of Mount Popa stands at 1500m above sea level.

Situated on top of Mount Popo are numerous Nat temples and relic sites dedicated to the ancient spirit of the mountain, to reach the peak you will have to scramble up the 777 stairs to the top. The stairway is thankfully shaded, so it does lessen the impact of the heat, although I do suggest reaching the top before mid-morning.

Once at the top you will be treated to a unobstructed panoramic view of the surrounding area. On clear days, you can even see Bagan and the Irrawaddy River.

A sunset boat ride along the Irrawaddy River

You can book these boats from most hotels and hostels or tour operators dotted around New and Old Bagan. Alternatively, you can venture on your own and find a local along the river bank to take you. If you are a little worn out after a long day of temple exploring, then what could be better than taking a relaxing float along the Irrawaddy River. It will also give you a completely different perspective of the various temples that hug the river’s edge.

You can expect to pay around $5 per hour. This price should include a private boat.

A Hot Air Balloon Ride above Bagan for the Sunrise

Running from October to mid-April, this is the most expensive thing you can do in Myanmar, never mind Bagan. Considering how cheap most things are in Myanmar, this price definitely doesn’t match up. It is for sure a once in a lifetime experience and you will get some amazing and unique views while floating around, but the $340-$450 price tag was too hard for me to swallow.

You will be joined by nine other riders, and the ride duration is about 45 minutes. There definitely wasn’t a lack of enthusiastic tourists while I was there. Each morning there were at least 30 balloons dancing around the sky.

Hot air balloons preparing for a morning flight over the temples.

Best places to eat

Of course, when travelling, you want to sample as much of the local cuisine as possible, while avoiding the dodgy places that will overcharge or worse, leave you with a bad stomach, which is not what you want when you are on a schedule. Here I have compiled a list of my favourite restaurants in Bagan:

Myo Myo Restaurant, One of the best cheap eats in Bagan. With traditional Burmese food and a large menu, this is a must visit.  The servers typically bring about 20 different small dishes of food to your table. You only pay for the food you eat. The dishes are cheap and small, with plates starting at 300 kip ($0.17). I think I managed to polish off 12 different dishes. You can order different dishes, although it is difficult if you can’t speak Burmese.

The Moon Vegetarian Restaurant, hands down one of the best restaurants in Old Bagan, and I am a big meat eater, but I didn’t even miss meat when eating here. A great dinner place with a nice ambience. The curries here are fantastic and very reasonably priced, with a typical curry costing between 3000 and 4000 kip ($1.5-$2).

Weather Spoons Bagan, if you are missing a bit of western food and fancy a burger and chips, then you can head over to Weather Spoons. A beef burger here will set you back about 6000 kyp ($3.5), which is quite steep when it comes to food prices in Myanmar, but the portions are quite big. This place is always full of foreigners, so if you want to meet some fellow travellers, this is a good place to go.

Yar Pyi Vegetarian Restaurant located in front of Amanda Temple. This small family run restaurant is a hidden gem for sure. The prices are again really cheap and the food is top-notch. With a varied menu, a typical meal will cost between 2,000 and 3,000 kip ($1-$1.5).

HTI Bar & Restaurant, if, like me, you enjoy a good shisha (10,000 kip, $6) and maybe a cocktail or four, HTI Bar is your best bet. They also run happy hour on selected drinks from 5pm to 7pm. Make sure to give the rum sour (1,500 kip, $1) a try. It’s a bonus when they are two for one, you will be staggering back to your hotel by 9pm.

Moe Pyae San Restaurant, One of the best cheap eats you will find in Old Bagan. Each main dish on the menu is 1000 kyatt ($0.55). The portions aren’t huge, but two or three plates should be enough for one person. The bonus here is that you can try multiple dishes at each and every meal.

Some pictures sourced from pixabay and pexels.

A must try leaf salad.

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