The ancient city of Bagan, Myanmar, is a big player on travelers’ bucket lists – a really big one. It’s wide-stretched plains sprinkled with pagodas, temples and monasteries are definitely not something you would want to miss. I personally had been more excited to go to Bagan than to any other place in Myanmar – and have not been disappointed. But as always with places as fabulously famous as this one, shenanigans and pitfalls are a thing. Buckle up for a ride of disorientation, lack of energy, wanting to face palm other tourists and some useful information also.
So, what’s the deal with Bagan?
As stated above, Bagan is an ancient city, located in the central region of Myanmar. I’m not an archaeologist (really wanted to be one when I was nine though), but from what I understand the city’s origins go back to the 9th century, but it was only around the 11th that Bagans rise to world fame started as the centre of the Pagan Empire, which pretty much covered all of current day Myanmar territory and therefor made Bagan super wealthy and powerful (very historically correct wording for sure). It was during this time that the rulers of the Pagan Empire build most of the pagodas that Bagan is famous for today as one of Southeast Asia’s biggest archaeological zones and the most important Buddhist pilgrimage site in Myanmar even before Kyaiktiyo (Golden Rock) and Shwedagon Pagoda.
Of the over 10.000 pagodas and temples originally build, most have been destroyed over the course of time, especially by earthquakes (the last major one occurred in 2016 and destroyed 400 temples). As of today, around 2.200 temples, pagodas and monasteries have survived – and hundreds of thousands tourists come to see them every year, numbers rising. Enough already with the numbers and history lesson.
How to get there
The possibilities are numerous. You can fly in to Nyaung U Airport (but from what I understand it is domestic flights only). You can come by train which was what we originally wanted to do. Due to some rather confusing and unfortunate events, we ended up not being able to buy train tickets though, but according to the rather large number of travelers who swear that the train ride was unbearable with a group of exclamation marks behind it, this was maybe not as unfortunate as we thought.
We ended up taking an overnight bus from Yangon to Bagan, which is what most travelers seem to do because it is time efficient (the train ride in contrast takes 19 hours if I remember correctly), it is affordable even if you get ripped of like we did (ended up paying the equivalent of 30 dollars each and had Burmese people laugh in our faces every time we mentioned it), and it is comfortable (think okayish seats, mostly clean blankets and pillows, snacks).
Two things should be mentioned as to the bus traveling: First, I have heard and read many times that Burmese long-distance coaches do not have toilets on them as a general matter of fact. If you’re anything like me and the thought of not being able to pee for a while makes you have to pee IMMEDIATELY, you will understand why this concept was rather terrifying to me. Turns out it’s also not true at all. When booking, we specifically asked to be put on coaches with toilets on boards and it worked for two out of three over night trips we took. (Needless to say, psychology worked on three out of three and we didn’t even use the bus toilet once).
Second, and maybe more important even if you don’t have a tiny bladder and/or easily manipulated brain, be prepared to be dropped of by your bus very early in the morning. If you’re lucky, it will be “have coffee, brush your teeth and get going” kind of early, but if you’re not, it could be more like a “why is it so cold and dark, nobody at the reception, I just want a bed” kind of experience. We found it hard to get reliable info as to the actual arrival time during or before the ride, so in my opinion there’s not much you can do about it, just be prepared, bring a jacket and try to sleep as much as you can on the bus.
To add one more option, you can also get to Bagan by boat if you’re coming from Mandalay, which is probably the most scenic choice – and the slowest one possibly. We decided to do so after our stay in Bagan and spend a wonderful day on deck of a not too rickety boat (but just rickety enough to make it fun), doing nothing but watch the banks go by.
I loved the whole 13 hours of it, Marvin got super bored after like half the day, which is unfortunate because you’ll pretty much be stuck there for a while. It’s really up to what you like, but there are faster boats that take only about six hours from Bagan to Mandalay or vice versa.
Where to stay
We stayed at Ostello Bello in New Bagan, which really seems like the “place to be” for hip travel folks. As Bagan is a rather pricey place to be staying (especially if you’re coming in January like we did), we wanted to save some money and made this our only dorm stay in Myanmar. That being said, even the dorm beds were crazy expensive, but I guess that’s just (literally) the price you pay to visit a site so famous.
I can’t really say anything negative about Ostello Bello, but somehow I also didn’t leave with many positive feelings. It is one of these places that really seems to really embrace this oh-so-chaotic hostel vibe, but if you look at it, there’s a sign for everything, explaining the most basic human behaviour to the oh-so-crazy backpacker folks. I don’t know how to phrase it really, but the atmosphere just seemed a bit artificial to me. That being said, the hostel is: conveniently located, full of useful info, comfortable and clean. If that’s what you’re looking for, Ostello Bello is your place. I think I would stay there again, if only to calm down my Dad, who thinks it’s insane to travel to countries as Myanmar, but less insane if you’re staying with fellow Italians because Italians are obviously the best.
How to get around
To get your daily dose of pagodas, it is crucial to be able to move around Bagan with something other than your feet. It’s no Angkor Wat in size, but you really want to discover as much of the roughly 100 km² as possible, so it’s a lot about moving around. The super sporty and not sporty at all option are bikes and horse carriages, and while they’re both available, neither are the obvious choice if you ask me. Instead, we (like most others from what I saw) chose to go with electronic scooters that you can rent out anywhere in Bagan for very little money. Bagan is actually the only place in Myanmar where foreigners are allowed to drive (even an international driving license doesn’t help elsewhere), but it is strictly e-scooters for tourists, nothing with an actual combustion engine.
The scooters are a great way to get around, they’re fun to ride even for beginners (yes, I had never been on a scooter before and was obviously dead scared). They do however not come with helmets or many instructions, so just watch out for your own safety while on the go. Road rules are rather easy, it’s mostly honk when you’re overtaking and that’s that.
Very useful info if your big fat brain turns to stupid mode in the heat like mine obviously does: Taking the scooter on the small, sandy roads connecting the temples with each other is way more energy consuming than going on the concrete main roads. However, the dirt roads are where you will be most of the day, so make sure that you are and your BATTERY are prepared for that. Don’t just ask if the bike will “last all day” and be happy to hear a yes for an answer. Almost too embarrassing to state this, but check how many kilometers your bike can go and stick to those. It’s not fun to run out of battery just before sunset in the middle of a dirt road and surrounded by nothing but fields and small pagodas that offer zero orientation.
If you are silly like me and have this happen to you on your first day (that’s the only excuse I have to offer), the only good thing I can tell you is that people are super helpful, just find a local and you’ll be back to the main road in no time (or maybe, in quite a bit of time that you spend pushing your scooter through the sand, wondering why you had to be so stupid in the first place). Also, don’t hesitate to ask for help at whatever hotel you first come across. The place I stumbled into was hella fancy, but we could still go enjoy a drink by the pool bar while our scooter was being charged up, so yeah.
What not to do
Well, as we’ve already covered the don’t run out of battery part, there’s some more things to avoid. As with any place where tons of tourists start appearing, so will people trying to benefit from said tourists’ money. That much is obvious and also makes a lot of sense, or where else would you get a fresh bottle of water to quench your thirst in the middle of pagoda land?
Of course, there’s other types of vendors around, those who try to sell sand paintings, little Buddha figurines, lacquer ware (which Bagan is actually famous for, too), bells and many other souvenir-ish items. And yeah, if you’re into it, why not buy a painting from someone who’s just shown you around the temple you’re visiting and offered you some useful info. If I really like something, I don’t mind buying souvenirs at all. After a while though, you will have seen more sand paintings and lacquer ware then you could possibly ever want, and you will have to just be persistent and not say not. It’s not fun, but we have not experienced any hassle.
There are some scams to watch out for though and I am not proud to say that one happened to me and Shwezigon Pagoda, one of the most important ones at Bagan. I was really impressed with the area, walking around by myself and taking it all in, when a lady approached me and started to explain some elements of the temple, which I didn’t mind at all. Her English was good and she seemed nice, so we started to chat a bit about Bagan and the temple, and after a while, she offered to show me how the believers stick very thin gold leaves to the Buddha statues around. I hesitated, alarm bells ringing inside my ears, but I thought she had been so nice and helpful, so I went along and she basically put my hand on hers while she put gold leaves on the statue, then turned around and demanded a shitload of money for it.
Suddenly, her English wasn’t that good anymore and she refused to understand anything I said. I know that it’s 100 percent my fault to fall for this, but it still felt specifically deceptive to me because of the spiritual meaning of the action itself that I witnessed and was then charged for. Either way, I left feeling rather shitty not even so much for the rookie mistake I had made, but more for the impression I was left with. Not sure if this is something common at all, I had just never come across it before. Let me know in the comments if you have any experience with this.
But of course, the tourists get there share of shitty behaviour here as well as any other place in the world. While I have pointed out before that Bagan is the most important Buddhist site in Myanmar, people still find ways to show zero respect while around. As I have also mentioned, there were signs indicating rules everywhere in the hostel we stayed at, and there was also a BOOK rather than a sign to explain the set of rules that applied for visiting the temples. Included in this were common sense notions such as “don’t sleep or party on the temples” and “don’t climb on them at night”, but we still came across some fellow German girls who joyfully told us the story of having arrived super early in the morning (another issue I have addressed) and because they were getting on the hotel clerk’s nerves, he had them take a cab to “be the first for sunrise” – at 3 in the morning.
So when they arrived at the temple, everything being pitch black and abandoned for obvious reasons, they thought it’d be best to just climb up and have a little nap. I mean COME ON?! Could you just fucking familiarize yourself with some basic rules of the place you’re going to? I did not refrain from passing on some more info I had read at the hostel, which was that people have been sent to labour camps for behaving like that. Needless to say, they did not take me very serious on this or consider their own behaviour as wrong because “where else would they have gone?”. I’m just gonna stop talking about this now.
How long to stay
In my opinion, three days are the perfect amount of time to stay in Bagan for the “regular” traveler (except if you’re super into the architecture or something). If you arrive in the morning of day one, then leave in the evening of day three for example, you will not only have three full days to spend in Bagan, but also at least two sunrises (of day two and three) and two sunsets (day one and two). Crucial to every Bagan visit, sunrise and set set the scene for the most dramatic pictures that I’m sure you’ve all seen on Instagram. It’s nice if you have more than experience of those because for example on our first night in Bagan, it was really cloudy, so we couldn’t see that much (also because we were stranded in the middle of nowhere with our scooter).
Watching the sun rise over the fields of Bagan, while in the far distance the famous hot air balloons take off is just as majestic as watching the sun slowly fade away while painting everything gold and red. For both, you will need a good lookout – and so will everyone else. You can therefor easily imagine that it gets really crowded up there, especially for sunset, when everyone is actually awake. I know that the pictures you see everywhere are simply gorgeous, no denying that. But I personally didn’t feel like taking a lot of pictures up there, despite being a super obsessed travel blogger. Not only that I wanted to enjoy the moment (which of course, I did) – but mostly, because I didn’t want to get in line with the dozens of people lurking behind their tripods, ready to fire off one of their three huge cameras at each and every movement of the sun that could be seen.
Anyway, I got a little distracted here, what I was trying to say was that three days would be a good period of time for a visit to Bagan. In case you get pagoda-overkill at some point, you could always sneak in a visit to Mount Popa for half a day – that is if you’re into great views, mountain monasteries and monkeys. It’s quite some stairs to get up there and not much to see on top (considering that you came to cure your over-pagoda-syndrome), but the scenery is really nice and there’s a really cool and bustling pilgrimage atmosphere going on there which makes it worth a visit in my opinion.
As you might have noticed, I didn’t get too specific on which temples and pagodas to visit while in Bagan. That is for several reasons. First of all, their names are super hard to remember so I only got Shwezigon (Shwe means gold, by the way). Also just kidding on that because I could simply look their names up. The reason why I don’t list the “must see pagodas in Bagan” is because I’m sure I didn’t even see them all. There’s more than 2200 there, how would I claim to know the best ones after three days? Sure, there’s some big ones around, but you’ll get across them anyways. For the rest, just know that whatever map you will be given, it will never show them all. Just follow your heart along these dirt roads and see where you end up (but, you know, charge that battery first).
Have you been to Bagan? Is it on your bucket list? Have I missed anything you think is important about the place? Let me know in the comments!
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