It’s nearly impossible to find a list of top 10 things to see in Southeast Asia nowadays without coming across the Bagan temples in Myanmar, and rightfully so. Where else in the world can you find more than 3,000 temples and pagodas from the 9th to 13th century spread over less than 30 square kilometers of unobstructed fields?
Bagan is right up there with Machu Pichu and Angkor Wat, except without the visitor numbers. Slowly making a push for a place on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Cultural Site, the archeological site’s beauty will leave you speechless and it’s sheer size will leave you awestruck. It’s quiet possibly one of the best kept secrets of Asia.
Planning a visit to Bagan is no easy feat, as there is a lot to explore. There’s no single itinerary perfect for everybody, but what I’ve tried to do in this guide is give you a crackdown of the most important highlights and crucial spots you need to visit as well as things you need to know before visiting Bagan. This guide is written for those who like to explore Bagan by themselves.
How to get to Bagan
It’s relatively easy to reach Bagan from either Yangon or Mandalay, as you can take a plane, bus, train or even a boat. There are multiple flights per day from Yangon and Mandalay operated by Myanmar Airways International. The closest airport to Bagan is the one in Nyuang-u, it’s located just a few kilometers from the temples. Don’t expect to find any bargains when it comes to this flight, as domestic flights in Myanmar are quite expensive, with prices starting at $100.
The fastest and cheapest way to reach Bagan is by bus. The bus takes about 6 hours from Mandalay, and about 10 hours from Yangon. Tickets cost between $15 and $20. The more expensive busses have more comfortable chairs.
There’s a ferry running from Mandalay to Bagan, going over the Irrawaddy River. It takes about 10-12 hours and will set you back between $10 and $40, depending on your desired level of luxury. As a plus you get to enjoy the river banks, local fishermen and great views. It can be booked as a day trip or as an overnight trip, which includes a cabin. The easiest way to book a ferry is to ask your hotel or hostel reception.
And last but not least, you can choose to go by train. Both Yangon and Mandalay have a direct railway line with Bagan and they’re both overnight trains. The trip from Yangon by train is quite a long one, takes about 17 hours to complete and has a sleeper class (only available in high season). The train from Mandalay to Bagan takes 7 hours. Taking the train in Myanmar might not be what you expect, they’re notoriously bumpy, quite unreliable in their schedule and usually take longer than the buses. Consider taking the train only when time isn’t much of a factor for you.
Best time to visit Bagan
The best time to visit Bagan is from November to February, when it’s not too hot and pretty dry. Bagan is hot most of the year but especially March, April and May are hot, with temperatures that can go as high as 43 degrees celsius, which might be a bit too much for sightseeing. In June the monsoon season starts, which lasts until October. You might also take the balloon flying season into account, as this can be quite the sight. Balloons will fly over Bagan from the 1st of October until the 31st of March.
Where to stay in Bagan?
Before deciding where to stay it’s imperative to know that there are two ‘towns’ in Bagan. ‘New Bagan’ is located on the south west edge of the Bagan temple complex, whilst ‘Old Bagan’ is located on the north east corner of Bagan. They are about 10km apart from each other, but the temples can be reached just fine from both towns. New Bagan was built in the 1990s in order to house the population that was being relocated from Old Bagan. The original town, Old Bagan, has a bit more atmosphere and authenticity than its newer version. New Bagan just feels a little fabricated at times. Both have good options for hotels, restaurants and scooter rental places, but the cheapest prices are usually found in and around New Bagan.
Accommodation in Bagan can range from cheap hostels to some the best resorts in Asia, it really depends on your budget. If you’re looking for a cheap dormitory you can check out the Lux Pillow Hostel in Old Bagan. One of the biggest hostel chains in Myanmar, Ostello Bello, has also settled down in New Bagan, it’s a big hostel with free breakfast. You’ll be sure to meet other travellers there. If you prefer a private room, you should check out Shwe Nadi Guest House. If you’re up for a little jet-setting you can get a luxurious stay at The Hotel @ Tharabar Gate.
So how long should you stay in Bagan? Well, I would say at least 3 days and if you have time I can recommend staying 4 or 5 days. Bagan literally has thousands of temples, and even to just visit the main temples and catch a sunrise or sunset, you would need more than one day. The complex is just so big that it needs time to explore!
How much is the entrance fee for Bagan?
The price as of January 1st of 2016 is 25,000 Kyats, which is best paid in the local currency to avoid any messing around with the rates. It is valid for five days, with the day you bought the ticket as the first. Make sure you receive an original ticket, which should look something like this.
There are some stories on the internet of people being scammed at shady checkpoints. The situation seems to have been improved since my visit to Myanmar in February of 2018, but it’s still important to be careful. I bought my ticket close to the bus station at Nyuang-U, which is pretty much where you enter the archeological zone. Don’t expect any fancy ticket offices like at Angkor Wat, it might just be one or two persons with a small table. They are on every entry point of the archeological zone. There’s some people claiming to have been going around in Bagan for five days without a ticket. Although I must say I was never checked for my ticket in my time in Bagan, I wouldn’t recommend it going in without one. You may just want to avoid the potential trouble with a local policeman.
How to get around in Bagan
There’s a lot of different ways you can explore the temples of Bagan. There’s cars, tuktuks, motorbikes, normal bikes and even horse carts! Which type of transport you choose really depends on your preference. Cars are usually most expensive (around $20-$50 a day) as they are the most comfortable and have airconditioning. I thoroughly enjoyed going by e-bike, and I would highly recommend this. Having an own bike (without a driver) allows you to decide for yourself how long you want to stay in one place and gives you a lot of freedom. I actually felt like I was ‘exploring’ when I was driving out there, the place is just so big. If you feel like gaining some more background information or history about the temples, you could consider taking a guide just for one day and explore other days by e-bike by yourself.
Before you get an e-bike, just make sure to check how far or long the battery lasts and write down the telephone number of the rental place. It does happen that the bikes stop working, often due to their batteries. I had this once and had to take a cab back to the rental place. They gave me a new (fully charged) e-bike straight away and picked up the empty one later. In case you want to use an e-bike for catching the sunrise, be sure to ask the owner at what time he opens in the morning.
I would highly advise you to download an ‘offline map’ using Google Maps or Maps.me. This allows you to navigate without a constant internet connection and using just your phone’s GPS. Ideally, you would want to save a few places to go before heading out, just so you know where to go instead of driving/walking around purposely.
Which temples in Bagan are worth visiting?
Nobody really knows how much temples Bagan really has, there’s really just too much of them to count. Some estimates say 3,000 temples while some say more than 8,000. Whatever the actual number is, there’s more than enough history, architecture and beauty for you to explore amongst Bagan’s famous pagodas. Although it can be a bit of a challenge to find the ‘right’ temple, especially when it comes to viewing the sunset or sunrise, it’s also one of the most fun things to do in Bagan.
Keep in mind that in August 2016, an earthquake hit Central Myanmar, destroying or damaging nearly 400 temples in Bagan. Although much of the destruction has been restored, the earthquake had a significant impact on the accessibility of the temples. Because of this, the Ministry of Culture has decided in July 2017 to ban climbing any temples or pagodas, resulting in most temples being closed by locks, fences or brick walls.
In order to help you cut through the chaos, here are some of my favourite temples with a little background information:
- Shwesandaw pagoda: built in the 11th century and containing five levels of terraces with a white-coloured cylindrical stupa on top, the size of this pagoda will surely amazing you. Even though it’s currently closed due to some of the terraces collapsing because of rainfall, it’s still worth seeing this pagoda up close.
- Dhammayangyi temple: talking about size, this is the widest temple of all Bagan, with the base being 78 meters wide. Built by King Narathu in an attempt to get rid of his bad karma he gained while assassinating his father and brother. He never got to see his temple completed, as he was assassinated himself before the temple was completed. Inside the temple is nothing special, as only the outer corridors are available for entry
- Payathonzu temple: not the most impressive temple to watch from the outside, but worth going inside. The name means ‘three pagoda’s’, but they were only added on top recently, as the original construction was never finished due to the Mongolian invasion. The inside is covered with beautiful wall paintings.
- Sulamani temple: arguably the most popular temple due to it’s reachability, this brick temple is also one of the biggest and one of the most important of the late period Bagan temple building. It can be seen from all across Bagan. It’s currently undergoing restoration.
- Ananda temple: one of the four main or ‘original’ temples remaining in Bagan. By many it’s considered as the masterpiece of Bagan, the finest and best preserved. Walking around this cathedral-like temple can be just as exhilarating as walking outside. Inside, on each corner of the monument, is a golden plated statue of Buddha.
- Thatbyinnyu temple: that tallest temple of the bunch, towering high into the Burmese sky at 61 meters. Mostly closed due to the damage it received in the 2016 earthquake. Seeing this temple from the outside is especially nice around sunrise and sunset, as the light displays beautiful hues on the white temple.
If you’re short on time, I would suggest visiting the Ananda temple and Shesandaw pagoda. It’s possible to visit more highlights in one day, but you will need faster transport for that (car/tuktuk).
Some temples are open the public and can be climbed for sunset/sunrise views, whilst others are closed to due restoration. This information is constantly in flux, and it’s quiet hard for me to keep the article 100% updated with the latest information. If you have any intel about the latest status of the temples/pagodas, please shoot me a message or leave a comment.
What’s the best temple for viewing the sunrise or sunset in Bagan?
When it comes to the best spot for viewing the sunrise or sunset in Bagan, I have two options for you. Both temples are open and can be safely ascended by stairs and will provide you with a stunning view over the archeological zone.
The first temple is one which hasn’t remained unknown to the larger crowds, even though it’s name remains a mystery. It’s location however (it can only be reached by a sandy road) prevents tour busses from bringing in the masses, so you should be sure of a place on the platform. I would advise you to come early though, as the temple will be full by sunset/sunrise. This is it’s location (it's the temple slighty south east of the middle):
The second temple is a bit harder to find, but you will be rewarded with being (almost) alone on this temple. It’s located in the north east corner of Bagan and it’s platform will show you a skyline of Bagan’s biggest temples and pagodas. As a bonus, you’ll be right under the balloons, which take off just a few hundred meters from this temple. I was here for several sunsets and sunrises, I just couldn’t get enough! You’ll find the spot here:
The government has also created a few viewing platforms on which sunsets and sunrises can be viewed, as a countermeasure to prevent people from climbing the temples. Although you can get some decent views from them, they’re the most crowded places of Bagan and you might find it hard to find a spot to take some photos.
And lastly, there seems to be a little sunrise vs. sunset debate going on. I’m not in favour of either one, as both can be absolutely enchanting. Sunrise has the balloons, sunset gives a great orange hue over the fields and temples. If you have time you should definitely do both.
Hot-air balloon ride over Bagan
Bagan is also famous for it’s hot-air balloon rides that are available over the temples. The Lonely Planet has listed it as one of the most special activities you can do worldwide and the iconic image of bright coloured balloons flying over the temples has been spread all over the world. The companies that fly balloons over Bagan (there are only three companies actually), have become aware of their popularity and have increased their prices. You will now pay between $325 and $450 dollars for a flight that is 45-60 minutes long.
So is it worth the money? I have done the balloon ride in February of 2018 with Oriental Ballooning. I had been travelling on a budget for several months and decided it was time to spend some money for a change. I had never flown a balloon before in my life and I figured this would be the perfect place. It was an incredible experience, and I don’t regret it for a single second. It’s not just the views, it’s also the preparation, the professionality of the entire crew and the personal approach by our pilot that make it absolutely worthwhile, especially if you’ve never flown in a hot-air balloon before.