Our Complete Guide to the Ancient City of Bagan
One of the highlights of any trip to Myanmar is a visit to Bagan. Bagan is an ancient city built on the banks of the Ayeyarwady River, in the heart of Myanmar. A long time ago it was the capital of a powerful ancient kingdom. Nowadays, its archeological zone is home to the largest concentration of Buddhist temple ruins in the world. It’s also one of the most visited places in Myanmar.
Bagan is also nicknamed the “Land of Pagodas”. Between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, more than ten thousands pagodas, temples, and monasteries were built over a 67 square kilometer area around the city. Over two thousand of them remain, and some are in pretty good condition, considering their age and the two large earthquakes (1975 and 2016) that have hit the area in recent times.
When we organised our trip to Myanmar (with ProNiti Travel), we made sure to allocate three days to explore this amazing old city. This was enough to develop a taste for the place, and to help us understand the religious devotion of the Myanmar people.
So what’s to do in Bagan?
Go Temple hopping
There are over two thousands pagodas, temples, and monasteries in the area, so deciding which one to visit is tough. Luckily we had an excellent local guide and driver to take us to the best temples and to explain their histories. Each temple that we visited was unique with its own story to tell. That meant that even Simon didn’t get templed out! We explored many temples while in Bagan, but here are the ones that really stood out for us, that you really should visit:
The Ananda temple (also named Ananda Pahto) is located East of the old Bagan city walls, close to the Tharabar gate. Its architectural style has a Mon & North Indian influence, and this single storey temple is the most beautiful and best-preserved temple in Bagan.
The temple has some distinctive features, such as its gilded sikhara (a tower like spire on top of the pagoda). You can see the reflection of the gilded sikhara from miles away, pretty much anywhere on the Bagan plains. But the best part is the four remarkable 9.5 metre high standing Buddhas that represent the four Buddhas who have attained nirvana. If you look at the Buddha images up close, they appear to be frowning. But if you step back they begin to smile; step even further and they will be laughing. It’s pretty amazing!
After dark, the Ananda Pagoda is all lit up, creating a mystical atmosphere. Ananda suffered considerable damage during the 1975 earthquake, but it has since been completely restored.
About five kilometers North East of Old Bagan, on the edge of Nyaung U village, sits the Shwezigon Pagoda. This single storey pagoda is one of the oldest and most impressive pagodas in Bagan. The best part of this complex is the huge gold-plated pagoda that glimmers in the shining sun. It is home to some sacred Buddhist relics (including a copy of the sacred tooth relic of Kandy in Sri Lanka). Its relics make it a popular pilgrimage site.
This temple is the largest temple in Bagan, and you can see its imposing pyramid structure from far away. It was built by the tyrant King Narathu, who killed his own father to steal the throne. He then proceeded to kill his brother, the queen, and countless slaves. He oversaw the building of this temple, but it was never completed because King Narathu was murdered himself. Locals believe the temple is haunted by his sins.
Gu Byauk Gyi Pagoda
This Indian style cave temple is quite small, but it is decorated from walls to ceiling with incredible mural paintings that depict scenes from the Jataka tales, the previous lives of the Buddha. To protect the murals, photography is not allowed inside this temple.
The Htilomilo temple is a three-storey majestic structure, that towers 46 meters high. Built from red brick, it was originally plastered with white stucco, some of which still remains. This temple has fine plaster carvings and glazed sandstone decorations. On the first floor, you’ll find four Buddhas, one facing each of the walls. There are four Buddhas on the second floor as well, but it is closed to the public.
Get up early to watch the sunrise
Yes, getting up before six in the morning is not ideal, and like most people I hate it. But plenty of travellers had said that waking up early to catch the sunrise in Bagan was a magical experience. So we bit the bullet and set our alarms!
Our tour guide took us to a quieter temple, and at first, we were the only ones there. A few other tourists arrived later to join us. As we climbed the steps in the dark to the roof of the temple with the aid of a flashlight, it felt like a real adventure. We then sat in the cool morning air, waiting for the sun to rise; it was so peaceful. Sadly the clouds all turned up that morning, which made the sunrise a bit of a fizzer. But as the daylight replaced the night sky, it revealed many temples and pagodas on the plains surrounding us, bathing them in a beautiful light. It was a magical sight.
Take a hot air balloon ride
If you visit between October and March, and you have a spare $300, you can watch the sunrise from the comfort of a hot air balloon!
From what we’ve heard, it’s the most amazing thing to do in Bagan, and should be on anyone’s bucket list. So, of course, it was on ours, and we booked it six months in advance, just to be safe!
But unfortunately, luck wasn’t quite with us on this trip. With the wind blowing in the wrong direction, and with the threat of rain approaching, they had to cancel our flight for safety reasons. Let’s not panic I told myself, we have another day, so let’s try tomorrow. Sadly the next day was fully booked (and then cancelled as well anyway).
If you really want to have a good chance of actually flying, don’t visit in October at the start of the season. The weather at that time can be quite changeable, and they have more frequent cancellations. Either way, don’t get your hopes up. I was so looking forward to it that I was extremely disappointed. But hey, Bagan will still be there in a few years, We’ll just have to go back and try again!
Visit one of the local villages
If you get templed out and need a break, be sure to visit one of the local villages. We visited the local village of Minnanthu, where we watched the locals make cigars, extract peanut oil, weave cotton, and harvest their fields. We were also given a village tour, including a tour of traditional living quarters.
It was very interesting to see how the villagers lived, content with just the bare essentials. It really made us appreciate just how spoilt we are, and it put all of our complaints into perspective. Most of the villagers were very friendly and were happy to interact with us. Some even spoke some English and were very happy to answer any questions that we had. I always believe that the best way to really get to know a country is by seeing how its people live.
Watch the sunset over Bagan
After exploring the many temples and getting lost on the vast plains of Bagan, don’t forget to sit down, relax and watch the sun go down. The temples with the best views will attract huge crowds, but some smaller or less popular temples can offer a great experience as well. Do some research by talking to the locals. They will be able to help you find a good spot. Or if like us you have a local guide, they’ll know exactly where to take you.
Watching the sunset over the thousands of pagodas and temples around us, as their colour changed from a dark red to a deep orange, was truly mesmerizing.
Go on sunset cruise on the Ayeyarwady River
Another great way to watch the sunset is by taking a sunset cruise over the Ayeyarwady River. You can take a taxi or e-Bike to the river, and then negotiate a boat from there. Or if you have a local guide they can organise it all for you.
Visit the local market
We’ve visited a few local markets in our lifetime, but none were quite like the one in Bagan. Bagan’s market is ultra colorful, and it attracts very little tourists. The local villagers gather every day to buy and sell produce. It’s crazily busy, but it’s a great place to wander around for an hour or two. There are very few souvenirs for sale; it’s more about seeing all of the local produce, such as dried fish, betel leaves, and lots of amazing looking vegetables. But if you wander past the meat and seafood section you might feel a little bit queazy, and you might decide that it’s a good idea to eat vegetarian food for dinner!
Take a trip to Mt Popa
If you fly to Bagan, you’ll catch a glimpse of Mt Popa as you land. This ancient volcano is about fifty-kilometres South East of Bagan, and it makes a great day trip. At Mt Popa, you’ll find the sacred Popa Taungkalat monastery, which is perched dramatically on top of a huge rocky outcrop. The monastery is entirely surrounded by sheer cliff faces and offers amazing views of the surrounding area.
Getting to the top of the monastery is a bit of a challenge. There are 777 steps to climb up! But the views at the top are a great reward.
Bear in mind that the local macaques are very cheeky and they’ll steal anything they can. Don’t bring anything that you won’t need, and hold on tight to your camera!
How much is the entrance to the archaeological site?
The cost to enter the Bagan Archaeological Zone is K25,000 per person and the pass is valid for 5 days. You can buy a pass at the airport.
How to explore the many temples in Bagan?
The archaeological site is massive, and if you want to explore it properly you won’t be able to do it by foot. Never fear! There are many options available to help you see as much of it as possible.
By bike or e-bike
You can hire bikes or e-bikes from pretty much every street corner. This is the cheapest way to get around, and it also offers you the most freedom to do as you please.
By horse cart
This is ideal if you’d like a local guide to take you to the best spots. Most of the drivers speak a little bit of English, and they know the best routes and the nicest temples to take you to. Bear in mind that unlike bicycles, horse carts need to follow the more well-trodden tracks. So you may not be able to reach every spot that you’d like to visit.
Prices range from K15,000 to K25,000 for a day and can be shared between two or three people.
If the heat and the dust are not for you, then hire an air-conditioned taxi for the day. Most drivers speak English, and it is much more comfortable. Of course, the price is obviously a lot more, varying from $20 to $50 a day, depending on the time of the year and the distance travelled.
Our whole trip was organised through ProNiti Travel, and we had a local guide and a driver to take us around the temples.
Where to stay in Bagan?
Thande Hotel Bagan
This hotel is situated right on the river in Old Bagan. It offers large rooms, with some overlooking the river. Rooms start at US$75/night. Check out the latest prices here.
The Hotel at Tharabar Gate
Also located in Old Bagan, this hotel has the perfect location, right next to Tharabar Gate and a few local restaurants. Their pool is really refreshing and it’s a great place to cool off after a long day of temple hopping. They have a tour desk if you need help planning your sightseeing in Bagan. Rooms start at US$196/night. Check out the latest prices here.
Other Accommodation in Bagan
Use the search box below to find the best accommodation for you in Bagan:
Where to eat in Bagan?
Two restaurants in Bagan were the standouts on our visit to Myanmar. Both are vegetarian, but even Simon (who’s a big meat eater) loved them!
The Moon – Be Kind to Animals
This restaurant is set up in a garden on an old dusty road. That might not sound that appealing, but wait until you try their food! Try the tea leaf salad, pumpkin curry, and vegetarian rice paper rolls. I wish they had a branch here in Melbourne! Check them out on Tripadvisor.
Khaing Shwe Wha
This family-owned restaurant is as good as the Moon (we couldn’t decide which one was best). Their betel leaves salad, and tomato peanut curry with coconut rice are to die for. If you’re lucky, their teenage son might even put on a marionette performance for you! Check them out on Tripadvisor.
As you can see, Bagan is a magical and breathtaking place, but none of our photos really pay it justice. To witness its true beauty, you really need to head there. So I hope that this post has inspired you to put the ancient city of Bagan on your bucket list. Visit soon before it gets even more touristy.
If you’ve already been to Bagan and you think we’ve missed out on something awesome, please leave a comment below. We’ll be back for sure and we’d love some new places to explore!