I can’t quite believe I hadn’t heard of Bagan until we added Myanmar onto the itinerary for this trip and started researching. It’s the ancient capital of the first Myanmar empire and home to over 2000 pagodas of all sizes and styles with some dating all the way back to the 11th century, like the famous Ananda Temple. The 3 days in Bagan we spent biking around exploring temples and watching sunrises was one of the most incredible experiences we’ve had in South East Asia.Its sheer scale is what makes it so impressive with temples and pagodas and their spires dotted as far as the eye can see across acres of agricultural land. The whole place looks like a painting, especially in the morning as the mist winds its way through the pagodas at sunrise. It’s one of the most beautiful places we’ve visited – without a doubt up there with the Angkor Thom complex in Siem Reap or the Valley of the Kings in Egypt yet much less crowded with tourists.
Most of the iconic photographs of this city are taken at sunrise and sunset with the ancient monuments silhouetted against the mountains in the backdrop. I think pretty much every traveller makes it their mission to take in as many viewpoints as possible, and it’s not exactly a party town so there’s no question of missing out due to the early nights! I reckon at least 3 days in Bagan are needed, and there are so many other things to do in Bagan as well as the temples that you want to have plenty of energy to fit everything in. In high season from December to February it’s dry and sunny with clear skies pretty much every day making for incredible views across the valley. Each morning just before sunrise the hot air balloons take to the sky and float across overhead for the best outlook across this amazing city. At 300USD a pop, it’s not one for budget travellers though sadly!
Before you visit Bagan it’s worth being aware of a few things that will make your trip easier and add to your understanding of the area. Just a bit of knowledge about the culture and traditions common to Myanmar will make your visit run a lot more smoothly in our experience.
- It’s a religious site and the dress codes are fairly strictly implemented – no shorts, short skirts or strap tops and no shoes or socks to be worn in the temples or pagodas. Dress up warm for sunrise temple trips especially as that stone is very chilly on bare feet before the sun comes up!
- You’ll need to buy an entrance ticket that covers you for visiting the whole archeological zone – these are 20USD or 25000K per person and should last for your whole trip. There are a number of checkpoints at different pagodas where you’ll need to produce these so keep them on you for your whole visit or you’ll need to buy new ones.
- Finally, the whole area is pretty seismically active and a major earthquake in August 2016 caused enormous damage to many temples and pagodas. A lot of these are still out of bounds while they are repaired and a huge number are covered in bamboo scaffolding. We saw a lot of people climbing up pagodas to get good views in spite of the signs so just be careful!
It’s easy to reach Bagan by air, bus or boat depending on your budget and timeframes – we caught the night bus from Yangon which was pretty comfortable and cost only 19USD each for VIP seats, then headed to Mandalay on a day cruise on the MGRG Express Boat. This meant we caught a couple of extra sunrises (the most important things to do in Bagan we had on our list) that we may otherwise have been too lazy for – including one on our first morning when we hopped off the bus and on our last morning on the boat to Mandalay.
3 Days in Bagan: Getting Around
Expensive but comfortable and convenient. We did this on our first morning for ease as it was 4.30am and we were exhausted – it cost 25000K to travel from the bus station to hotel then to a temple for sunrise and back to the hotel again a couple of hours later. A full day can cost up to 50USD.
Cheapest option but very dusty and hot so unless staying in Old Bagan or you fancy a lot of exercise, I wouldn’t recommend! Only costs around 2000K per day though so a good budget option.
Electric Bike / Scooter:
Best option in our opinion, easy to cover lots of ground and pretty cheap – 8000K per day from our guesthouse. Be careful not to run out of charge and be prepared for dirt tracks. Rob has experience with motorbikes or it might have been more difficult. We saw a far few people get stuck in the sand! Biking around is one of the most fun things to do in Bagan, as well as watching all those sunrises and sunsets!
Horse and Carriage:
Not sure how ethical this is although the horses didn’t look badly treated, nice slow paced way to get around for a day but would need further investigation to check whether it’s a responsible way to travel around Bagan. It costs around 20000K per day.
Getting around in theory is pretty easy, however, in practice with 1000s of temples, minimal signposting and mainly dirt tracks for roads it can be a challenge! Not to mention that sometimes the same Pagoda will have a different name on the signpost, online and on your map so it can take a bit of working out to decipher exactly where you are. We had a map from our hotel and this combined with Google Maps satellite view helped us to make it to everywhere we wanted to see with a few detours along the way. I’d advise a bit of route planning at least if there are specific pagodas you want to see, especially those that are off the beaten track. If you have only 3 days in Bagan to see as much as possible, you’re going to need to be organised.
Where to stay in Bagan
There are 3 main areas to stay in – Old Bagan, New Bagan and Nyaung U, a nearby satellite town. We stayed in Nyaung U simply because it’s the cheapest option and still in a relatively good location close to the pagodas. Our guesthouse hired bikes and ebikes for good prices (8000K for an ebike), had a daily breakfast which was enormous and brilliant food and was near to the market and plenty of restaurants. It cost 44USD per night for a private room with king size bed and ensuite bathroom. We’d definitely recommend unless you have the budget to stay in Old Bagan which is far nicer but with price tags to match! In general you can expect to pay a lot more for your accommodation in Bagan than in Yangon or Mandalay as the tourist economy is well established and continually growing.
We stayed at Saw Nyein San Guesthouse, but there’s plenty of options in Nyaung U.
Best Sunrise and Sunset Spots
Before I get into the details of our itinerary, here’s the most important bits – the best places to watch sunrise and sunset! This will be one of the most mind-blowingly impressive and memorable things you do in Bagan so its worth choosing good spots and getting there in plenty of time so you can enjoy the moment. Here’s the spots we picked for our 3 days in Bagan – both mornings and evenings and what we thought of them:
Sunrise: Shwesandaw Pagoda – known as the sunset Pagoda this is one of the most popular spots and gets very busy. It’s definitely worth going at least once though as it gives the best overall views of the whole area as the sun rises.
Sunset: La-Kha-ou-shaung is very near to Shwesandaw but much smaller and quieter – we watched a great sunset over the mountains although not as many pagodas and spires silhouetted against this backdrop.
Sunrise: Not sure what this one was called but it was a great spot – we took a picture of the map location as we couldn’t find a name. Great views and the best spot for a quiet sunrise – there were only about 8 other people on the pagoda with us, which also means you don’t need to get up too crazily early to secure a spot!
Sunset: Pyathetgyi Pagoda was the chosen location for this sunset and it was an exceptional view of the pagodas and mountains. Quite a large building with plenty of space but did get busy pretty early on so don’t arrive too late.
Sunrise: Our final sunrise of our 3 days in Bagan was at a small pagoda next to the currently closed Beludi temple – this one was a bit of a scrabble to climb and a bit busier than we would have liked but gave by far the best views of the balloons floating across the sky. The sunrise on this morning was amazing as well, making it our all round favourite.
Sunset: we spent our final sunset on a pagoda in Old Bagan just across from the Golden Palace called Shwegu Gyi, another location with beautiful views of the mountains as well as offering a glimpse of the river.
3 Days in Bagan: The Itinerary
It can be a little confusing knowing where to start with so many pagodas and after our time in Yangon getting up so early was a shock to the system! We got into a routine of getting up at 5ish for sunrise before heading back to breakfast and a few more hours sleep; spending 3-4 hours in the afternoon checking out the temples we’d earmarked and any random ones we passed by and wanted to stop for. It’s easy to find yourself getting Pagoda’d out so we found breaking the days up helped to prevent this. We then spent the last of our 3 days in Bagan checking out a few other places in the area before our onward journey to Mandalay. Below is a quick overview of the main pagodas we visited on each day and some information about them – these are ones not to miss but some of the most fun comes from exploring the smaller pagodas dotted along the route. You’re going to see a lot of pagodas while you’re here, it’s one of the most famous things to do in Bagan, so make sure you’re prepared for it.
Our first afternoon was spent seeing some of the bigger monuments between N and Old Bagan – including:
Htilominlo temple – one of the largest temples at 150ft tall, this is a red brick building that retains some of its original intricate carvings.
Mya-zi-gon – just down the path from Htilominlo towards the river this is an attractive smallish temple with a golden spire.
U-Pali-thein – over the road from Htilominlo this is another large temple, this one rectangular in shape and made from white stone. It contains brightly coloured murals from the 18th century.
Thatbyinnyu Phaya – another white stone large temple with lots of painters creating sand paintings. You’ll find these on sale almost everywhere in Bagan! For the best pictures there’s a small mound behind the temple that you can climb for better views.
We chose today to tick off some of the bigger temples in the South of the area between Nyaung U and Old Bagan after more general exploring the previous day, managing to see:
Shwezigen Pagoda. This was a large complex reminding us more of the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon but without the enormous golden spire – be prepared for lots of sellers trying to persuade you to buy souvenirs here. Honestly, these sellers can be quite frustrating – we haven’t been hassled so much since visiting Egypt a couple of years ago and whilst it’s not as aggressive in Myanmar as it is there, it’s pretty annoying. It’s still one of the most impressive structures we explored – dating back to the 11th century and said to contain tooth and bone relics.
Ananda temple – a massive and very impressive white stone structure with 4 90foot tall Buddhas contained within it, this is one of the most notable temples in Bagan and one you must see.
Dammayan Gyi Pagoda – this is the largest pagoda that’s so often seen silhouetted against the sunrise in photos of Bagan and is still unfinished. We paid 5000K for a quick local guide which definitely helped to give us a bit more insight into the history of the building that dates back to the 12th century.
Alodawpyl – located over the road from Dammayan Gyi, this attracted us with its striking gold roof and we enjoyed a quick look around as our last stop on our second of 3 days in Bagan.
We spent our final day exploring Old Bagan in more depth and taking a bit of a break from pagodas, although we still squeezed some in! Today we saw:
The Archeological Museum – this is a visually impressive building where you can learn more of the history of the area, it contains models and information on some of the more famous temples and pagodas as well as stone inscriptions and paintings. Entry is 5000K per person.
The Golden Palace – this is a reconstruction of the original palace that is currently undergoing excavation works. Another location not covered on the entry ticket to the archeological zone it costs 5000K to enter and traditional food, music and culture shows are on offer. It’s worth a visit if you’re in the area and have some free time but there’s not a huge amount to see there.
Maha Bodhi – one of our favourites, this is a tall white stone pagoda decorated with thousands of carved Buddhas, making it quite unique amongst the other structures in the area.
We also saw one of the most surprising sights on the final day of our 3 days in Bagan… an intriguing sign for the ‘Nuclear Catastrophe Overcome Pagoda’, which is currently not open to visitors!
Food and Drink in Bagan
There are plenty of cafes and restaurants to choose from – most of which offer Western, Thai, Chinese and Burmese food depending on your preferences. You can expect to find food here more expensive than Yangon for example, as most people who live here relocated to capitalise on tourism in the area. The prices are still pretty low though – with a typical meal setting you back between 10000 and 15000K (£5-£10). We wrote a lot more about prices in Bagan in our blog post on how much it costs to travel in Myanmar for two weeks.
It’s cheaper to eat Burmese food but if you fancy something different we found the Thai food to be of a generally decent standard and still pretty cheap.
We enjoyed meals at Shwe moe in Nyaung U (although it can get very busy) and Sharkys on the road to Old Bagan, where the ice cream is amazing! When it comes to food and drink, we didn’t find this exactly a highlight of the things to do in Bagan, but there’s plenty of eateries to get you by, whatever your tastes.
Other Handy Bagan Travel Resources
We found it quite tricky to find up to date resources to help plan our 3 days in Bagan – but these blogs and sites really helped us out. We just found that most blogs are pre-earthquake so don’t take account of Temple damage and closures etc. Overall, our 3 days here were packed with amazing things to do, and it was one of the highlights of our 2 weeks in Myanmar.