Introduction

Bagan (buh-gahn), formerly known as Pagan, is famous for the archaeological ruins. An estimated 10,000 temples and pagodas were built in Bagan, though only 2200 remain today. Many of the pagodas that still stand today have fallen victim to several earthquakes over time, the most recent one being from 2016.

Bagan is on the banks of Irrawaddy river and has 3 main parts – old Bagan, new Bagan, and Nyaung U Town. The airport is in Nyaung U, while most of the hotels are in new Bagan. Old Bagan is where most of the sites are.

The entry fee to enter Bagan is 25,000 Kyats. This fee is referred to as the Archaeological Zone fee.

A general note about Bagan: There are many who claim that Bagan is “touristy”. I would agree with this statement to the extent that almost all archaeological sites that are open to the public are touristy. Overall, I didn’t feel that Bagan was “touristy”, at least not like an amusement park or an extremely well visited site, like the Eifel Tower.

There are no accommodations in Old Bagan (no one is allowed to inhabit Old Bagan). Most of the accommodations are in the other two sections of the city, though most of the hotels for foreign tourists (to Western standards) are in New Bagan. Note that accommodations that cater to western standards will cost western prices. However, you get AC in the room, along with other amenities that tend to be standard in western hotels.

I stayed in New Bagan, at the Areindmar Hotel (read review here).
Bagan’s airport (NYU) is the best way to get to Bagan from other domestic destinations. You can get to Bagan by bus, but it takes considerably longer to use the road (bus or not). For example, the difference between going to Bagan from Yangon is 40 minutes, versus 4 hours by road.
Similar to Yangon, my transportation arrangements were taken care of by the tour guide, and we had a separate driver. I’d recommend using a tour guide here, especially if you want to go to Mt. Popa. Otherwise, you can use a tuk tuk or rent motorcycles. However, as I mentioned in the Myanmar overview, you will most likely not have access to GPS in the country, and maps will probably be confusing because there are so many pagodas and temples. (Also, motorcycles may not be comfortable since some of the roads and parking lots aren’t paved).
Credit card acceptance is very poor in and around Bagan. You’ll only need money for the food and souvenirs aside from the archaeological zone fee, if everything has been arranged ahead of time. Plan on spending approximately 15,000 Kyats per person per day.
Lunch in Bagan is excellent, especially at the Treasure Restaurant. The vegetables are bought fresh from the market each morning, and the vegetables are picked each morning. (It also helps that the vegetables are very tasty to begin with). For dinner, as tempting as it may be to eat at your hotel’s restaurant, I would advise against it. The food portions are extremely small but with western price tags (e.g. $10-$12 per entrée), and the food is bland.

My recommendations on what to try, regardless of where you eat in Bagan, is to try the vegetables, especially anything that you may have seen at the market like the carrots, eggplants (aubergines or brinjals), green beans, etc. The preparation for the river shrimp (prawns) is pretty good too.

I found the local Burmese cuisine to be semi-spicy, but if you like your food to be spicier, the chefs can accommodate that.
The climate in Bagan is very similar to Yangon. It may be a touch less muggy, but it’s hot none the less. If you decide to go to Mount Popa on a day excursion from Bagan, the climate feels a bit hotter than Bagan because of the mountains, but it’s also a lot less humid.
For the most part, the same health and safety tips for Myanmar (and Yangon) apply in Bagan. I would say to apply some insect repellent around any exposed skin, but the chances of being bitten are pretty low.

It’s extremely important that you have all your emergency, lifesaving, and “can’t miss a dose” medications with you. Even though there are pharmacies in Bagan, you’re not likely to get any specialty medicines like allergy and asthma, insulin, or heart medicines. If you think you may run out, get the medicines in either Mandalay or Yangon (depending on which of the cities you’ll visit before going to Bagan), because you may not be able to get it there.
Shopping from Street Vendors: You’ll see many street vendors attempting to sell local items, from trinkets to pants or lungees. Some of them will take the hint if you don’t seem interested, but you will likely need to shake your head and say no clearly. This may still not be enough for some persistent vendors, especially if you show any interest in the product. Don’t be alarmed, and don’t feel pressured to buy anything. Just keep walking away.

If you do want to buy something, it is expected that you negotiate.

Hot Air Balloon Tours: I didn’t know about this before I went to Bagan, but there are hot air balloon tours in the morning (currently, there aren’t any in the evening). The cost is approximately $300, maybe $350 per person and you must reserve your space well in advance because there’s not that many spots. As much as I like taking aerial photographs, which is especially stunning in a place like this, I’m not sure I would recommend it. The mornings tend to be overcast, and even on a non-overcast day, the lighting is worse in the morning than in the evenings.

Sites

Cost: Free.

Hours: Dawn until 11AM

Time to spend: 30 – 45 minutes

Description:

The Bagan market is where locals get fresh produce and meat. They also sell spices and knickknacks. The produce is grown on the riverbanks in the winter, and picked daily to be sold at the market. The vegetables I saw were gigantic, and the explanation I got for that (since there are no additives) was that it was from the soil being rich in iron.

Verdict: Worth it.
Cost: Covered by Archaeological Zone fee. There is an extra camera and video camera fee of about 300 Kyats.

Hours: Unknown, but probably 8AM – 6PM.

Time to spend: 30 – 45 min

Description:

Shwezigon Pagoda is one of the pagodas in Myanmar that you should visit. It’s one of the oldest pagodas in Myanmar, whose design has been used as a template for other pagodas in Myanmar over time. The pagoda holds many Buddhist relics (though some are believed to be replicas) and is, therefore, an important pilgrimage site for Buddhists.

Verdict:: Worth it – Don’t miss.
Cost: Covered by Archaeological Zone fee.

Hours: Unknown, but probably 8AM – 6PM.

Time to spend: 45 min – 1hour

Description:

This temple has 4 large Buddhas, each of which face one side of the temple. The walls and ceilings have ancient drawings of the Buddha and other depictions of Buddhism. Unfortunately, these some of the drawings have faded quite a lot, but there’s also graffiti and moisture and smoke damage from when locals lived inside the temples to seek sanctuary during the war (I think WW2?).

Verdict: Worth it – Don’t miss.
Cost: free.

Hours: Unsure, but this needs to be reserved by tour guides.

Time to spend: 45 minutes – 1 hour

Description:

The lacquer workshop is locally owned and showcases the process of how items like bowls, cups, etc. are made from lacquer. After showing the process, you can go into the shop where you can see what’s already been made and purchase them if you want.

Note – even though some say that Mandalay is where you should get lacquer, buying it in the factory in Bagan is better because prices are cheaper and you know you’re getting authentic items from the factory.

Verdict: Worth it to see the process.
Cost: Covered by Archaeological Zone fee.

Hours: Unknown, but probably 8AM – 6PM.

Time to spend: 45 min – 1hour

Description:

The Ananda Temple is one of the oldest temples in Bagan. Like the Htilominlo Temple, there are four large Buddha statues in temple, facing a different cardinal direction and each in a different stance. One of the Buddha statues (the east facing one, if I recall correctly) has an optical illusion where the further back you stand, the statue looks like he’s smiling at you, while the closer you stand, the statue looks more austere and the Buddha looks serious and sagely, as if ready to instruct you.

The temple itself has a unique architecture; not only is it a perfect square, it also mixes local and Indian architecture. There are other features, including niches throughout the temple with statues of different Buddha poses.

Verdict: Worth it – Don’t miss.
Cost: Covered by Archaeological Zone fee.

Hours: Unsure, but this needs to be reserved by tour guides.

Time to spend: Sunset (45 minutes – 1 hour)

Description:

You can see great views of the sunset behind some of the pagodas in Bagan. This pagoda gets crowded, so it’s wise to get there a bit early, especially for the spots in the third and fourth levels.

Verdict: Worth it.
Cost: Free (with tour guide).

Hours: Unsure, but this needs to be reserved by tour guides.

Time to spend: 1 hour

Description:

This is a local sugar workshop where sugar is extracted from palm trees and all sorts of products are created from the byproduct of extracting the sugar. Even though I have been to a sugar workshop before (in Ecuador), I still liked it because of the slight variations in how the sugar was extracted and refined and also the byproducts were different.

Verdict: Good, but skippable.
Cost: Free (with tour guide).

Hours: N/A.

Time to spend: 2 hours.

Description:

In the walk in the villages near Mt. Popa, we visited a family farm, a local community, as well as a communing spot for the villagers to get water and wash their clothes. Most people in this area don’t have electricity regularly or at all, and may not have access to running water to their homes. It was great seeing the friendly people there, and nostalgic for my parents, who were reminded of their visits to their grandparents’ homes.

Verdict: Worth it.
Cost: Free (with tour guide).

Hours: N/A.

Time to spend: 2 hours.

Description:

Mount Popa is a dormant volcano near Baganand is approximately 2 hours from Bagan. The trip to Mount Popa included lunch at Popa Mountain Resort, and then a trip to Taung Kalat Monastery. The Popa Mountain Resort has wonderful views of its surroundings including the Taung Kalat Monastery.

The Monastery, which requires visitors to climb up over 800 steps, also has great views. To get to the monastery, you’ll need a car to get to the entrance of the steps, and continue to climb up. Unfortunately, most of the steps are considered part of the monastery, and so visitors have to take off their shoes and socks before making it to the top. The stairs are a little dirty from dust and other debris as well as monkey caca.

Be aware that these monkeys are not to be trifled with. Do NOT feed them and do NOT get near them. They can get aggressive and/or steal your items, such as cameras.

Verdict: Good, but skippable.
Cost: Unknown; arranged by tour guide.

Hours: Sunset.

Time to spend: 45 minutes.

Description
:

We watched the sunset from a boat on the Ayeyarwady River. There wasn’t much more to this activity than that.

The sunset was pretty, but I wouldn’t say it was as stunning as the sunsets I saw, for example, in Sri Lanka [link].

Verdict: Skippable, though relaxing.

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