Bagan is an ancient city in Myanmar sprinkled with over two thousand beautiful temples and can only be described as a fairytale! At sunrise hot air balloons float across the horizon, past the temples and pagodas that have stood there for over eight hundred years. Impressive and intricately detailed temples are dispersed throughout fields in every direction as far as your eyes can see and so it is no wonder Bagan is Myanmar’s most popular tourist destination. But you must come to Bagan prepared, especially because it has become increasingly difficult to access these temples in recent years, so read on to discover all the need to know information about Bagan!
History of Bagan
The Bagan Kingdom was one of Asia’s most powerful empires and has great historical significance. Around one thousand years ago Buddhism came to present-day Myanmar and the King asked for thousands of temples to be built to spread the religion throughout the land. He ordered many to be built in Bagan, and over the next couple of hundred years thousands of temples were built in Bagan. Well over 10,000 temples, pagodas and monuments were built, but after the empire ended at the beginning of the 13th Century due to the invasion of the Mongols, many sites fell into disrepair and so out of the 10,000 temples built, around only 2,200 still remain today.
When to visit Bagan?
The majority of people go to Bagan to see the hot air balloons gliding over the temples at sunrise. However the balloons only operate for 6 months of the year – during the cooler months from October until March, so make sure you book your trip during this time if you want to catch the balloons, it was really our favourite part of every day! A morning mist often covers the ground in Bagan at this time of year too (because it is cold in the mornings), making it seem even more magical and mysterious. Cancellations of hot air balloon rides can sometimes occur towards the beginning or the end of the season due to wind or rain, so just be prepared that this could happen.
Bagan’s peak season is December to February – this is when the temperature is the most pleasant at around 30 degrees. It is at it’s busiest during this period, but even so, it never felt crowded when we were there in January and the majority of the time we had temples all to ourselves.
How to get to Bagan:
We flew into Yangon then took a 9 hour overnight bus to Bagan (around $20), arriving to Bagan at 5am meaning we were able to hit the ground running and catch the sunrise that morning. The overnight bus was really good – you have your own TV, your chair reclines back a lot so you can sleep comfortably and the staff will come around and provide food and drinks and a blanket for you.
You can also get the bus to Bagan from Mandalay (around $8) which takes about 4 hours, or even you can take the scenic boat ride from Mandalay if you have more time. Alternatively you can take an internal flight to Bagan’s Nyuang U airport from Yangon or Mandalay for around $100 (there are no international flights to Bagan) but of course this is a lot more expensive than taking the bus. If you are wondering what to do in Mandalay before or after your trip to Bagan, read my article 24 hours in Mandalay, Myanmar for the perfect itinerary.
How long to spend in Bagan?
We spent 3 days and 3 nights in Bagan and absolutely could have stayed even longer! Bagan is such an impressive place and there are so many temples to explore. We got to see a lot in the 3 days we were there, but because of many temples now being closed, it takes much more time to find open temples (where you can go up on the roof and see the view from the top) now than it used to. A couple of times during our trip I got a little frustrated that we would be driving round temple after temple and all the stairways would be padlocked, so if you can stay longer than 3 days I definitely recommend it so you will have more time to explore and potentially find some hidden gems!
Where to stay in Bagan?
Bagan is split into three villages: Old Bagan, New Bagan and Nyuang U, all roughly about 5km apart from each other and all surrounding the temples. It is easy enough to ride your e-bike from one area to the other, taking perhaps 20/30 minutes to get from one village to the next. Typically Old Bagan is the more expensive area to stay, being in the centre of the temples, whereas Nyuang U and New Bagan have more budget accommodation available.
We actually stayed at the Amazing Bagan Resort, right next to the golf club and in between Nyuang U and Old Bagan. It was a great hotel with good value rooms and excellent staff and it was in the perfect location – near to the food street for restaurants in the evening, near to the temples in Old Bagan and also near to where the balloons take off in the morning so we didn’t have to travel too far on the cold mornings to find our favourite sunrise temple spot!
How much does it cost to enter Bagan Archaeological Zone?
The entrance ticket for Bagan Archaelogical Zone costs 25,000 kyat (or $20USD) and is valid for 5 days. When you enter Bagan your vehicle will be stopped and you will be required to pay it. You’ll be given a ticket and although after this we were never asked to show it, it is just best to keep it with you at all times.
Getting around in Bagan:
An electronic scooter (e-bike) is the absolute best way to get around Bagan. E-bikes were introduced a few years ago by the Government so people could easily get around Bagan on a silent mode of transport, so as not to disturb the ambience and peace of the place. They are basically scooters that get charged up instead of using petrol and are the cheapest and most convenient form of transport in Bagan.
E-bikes are easy to ride and if you’ve never rode a scooter before then this is the perfect place to learn as there are barely any cars in Bagan and the roads are pretty quiet, unlike the rest of Asia. You can rent e-bikes from so many places in Bagan, although for convenience you can ask your hotel to organise it for you. We paid around $10USD to use the e-bike for 2 of us from before sunrise until after sunset – a good 12 hours each day (it costs a little less if it is just one person).
Many hotels offer free bicycles but I would really recommend for you to pay for e-bike hire instead as you’ll get tired cycling round all day and it will take a lot longer to get around. You will see the odd horse and cart and whilst it may seem nice to get one – don’t. It will take you forever to get around and you’ll be wasting valuable time. I also don’t recommend a car to get around. This is because many temples are only accessible down dirt paths and so the e-bike is the best and sometimes the only way to quickly get to the temples. It is important that you have the flexibility to stop at whichever temples you come across, which is why I recommend driving an e-bike yourself – it gives you total freedom to explore as you wish.
What to wear:
Whilst Bagan gets super hot during the day, it gets really cold once the sun goes down so bring layers! I’m serious, whilst you’re riding your e-bike in the morning before sunrise and once the sun has gone down in the evenings it feels SO cold. We had goosebumps and my friend even came to the temples each morning wrapped up in a blanket. That’s how cold it was! Be prepared! You can always go back to your hotel after sunrise and lose all the layers if you don’t want to carry them round for the rest of the day (plus, you’ll want to go back to your hotel after sunrise for breakfast anyway!).
Of course, to be allowed into the temples you will need to dress appropriately and cover your knees and shoulders so make sure you pack enough suitable clothing. I also advise to wear flip flops or slip on shoes as you must take off your shoes and be barefoot when entering any temples here, so you want shoes that can be easily removed as you’ll be taking them off and putting them back on again a lot throughout your stay!
Like I said before, Bagan gets really hot in the day so wearing suncream is a must. I also advise wearing sunglasses when you are riding your e-bike as the paths can get pretty dusty so it keeps any dust out of your eyes.
I had heard before I went that people were saying they had literally got eaten alive by insects in Bagan, but we didn’t encounter any when we were here. Either way, bring insect repellant just incase.
How much is a hot air balloon ride at Bagan?
Balloons over Bagan and Oriental Ballooning are the two main hot air balloon companies that operate. Prices start from $340USD per person and there are usually an average of 10 people per balloon (just incase you had visions of it being just you in there!!). You will need to book your hot air balloon ride in advance as spaces fill up quickly. However, if this cost is just too expensive for you or you don’t like the idea of being in a hot air balloon it doesn’t matter – you can still watch the hot air balloons from one of the many temples! Whilst I know it would be totally worth it, we found it was just too far out of our budget to justify spending this amount of money on a 45 minute flight.
How to navigate yourself and find temples:
Make sure to download Google maps and maps.me to find your way around. Don’t just rely on the hotel map as they only show the big temples, whereas Google maps and maps.me will show all the temples, even the really small ones. I found maps.me particularly useful as it said if a temple was closed or not, or if it was a good view for sunset or sunrise. Below is a screenshot taken from maps.me so you can see the kind of useful information it provides. The famous Ananda temple is included on the top right hand corner so you can orientate yourself. The red crosses mark temples where we were able to climb to the roof (see below).
How and where to find open temples to get the best views
Before I went to Bagan I actually used to think people climbed up the walls on the outside of the temples to get to the top!! And I seriously wondered how I would be able to do the same and get some epic shots like the ones I had seen online! Little did I realise there was a much easier way to get to the top: some of the temples have a secret stairway inside that lead to the roof of the temple. I say secret because it actually took us ages to find these stairways, some are not obvious and concealed really well so make sure to look out for them – often they just look like alcoves or holes in the wall and we walked straight past some of them before noticing they were there!
Now since 2018 the Government has strongly enforced closure of a lot of the temples – gates and padlocks have been put across the stairways so you can’t get up. This was done in an effort to protect the temples from damage and it is now becoming prohibited to climb the temples and pagodas. There are still a few temples with open stairways that you are allowed to climb though. Some of the ones that we found open when we went in January 2019 were:
Sunrise and sunset 360 degree pagoda (see above picture)
This has a 360 degree view so is good for sunrise and sunset and there is plenty space on the roof (we came there in the day and there was nobody there, we went back for sunset that evening and it was pretty busy). As this is one of the popular temples for sunset, make sure to get there early to get a good spot. This temple is the red cross on the right hand side of the map above.
Some of the temples don’t have names, just numbers for locals to identify them by. Temple 1415 was another temple with beautiful rooftop views. The picture above of me sitting in the archway was taken at this temple, and this is the red cross on the left hand side of the map above.
Another rooftop for sunrise, again surrounded by temples. We couldn’t find the name of this place and is just marked on maps.me as “accessible roof” (see it circled in the map above in red). This is the view from here:
Soo Lay Gon
Too Lay Gon cluster of pagodas near the Golf Club: we watched sunrise here and there were only a couple of other people there. It is a great little spot and it is inevitably only going to get busier because it is a cluster of small pagodas as opposed to temples, so they are small and quite easy to climb without stairs so there is nothing to stop you climbing on them. Hopefully they won’t get closed in the future, unlike the temples you use the stairs to climb up which will all inevitably close. Bagan’s sunrises and sunsets are super famous, and whilst the best place to watch them is from the top of a temple, it is not possible to climb most of them anymore and so this might just be your safest bet, especially if you are struggling to find an open temple.
The photos from here are really amazing as the balloons come right above you so they appear really big in your pictures, as opposed to many pictures you will see where the balloons are really small and far away (this spot is near where the balloons take off). Thanks to my friend Siobhan for discovering this place and recommending it to me. Read her up to date article Best open temples in Bagan to discover more of her open temple discoveries. Also another great blog post I read was Where to see the sunrise in Bagan (January 2019 update), which is updated all the time with open and closed temples, so it is definitely worth a read when you are in Bagan.
How much longer will the temples be open for?
Do remember that temples often close without warning and so I cannot guarantee if these temples will still be open for much longer, especially since I heard from April 2019 all temples will be closed. If you are struggling to find any open temples, you can find the odd Burmese man on his motorbike who will offer to show you where the “secret” temples are where you can still get to the top, in exchange for some money or you buying one of his beautiful oil paintings of Bagan. It seems a fair deal and these people are very kind and friendly and many tourists rely on these men to help them find open temples, and these guys are often the most reliable source for up to date information and closures (blog posts can become quickly outdated as things change very quickly in Bagan).
When you do finally get to the top the views are always spectacular – they really give you an idea of the vast scale of Bagan and the sheer amount of temples scattered everywhere, plus often you’ll be alone to enjoy these views all to yourself.
Sunrise and sunset tips
To catch the balloons at sunrise you’ll obviously need to wake up early. Check what time the balloons go up when you are there as of course sunrise times differ each month. When we were there in January, the sunrise was at 06.45 and at this time the first balloon would be in the air, and by 06.55 all the balloons would be in the air, just to give you an idea for timings. Make sure you leave your hotel in plenty of time so you can get to your sunrise spot early to secure your spot!
Remember for sunrise and sunset you’ll be either arriving or leaving the temple in total darkness, therefore please remember to bring a torch!! The stairways will be totally pitch black so you’ll really need some form of light – the stairs are often uneven and you don’t want to fall and injure yourself. Also one stairway we went up had a big bee’s nest inside, so having the torch was literally a life saver. The stairways are also often dark even during the day, they are pretty narrow and the roof is often low so I do not advise you to enter if you are claustrophobic.
How to plan your days:
During the day we would drive around scouting out new temples and sunrise/sunset spots, so that when sunset and sunrise came, we knew exactly where to go. You don’t want to be so busy looking for a great viewpoint that you actually miss the sunrise or sunset, so plan ahead! Just drive around, have fun and explore!
Is it best to visit the bigger more famous temples, or visit the smaller remote ones?
Ananda temple is a large temple (and one of Bagan’s most famous ones) located on the main road from Nyaung U to Old Bagan. It is busy and the local children are all stood outside trying to sell you postcards and asking outright for money off you. I didn’t like the vibe there – it was like they just saw you as a walking money bag and it felt a little disrespectful if I am honest. Luckily this was the only time in Myanmar I felt uncomfortable. My advice would be to not to go there.
Instead, visit the hundreds of smaller remote temples not on the main road. You really feel a sense of adventure – like Indiana Jones exploring and discovering all these lost temples, it was honestly the most fun I had had in so long! Literally there was nobody in sight at all these small temples we went to, it was heaven!
What else is there to do in Bagan apart from temple hopping?
A trip to Nyuang U market is fun and they have lots of cute things to buy – cute Myanmar sun umbrellas, hand made paintings, trinkets, ornaments, clothes and food.
Thi Ri Pyitsaya 4 Street (or food street as the locals call it) is the place to go for dinner – there are lots of great inexpensive restaurants here with a variety of cuisines. Whilst alcohol is of course available, there are no bars here and I liked this about Bagan: it has not given in so easily to Western ways such as Thailand for example. Plus, you’ll be up before sunrise every morning so you don’t wouldn’t want to be out drinking anyway! After dinner treat yourself to a Burmese massage at one of the spa’s here and then you’ll be ready for an early night!
So often you will see so many amazing pictures of a place, that when you do go there you aren’t that impressed as the pictures made it look better than it really is. But Bagan is not like that. The place leaves you in awe and captures everyone’s heart.
From waking up every day before sunrise, watching the hot air balloons, trying to find the best sunset spots away from other tourists, feeling the wind through your hair when riding the e-bike, discovering and exploring all these incredible temples, chatting to the friendly local people, every single moment of my time in Bagan was magical and I hope yours will be too.
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