I am not very good at summing up travel tips, but Bagan is a destination which creates such severe wanderlust that it is almost criminal not to share some “How’s” and “Where’s”. So, here goes a compilation of Bagan travel tips to experience the magic of this iconic to the fullest. Arguably the most popular tourist attraction of Myanmar, Bagan is not easy on the pocket unless you seriously rough it out and it is to be noted here that the country has a rapidly inflating currency. Prices quoted here might vary (read increase) at the time of your visit and it is best to use the figures as guidelines only. Myanmar official currency is Kyat and the exchange rate at the time of my visit in 2016 was 1 USD = 1185 Kyat (approx). So here goes a tried and tested Bagan travel guide which will help you plan your days there.
Bagan Travel Guide
When should plan your Bagan travel
Bagan is hot most of the year and the best time to visit is between November and February. March to May is the hottest period and rainfall is highest between June to October. Full moons usher in popular local festivals and Bagan travel can be a great experience at that time. Bagan like most of Asia is best enjoyed at a leisurely pace and it is best to dedicate 2-3 days to it. Avoid the hot noon, take your time and try to enjoy every sunrise/sunset. These are the most magical and coolest moments and rushing through Bagan, trying to check out everything can ruin the experience.
How to reach Bagan
It is possible to fly to Bagan from Yangon, Mandalay etc by various airlines like Air Mandalay, Air KBZ, Air Bagan etc. Nyaung U is the nearest airport and it is around 20 minutes drive from New Bagan. There are plenty of taxis plying between New and Old Bagan from the airport and bargaining gets best prices.
There are overnight trains from Yangon to Bagan and it is of the luxury sleeper category. There are two departures from Mandalay to Bagan and the journey takes around 8 hours. The train tickets sell fast especially in high tourist season and it makes sense to buy them at the earliest.
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It is also possible to plan a Bagan travel by bus from several destinations across Myanmar like Inle, Mandalay, Yangon etc and this is the cheapest and least comfortable option. The air conditioning inside the buses are always set at freezing levels and loud music, bizarre timings make the experience even worse. However, it is a very popular mode of transportation and bus tickets also sell out fast. Bus tickets are easiest to book via your guesthouse or a travel agent and VIP buses include JJ Express, E-lite, and Shwe Nan Taw Express. The nearest bus station for Bagan is outside of town and it hums with touts looking for about 3000 kyats/person to drive you to Nyaung U (more for Old Bagan / New Bagan).
There are seasonal slow and express ferries plying down the Irrawaddy River between Bagan and Mandalay and the journey varies between 9 hours to 2 days. It is possible to book seats on these ferries through local travel agents or hotels.
Bagan travel extras
The Bagan cultural authority has introduced a tax against all foreigners for $20USD, 20EUR or 25,000 Kyat upon arrival.
Tips for getting around during your Bagan travel
Get yourself a detailed map
Bagan is easiest to navigate when you are armed with a good, reliable map detailed with main temples, all roads along with the intrepid areas of interest. These are easily available at any shop in Nyaung U, Old Bagan, or New Bagan. There are various ways of exploring Bagan and each depends on your budget and style of travel.
Keep the romantic bullock/horse cart rides for the sunset
You can hire an old-fashioned horse/bullock carriage at 20000+ kyat/ day and the driver who also doubles up as a guide shows you around. Although the experience sounds very romantic, in reality, it can get bumpy, uncomfortable and exhausting to explore the dusty hot Bagan plain on the contraption. Needless to say, it is also quite slow and can be best dedicated to one sunrise/sunset experience.
Bicycle around to enjoy Bagan to the fullest
Bicycling still remains an immensely popular way of exploring Bagan and you can hire one for 1000-2000 kyat/day. However, go for a spin first before renting one as most of the bicycles are badly maintained. If biking around Bagan is your thing to do, then it is advisable to start really early as the plains get hot very fast. The downside of bicycling in Bagan is that a lot of paths and offbeat lanes are sandy and you might be pushing your bike around quite a bit.
Opt for an e-bike for a faster alternative
Electric bikes are recent addition (since 2013) to the Bagan area and they offer the freedom of the bicycle, without the pedaling. Nearly all hotels, resorts and guest houses of Bagan rent out these e-bikes and the cost varies from 5000 kyat-12000 kyat/day or ~1000 kyat-2500 kyat/hr. Check out the condition of the e-bike before hiring it and make sure the handlebars are tight, the breaks work well and the accelerator works properly. Keep the company phone number on the bike or on you handy in case of a breakdown. The more expensive e-bikes are definitely more comfortable on the bumpy “roads” and they also have a larger battery which allows a maximum speed of about 25 km/hr.
Recommended for You: Bagan on a short visit
E-BIKE TRAVEL TIP – On the downside, the power cable coming loose from the battery is a common problem of e-bikes and this happens more with the older, cheaper ones. One of the power efficient ways of exploring Bagan on an e-bike is to drive slow. Riding fast saps up the power of the bike and you can ease off the accelerator to preserve the battery juice for a complete day out with a full charge. In case you are planning on riding out to a Bagan sunrise on an e-bike, ask your rental outfit about keeping the bike overnight at your guest house/resort since most bike shops don’t open before 8 am. Check the battery the night before and don’t forget to charge it fully before heading out.
The unforgettable and pricy experience of hot air ballooning over Bagan
Hot air ballooning at sunrise over Bagan is an unforgettable experience and it comes at around 320-350 USD/person. There are two companies operating this service from October until April and it is possible to book a ride through your hotel. Foreigners are not permitted to drive or ride on a motorbike in and around Bagan and so the next best option is an air-conditioned car. This luxury comes at a steep price of 20000 to 60000 kyat/day and often includes a guide. You can also hire an individual guide for a day to help you explore some of the best spots of Bagan.
Where to stay during your Bagan travel
The main area of Bagan has been commercially sliced into 4 parts and each aims at the different category of travelers.
Nyaung U aims for the budget travelers
The dusty small town of Nyaung U, which is also Bagan’s transportation hub has a very rural feel and it offers a wide range of accommodations for budget travelers. The traditional Mon-style lacquerware village of Myinkaba is more of a shopping destination and many bamboo weaving workshops are located there.
Mid Range travelers can head for New Bagan
The spanking clean New Bagan settlement has some lovely mid-range hotels and a few river facing restaurants adds to its charm.
For the loveliest temples, and luxury hotels, opt for Old Bagan accommodations
It is, however the Old Bagan area which sits impressively within the remnants of the old city walls and has most of the loveliest temples located all around it. Some of Bagan’s priciest resorts and hotels too are housed there and every single one of them has either river access or great temple views or both. I have stayed at the quiet Shwe Poe Eain – 1 hotel in New Bagan and it had come with a clean room, good free wifi, and a swimming pool.
Eating Out during your Bagan travel
My favourite restaurants in Bagan are Golden Myanmar (for traditional Burmese meals) and the Green Elephant Restaurant at New Bagan (for excellent fusion Myanmar and other SE Asian cuisine). For cheap and nutritious breakfast option, try bowls of delicious Mohinga.
Souvenirs to pick up in Bagan
Bagan temples, especially the major ones are teeming with souvenir sellers and handicrafts shops. They include Irrawady sand paintings, Pathein parasols. watercolours by local artists etc. For unique gift ideas check out the social development project MBoutik on Anawratha Road (near the post office). They sell handicrafts which are made in Myanmar and the sale proceeds go to the locals. You can also buy beautiful bamboo woven items as well as Mon lacquerware. As usual, bargaining saves some serious cash.
My favourite Bagan temples to Visit
Buledi, Thebeik Hmauk, Oak-Kyaung-Gyi, Shwe-Leik-Too etc are best for sunrise/sunset shots. Sulamani and Tham-Bu-La temples have beautiful frescoes inside and the adventurers can check out the supposedly haunted Dhamayangi after dark with a flashlight or headlamp.
Bagan Travel Tips
- Things You Need for a day of Bagan temple hopping – Map, Flashlight/headlamp for dark temples, or late / early explorations, Water, Money, Sunscreen, Hat, Camera, Light jacket especially for the chilly early mornings or late evenings, Clothes that cover your knees and shoulders. Myanmar is a Buddhist county and Bagan is an important pilgrimage site. Make sure that your shoulders and knees covered while entering the temples. Cover your legs with a sarong wrap or a lyongi if you are wearing shorts or have bare shoulders. Taking off your shoes is also mandatory before entering a temple and it’s best to wear flip-flops or sports-sandals as they are easy to remove and put back on.
- Tipping – Most of the temples are taken care by a caretaker or a family and it is a good gesture to tip them a few hundred kyats for opening a temple especially if you’re off the beaten path. They also show the temple around for a small tip of about 200 – 300 kyat.
- Time it Right – It is advisable to start early and stay late to enjoy Bagan to the fullest. Avoid the crowds by getting out in the early morning and hitting the road before 6 am when the air is cooler and the light is better for photos. After the early morning start, head somewhere cooler for lunch, swim and a siesta. Head back out again around 4 pm for a sunset and plan to be at the temple of your choice early, to avoid getting caught in a traffic jam of tourist buses, horse, and ox carts. It will also give you the opportunity to check out the light conditions from all angles and grab the best spot before the rush of tourists take over.
- Keep the heat at Bay – Getting dehydrated is the biggest danger at Bagan and it is advisable to carry lots of water on you. Although mosquitoes are not a huge problem, slathering on bug repellent keeps the pesky bites at bay. Stay off thick foliage covered areas and be aware of slithering snakes. Snake bites can pose a risk at Bagan.
For a great day trip from Bagan, opt for Mount Popa.
To know more about traveling to Myanmar, especially as a solo female traveler, check out this comprehensive guide.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE