Once home to over 10 000 temples, the otherworldly historical city of Bagan is not to be missed and definitely the favourite destination of our recent travels to Burma. More than 2000 of these ancient and unmistakable pagodas still stand, and walking amongst them truly transports you back to the 11th century when Bagan was the thriving capital of the Pagan Empire. The temples, mostly dedicated to Buddha although dotted with the odd Hindu shrine, range vastly in size from imperious monuments several storeys high to tiny stupas that can only allow one or two people inside at a time. The smoky atmosphere (attributable to the numerous household cooking fires in the area) and entirely unique landscape make every single sunrise and sunset a breathtakingly different experience. It goes without saying, our cameras got an insanely good workout during the few days we had here.
Where to stay and how to get around:
Present day Bagan is separated into three distinct regions – Old Bagan, New Bagan and Nyaung Oo. Old Bagan is the heart of the old city where you’ll find most of temples. There are a number of hotels and resorts but they tend to be pretty pricey. New Bagan was essentially created by the government to prevent locals for living in and among the temples and is honestly fairly bland and characterless. We chose to stay in Nyaung Oo. There are many very affordable places to stay and the town is a fun 20 minute bike ride from Old Bagan. It is also home to F.I.T. Street where you will find a number of great restaurants to eat.
You can get to and around Old Bagan by foot, bicycle, electrical bicycle (E-bike), car and even horse cart if that so tickles your fancy. We hugely enjoyed cycling around although that can get pretty hot and gross during the middle of the day. We ended up generally doing most things around sunrise and sunset to get around this (and of course to experience that magical light), but we did hire a car on one day and smashed out a huge number of pagodas.
What to do:
Did I mention there are over 2000 temples to explore? Okay, so it’s pretty unlikely you’re going to be able to see them all, but here are our highlights. Number one experience if you can spare the time and the moolah is a hot air balloon ride that takes you on a once-in-a-lifetime, peaceful sunrise glide over the heart of Old Bagan, just high enough that you feel like you could graze the very top of the Dhammayangi temple. There are three ballooning companies, all of whom cost roughly the same, setting you back a hefty but totally worth it $350 USD per person. We went with Oriental Ballooning and would most definitely recommend them to anyone planning a trip to Bagan.
For another magical sunrise experience (but completely free!), cycle to Bulethi pagoda at the break of dawn to catch the balloons wafting by. This is still a relatively unknown sight, and definitely worth becoming a morning person for.
Go to as many as you can but some must-see pagodas include sunset from Shwesandaw (expect crowds and tour buses but a sunset that will make you forget about them all), Dhammayangi, Ananda, Htilominlo, Sulamani, and Manuha Paya (for its giant reclining Buddha). The best thing to do is just generally get lost in and amongst these ancient structures and just go wherever your exploring feet take you.
If you have extra time and you can’t resist a good market (like me!) then the Nyaung Oo market is worth a gander. I love discovering local produce and cuisine that I’ve never seen, smelt or tasted before. If you’re game to try the food, generally go for stuff that’s piping hot to avoid a nice case of gastro (poor Jinn didn’t escape!). Beyond the food market, there are many beautiful fabric stores and I bought more than ten metres of gorgeous linen for just forty dollars!
The region is also known for their exceptional lacquerware, an ancient craft that originated from China. It involves a labour intensive process that consists of building up over 20 layers of various naturally occurring substances to create beautiful and very hardy pieces, that can range from very functional bowls and plates to purely ornamental art pieces. There are, as always, cheap knock-offs but I would recommend searching out a place called Lotus Collection in New Bagan to find a more artisanal studio versus a number of the larger factories that give off a “mass produced” feel.
How to get here:
Bagan is accessible by air, road, rail and boat, depending on where you’re coming from. Coaches are available and are a good way to see the countryside but can take a long time (around 10 hours from Rangoon/Yangon), so we opted to fly.
Be sure to bring along your camera, a pair of energetic legs for cycling and pagoda-climbing, a bit of extra cash for an unforgettable balloon ride, and your best “Mingalaba” to soak in and explore Bagan, a truly historical and spiritual centre of this country.
Mingalaba is a Burmese greeting and literally translated means “May your day be filled with auspiciousness!”