The final destination in my Myanmar adventure was Bagan – the jewel in the country’s crown and a hot spot for visitors.
The key attraction here is temples and shrines – over 2000 are dotted across the grassy plains edged by the sweeping Ayeyarwady River. The size of the temples vary as does the design and architecture. The intricacy is amazing and whilst spectacular in their current appearance the temples would have been dazzling when decorated with colourful paints, silks and jewels in their prime dating back as early as the 9th century. Bagan is an area with 3 ‘town centres’ Old Bagan, New Bagan and Nyaung U all set along a bend of the river about 10 minutes drive apart. The majority of the temples and shrines lay between these 3 centres.
Endless days could be spent exploring the temples and ruins but for my itinerary I had 4 days to explore as much as possible. I stayed at the Amazing Bagan Resort, a large resort located near the airport in Nyaung U with fantastic facilities in particular the swimming pool and outdoor buffet breakfast area. Within walking distance of restaurant street (20 min walk) or a short taxi ride ($2) you can dine on local dishes or cuisines from around the world. In the street there are also some souvenir shops, basic convenience stores, bike hire and money exchange and tour services dotted along the street.
Sunrise and sunset are popular times to visit the temples as the sun rises and falls over the spectacular scenery. It is also a cooler time to be out exploring as the temperatures here are above 30° from November – May.
Given I was visiting in the hot dry season most days played out like this – sunrise spent at the temples, back to the hotel for a swim and some R & R then back out for more temple exploration, sunset and dinner. I also joined a cooking demonstration in a local home which was a wonderful experience more about that later.
For my first sunrise I ventured out on a mountain bike provided free of charge by the hotel. I wasn’t sure at this point where I was headed as I had arrived in the evening the night before so hadn’t been anywhere in daylight. I stumbled upon a collection of shrines and decided these would be the best place to stop and take in what I can of the sunrise instead of seeing it from the road in the uncomfortable saddle of the bike. I would highly recommend taking short bicycle rides in the cooler parts of the day if you are travelling in the warmer seasons. No helmet is provided and whilst the traffic is reasonably calm on the main roads it is important to be aware, also remember Aussies you will be riding on the opposite side of the road than normal.
Hiring a private driver is quite affordable for an entire afternoon (about 6 hours) I paid 20 000 kyat ($20) to have a driver take me from temple to temple. This was a quick and targeted way to get around the main temples and the air conditioning was a pleasant relief from the 40 degree heat of the day between temple stops.
An e-bike turned out to be the best way to get around the temples. It is effectively a scooter but runs off a battery with a maximum speed of 40kms. This was my first time on a scooter but I picked it up after a few hours and was cruising around the dirt roads of Bagan with mild confidence. The cost from the hotel was 12 000 per day (8 hours). I believe there are cheaper options available but quality id questionable and the convenience of having the pick up and drop off at the hotel was worth it.
These are the transport options I took, there are also horse and carts that can take you around the temples but my horse allergy prevented me from trying this one. It appeared to be quite fun although slow. My preference would be the e-bike for cost, speed and access – if you are inexperienced (like me) take it slow to allow yourself to master the controls.
Bagan is amazing and it’s a really unique experience for every visitor given the number of temples to explore. You could easily spend a week exploring at a steady pace visiting the townships and surrounding sights as well.
Tips for a top experience in Bagan:
- Map out the main temples that you would like to see before you hit the road
- Take plenty of water when you visit the temples it can be dehydrating work being an adventurer
- Be prepared to walk on uneven and dirty surfaces with no shoes as you cannot wear shoes in the temple grounds
- Stay in a location with a swimming pool if you are there during the warmer months it will provide some cooling relief
- Be prepared to climb – some temples have secret stairwells that allow you to climb to the higher levels for spectacular views. Channelling Indiana Jones will help you through the dark, crumbly stone stairwells.
- A popular (but expensive activity) is to take a hot air balloon flight over the temples be aware that they do no operate during the hot season between April and September. Unfortunately, I missed this opportunity.
Have you visited Bagan? Share your experience in the comments below.