Bagan is somewhere that you constantly see in pictures, travel advertisements and Instagram posts (guilty as charged). It is a place that leaves you thinking "it cannot look that good in real life". But, it actually does.
This beautiful network of over 2200 temples spans100 square kilometres in the Mandalay province of Myanmar (Burma). It was formerly a capital city of ancient empires which helps to explain the sheer enormity of it. Bagan still remains an important religious location and thousands of residents still call Bagan home. Although the city is a tourist attraction in itself, life still continues as normal here. The town is spread throughout the temples creating a living, breathing cultural centre.
Whether you're cycling through the stupas, or watching the sunrise as the hot air balloons take off, Bagan will leave you speechless. There are some areas that are heavily touristed but there are many places where you will feel much more alone. There is a huge variety of temples in the complex ranging from big to small, and well-kept to 'abandoned'. As long as you have a sense of adventure and some form of transportation, you can really soak up it all.
I've had hardly any travel moments that felt quite as good as getting off the beaten track on an old bicycle in Bagan. Armed with a not-so-roadworthy old bicycle hired from a one-eyed boy out the front of the guesthouse, a camera, and wide-brimmed hat, I was excited to see as much of Bagan as humanly possible in four days.
Although Myanmar on the whole is not an expensive place to visit, Bagan can be costly. Entering the complex requires a ticket and most of the transportation and accommodation comes at tourist prices. When I visited Bagan I tried to do things on a budget (as usual) so this guide will focus on the not-as-luxurious-but-still-awesome options for an affordable trip.
READ MORE: Bagan Photo Diary
As of 2016, the ticket price to enter the Bagan Zone was $20USD. This ticket is charged to visitors on the highways entering the city, the boat terminal and at the airport. Often backpackers (and other travellers) will sell their tickets to you for a cheaper price if they are leaving before it expires.
But here's the weird thing... I never bought a ticket. And it was a genuine accident. Here is what I think may have happened...
How did I avoid paying for the Bagan Zone (by accident)?
So weirdly enough I was never made to actually buy a ticket. In addition to this nobody ever checked to see if I had a ticket, nor was there a booth within the complex that I ever found to correct the issue. It's not that I didn't want to pay (I mean it is only $20USD after all), it's just that the tourist infrastructure is not in place yet to have a more sophisticated ticketing system (such as at Angkor Wat).
I'm not sure if this would work every time but these were the circumstances leading to the avoidance of the entry fee, if you were for whatever reason looking to do the same:
- I caught a bus from Mandalay to Bagan that left in the afternoon (2:30pm) and it cost $10USD
- It was not a private tourist bus, it was a minibus and my travel partner and I were the only non-locals on board
- Upon arrival in Bagan (~7:30pm) the ticket guards/sellers may have been off duty, or because the bus was not a tourist bus they may not have investigated or tried to sell us tickets. The bus was never approached.
There are lots of ways to get around Bagan and a plethora of hotels, guesthouses and vendors that will sell you various ways to get around the city. However, not all methods are born equal. Some are crappier and others are just plain expensive. For me, the happy medium was hiring a regular bicycle or one of the E-bikes.
Bicycles cost around 2500kyat for the day from a vendor or around 3000kyat a day from hotels directly. Prices are negotiable to a point. The bicycles are basic but do the job. The terrain is a mixture of sand/dust trails, gravel roads, and sealed roads. The bicycles handled most of these well.
I only had a dodgy one once where I didn't realise the brake was permanently locked on (oops, can you tell I don't cycle often?). After excessively complaining due to the increased strenuousness of the ride, we figured out what was going on. So the moral of the story is: always check the basics (tyre pressure, chains, brakes and bell) before accepting the bicycle and riding off into the distance.
Bicycles are a fantastic way to get around, burn some energy and get off the main tourist trail. When riding on the main roads you will be sharing the roads with many motorbikes, trucks and crowded songtheaws. Also be aware that many of the tracks are sand so it can be a bit of a challenge to ride in areas.
Cycling around the temples was a cheap and awesome way to get up close and personal with Bagan
Bicycles were the perfect way to explore Bagan and find hidden temples off the tourist trail
I did not rent an E-bike but they have a fantastic reputation and are not too expensive either. The hotel I staying in offered E-bikes for 6000kyat each or 8000kyat for bigger bikes. A vendor at a shop offered two for 7000kyat. Make sure you know who to contact if you have a problem with your bike and end up stranded in the temples.
Horse and Cart
This is the original way to see Bagan and is around 18000kyat for a full day. Your driver will take you to the major sites but will stop if you want to see anything else as well. If you get a friendly driver then they might even double as a guide – score! From speaking to a few locals in Bagan, this method of transport is dying out and it is leaving the owners without enough food to properly feed and care for the horse. But on the other hand, horse-and-cart transport is often touted as animal cruelty. Make your own mind up on this one.
You can rent a taxi for whatever price you can bargain, but this will be a very expensive way to see Bagan and I would not recommend it.
Organised tours operate using buses through the city and stopping at the major sites. If you are not a fan of exercise and enjoy having a guide, then maybe this option is for you. Remember that this will not allow much flexibility with what you see. The benefit is that they usually come with an experienced guide and everything is organised for you. Prices will change depending on the tour, but I saw them going for as low as ~$15USD a day.
Balloons go for $320USD per person so this is not a budget option. However, people rave about them as the best travel experience so if you have the money then go for it! Flying over Bagan would provide a unique and, I imagine, magical perspective of the complex. Unfortunately for me, spending this much money was totally out of the question and will be for quite some time.
Unless you are very close to temples and are happy only seeing one or two, then do not opt for walking. The temples are very spread out and spending a couple of dollars on a bike will not go astray.
Hot air balloon is a beautiful but costly way to see Bagan
Best Sunrise and Sunset Spots
The key to enjoying the sunrise and sunset in Bagan is finding some height. The taller the temple/stupa, the more you will see. Having said that, the tallest temples are normally the most packed with fellow tourists, touts and telephoto lenses. A good tactic to employ is getting really close to the 'money shot' temples but finding a relatively tall stupa next to it so that you get a similar view but have it all to yourself.
The hot air balloons leave at sunrise (which was around 6:50am in January) and they leave from different spots around Bagan depending on the weather. It is basically impossible to predict where they will come from. One morning I was in Nyuang-U for sunrise and they rose just there, and another day I was in Old Bagan and they flew overhead. It really is luck of the draw unless you know the right people who can tell you where they're leaving from.
The secret is out about Bulethi Temple but it really is a spectacular place to watch the sunrise. The balloons rise not far from there over the temples, and it is not as packed as some other large temples.
This place is packed with people but is pretty unrivalled when it comes to views over Bagan.
My main tip for finding a sunset spot is to ride around during the day until you find a big temple that looks kind of empty. Ask the temple keeper which direction the sun will set and figure out whether the view is good. This worked out well the couple of times I tried it. For me a lot of the magic comes from being able to enjoy the moment in peace, so I was willing to sacrifice a bit of 'money shot' in order for some reflective quiet.
Where To Stay
In Bagan I stayed in both Nyaung-U and New Bagan. In Nyaung-U I stayed at the Royal Bagan Hotel which was a lovely and modern hotel with helpful staff. Nearby to the hotel was a restaurant strip which had a variety of dining options. It was about a 40 minute cycle from Old Bagan and 20 minutes from a Beluthi Temple for sunrise.
I did not enjoy my stay in New Bagan so much and felt it lacked character. There were not many restaurants in the area and quite far from temples. I did find cheaper accommodation here, so you win some you lose some.
Overall I would recommend staying in Nyaung-U over New Bagan. If you have the money then stay in Old Bagan because this is where the majority of the nice hotels and guesthouses are, and it is a stellar location for temple exploration.
READ MORE: Myanmar Money: What's The Deal?
Where To Eat
There are lots of restaurants in Bagan and they all seem to have the exact same menu: Thai food, Burmese food, Chinese food, Indian food and Western food. Most mid-range prices for dishes sit around 3000-5000kyat. At a cheap restaurant it is around 1000-3000kyat for main dishes, and expensive ones can be anything from 4500kyat upwards.
My favourite cheap restaurant in Nyaung-U was Wonderful Tasty Restaurant which was a family operated restaurant and the cheapest one on the restaurant strip. It had delicious food, lovely staff and a pleasant atmosphere.
In New Bagan I enjoyed Mar Lar Thein Gi which had decent food for really cheap prices and very fast service. I would definitely recommend this restaurant if you are staying at the East end of New Bagan as pickings are slim there. Seven Sisters in New Bagan was a little pricier, but the food was fresh and the service was great.
If you have been to Bagan or have questions, please comment below. I would love to hear from you!