Magical Bagan: exploring the land of ancient temples

The ancient city of Bagan; perhaps Myanmar’s biggest drawcard and a place that has single handedly attracted people to the country like a magnet for decades. Myanmar is described as the land of temples and pagodas for good reason and Bagan is perhaps the epitome of that description. 

Effectively an open air pagoda and temple museum, Bagan is a former ancient capital that encompasses 26 square miles of plains dotted with different sized and shaped pagodas and temples built between the 11th and 13th century. At one time there were over 10,000 structures, however, only around 2,200 remain today. It is considered one of the world’s greatest archaeological sights on par with Machu Picchu and Angkor Wat. 

Bagan temple fields

Individually, most of the pagodas are not attractions in themselves, however, collectively they offer one of the most picture perfect landscapes you could only dream about. In fact, many people do dream about it and I met quite a few other travellers who said they had dreamed of coming to visit Bagan ever since laying eyes on a photo of the place at some point in the past. It was truly a place that drew tourists from far and wide.

The quintessential Bagan experience is to watch the sunrise while perched on top of one of the pagodas, often described as one of the highlights of any Myanmar tour. However, the government has slowly begun to close the temples as of 2018 in order to stop tourists from scrambling all over them. I heard many complaints from people as the temple tops had offered some of the best viewing platforms and without roof access, the Insta-famous picture of people sitting elegantly on the top step of the stone structures has become seemingly unattainable. However, for the benefit of the temples’ preservation the closures are not such a bad thing and it would just mean that people will have to appreciate the complex a little more than just coming for the most liked photo on social media. 

The government has built a couple of manmade viewing hills for sunset and sunrise to offset the lack of roof access, however, admittedly these are terrible compared to the views offered by the temples. It didn’t take me long to discover that in fact there are still a handful of smaller pagodas that have been left open and which still offer a great photo platform. Hotel owners are not meant to encourage tourists from finding these pagodas, but a few locals and other tourists happily pointed them out on Maps.Me.

The large complex is best discovered on one of the e-bikes for rent at almost every shop, hotel or restaurant and for 5000kyats or $5 you can take it from sunrise to sunset and almost explore the entire place in one day. On my first full day in the town, that is exactly what I did. I set my alarm for the disgustingly early time of 4.45am and while still half asleep attempted to ride the scooter in the dark along the sandy trails to find one of these pagodas still open for climbing. 

A Turkish girl in my dorm had showed me photos from the few pagodas still open for viewing and so I already had an idea in my head of what the views were like from them. I headed to the further option, which is labelled as Lever De Soleil viewpoint on Maps.Me and is an unnamed pagoda that has internal stairs that takes you up to the top platform. I arrived by 5.30am and there was only one other person up there, so I joined them sitting on the edge of the platform on the eastern side. Within about 20 minutes the platform was full of around 30 people all huddled trying to get a good spot as the sky started to lighten. 

The sun appeared above the horizon and the place fell almost silent except for the clicks of all the cameras going off. The hot air balloons started from our left and headed right across the sky in front of us all the way to our right. It really was a magnificent view and you couldn’t have painted the colours of the sky any better. I was so glad I had left the hotel at 5 as I had been very lucky to have the front row seat to one of the best sunrises I’d ever seen.

Everyone headed back to their hotels for breakfast and a nap, but high off the beauty I had just witnessed I was keen to start exploring. It turned out to be a very good decision as I had most of the complex to myself for the morning. Following my phone, I took the bike down all sorts of trails, some of which I’m not sure I should have, and I was able to cover a lot of ground by lunch with the perfect morning light and no crowds. 

Some of the much larger temples and pagodas are quite impressive to visit on their own and I visited all the main ones listed as attractions in their own right. By lunch the tour buses and crowds had started to overtake the grounds and so I went back for a rest and to recharge my camera batteries in the afternoon. By 3.30pm, however, it was time to head back out in time for sunset.

This time I went to a different pagoda, labelled as sunset and sunrise pagoda, 360 view on Maps.Me. It’s in the middle of a bare field and there isn’t an obvious path to get to it but I was able to get the e-bike there going a little cross-country. It required a bit of a hair-raising climb to get to the top section where the best view was and there were already a few people up there. It offered a really good view, however the sunset just wasn’t anything like the brilliance of the sunrise. 

My top tips for Bagan

  • Hire an e-bike for the day
  • The morning is the best time to explore the complex
  • Leave extra early (around 5am) for the sunrise to get the best spot
  • Use Maps.Me, it’s the best map of the place you will find (even including updated information on which pagodas are still open for climbing)

Where I stayed

Bagan is actually very confusing. The Bagan area has three different towns as such; Nyaung U, Old Bagan and New Bagan. The overnight buses drop everyone in Nyaung U, which is actually quite far from most tourist areas and taxis, of course, charge a lot to take you into one of the towns. 

I stayed in the area between Nyaung U and Old Bagan and I thought it was a good choice. It was very close to the temple complex and had enough restaurants and hotel choices within walking distance of each other. A lot of people stay in New Bagan, where there is a lot of hotels and tourist-oriented shops and restaurants, it’s at the southern end of the complex.

Dormitory@Golden Crown Motel 

It was actually a hotel that had just shoved four beds into one room and called it a dorm, which meant it didn’t have much of a backpacker feel but it was very clean and comfortable. The free breakfast was also very good (for a change). I paid 14,000kyats or AUD$13 per night.

Where I ate

There are so many options for eating and I tried a few places. My top pick for budget travellers is Min Myanmar Cafe, it was super cheap and mostly had locals hanging out and drinking tea. It’s on the main tourist restaurant street (in the area I was in), opposite Rain Restaurant (which is also not a bad choice). 

How I got in

I arrived on an overnight bus from Hsipaw (you can read about the trek I did there here) and was expected to arrive at around 7am but in true Myanmar style (they love overestimating their travel times) arrived at 3am. The good thing is that hotels are used to people getting up at outrageous hours for the sunrise so arriving early in the morning was not a problem. 

How I got around

Tourist maps are available and my hotel gave me one, however, Maps.Me proved to be the better option.

E-bikes or electric scooters are by far the best way to get around and go for around 5000kyats or $5 for the entire day, from sunrise to sunset. They’re easy to ride and very smooth.

Bicycles are also around to rent and go for about $1 for half day up to $3 for full day. They are good if you want to do some short trips. 

Tuk tuks are also available and they offer sunrise and sunset trips, many of them claiming to know the best spots. With an e-bike available, however, it sadly makes them obsolete.

How I got out

Leaving Bagan is actually quite annoying as there is no bus station in Bagan. Buses either leave/arrive from Nyaung U or for some destinations, Pakokku (a town around 35km away). Most bus companies in Myanmar include a pick up service from your accommodation and so included in my ticket was transport from Bagan to Pakokku and then from Pakokku on to Mindat (my next destination). However, it means bus tickets from Bagan are a bit more expensive than other places in the country. 

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