Bagan – The Land of Pagodas

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Published March 23, 2016

Bagan, also known as the “land of pagodas” is such a dream. Over 2,000 pagodas varying in size but largely made of red brick are sprawled out across this dry 13 x 8 km farmland.

I first came to Bagan in 2005 while studying abroad on Semester at Sea. At the time, it did not have as many hotels and restaurants as it does today, but it was still a tourist attraction with German and other European travelers making it a vacation destination.

Today the Bagan Archeological Zone is made up of 3 towns – Old Bagan, New Bagan and Nyaung U. Altogether it’s a very small area but still has so many things to see and do. These are some of my favorite suggestions based on my two trips.

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#1 - Hot Air Balloon Ride

The main attraction of Bagan is the pagodas, and there are so many ways to see and experience these pagodas.

I splurged on this experience, which was my first hot air balloon ride. My best friend Gwenn and I went through Oriental Ballooning and they set up an amazing experience for us. We woke up at 5:45 am, and by 6am we were eating breakfast and being introduced Jason, our balloon pilot.

Breakfast Before Ballooning

In total we had 9 people in our balloon. We got to watch all of the balloons being blow up which was incredible.

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When it came time to get in, Pilot Jason gave us some simple rules to follow and we were off.

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We got to see a few balloons take off before we left which was beautiful.

IMG_1545IMG_1556The actual sun in our sunrise was pretty hazy. I think that happens often as Bagan is usually pretty cloudy and hazy due to fires burning from farming. But it was gorgeous nonetheless and there were some patches of fog amongst the pagodas that were quite beautiful.

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Flying above the pagodas was incredible. At some points, we were super high up, above all the other balloons.

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At other points, we were lowered and got a great close up aerial view of the pagodas.

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It was such an amazing alternative way to see the pagodas. If this excursion is out of your budget, I would recommend waking up for sunrise and going to the Bulethi temple as the balloons take off right near there and you will get a great view.

#2 - Bike Ride through Old Bagan

 

 

Renting a bike is very easy in New Bagan or Nyaung U. It’s only about 3,000 Kyat ($3) and once you get the bike, you can ride down Chalk Road (if you’re coming from New Bagan) or Anawrahta Road (if you’re coming from Nyayng U).

Both roads have a ton of pagodas. It was so fun to stop at random pagodas that aren’t the popular hot spots as you can just walk around and discover what’s inside.

A few tips if you do this. Bagan can be EXTREMELY hot during the day. I almost had heat stroke :). Try and do this bike ride outside of mid-day hours. Also, there are some bike companies that sell motorized bikes (not scooters, but bicycles that have little motors on them). That may be a good option if you don’t want to use all of your energy in the hot weather. Also check your bike breaks before you leave the rental place!

#3 - Tea Shop Stop

Tea shops are an institution in Burma! Don’t be shy about grabbing a plastic stool at a tea shop and sitting down.

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You can usually find 2 different kinds of tea (plain and one that’s EXTREMELY sweetened with condensed milk) as well as snack and breakfast items like donuts and samosas and Shan noodles. Lunch/Dinner type fair is not often served.

Samosas at Burmese tea shop

Tea shops are really the place where Burmese congregate as bars don’t exist and restaurants are only frequented by tourists. A lot of Burmese also take tea shop tea and food to go in little baggies!  Read more about the Burmese tea shop experience here.

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#4 - Pennywort Cooking Class

 

 

I highly recommend the Pennywort Cooking Class to anyone visiting Bagan. Even if you’re not a big cook, it is such a lovely way to get a real look at everyday life in Bagan.

You start the morning by meeting Mae at the local market. Mae is an incredible woman who started this class as a way to raise funds to support her local libraries for children. Mae takes your small group to a small market which is one of the nicest I saw in my Southeast Asia travels. She takes the time to patiently explain the fruits and veggies that make up popular Myanmar dishes and suggests alternative products you can find outside of Asia. She then took us to a tea shop where she explained a ton of things I didn’t know about tea shop culture in Myanmar.

The next few hours, we spent cooking in the small garden behind her house. We learned how to cook 4 different curries and 5 different salads but also learned a ton about local life, what the schools are like, how people in Myanmar are adapting to the recent availability of smartphones and Facebook. It was a really interesting day that ended in a feast of our cooking in the children’s library attached to her house.

I highly recommend this class!

#5 - Sunset Ponycart Ride

Sunsets in Bagan are extraordinary and riding to a few of the top sunset pagodas in a ponycart can be pretty breathtaking. My driver took me to a few sunset hot spots in Nyaung U for 15,000 Kyat ($12). Most drivers will just drop you off at one but I quite liked hopping around and seeing the view from a few and the view while riding in between.

I first climbed Bulethi – this one does get crowded and there are only so many seats for sunset so if you come late, you may be out of luck for a great view.

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After seeing the view there, we headed over to the flat roof of Oak Kyaung Gyi right next door. There is a larger space to move around to see the view (which is really similar to Bulethi).

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From there we drove through the pagodas of Khaymingha.

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And ended at Htilominlo as it was just lighting up at nightfall. It looked stunning – especially with a few monks walking in. Just note that you can’t climb up this one so not ideal for a sunset view of other pagodas.

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There are a few other wonderful things to do in Bagan like take a guided tour of one of the popular temples, go for a sunset river cruise or a day trip to Mt. Popa if you have extra time during your trip.

Top Tips

  • Hotels – I’ve stayed at the Oasis Hotel – which is in Nyaung U and the Myanmar Treasure Resort – which is in New Bagan. Both are great spots but I actually preferred Oasis which was cheaper and in walking distance of downtown Nyaung U.
  • Hot Spots – Nyaung U and Old Bagan are the two areas that have a strip of restaurants and a tiny selection of shops. If you are traveling alone or want to eat away from your hotel often, I recommend getting a hotel within walking distance of one of these two areas so you can walk instead of constantly finding transportation (which can be hard).
  • Restaurants – I recommend trying the Myanmar food restaurants while you are there to get a taste of local cuisine. My favorites were Bibo in Nyaung U and Mingalarba and Green Elephant in New Bagan.
  • Getting Around -Transportation is somewhat hard to find and expensive for Asian standards. There are only taxis and ponycarts for hire (no motorbikes or buses) and hour hotel will have to call for a taxi driver as you can’t hail one on the road. If always costs about 7,000 kyat ($6) to go across Bagan.
  • Cash – In Bagan they advertise most prices in US dollar although they accept both Kyat and dollar everywhere. Credit cards largely aren’t accepted.
  • ATMS – there are atms in all the main towns – and a fair amount of them. I had one issue with a machine that ate my card. But a restaurant owner helped me call the bank and a guy on a motorbike came right away to open the machine and get my card back! Aside from that I never had any issue getting money.
  • Credit Cards – Largely not accepted (maybe at hotels?) I didn’t use my credit card at all aside from booking hotels online. Plan to always have cash.
  • Archeological Fee – You will have to pay the archeological fee when you enter Bagan (25,000 Kyat – $20). This will either be collected at the airport or bus station. You have to pay for it but the only place they will check for it is if you are trying to enter a popular Pagoda. If you don’t have it and want to get into the pagoda, you will have to buy another one so always carry it with you!
  • Getting There – If you are heading on to Mandalay or visiting Bagan from Mandalay, I highly recommend the Bagan -> Mandalay slow boat which you can read more about in my post here.
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