Bagan – all you need to know

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Bagan is a thousand year old temple complex and the absolute highlight of any visit to Myanmar. It is one of the great architectural wonders of the world and vies with Angkor Wat in Cambodia for the most impressive archaeological site in Asia.

It is the former capital of the Pagan empire which ruled in what is current day Myanmar. During the peak, between the 11th and 13th centuries, over 10000 temples and pagodas were constructed, of which around 2200 exist today.

Where to stay: Old Bagan vs New Bagan vs Nyaung U?

The short answer is, it doesn’t really matter. The temples are scattered over a large distance but pretty much all of it can be covered in 2 days on an e-bike.

Most of the most famous temples are located in Old Bagan, but there are limited accommodation and eating options. One excellent restaurant I would recommend in Old Bagan is The Moon. Be Kind to the Animals, serving excellent vegetarian food. They also have a branch in New Bagan.

So most people stay in either New Bagan or Nyaung-U. Nyaung-U is where the boat to Mandalay leaves and near the airport. Both have good eating options. More mid-range hotels are located in New Bagan. I stayed in the excellent new Baobabed hostel, which has a rooftop pool and bar and is on a strip on the Old Bagan side of Nyaung-U.

Getting around

E-bikes are pretty much the only option to get around unless you want to hire a private car or taxi. The e-bikes are actually electric scooters, now what we would consider an e-bike – i.e. a bicycle with an electric motor. They are pretty cheap and don’t go more than 40km/hr, but helmets are in short supply and riding them carries a risk. You hire them for a day or half-day and return them in the evening so the battery can be recharged.

How to see the sunset/sunrise

Since 2018, climbing the temples to see the sunrise/sunset has been prohibited. A tourist apparently died after falling from one of the temples. Plus, due to damage caused by tourists and lack of maintenance by the authorities, Bagan has incredibly lost its world heritage status.

So, how then does one see the sunset/sunrise? There are actually a few options still available.

  1. Take a balloon ride. There are 3 companies operating sunrise balloon flights. The ride is very pricey at $350 for the standard 16 person balloon up to the deluxe 8 person flight with video/pictures for a whopping $450. The season runs from Oct to Apr. I was in Bagan in Oct and all flights were cancelled, not due to poor weather, but the wind blowing in the wrong direction. Those who take the flight say it is money well spent.
  2. Find one of the not-so-secret temples on which climbing is tolerated. Despite the ban on climbing, there are still a few temples around on which nobody seems to mind you climb. Locals will offer to take you to these secret spots in exchange for a hard-sell of their art at exorbitant prices. Ignore them and instead use Maps.me. This awesome offline maps app has up to date information on the status of several (often un-named) temples.
  3. Go to one of the viewing points. To compensate for the climbing ban, a few man-made viewing hills have been constructed, which are pretty blah. A better alternative is the Nan Myint Tower – a purpose-built viewing tower which has a commanding view of the entire site, albeit it from a distance. At the time of writing, there was a $5 entry fee for the tower.

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