Bagan is truly beautiful, one of the most impressive places I’ve ever been to. When my friend Serena suggested we go visit Myanmar, I was intrigued. I had not heard much about Myanmar and I did not know anyone who has been there at that time. But our trip to Myanmar was memorable in many ways.
For close to five decades, Myanmar was a closed-off country, repressed under a strict military government. Since the US Sanction in 1995, Myanmar was not officially open to tourism again until recently in 2010. Because of this, when I visited in 2015, I found things are still a bit peculiar and sometimes backward compared to its neighboring countries. Our boarding passes were issued in a yellow post-it notes, and I heard from my brother there were no ATMs in the country back in 2012 (But don’t worry, they do have them now)
Here is some information that can help plan your trip to Bagan / Myanmar:
Travel Tips for Bagan, Myanmar
- Visa – YES, you need one!! Myanmar has only allowed citizens of SEVEN countries to visit without a visa, so chances are you probably need one. Check if you need a visa here, I recommend applying for e-visa ahead of time if you are eligible.
- Cash situation – Bring new notes of USD. And by this, I mean crisp, unbent USD notes that just came out fresh off the bank. They may not honor your cash if it’s not brand new, for fear of fake money. Read Legal Nomads’ Burma Crash Course for more information on this.
- Wear Sandals – you’re going to have to take off your shoes for all of the temples you visit, so make sure you wear something that can be easily taken off / put back on later.
- And on that note – take off your footwear when visiting a temple! We were required to take off your shoes in all of the temples we visited, including socks. Locals take this very seriously, so please respect their tradition. If you hate dirty feet just bring some wet wipes to clean them whenever you feel the need.
- Burma or Myanmar? When Google refers to a country with both names, you expect it to be a controversial issue. But it seems to locals that it does not matter, both are correct. Burma is simply the colloquial way of referring to the country, while Myanmar is the official written way.
- Rent a bike for the day – as soon as you get to Bagan, rent a bike! I’ll elaborate more on this as one of the things to do below!
- If you are visiting during the cooler months (December and January), take a thin jacket with you. It gets cold at night.
How to get to Bagan
The easiest to get to Bagan is to fly to Yangon, then do a domestic transport to Bagan. Here is what I’ve learned about transporting yourself domestically in Myanmar. There are three options: Air, Bus and Trains. Let’s go through each of them:
- Domestic Flights: Bagan has an airport called Nyaung-U Airport. Flying here is your best bet and the most comfortable option, but definitely not the cheapest. It cost US$150 for a two-hour one-way flight from Yangon to Nyaung-U airport, and you can only fly Burmese airlines for domestic flights. It used to be that domestic flights can only be booked from a Burmese travel agency, but nowadays you can find domestic flights at Skyscanner (my fav travel aggregator). Back when it wasn’t open, I used Visit MM and flew with Air KBZ – I had a great experience with them. If you do decide to fly, you can also book Bagan Airport Transfer here to pick you from the airport.
- Take a Bus: You can book a VIP Bus Yangon to Bagan here. The bus is generally an OK way to travel, but only and ONLY if you get VIP. If you are traveling out of bigger cities like Yangon or Mandalay you should be able to get on nicer buses, but some routes do not have this VIP option. So what’s the difference between VIP and non-VIP bus? I experienced it on a bus ride from Bagan to Inle Lake. I don’t have a picture of the actual bus itself which looked like a regular bus, just really old and has weird smells. That is until they make extra stops and pull temporary seats in the middle of the aisle so MORE people can be packed in. Needless to say, it was one of the roughest bus trips I have had.
- Brave the Myanmar Train: Honestly, don’t take the train in Myanmar. It’s inefficient. I didn’t take one, but from what I’ve read, the trains are very old and may even take you longer than the bus.
Where to stay in Bagan
There are two parts to Bagan: Old Bagan and New Bagan. I think as a tourist, it’s much more convenient to stay in Old Bagan. It’s closer to the airport, the pagodas and tourist spots. We stayed at Hotel Umbra Bagan, which was great!
And now, what we’ve all been waiting for. What to do in Bagan:
1. Rent a bicycle and visit Bagan’s pagodas and temples
When we first landed in Bagan, it was super early in the morning. We took the 7 am flight from Yangon and landed at 8 am. Our hotel didn’t have a room for us to check in yet, so we did what anyone in their sane mind would do – we grabbed (rented) an old Japanese bike from the hotel for 2000 kyat (US$2) a day and biked around entire Old Bagan. You can also rent an e-bike if you don’t want to pedal too much.
That proved to be the best decision we made. As soon as we biked out of our hotel, it was clear that it would be difficult to run out of things to do in Bagan. The streets were peppered with thousands of temples, left and right, and all you have to do is choose which one to turn in to. Apparently, there are over 2000 temples in Bagan.
Bagan is (thankfully) mostly flat, so riding on a bicycle was not strenuous at all. We did have to get off the bike and push on certain routes though, because the roads were not paved and our bikes couldn’t ride on the soft sands.
Serena and I ended up having way too much fun that we forgot to go home until the sun has completely set and had to go home biking in complete darkness. We were out biking and hanging out in the temples for over 10 hours!
Among the 2,000 temples in Bagan, here are the main ones to check out: Ananda Temple, Dhammayan Gyi Temple, Shwezigon Pagoda and Shwesandaw Pagoda. If you don’t want to go on your own, you can book this Bagan Guided e-bike Temples Tour which provides you with an English speaking guide.
The most memorable thing about Bagan is that while the entire city caters to tourism and there are definitely lots of tourists, you never seem to run out of space. There are so many temples out there, enough for everyone that we were able to hang out in one of the medium-sized temples completely free of other tourists for an hour.
2. Watch the sunset from Shwesandaw Pagoda
During our ten-hour bike ride, we made a pit stop at Shwesandaw, one of the bigger and taller pagodas on the plains of Old Bagan. The pagoda is taller than the other ones in Bagan, and offers an awesome unblocked view of the entire plain. Which meant…. we’ve found a spot to watch the sunset!
Not gonna lie though, sunset is an extremely crowded time at Shwesandaw. While there was almost nobody earlier that day, by sunset the entire west-facing side of the temple was filled. Be sure to arrive an hour before sunset to secure your spot, cause it’s going to look like this:
3. Wake up early for sunrise!
And of course, seeing how marvelous the sunset was from Shwesandaw, we came back the next day for sunrise too! We knew it would be a popular spot, so we made sure we got there by 5:30 am to reserve a good space. It was pitch dark, cold, and I started to wonder what we were really waiting for out there. But once the sun and the hot air balloons comes out, the million dollar view made it all worthwhile!
These were all taken with my iPhone:
4. Hot Air Balloon Sunrise
The sunrise hot air balloon tours are apparently a must do, but it’s not cheap US$300. You can book Bagan Hot Air Balloon Sunrise here. I did not do the hot air balloon, since it was out of my budget, but if you can afford it – why not?
5. Take a half-day trip to Mount Popa
Mount Popa is a volcano located only 50km from Bagan, making it a very doable half-day trip. If you are staying in Bagan for more than a day, I recommend hiring a car and get yourself out here! You can book this Mount Popa Day Tour, which includes an English speaking guide, or you can just arrange a car from your hotel if you don’t want a tour.
The most popular thing to do in Mount Popa is not the mountain itself, it is visiting the Buddhist Monastery that is dramatically perched on top of Taung Kalat, a volcanic plug 657 meters above sea level. To get up to the monastery, you have to climb 777 set of stairs on foot. Yes, that sounds like a lot of stairs, but it makes for an interesting journey!
Take note there are tons of wild monkeys on the stairs and around the monastery. Do not feed them and do NOT try to touch or pet them. They will not be friendly to you.
6. Try the Burmese national delight: Mohinga
One of the dishes I LOVED from Myanmar was Mohinga, a comforting rice noodle soup made with fish stock. This soup is normally had for breakfast or light afternoon snacks. You can find Mohinga practically everywhere in the country, but the best is when you spot a group of people slurping away on their bowl of soup on a low plastic stool, like this:
Upon seeing this, of course I joined them! I don’t remember the exact price but I think it was 1000 kyat, which is roughly 60 cents a bowl. The bowl is tiny so this soup actually makes for a perfect snack.
Where to go next after Bagan
- Mandalay – I didn’t make it to Mandalay on my trip, but it’s a popular spot to visit in Myanmar. You can get to Mandalay from Bagan either by VIP Bus or by the Irrawaddy River Cruise. The cruise takes 12 hours, while the bus takes 6 hours, but I personally would do the river cruise! Sounds like an exciting way to transfer between cities.
- Inle Lake – Inle Lake was great. You can get to Inle Lake by VIP Bus or by air. I recommend taking the bus from Bagan since the airport closest to Inle Lake (Heho Airport) is 2 hours away.
Thank you Bagan, for the magical memories.