View from horse carriage ride in Bagan as taken by my iPhone
Bagan, formerly known as Pagan, is an ancient city in Myanmar that was once the capital city of the Pagan Empire. During the height of the Empire’s power between the 9th and 13th Centuries, over 10,000 temples, pagodas, and monasteries were built in Bagan as symbols of the Empire’s religious devotion, prestige, and prominence. Only approximately 2,000 of them remain today. The region is currently known as the Archaeological Zone. Not surprisingly, the Archaeological Zone in Bagan is the main tourist attraction in Myanmar. My friends selected Bagan as the site of their destination wedding. It is the location of their first trip together as a couple and where they fell in love. They now have the distinction of being the first foreign couple to be married within the Zone. Accordingly, I visited Bagan as part of a large group of wedding guests.
In my opinion, Bagan currently has an ideal balance between modern day amenities and the awe inspiring experience of traveling back to ancient times. There are resorts with first world comfort and luxury as well as a solid number of shops and restaurants. Moreover, cellular service and data is available and works fine throughout Bagan and the Archaeological Zone. Nevertheless, modern times stand next to yet do not overpower the authentic experience of observing the local, native culture and the grand monuments of the past. You truly feel that you are walking through a different time and soaking in the power of the religious significance of Bagan when you move away from the resorts, shops, and restaurants. However, that delicate balance could be disturbed in the future. Myanmar is moving toward a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) listing of Bagan as a world heritage site. It will provide a big boom to tourism in Bagan and the economy of Myanmar. On the other hand, it will make Bagan a lot more touristy and detract from the overall experience. Since Myanmar is a developing country, the locals will follow tourists and hustle to try to sell clothes, souvenirs, etc. If you show any kind of interest, they will relentlessly pursue you. Of course, you should always bargain and start low if you do want something because they are always ready to negotiate and accept a price significantly less than their initial ask.
Unfortunately, Myanmar is currently synonymous with the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in the Rakhine State. The violence is far from Bagan. Nevertheless, there is a moral issue for potential visitors. One of the other wedding guests spoke to a local in Yangon, the largest city, about it. The local noted that the atrocities are being perpetrated by a very small number of people but it makes his entire country look bad. As a result, tourism is deterred and it hurts a lot of the people who have nothing to do with the violence but depend on tourist dollars. In addition, he addressed the criticism of the lack of response from de facto head of state, Aung San Suu Kyi. The Burmese military has significant power and Suu Kyi has little to no control of it. The local noted that she would probably react very differently in a private conversation about the genocide but she needs to be very careful with what she expresses publicly. For morally conscious travelers, they will need to independently consider and evaluate the facts to determine whether their prospective visit will benefit the impoverished locals who need their money or the military. Of course, there is also plenty of good in engaging and sharing cultures between tourists and locals rather than punishing and isolating an entire country for the crimes of a few. Nonetheless, it is a personal decision each traveler needs to make himself.
Back to traveling to Bagan, it is a great place to just wander and explore without a plan. Regardless, below are some tidbits and recommendations from my trip:
- Temples and Pagodas
Obviously, the primary reason to visit Bagan is to see the historic temples and pagodas that encompass the landscape. You will need to pay a fee for a pass to enter the Archaeological Zone. The easiest way is to purchase it for 25,000 kyat (approximately $20) at the Nyaung U Airport if you are arriving to Bagan from there. They are also sold at some of the checkpoints in the Zone. When you climb or walk within a temple or pagoda, you will need to take off your shoes and socks. As a result, many visitors prefer wearing flip flops when they explore the Zone. In addition, you are leaving your stuff around while you explore so it is good to not have anything expensive (e.g. shoes) lying around. It is definitely worth the time to climb some pagodas or get to an upper level of a temple because the elevated sightlines are spectacular.
Below are the best methods to get around to see the temples:
They are more like mopeds than bicycles. As the name implies, they run on electricity instead of gasoline. A lot of locals travel around town on E-bikes and mopeds. It takes a second to get a handle of the bikes but it is basically like “riding a bike” once you get used to it. They are also a lot of fun. Of course, take the key out when you get off the bike to explore. We rented bikes at the hotel for $5 for 4 hours but you will see rental shops all over town. We rented them without a need to show a permit or license. Most riders also do not use helmets so they did not have any on hand. Some of these liberties may cease once UNESCO enters the picture and puts some rules in. The bikes are relatively safe but definitely be careful. The roads are narrow so cars will have to swerve around you. My biggest concern was hitting a small rock or dirt path then losing control next to a car, van, or bus. However, I generally slowed down so I had total control of the bike when vehicles approached and passed. You will see locals continue their speed because they are used to riding. They also have a second passenger sitting sideways on the back of the bike a lot of times.
- Renting a driver/ guide
There is no need to schedule a driver ahead of your trip. If you are staying at a hotel, it can call for a local driver to hire for a half or full day. Depending on the number of people you have, you can get a car, van, or bus. If you get a good driver, they will take you to a bunch of the most popular temples. However, there might be a language barrier. You can take a map and point but it may be easier to hire an English speaking guide. We had 15-16 people in our group and rented a bus and a guide for half a day. The guide also walked us through a local village to show us how the locals live. We had to tip a chauffeur from the village a couple of dollars. With the split costs, it ended up being $16 per person. The price is variable and negotiable based on the driver or local company. Nevertheless, it is generally $20 for a half day and $30 for a full day.
- Horse carriage
A horse carriage provides a leisurely ride around Bagan. The experience is a bit bumpy because of the dirt roads it rides on. On the other hand, I had a much bumpier ride off-roading in Kauai, Hawaii in a jeep. Nevertheless, it can be uncomfortable if you are not used to it. We had an hour horse carriage ride leading up to sunset as part of wedding festivities. If you look up the pricing, it is similar to cars and drivers: approximately $20 for half a day and $30 for a full day. It is a little more for sunrise.
- Four most popular temples
Regardless of your mode of transportation, you should make an effort to see the four most popular temples, which are:
This temple is away from most of the temples and pagodas. It is by the river and the airport in the East. You cannot see anything from the outside so you will need to take off your shoes and walk in to see the temple. It is my personal favorite because the main temple has a gold exterior. It is completely filled in inside. There is also a gold themed village next to the temple.
The other three most popular temples are pretty close to each other:
It is a beautiful temple with a golden peak. It was rainy on the day we went so I kept my shoes on and just took pictures of the exterior from outside of the premises. If you go inside, there are 4 giant, gold statues of Buddha.
It is the largest of all the temples and shaped like a pyramid. It is bricked up inside so you cannot enter. I saw and took pictures of it while my horse carriage passed by.
It is one of the tallest temples. It stands out and is visible from much of the plains. The terraces are closed off to the public because it was badly damaged by an earthquake in 1975. You can get a great photo of the temple if you climb up a nearby pagoda.
- Sunset – Nyaung Lat Phet (the Mound)
Sunrises and sunsets are spectacular in Bagan because the land is flat and you get to see the sun majestically rise or set over the temples and pagodas scattered throughout the landscape. Nyaung Lat Phet, or the Mound, is a small hill that is very popular. The elevated viewpoint provides amazing sightlines. On a clear day, the lake behind the mound serves as a beautiful mirror lake that reflects the surrounding geography. After the sun sets, there is a lot of traffic out because the road is narrow and traffic is going in both directions.
- Sunrise/ Hot Air Balloons
One of the most popular attractions in Bagan is hot air balloon rides at sunrise. You ascend in the air on the balloons and rise above the temples simultaneously as the sun rises above the landscape. This setting is probably the most popular photograph of Bagan. I did not get a chance to go because there were no more spots left on the day I wanted to do it. As a result, it is recommended that travelers book the balloon as far in advance as possible if they want to experience it. On the other hand, the cost runs at about $300. For this reason, I was not too upset when I could not go. You can also go on sunrise tours without going on the balloons. Another wedding guest snapped beautiful photos of the balloons taking off from the top of a pagoda.
- Bagan Lodge Hotel
If you were dumped straight on to the premises of the Bagan Lodge Hotel, you would not know if you were at a resort in Florida or Myanmar. It is a legitimate, luxurious resort. You are greeted by a beautiful, open air lobby and a magnificent swimming pool once you enter. The rooms in the lodges are great. There is a lot of space and they look gorgeous. There is a hallway with a bathtub in between the bathroom and shower. The accommodations are picturesque. The food was very good too. The complimentary, continental breakfast was stocked with an omelet and waffle bar, cooked food, pastries, cereal, juices, etc. The vermicelli noodles were my favorite item. I also enjoyed the service. The manager was very friendly and accommodating. He asked me about my breakfast to ensure my experience was up to par. Moreover, we were hungry after we returned from a wedding ceremony and had to wait a couple hours before we had dinner. Although the restaurant was only holding a New Year’s Eve buffet special, the manager allowed us to order off the buffet menu a la carte. The Bagan Lodge Hotel offered first world luxuries and accommodations. It is expensive for Asia at $200 per night but it is not too expensive when I compare it to resorts in the United States.
Obviously, be careful with what you eat in a developing country. They may not use clean water to wash their food. When you drink water, make sure it is from bottled water. I only ate from the hotel or reputable restaurants. Below are a couple of restaurants with safe, good food.
- Be Kind to Animals The Moon 2 (New Bagan on 4th Street)
If I knew vegetarian food could be so good… I would still eat meat. However, I would be willing to skip it a few more times. The veggie burger was incredible. It may have been the best veggie burger I have ever eaten. In my opinion, it is as delicious as most meat patties. The fried noodles were very good too. I am allergic and asked for no peanuts. When they realized they cooked it with peanuts, they immediately grabbed the dish and made me a new one. The jasmine tea was excellent too. It had a very flowery taste. Everything was very cheap. My total bill was the equivalent of approximately $5. In addition, there are two restaurants. Make sure to go to “2” in New Bagan. It is the one we went to and we heard it was the better of the two. I also loved the look of the restaurant. It had the feel of a casual yet trendy hut with a beautiful interior.
- Sharkey’s (Near Shwezigon Pagoda, Nyaung U, Bagan, Myanmar)
Sharkey’s is a popular chain in Myanmar with a location in Bagan. The fried food is decent. I generally do not eat pizza west of Chicago. Although Sharkey’s did not change my perspective, the pizza was edible. The best item I ate at Sharkey’s was definitely their chicken sandwich. It was absolutely delicious. The restaurant is massive. It looks like an aircraft hangar from the outside and there is an open air courtyard in the middle.
- Nyaung U Airport
It is a small, regional airport. It is quick to check in. However, you should ask your hotel to call the airport early on the day of your flight. There could be delays or we heard that they sometimes consolidate flights to an earlier one if there is not enough passengers on each flight. It is easy for the hotel to call and communicate with the airport because they will speak with them in Burmese. Our shuttle to the airport cost us $10 for 3 people. The airport is a bit confusing when you are there. After you get through security when your flight is initially called, you sit and wait in a holding room where you wait for a bus to take you to your plane. However, the communication is limited and no representative is present to speak to until the bus is ready to take you to your plane. We were confused because we were at Gate 3 but our ticket said Gate 2. Nevertheless, we were in the correct spot. The airport also gives the same color sticker to passengers on the same plane. Accordingly, we just followed the herd when it moved.
You need a Travel Visa to visit Myanmar. It costs $50. It is very easy to get an e-Visa online (https://www.myanmaronlinevisa.org/application). I submitted my request at night and got my approved Visa by the next morning.
If you are flying to Myanmar, you will likely pass through the international airport in Yangon. We had an overnight layover for an early morning flight to Bagan. Unfortunately, we did not have enough time to head downtown to explore or see some of the temples and pagodas in Yangon. We stayed at the Wyne Hotel (34 Kyaik Waing Pagoda Road, Yangon 11062, Myanmar). It is an excellent hotel with spacious and beautiful rooms. We ate dinner at a nearby restaurant, Golden Duck (Myaing Hay Wun Park, 8 Mile, Pyay Rd, Yangon, Myanmar), which was walkable from the hotel. The food was very good. Naturally, the duck was very good. It was comparable to good duck I eat at Chinese restaurants in New York. We ordered an assortment of dishes at two separate tables and every dish had great, unique flavor. The restaurant provides a separate menu for tourists. Regardless, we ordered a lot of food but it was not too expensive. Our table spent 10,000 kyat per person, which was about $8.
There are domestic and international terminals at the airport. Not surprisingly, the international one is modern and full of shops and restaurants. If you have kyats when you leave, remember to exchange it at the airport before you depart because kyats are not taken outside of Myanmar. In addition, give yourself plenty of time in your layover if you are connecting. We had a little rain in Bagan and it delayed our flight for 3 hours. However, we had a 6-7 hour layover scheduled so we had plenty of time. However, travelers with more time sensitive connecting flights missed their connections.
If you are planning a longer trip to Myanmar, I had to return home for work but most of the wedding guests headed to Inle Lake for a couple of days.