The ancient city of Bagan; perhaps Myanmar’s biggest drawcard and a place that has single handedly attracted people to the country for decades. The Southeast Asian country is often described as the land of temples and pagodas and for good reason, you’ll find pagodas strewn across every hill. But, Bagan is perhaps the epitome of that description and the ancient landscape will simply blow you away with its beauty.
While being one of the country’s biggest tourist attractions, there’s still not a whole lot of information about how to explore Bagan and its beautiful temples. This guide will give you some practical details about what to do in Bagan, based on my own experience spending a few days there.
What is Bagan?
Effectively an open air pagoda and temple museum, Bagan is a former ancient capital. It 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 and is now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
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 travellers who said they had dreamed of coming to visit Bagan ever since laying eyes on a photo of the place. It is truly a sight that draws tourists from far and wide.
How to reach Bagan
You can either fly into Bagan or take a bus from any other major city in the country. Being a popular tourist destination, there are transport options to Bagan from most cities.
There are standard and VIP buses making their way to Bagan. Both the buses from Yangon to Bagan and Inle Lake to Bagan are usually overnight journeys, taking around 10 hours. There are multiple companies to choose from with varying quality and services.
To reach Bagan from Mandalay, there are several buses running during the day and taking around 5-6 hours.
I arrived on an overnight bus from the small town of Hsipaw. The bus arrived in Bagan at 3am, about four hours ahead of schedule (a common part of bus travel in Myanmar).
If you don’t have a door to door service arranged with the bus company, you’ll likely have to get a taxi to and from the bus station as it’s in Nyaung U town, a few kilometres from Bagan. Taxi drivers in Bagan are notorious for ripping tourists off, so try to bargain or share the ride with other travellers.
You can also fly to Bagan. The flight times are around 1.5 hours from Yangon and half an hour from Mandalay. Tickets are expensive and can cost between USD$80-150 one way.
Read next: 10 Best Things to Do in Mandalay
Bagan entrance ticket
The entire Bagan archaeological zone requires a ticket to enter. The Bagan ticket price is around USD$15 and is valid for three days. While some people try to get away with it, you’ll likely be directed to the ticket booth in town as soon as you arrive either off the plane or by bus.
You have to carry the ticket with you during your stay and may be asked to show it at any time. While there’s no specific entrance gate into the area, the ticket office is located in Bagan town so it’s difficult to evade it.
Things to do in Bagan
Everyone comes to explore the pagoda strewn landscape of the area. While sunrise and sunset are the best times, you can easily get up closer and explore some of the temples and pagodas during the day as well.
Here are the best things to do in Bagan:
1. Watch sunrise from the top of a pagoda
The quintessential Bagan experience is to watch the sunrise while perched on top of one of the pagodas or temples. As the morning glow lights up the sky, hot air balloons make their way across the pagoda-strewn field.
While this has been the most famous image of Myanmar, many of the temples have been slowly closed since 2018. This has been done mostly for the preservation of the structures, especially now that it has received UNESCO World Heritage status.
However, you can still find a handful of smaller temples open for the public, you just have to know where to look. There have been some manmade hills and viewing platforms built by the government which offer a nice view. While these are heavily advertised now, they still don’t quite live up to the same hype as watching the sunrise from a temple.
I found that the best sources for finding hidden temples still open were Maps.Me or just simply asking a local. People have been updating Maps.Me with the latest opening and closures and it was accurate when I was there in 2019.
Unfortunately, being at a temple at sunrise means a 4am or 5am wake up call depending on the season. This should allow enough time to ride or drive to the temple and get a good spot. In high season, temples and viewpoints can get very crowded, so arrive earlier than you think!
2. Hire an E-bike to explore the area (or bicycle)
The large complex is best discovered on one of the e-bikes for rent at almost every shop, hotel or restaurant. The scooters cost around 5000-8000kyats or $5-6 for the day. You can take them from sunrise to sunset and almost explore the entire place in one day. This gives you the ultimate freedom to zip around from one pagoda to another and explore at your own pace.
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 from your accommodation or if you’re not confident in riding a scooter. However, they’re usually not in the best condition so check before riding away that the brakes even work!
3. Take a sunrise hot air balloon ride
If you’d rather be in the famous Bagan photo rather than admiring it from a temple, you can take a hot air balloon ride at sunrise. From October until March, numerous hot air balloons fill the sky over the pagodas at sunrise time.
While not cheap, it’s considered one of the best hot air balloon rides in the world and a once in a lifetime type of experience.
4. Check out Ananda Temple
A Buddhist temple from the 12th century, the Ananda Temple is one of the best preserved temples in the traditional Mon architecture. The huge spire is one of the most unique aspects of the design, covered in gold and rising over 170 feet.
It’s an extremely picturesque temple and easily one of the most photogenic. The temple is in perfect symmetry with four standing Buddhas facing each direction over 9 metres high inside each of the entrances.
5. Head to Dahmmayangyi Temple
As one of the largest temples at Bagan, you can hardly miss this place from anywhere. You’ll see the incredibly well-preserved 12th century complex which is said to have been built by King Narathu.
The square base and tall terraces resemble a kind of pyramid shape, which makes it very unique. The temple has four entrances, each with its own seated Buddha. As one of the best preserved and largest temples, it’s definitely worth checking out up close in Bagan.
6. Visit Sulamani Temple
This is another one of the best temples in Bagan to visit and is a beautiful structure from the 12th century. It’s nicknamed the crowning jewel because of its unique architecture and it’s not hard to see why.
There are also paintings on the interior of Sulamani from around the 18th century, which you can take a look at as you explore the corridors.
7. Watch sunset from Shwesandaw Paya
This temple located just outside the main field, is one of the tallest structures in Bagan. There are five terraces with steps cut into the stone which take you to the top of the large stupa.
It’s traditionally been considered one of the best spots for both sunrise and sunset in Bagan. People have been allowed to climb it at their own risk, for incredible panoramic views across the area. It can get extremely crowded and when I was there, sunset was definitely less busy and a better time.
However, you should check whether it is currently open for climbing before heading up, as it’s unclear whether the government has decided to close it permanently now or not.
8. Discover many of the other temples in the early morning
There are countless other temples and pagodas to find as you explore the area. The benefit of hiring an e-bike or scooter is that you can get around quite quickly to places you see from afar. The fun part about Bagan is that you’re able to simply explore at your own leisure with few limits on where you can go.
The best time is in the early morning, after sunrise. This is often when many people head back to their hotels for a nap and breakfast, but the lighting is still beautiful and it means much less crowds around the fields. I found this to be the best time of day to explore Bagan.
A note on pagoda closures
The government has slowly begun to close the temples 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 unattainable.
However, for the benefit of their preservation the closures are not such a bad thing and it just means that people 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 aren’t as good as 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.
Where to stay in Bagan
Bagan is actually very confusing. The Bagan area has three different towns; 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 town.
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 field and had enough restaurants and hotel choices within walking distance of each other. A lot of people stay in New Bagan, where there are a lot of hotels and tourist-oriented shops and restaurants, it’s towards the southern end of the complex.
Here are a couple of good recommendations:
Ostello Bello Bagan || By far one of the most popular accommodation choices in Bagan. This place offers dormitory beds and private rooms, on the main road in New Bagan. It has an onsite restaurant and bar, tour desk and cultural activities. Check availability here.
The Hotel Umbra Bagan || Nicely located between Nyaung U and Old Bagan, this beautiful hotel has spacious private rooms, two outdoor pools, spa centre and restaurant. It’s a quiet mid-range hotel to explore the temples from. Check availability here.