Bagan (formerly known as Pagan) is an ancient city located in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). Pagan used to be the capital city of the Kingdom of Pagan, from the 9th until the 13th century. The Kingdom of Pagan was the first kingdom to unify the regions that constitute to modern Myanmar in the present day. The Kingdom would reach its peak between the 11th until the 13th century. In this time Pagan grew both in size and grandeur, and was seen as the cosmopolitan center for religious and secular studies. The city attracted monks and students from as far as India, Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka), as well as the Khmer Empire (Cambodia).
Pagan rulers instructed to build over 10,000 religious monuments in the Pagan area alone. Only 2,200 of these monuments survived the test of time, mainly due to the impact of earthquakes (over 400 earthquakes were recorded in the area between 1904 and 1975).
From 1277 until 1301 the Mongolian Empire would invade the Kingdom of Pagan several times, eventually leading to a collapse of the Pagan Empire in 1287. It’s likely the Mongol army didn’t reach Pagan itself, leaving the city undamaged. However, in fear of the Mongolians, the citizens of Pagan already left the city, turning Pagan in a ghost town. Once the home of 50,000 to 200,000 people, only 20,000 remain in the present day.
In 1297 the Myinsaing Kingdom took over the power in Upper Burma. In this time, Pagan formally ceased to be the capital of Burma.
The city remained a pilgrimage destination ever since, but it never relived its glory days.
Exploring the temples of Bagan
Although the special visa you will have to buy for 20 USD (or 20,000 Kyats), is valid for five days, three days should be enough to see most of Bagan. I did it in three days myself, and saw most of the mapped temples. To save money, I rented a mountain bike for three days, which costed me 3,000 Kyats a day. However, most popular transport to explore the temples are the e-bikes. These are electrical bikes with a top speed of 30 km/h, which will cost you 8,000 Kyats a day.
Tourists are not allowed to rent motorbikes anymore, since they were causing too much accidents in the past – often driving too fast. This is a strict rule, nobody rents out motorcycles to foreigners in Bagan these days.
Riding the mountain bike for three days in the burning sun myself – with a temperature of 45 degrees Celsius – I can only recommend to spend a bit more and rent the e-bikes. E-bikes are great fun and it saves you the hard work of cycling through the sandy soil.
Press ‘play’ to see more pictures taken in Bagan
Extra tip: I was wearing shoes myself most of the days. However, in every temple it is mandatory to leave your shoes and socks outside. This can be quite a struggle when visiting loads of small temples. Wear flip-flops for a better experience.
2,200 temples in three days
The landscape was dry and dusty. Early in the morning all the locals decide to pile all the dead leafs they can find, to burn them. The smoke coming from these bonfires, spreads through the landscape – making the air misty. This is the main reason, most of the times the sunrise is far from incredible in Bagan. It’s worth getting up for early at least once though.
There is something magical about all the small temples spread to the landscape, a dozen hot air balloons rising in the air. The most popular spot to see the sunrise is the Shwe-san-daw pagoda. Other great, less touristic temples are Pagoda 400 and Law-ka-ou-shaung.
Since I am completely into temples, I wanted to see all of them. I booked an accommodation in New Bagan and decided to work my say up to Old Bagan.
The best temples of Bagan tourists will never see
‘Tourists don’t know where they have been, travelers don’t know where they are going.’
Of all the places I have been, this quote applies most in Bagan. Big air-conditioned comforter busses drive the dusty roads without care, dropping off large groups of tourists at all the big temples. The sandy roads are too small for these busses. Therefore, the smaller – more interesting – temples get skipped. Most of them will never find the true beauty of Bagan.
The bigger temples are beautiful from the outside. Smelly big comforter busses are blocking a view that must have been amazing. The inside of the bigger temples are closed down. Walls can be found where there were once hallways leading to the mysterious inside of the temples. Only the hallways in the outer ring on the ground floor are open – overcrowded by large groups of tourists.
Most temples however, are not touristic at all. Underneath, I will list my personal favourites.
Small passage of a less touristic temple
The view from the roof of the Ku-tha temple is incredible. This temple is far off the touristic tracks. I was surprised to be able to sit there by myself for over half an hour. No tourists what so ever. Since the best view can be found in the North and the South of the temple, I wouldn’t recommend the temple for the sunset and sunrise. Nonetheless, this is a temple you can not skip, once you visit Bagan.
- View: 8/10
- Exploration fun: 7/10
- Tourism level: Very Low
The view from the roof of the Ku-tha temple
The North Guni temple is awesome in many ways. Unlike other big temples, the hallways and small passages are not blocked. Therefore, it is possible to explore the whole temple. Look for it, and you will find small passages to the top of the roof of this temple, giving an amazing view. Some of the passages are so small, it will only be possible for slim people to pass it. Exploring your way up North Guni is great fun, if you are not afraid of heights.
Since North Guni is not on the route of the big comforter busses, there are not too many tourists going here. North Guni is great temple to see the sunset.
- View: 8/10
- Exploration fun: 8/10
- Tourism level: Medium
The view from the roof of the North Guni temple
Law-ka-oushang is a great temple for the sunrise. It is less touristic than the bigger ones and gives an amazing view. Also climb the small pagoda across the road!
- View: 8/10
- Exploration fun: 6/10
- Tourism level: Medium
The view from the roof of the Law-ka-oushang temple
The pagoda with archeological number 400 is not that high, but it gives a surprisingly good view both on the East side as the West side. This makes the pagoda a great spot for sunrises ánd sunsets.
- View: 8/10
- Exploration fun: (none)
- Tourism level: Medium
The view from the roof of Pagoda 400
Balloon ride over Bagan: worth it of not?
The balloon ride over Bagan during sunrise. Some people claim it is the best experience they had in a lifetime, so I figured out it’s worth checking it out. I booked one of the balloons for a whopping 320 USD. This was by far the most expensive excursion I did in my two months of traveling.
To compare: a three day trekking from Kalaw to Inle lake will cost you 80,000 Kyats (~ 10 USD). During this trek you are accompanied by two English speaking guides. All food, drinks and accommodation for those three days are included. Basically you can trek for more than three months, for the price of one balloon ride of 45 minutes.
That’s a lot of pressure on one balloon ride.
Since this was my first balloon ride ever, I enjoyed every minute of it. The view was amazing and the staff was incredible.
However, you immediately notice that this is not an attraction for regular backpackers. The crowd – nine balloons filled with 16 persons each – mostly consisted out of old people and couples with money to spend.
At the start of the balloon ride you will get a cap with the logo of the company. In the end you will get a glass of Champaign, a certificate of completing the balloon ride (assumably to show to your grandkids) and the opportunity to buy a picture of your balloon ride on a USB stick for a whopping 15 USD.
It was all a bit too much for me.
If prices ever drop below 150 USD, I would consider the experience worth the price. There is simply too much you can do in Myanmar for 320 USD. Spend it wisely.
Was Bagan ‘Bucket list worthy’?
The landscape is dusty and dry and most temples are much alike. However, the view is incredible, and it is great fun to explore the insides of the less touristic temples.
Especially when the balloons are taking of in the morning, Bagan is a magical place to be. It’s a place you have to see at least once in a lifetime.
EXTRA: useful information to visit Bagan
When to go
Monsoon in Myanmar starts in June and ends in September. During this period the weather is relatively cool (30 degrees Celsius) and it rains a lot in the South of Myanmar (eg. Yangon). There is not that much rain falling in Bagan and Mandalay, which makes it a nice period to visit those places.
From October until January it is prime time in Myanmar. The country gets overcrowded with tourists that are trying to avoid the hot weather and the monsoon.
From February until May the weather gets hot (I experienced this myself) with temperatures up to 45 degrees Celsius in April. Nonetheless, I would recommend travellers to visit Myanmar in this period – to avoid the crowd.
How to get to Bagan
There are several options to visit Bagan. I arrived at Yangon myself and booked a nightbus to Bagan at the hostel. Nightbusses can often be booked for the same night. In general, you don’t have to worry about busses getting overbooked.
Underneath, I made an overview of the nightbusses with Bagan as the final destination:
Bus from Mandalay to Bagan: 12 USD, ~ 6 hours travel time
Bus from Inle Lake to Bagan: 15 USD, ~ 8 hours travel time
Bus from Yangon to Bagan: 18 USD, ~ 9 hours travel time
From Mandalay, it is also possible to take a boat trip to Bagan:
Boat from Mandalay to Bagan: 40-50 USD, ~ 10 hours travel time
If you have the time (the boat trip will cost you one day, as opposed to taking a nightbus), the sights of fishermen working, cows drinking from the river and women washing their clothes, might be worth the trip.
The cheapest – but also the least safe – option, is taking the train from Mandalay or Yangon.
Train from Mandalay to Bagan: 2 USD (seat first class), ~ 12 hours travel time
Train from Yangon to Bagan: 17 USD (sleeper upper class), ~ 18 hours travel time
Where to stay?
I booked a hostel at New Bagan myself, located on the South of Old Bagan and the temples. Most backpackers choose to stay in Nyaung-U, located on the North of Old Bagan. The hostels have lower prices here.
Both New Bagan as Nyaung-U are on a ten minute cycling distance from the temples at Old Bagan.
Up to date, the local currency, Kyats, is not accepted at exchange offices in the neighbouring countries. Make sure you finish your local money before leaving the country. It is possible to withdrawal Kyats with your Maestro debit card both at the airports, as the main cities (like Yangon and Mandalay). Per withdrawal you can get up to 300,000 Kyats, with a 5,000 Kyats transfer cost. You can withdraw money up to three times a day.
I would recommend to bring an envelope of American Dollars as a back-up. American Dollars are accepted almost everywhere.
Warning: Most places in Myanmar will only accept American Dollars when they are in pristine condition, as they would have looked like when they were freshly printed (no folding lines, no spots). Keep your Dollar bills crisp and clean.
Scams in Bagan
I encountered two common scams in Bagan. Both of them involves kids who try to get money from tourists. Afterwards, the collected money will be handed over to their parents. The scams are relatively harmless, so don’t worry.
Foreign money collection
A bunch of kids will walk up to you and show you a variety of foreign coins and notes. They will tell you they collect foreign money, and ask you to give them some of the money from the country you live in. It should not come as a surprise these ruthless bastards will just exchange your rare foreign money for Kyats and American Dollars at exchange offices.
Sand paintings to pay for the art school
All around Bagan people will try to sell you sand paintings. These are paintings made with sand on canvas. The paintings are nice, you will not find them in the neighbouring countries. I bought one myself!
The price that is asked for a small painting is a whopping 20,000 Kyats. After haggling, they will go as low as 7,000 Kyats for a single painting. The revenue is sometimes promised to subsidise the local art school – which is absolute nonsense.
Let me know if you have more questions!
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