We spent two very rainy days in Bagan. Although it is supposed to be warm and sunny in Myanmar in January, the weather was just not with us. The roads were muddy and by the end of the day, we were soaking wet.
We flew from Yangon to Bagan, which took a little over an hour. I will warn you, the Bagan airport is little more than a small shed. There is no baggage claim, just people who wheel your luggage to you from the plane. Upon arrival you’ll need to pay about $15 for a pass that you need to carry around with you as you explore the temples. At the smaller temples no one is there to check this, but at the big ones such as Ananda, Gawpawpalin, Dhammayangyi and Thatbyinnu, there are stands set up to check that you have your pass.
There is one cafe (that is mysteriously closed almost all the time) so bring snacks as your flights from Bagan to wherever you’re going next will more than likely be delayed (see our itinerary for more Myanmar-wide travel notes).
The bad weather didn’t stop us from renting two ebikes (tourists are no longer allowed to rent motorcycles after a high volume of accidents) for a day, for about $2.50 each I might add, and driving around to as many temples as possible. I would highly recommend getting around Bagan by ebike. Although there are huge busses and cars on the road, which can be intimidating at first, if you go off the beaten track to the smaller dirt back roads to see more temples, you shouldn’t spend too much time on the main roads, and you’ll get to see so much more than if you go on a bus tour, or even rent a car.
My Preferred Route
As I mentioned, it really is just the best to drive around and get a little lost. Temples cover 26km around Bagan, so there’s ample ground to cover. We used maps.me, an app that uses GPS to navigate you and crowdsources information, to both direct our journey and to get us around if we felt like we were lost.
How Long to Stay
We were in Bagan for two days, and I felt like we saw more than enough temples in that time, as well as explore New Bagan and see the river.
Where to Stay
We stayed at Bagan River Hotel after reading about how it was around the corner from Gawdawpalin, and had two temples on the grounds. The rooms were not great at all, but the breakfast was good, it was really close to many temples and if it hadn’t been rainy, the view from the river would have been beautiful.
Where to Eat
We ate at the hotel most of the time because of the rain, but we did go to one restaurant in New Bagan, Ma Nae Maing, our second night in Bagan. I really liked it, it was fresh and local food, with tons of veggies, for $1.50.
I also got to try traditional Myanmar tamarind candies for desert. They are delicious!
Finding All the “Good” Temples
I googled around before our driving day for the temples that are “must sees” but I have to say, its actually better in my opinion to just drive around and see where you end up, particularly because after the earthquake in 2016 so many viewpoints were closed. The further out you get to lesser known spots, the more luck you’ll probably have being able to find a temple or stupa with a good viewpoint (and fewer people). We found Luxe Adventure Traveler good for sparking some ideas and the Bucket Years blog super helpful, it included a list of beautiful temples, good viewpoints and maps to find each. However, the Bucket Years was written before the 2016 earthquake, so some of the information is out of date.
Things to Know
Many of the temples are not well kept in terms of structural support, although almost all of them have gold Buddhas inside. Some of the Buddhas are original, and many also has original paintings on the walls that date back to the 7th c. If you go, make sure to take off your shoes at each temple (wear flip flops to facilitate the ease of going in and out of so many temples) and respect your surroundings. With the volume of tourists and locals going to some of these temples, its hard to see them lasting another 1000 years.
I loved walking around the temples and exploring the different Buddhas in each direction, and the different facial expressions and mudras of each Buddha.
My Favorite Temples
From the outside, I really enjoyed Gawdawpalin temple, it was big, white (most are brick) and super ornate.
Inside, my favorite was Sulamani temple, which had a lot of ancient drawings on the inside.
I would also recommend Ananda, simply because it is huge and spectacular and the inside is probably the most ornate.
As I mentioned, a lot of the temples have restricted access to climb to the top for good views. Some locals also lock up the temples (I couldn’t figure out if this was at the behest of the government or not). Most live right behind these temples, so if you smile, wave and in some cases buy a postcard from them, they’ll unlock the temple for you. (Bring a flashlight as these do not have electricity and are VERY dark!)
The lesser known temples and stupas are also much less regulated, and you can climb to the top to see amazing views, but really be careful, its quite high up (which, admittedly, is kind of the point) and the stairs are in many cases uneven and steep (which I found fun by scared C. a lot).
Rain or shine, Bagan was C.’s favorite place in Myanmar (mine was Hpa An), and it is a must-see on any trip there!