Bagan: An Adventure of a Lifetime
Bagan (or Pagan as how Burmese say it) is one of the world’s spectacular Archaeological sites which spreads across a vast, dusty plain. It is the most popular attraction in Burma which rivals Cambodia’s Angkor Archaeological Park and Peru’s Macchu Picchu – minus the tourism crowds, minus the attention it deserves. Marco Polo who may have visited Bagan on his explorations before, described Bagan as one of the finest sights in the world.
“They make one of the finest sights in the world, being exquisitely finished, splendid and costly. When illuminated by the sun they are especially brilliant and can be seen from the great distance” – Marco Polo
The temples, pagodas and stupas from centuries ago are sprinkled over the verdant Burmese landscape – a sight that is mostly seen in travel magazines and post cards. That’s around 2, 500 temples dating back from 11th century. I have mentioned this on one of my blogs about Myanmar “If China and India made love to each other, Myanmar could be their love child.” It is just so hard to find words that best describe this magical site. Great, spectacular, ancient, stunning – all are an understatement.
I traveled to this hidden gem of Southeast Asia back in June 2016 when I felt like I needed to take in new atmosphere – well, after having been based myself in Angkor for several months. My desire to visit this site started with a photo I saw in one of the travel magazines and was even inspired more after seeing wonderful photographs of a friend, Ian of IanBarinPhotography.
It may not be as well-known as UNESCO’S Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia which draws more than 2 million tourists every year, on the other hand, this site should definitely be taken off your travel destination list. Why go? If you want to see and experience one of the most authentic, culturally stunning and undiscovered destinations in the world, you should give Burma a go. It’s a golden land of stunning beauty and charm, a land with fascinating history and traditions.
Imagine yourself being surrounded by thousands of temples of different sizes and colors, rising high above a luxuriant landscape, built by Kings of Bagan between 1057 and 1287. The energy of the place is just so different and exploring around these structures allows everyone to experience the feeling the first explorers must have felt when they uncovered this magnificent site.
When to go
March to May is avoided by many travelers as this season can be so hot and humid that you may literally melt. June to October is the monsoon season where hotel rooms are at their cheapest. You may want to visit this season as you can fully own your Bagan experience as there are not many tourists but you may miss seeing the sight of the hot air balloons over the centuries-old temples as hot-air balloon rides are just on offer from October to April. November down to February is the best time to visit but the temples are crowded and the hotel rooms are at their highest.
How to get there
As this country is still in the process of development, traveling to and from can be challenging. At present, there are three options on offer: via bus, plane and train.
Bus: Most travelers arrive by bus from Myanmar’s former capital and tourist gateway of Yangon . The bus journey usually takes around 8 – 11 hours and is priced at US$15 – US$20 depending on the bus company. A lot of travelers prefer to take this option as it is the most convenient and way more economical than taking a plane from Yangon to Bagan. The easiest way to book the bus is via your guesthouse or a travel agent. VIP buses include JJ Express, E-lite, and Shwe Nan Taw Express.
Plane: Bagan also has a small airport with flights from Yangon and Mandalay. You can save a lot of time; however, it can be expensive as flights from Yangon start from US$90.00 one way. Well, if you have money to spend, you may consider this option.
Train: This option is for those people who love adventures as the train journey can be uncomfortable, unreliable and terrifying. They say the journey will only take for about 13 hours but believe me, it will take up to 21 hours – yes, almost a day! On the other hand, it can be rewarding as you can get a sight of the scenic views of Myanmar countryside and see people’s ways of living – this is something that you should not miss especially if you are after the culture. The train leaves from Yangon everyday at 4pm. The prices vary from US$5.00 – US$40.00.
Let’s assume you have already reached Bagan. Now, the question is how to explore around the Archaeological Park.
Two or three days is already enough to explore around the site. However, if you have more days to spare that will be much better as I know you would want to immerse yourself in the atmosphere and tick everything off your Bagan-to-do list: Sunrise and sunset, of course. Take your time, never rush yourself.
First things first…
Before you begin your journey, make sure you have everything ready and have your route figured out. First, buy a ticket. All foreign tourists have to pay US$20.00 for Bagan Archaeological Zone and there is no exemption. The ticket is good for 3 days which is not bad at all. Next, get yourself a map. You can usually get it for free as guesthouses and hotels provide them. You will be handed a foldable, detailed map with the main temples of interest labeled. You can also ask your hotel concierge to mark the temples that are a must-see.
What you need for a day of temple exploration in Bagan
- Ticket to the temples (US$20.00 for 3 days, make sure you always have it with you)
- Map (Unless you’d like to find yourself in the middle of nowhere)
- Water (You need to hydrate yourself as you will really sweat it out)
- Sunscreen (Unless you need some tan)
- Hat/Cap (For sun protection)
- Camera (For sure you want to capture the beauty of this site)
- Clothes that cover your knees and shoulders. (Dress appropriately. This is not only a historic site but it is also a religious site)
You can check my blog on things you need to know before visiting Myanmar here.
There are several options to get around the Archaeological site.
Bicycle (US$1.00 – US$3.00/day)
This is a clear favourite among travelers. This option is the cheapest; on the other hand, it can be a bit difficult since park is extremely massive with the roads going up and down. The paths to the temples are also grueling as the grounds are sandy, so you may end up pushing your bike here and there.
E-bikes (US$6.oo – US$8.00/day)
I was a bit hesitant to take an e-bike as I initially thought that it could be a bit dangerous. It is actually the best option to marvel around the ruins. The main roads are paved, so they are perfect to use. Also, you can drive through even the narrowest path since these e-bikes have the capacity to get through them. Make sure to check everything before you leave and begin your temple exploration. Check the lights, battery, if fully charged as well as the brakes. Better check than to be sorry.
Horse Carriages (US$15.00 – US$20.00/day and ++ for sunrise)
If you have not ridden on a horse carriage before, you may want to give it a try. It is a new experience to delve into plus your driver can be your instant guide. Whilst it looks like a grand experience to be on a horse carriage, the ride can be so bumpy and can take some of your time. The ride is priced at around US$20.00 per day. It would be better if you have friends or new found friends joining the adventure with you, so you can chip in.
Hot Air Balloon (From US$300.00 per person)
The Hot Air Balloon ride can be very costly but that gives you an experience of a lifetime. You will have a chance to get a full sight of the whole Bagan. There are two companies that operate these rides but they are only on offer from October to April.
I spent an amazing three day journey in Bagan from sunup to sundown, so I would not miss a thing. I began my journey around 5am to get the best spot to see the sunrise over these magnificent temples of Bagan. I decided to take an e-bike since it is the best option available and it is a win-win! You will have your freedom and you can go anywhere you want – less the hassle of pedaling a bicycle or the bumpy ride when you take a horse carriage. On my first day, I visited all the temples that were marked by a very helpful staff at Ostello Bello, the guesthouse where I stayed at. On my second day, I decided to delve deeper and discover more of the temples. Believe me, there are hundreds of them that are even spectacular! They are nameless and some are not even on the map. Some can be found in a very remote location but it is worth it as you will feel like you are the very first person to discover these unknown and hidden temples. Bagan is just incredibly photogenic – no doubt. The pumpkin-colored stupas contrasting the evergreen fields are just a delight to see.
I rarely take selfies but this one is an exemption. I just felt so privileged to be able to explore one of the most stunning destinations in the world. Just to make it clear, I stopped for a while to take a selfie. Don’t take some selfies while driving please. The roads are very rocky and bumpy. Never take your safety for granted as there have been reports on motorbike accidents in the area.
Here you go, I bought myself ‘longyi’ or Burmese sarong (US$5.00 – US$10.00). Men and women still wear these traditional clothes. It is just fascinating that their culture is well-observed and preserved. I decided to buy and take one on as I believe that the best way to experience the culture is by living like a local.
An artisan I met during my journey who was very proud to show his crafts. I was kind of lost when I met him. Many thanks to this local who gave me directions to get back to the main road and for telling a few stories about Burma. Burmese are just so helpful by nature and they will be happy to take you around their home.
Hot air balloons over a massive landscape dotted with temples and stupas. A typical magical hour in Bagan Archaeological Zone.
If the Angkor temples boast for the masterful carvings on their walls, Bagan temples boast for the details and intricacy. The Gawdawpalin Temple is one of my favourite. It was one of the temples that first got my attention even from a distance.
Lovely kids at the Shwezigon Pagoda posing for some portraits. May be you are wondering why they have yellow stuff on their faces. This yellow lotion is called ‘Thanaka’ which is a type of beauty product usually used by women and young children.
Aside from the pumpkin-colored stupas and temples, golden pagodas and temples are also everywhere. For instance, this temple of Shwezigon. It may be located in the furthest part of the Archaeological zone, it is worth the drive though. It has the resemblance of Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon which is also Myanmar’s source of pride and joy
For more photos of my adventure in Myanmar, you can visit my Instagram account and join my journey.
My travel to Bagan, Myanmar is definitely one of the best travel experiences I have had through out my travels around Southeast Asia. It is in fact, an adventure of a lifetime. Have you also been to Bagan? What’s your experience like? Share your stories with us by leaving your comments on this post.