Bagan Travel Guide: Best Things to Do in Bagan, Myanmar
Myanmar was the last Southeast Asian country to be crossed off my bucket list, as it was the only one in the region that required me to get a visa.
For close to five decades, Myanmar was repressed under a strict military rule, and was only open to tourism again in 2010. Even during my visit in 2015, things were still pretty backward — they had just had their first international fast-food restaurant. But somehow, this made it all the more charming.
For my short trip in the country, I chose to spend a huge chunk of it in Bagan — one of the most popular destinations in Myanmar.
At the hostel where I stayed, I met 6 travelers from China. We slathered each other’s faces with thanaka, rented e-bikes, and explored the town together.
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Overview of Bagan, Myanmar
The ancient city of Bagan is a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in the Mandalay Region of Myanmar, about 700 kilometres (430 miles) north of Yangon and 290 kilometres (180 miles) southwest of Mandalay.
The Bagan Archaeological Zone is defined by the 13 x 8 kilometres (8 x 5 miles) area centered around Old Bagan, comprising Nyaung U in the north and New Bagan in the south. It lies on the bend of the Irrawaddy River in the vast plains of Upper Burma.
From the 9th to the 13th centuries, Bagan served as the capital of the Pagan Kingdom, which was the first kingdom that unified the regions that would later make up modern-day Myanmar.
During the kingdom’s height between the 11th and 13th centuries, over 10,000 Buddhist temples, monasteries, and pagodas were constructed in the region alone, of which some 3,822 still survive to this day, albeit in varying states of preservation.
It was this cluster of religious monuments spread across 104 square kilometres (40 square miles) that earned Bagan its UNESCO World Heritage Site status in July 2019.
Not many countries can exchange Burmese kyat for you, so you will have to bring USD to exchange to the local currency when you arrive. The best places to do this are at the banks and airport. Keep in mind that they may not accept bills that are not in pristine condition. USD 100 bills will typically get you the best rates.
Best Time to Visit Bagan
Similar to Yangon, the best time to visit Bagan is from November to February, when the weather is not too hot (around 30°C / 86°F at daytime and as low as 14°C / 57°F at night).
As this is the dry season, it’s also the perfect time for a hot-air balloon ride as there’s a higher chance of clear sky.
Avoid going between March and May, which is the hottest period of the year with an average daily temperature of 40°C / 104°F. You wouldn’t want to be out and about in that kind of weather.
June till October sees the most rain. However, since Bagan is situated in Myanmar’s dry zone, it doesn’t get that much rain even in the rainy season.
I visited in September, during what was supposed to be the rainy season, but it was still far too hot for me. There was not a single drop of rain throughout my stay.
How to Go to Bagan
I flew to Yangon from Kuala Lumpur and took a night bus to Bagan. It took about 9 – 10 hours. Apart from Yangon, Bagan is also connected to other major destinations in Myanmar by bus, including Mandalay (5 hours) and Nyaung Shwe near Inle Lake (8 hours).
Taking a night bus is a great option for those on a budget. Not only is it cheap, it also saves you a night of accommodation.
For extra comfort, you can book the VIP buses with the 2+1 seating plan (two seats on one side, and only one on the other). With only an additional one or two euros, these buses are an excellent choice especially for solo travelers, as you can pick the single seat.
Bus fares range between MMK 8,000 (USD 5) and MMK 20,000 (USD 12), depending on distance and comfort level.
There are daily connections between Bagan and Mandalay (8 hours), as well as Yangon (17 hours). However, be warned that train rides in Myanmar — even in the upper class — are said to be very uncomfortable and frequently delayed for up to several hours.
Nyaung U has a small airport, with daily direct flights to and from Yangon, Heho (Inle Lake), and Mandalay.
If you’re unable to book the flights yourself, most hotels and travel agents can do it for you. In any case, just let them check the price anyway, as they may sometimes be able to get better last-minute deals than if you were to book online.
Bagan Entrance Fee
All visitors entering Bagan archaeological site are required to pay an admission fee of 25,000 kyat (approximately USD 15). This will be charged at your point of arrival, after which you will be issued a ticket that is valid for 3 days.
It’s important not to lose the ticket as your hotel / hostel will need to register the ticket number upon check-in.
The ticket will also allow you to access the temples in Bagan. There will be random checks at temples (especially the bigger ones), so make sure you have it with you when sightseeing. If you lose it, you may have to buy another one.
How to Get Around in Bagan
Bagan is a big region and therefore not feasible to explore on foot. There are a few ways you can get around in Bagan:
You can rent a bicycle from your hotel or from the many rental shops in Bagan. Some hotels also provide them as a complimentary service for their guests.
However, bicycles are only good for exploring within the town you’re in. The distances between the towns may be a little too big to cover by bicycle comfortably, especially if you plan to fit in a lot of temples within one day.
Plus, you’ll be cycling under the hot sun on bumpy dirt roads, which will make the experience not so enjoyable — unless you’re really into cycling.
E-Bike / Scooter
The majority of locals and independent visitors choose this option to get around in Bagan. E-bikes are basically scooters that are powered by electricity. They go a little slower and are slightly easier to handle than motorized bikes, making them perfect for those who are less experienced.
Even so, if you’ve never handled one before, it’s better to err on the side of caution and do a few practice rounds before you take it to the roads. Be especially careful if there’s sand on the road; I had a near miss due to this.
The e-bikes cost about $4-6 for a day. You have a choice between a regular-sized scooter or the smaller type, which is some sort of a cross between a bicycle and a scooter.
I opted for the latter, as I found the bigger ones too hard for me to maneuver.
If you don’t feel like driving yourself to the temples and other attractions in Bagan, you can hire a tuk-tuk driver instead. Most tuk-tuk drivers can be hired for the whole day.
The biggest advantage to hiring a tuk-tuk driver is that you won’t have to worry about finding your way around, which can be a hassle especially in the dark if you go before sunrise. The driver should also know where the best temples are and may even be able to tell you a thing or two about them.
You can book a tuk-tuk through your hotel or find and negotiate for one yourself. This should be done the day before.
Private Car Charter
Tuk-tuks are convenient, but can still be quite unpleasant for those who are not used to the hot weather. If you’re looking for a more comfortable way to travel, a private car charter is the way to go.
Similar to the tuk-tuk, you’ll also be driven around by your own private chauffeur, but in the comfort of an air-conditioned car. Bookings can be made through your accommodation or apps like Klook.
Visiting the temples would be a lot more meaningful if you have a guide who is well-versed in the subject. A tour package would be less flexible than a private car or tuk tuk hire, but would be a great thing if you don’t want the hassle of creating your own itinerary. Ask your hotel if they organize any group tour, or book through online apps.
Things to Do in Bagan, Myanmar
1. Go Temple-Hopping
Temples are the #1 reason anyone visits Bagan, so this is a must-do activity.
Due to the sheer number of temples in the area, exploring Bagan needs proper planning if you want to do it without a tour. Decide on which temples you want to visit, and plan your route and timing accordingly.
Some temples are more popular for sunset and sunrise viewing, so you might want to take that into consideration as well when planning your itinerary.
Among the most significant temples in Bagan are:
- Shwezigon Pagoda
- Shwesandaw Pagoda
- Ananda Pahto
- Bupaya Pagoda
- Gawdawpalin Temple
- Dhammayangyi Pahto
- Thatbyinnyu Temple
- Dhammayazika Pagoda
- Htilominlo Pahto
- Shwegu Gyi Phaya
Or visit this website for a detailed description of each.
2. Visit the Archaeological Museum
The Bagan Archaeological Museum is a large complex that gives you a quick overview of Bagan and helps you understand the place better.
It displays a huge number of Buddha images, inscribed stones, paintings of various temples, textiles, and even a gallery showing different ancient hairstyles.
3. Enjoy the Sunrise / Sunset
Even if you’re not usually a morning person, Bagan is one of the places that are worth waking up early for. The sunrise in Bagan is unlike any other sunrise you’ve ever seen or will ever see anywhere else.
There are not many places in the world where you can see hot-air balloons floating across the gradually brightening sky, over vast green plains dotted with Buddhist temples.
Shwesandaw Pagoda is said to be the best place to see both sunrise and sunset, as the three platforms around the pagoda provide excellent views in all directions.
Because of this, it also sees throngs of visitors every day. You need to come very early if you want to secure a spot on the top platform.
4. Go on a Hot-Air-Balloon Ride
If you can afford it, this is a unique way to see the temples from above. Hot-air balloon rides in Bagan takes approximately an hour during sunrise, and costs about USD 350 – 400.
In comparison to everything else in the country, this is going to be the single most expensive thing you’ll ever spend on in Myanmar. It’s probably even more expensive than your entire trip.
But if you’ve always wanted to go on a hot air balloon, you might want to consider doing it here, as this is possibly the only place on earth where you get to fly over a sea of ancient pagodas.
5. Learn to Make Your Own Lacquerware
Lacquerware is a thriving industry in Myanmar that can be traced back to Bagan, where it has been practiced for generations, possibly beginning as early as the 16th century.
This is immediately apparent when you see the number of lacquerware shops in Bagan. If you’re interested in buying a piece, the best place to do so is in Myinkaba Village along the road between Old and New Bagan.
You can also learn the traditional art of creating your very own lacquerware masterpiece from the craftsmen in Min Nan Thu Village.
6. Check Out Local Produce at Mani Sithu Market
Visiting a local market is one of my favorite things to do when visiting a new place, wherever that may be.
Even when I visit other Southeast Asian countries, where the local produce is mostly similar to what I’m familiar with back home, there will surely be something interesting to see that I can’t find in my own country.
In Bagan, the biggest market is Mani Sithu market, located in Nyaung U. Go early in the morning to see it at its liveliest.
7. Climb Mount Popa
Mount Popa is a 1,518-metre (4,981-ft)-tall extinct volcano located about fifty kilometres southeast of Bagan. The most distinguishing feature of this volcano is the Buddhist temple on top. To reach the temple, you have to climb 777 steps barefoot.
Most people visit Mount Popa as a day trip from Bagan. Although only 50 km away, it can take at least 1 hour and 30 minutes to get there, due to traffic and poor road conditions.
Nearby is the town of Sa Lay, which is home to many Buddhist monasteries, including Yokesone Monastery and its intricate woodcarvings.
8. Take a Sunset Cruise along the Irrawaddy River
The beauty of Bagan’s temples can be appreciated from the land, sky… and even water. Watch the gilded stupas backlit by the sunset as you cruise along Irrawaddy (or officially Ayeyarwady) River — the country’s largest river and most important commercial waterway.
9. Tour the Thanaka Gallery
Faces adorned with pale yellow patches or stripes are a common sight in Myanmar. It was even practiced by the royal families.
At the Thanaka Gallery, you can learn the secret behind this practice and the tree where it came from. Said to be the only one of its kind, this gallery showcases items made from the tree, such as brushes and prayer beads.
10. Shop at MBoutik
If you want to buy some local handicrafts and souvenirs like clothes, toys, and jewelry, Mboutik is the best place to do so, as it also enables you to support the community with your purchase.
The items sold here are made by over 600 craftsmen from villages around Bagan and the money that you spend will all be funneled back into the local community.
How Long Do You Need in Bagan?
How long you should spend in Bagan depends on how much you like temples, because that’s the main (and possibly the only) draw here.
To make full use of your three-day tourist ticket, you might want to spend three days and two nights here. Since most buses from Yangon arrive early in the morning and depart late at night, that should give you ample time to see the major temples, catch a few sunrise/sunset moments, and allow some time to rest in between.
I stayed for only one night because I’m not such a big fan of temples. Seeing one or two of them was fine, but after a while, they all started to look the same to me, and I had little desire to know the history behind each one of them.
If you’re an ardent temple lover, you should definitely stay for as long as you like. But it’s important not to try to see too much in too little time. With thousands of temples and pagodas in Bagan, it would be overwhelming to try to see them all.
Where to Stay in Bagan
There are three towns in Bagan:
- Old Bagan – the oldest town in Bagan, with great hotels and some pagodas within walking distance. More expensive.
- New Bagan – a new town built in a grid pattern of small streets to support more tourism. Cheaper than Old Bagan, but far from most temples.
- Nyaung U – a cluster of streets with guesthouses, restaurants, and shops, where most of the temples are centered around, and close to the bus station. Room rates are reasonable and almost as cheap as New Bagan.
Where’s the best place to stay in Bagan?
I stayed in dormitory room in Nyaung U and didn’t regret it. Close to shops and other conveniences, it’s also not far from the temples. I think it’s great for travelers of all budgets, as there is a good mix of budget and luxury hotels.
For those who prefer something more exclusive and closer to the temples, Old Bagan might be a better option.
Ostello Bello (New Bagan) – Offers both private and dormitory rooms, all air-conditioned, with free high-speed WiFi, clean towels, and complimentary toiletries. Beds in dormitory rooms come with a personal reading light, locker, and electrical socket. From MMK 15k (USD 10) for a bed in a 4-Bed Mixed Dormitory Room, with breakfast.
BaobaBed Hostel (Nyaung U) – Offers spacious bunk beds with electrical sockets, reading lights, and lockers, as well as secured key access codes and complimentary towels. Free-flow coffee, tea, and Burmese cigars all day. Offers free tours, free traditional food tasting, and free use of bicycles. From MMK 28k (USD 17) for a bed in an 8-bed Mixed Dormitory Room, with breakfast. Private rooms also available.
Royal Bagan Hotel (Nyaung U) – Featuring a swimming pool, a restaurant with both indoor and rooftop dining, a billiard table, and bicycles for rent. From MMK 65k (USD 40) for a Superior Double / Twin Room with garden view. Breakfast included.
Aureum Palace Hotel & Resort (Old Bagan) – Set amid 27 acres of tropical gardens, facilities include a swimming pool, fitness center, lounge, restaurant, bar, and spa. Daily classical dance performances can be enjoyed at The Terrace by the lake. From MMK 100k (USD 60) for a Deluxe Double Room with breakfast.
Additional Tips for Visiting Bagan
- Prevent heatstroke by keeping yourself hydrated at all times. Bring enough drinking water with you or have some money to buy drinks along the way. Most major temples have hawkers selling drinks outside.
- Protect yourself with sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat.
- Avoid cycling during the hottest hours and try to keep in the shade as much as you can.
- Although not very strictly enforced, it’s recommended to dress conservatively when entering temples. Clothes should cover the shoulders and go below the knees. Otherwise bring a shawl to wrap around your shoulders or wear as a sarong.
- You have to take off your shoes and socks before entering temples. Wearing flip flops will make your life easier.
- The temples are still used by the locals for worshiping. Do not walk in front of them when they’re kneeling before the Buddha statues.
- If you’re taller than the average Vietnamese, mind your head when entering the temples.
- Be careful of snakes if you go off-the-beaten path.
- Bring insect repellent. Mosquitoes can be a problem especially if you go out before sunrise and after sunset.
- Also, if you’ll be doing a lot of sunrise / sunset trips to the temples, bring a headlamp or torchlight.
- In 2018, the local authorities issued a temple climbing ban, although there are still some temples that allow climbing. If you want to climb, watch your step because some of the temples may be in a crumbling state.
- You will encounter many souvenir peddlers at the temples, some of them as young as kindergartners. It may be hard to say no to them, but if you really don’t want to buy anything, be firm about it.
- You will also see many stray dogs, but they usually don’t bother people.
- Beware of taxi mafias who prey on tourists arriving for the first time in the early morning. If possible, try to arrange for a pickup service from your hotel.
Is Bagan worth visiting?
Bagan is worth visiting if you’re into old buildings and temples. After all, it is home to thousands of Buddhist pagodas, stupas, and temples, which earned it the UNESCO status, and turned it into one of the most popular tourist destinations in Myanmar.
Although touristy, Bagan is big enough to not feel overcrowded. There are so many temples to choose from that you won’t have any problem finding an empty one if you wish to pray or meditate in solitude. However, the region can be very hot and dusty, so if you don’t do well in this kind of environment, you may feel miserable here.
If temples don’t interest you, it might be best to skip Bagan altogether, as there isn’t much to see or do here beyond that.
Personally, although I’m not that interested in temples, I still enjoyed my short stay because it was quite a wonderful experience climbing up one of the temples at sunset and seeing the magnificent views from above.
Have you been to Bagan, Myanmar? What did you like most about it? Share your experience in the comment section below.