After experiencing the hustle and bustle of Yangon, we took a quick flight North to see Bagan, the land of many temples. Bagan was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan in the 9th to 13th centuries, and at its height, there were over 4,000 Buddhist temples, stupas, and monasteries. About 2,200 currently remain, with many in disrepair after the earthquakes of 1975 and 2016.
WHAT TO SEE:
All the temples, pagodas, and stupas! Keep in mind that the most recent earthquake in August 2016 caused significant damage to the area. Even so, there are so many temples, it is impossible to see them all. We picked out a few we definitely wanted to see, and then made pit stops along the way to any others that looked interesting. Quite often, we found ourselves in a pagoda all by ourselves!
Many of the temples have a family that looks after them. For instance, a young woman who we met at the one Hindu temple in Bagan, Nathlaung Kyaung, gave us a full tour with lots of interesting facts. At the end, she led us to her souvenir stall to help support her family. Of course we felt obligated after the time she spent with us. Enter useless souvenir number one, a lacquerware cup. Apparently Bagan is the center of the lacquerware industry, with a trade school and museum showcasing the art.
Shwesandaw Pagoda is the go-to spot for sunrises. On our first morning, we got up at the crack of dawn and left our hotel by 5:15am. It was an incredible feeling riding a little e-bike through the back roads of Bagan in complete darkness. There’s basically no light pollution, so you can see the stars shining bright, and there’s no traffic besides some monks starting their day. Once we finally found the pagoda (Google Maps aren’t exactly helpful for unmarked dirt pathways!), we hiked up this insane set of stairs to get to the top. We spent the next hour waiting with a crowd of 50 or so other sunrise enthusiasts.
Almost there! The sky started to illuminate temples as far as the eye can see.Here we go! Hot air balloons over the horizon. If you want to spring for it ($300ish), you can float over Bagan rather than view from the top of a temple.The sunrise was beautiful and well worth it. Make time to see some sunsets, too. We got lost en route to our intended sunset spot, but stumbled upon this view instead. Not bad.Shwezigon Pagoda was overwhelming! Most temples in Bagan are small, and constructed of brick. This one is an exception, and is almost as big as Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon.
Bupaya Pagoda, located right down the street from our hotel, overlooks the Ayeyarwady river. The name translates to pumpkin/gourd (bu) pagoda (paya). The original structure was badly damaged in the 1975 earthquake, and was recreated using modern materials.On our next attempt at seeing a sunset, we made it to Oak Kyaung Gyi monastery. It is nothing to look at from the outside, but after squeezing up a a dark set of narrow stairs, we were rewarded with a beautiful view on the rooftop. The family who tends to this monastery lights candles along the steps to the roof for sunset. It was one of my favorite experiences on the trip. Here’s a collection of snapshots from various temples we found along the way.WHERE TO STAY:There are 3 main areas in Bagan; Old Bagan, New Bagan, and Nyaung-U. We stayed in Old Bagan along the water at Aye Yar Riverview Resort. There is a restaurant and riverside bar on-site, a nice pool, and beautiful grounds. Nyaung U has a restaurant row, and appeared to be more of the backpacker-type area. New Bagan has some temples, and more restaurants. We didn’t explore much in that area.
WHERE TO EAT:
Starbeam Bistro: Situated right next to Ananda Temple, this open air restaurant has some solid food options. Just beyond the restaurant, a bunch of young monks were playing soccer on the grounds of an abandoned temple. Such a different world!
Be Kind to Animals The Moon: No idea what this name is intended to mean, but the food was great! It is also next to Ananda Temple.
Bagan Zay: This was a nice, really clean looking, restaurant. They have a variety of foods, not just Burmese.
Weather Spoons: This is apparently a knock off of the British chain. The food was really good, but timeliness is not their forte.
To get to Bagan, you can take a bus, train, or plane. I hear the trains are pretty rough, and the bus ride is quite long from Yangon. We opted for the flight, despite my fear of third world aviation…. Surprisingly, these flights were really nice! The hour flight included a refreshing towelette, a boxed meal, and pizza candy. U.S. airlines take note! The airport itself is really small. I am fairly certain one of the pilots also checked us in at the counter. After we confirmed details with the pilot/gate agent, we were given a sticker with the airline logo. That served as an identifier when trying to find our bus to take us direct to the plane on the tarmac.There are taxis available outside the terminal to get you to Bagan. Negotiate before getting in.Once in Bagan, I suggest you rent an e-bike to zip around the temples. Regular bicycles are available to rent…but why would you torture yourself by biking miles on dirt roads when you could have a bike that does some of the work? (Lesson learned from a very, very hot and sweaty day in Cambodia. NEVER AGAIN!) There are some main paved roads, but most are small dirt roads leading to the smaller temples. Steve and I were able to share one e-bike. You can rent by half day or full day increments. Our hotel had some available, but BoBo was our guy. He set up shop right outside the hotel, along with his horse. We negotiated a rate based on the amount of time we planned to be out.
Basic English is spoken, however it is not widely understood. Hello is ‘Mingalaba’!
Once you arrive at the airport in Bagan, you’ll need to purchase a pass for the Bagan Archeological Zone. It was about $12 USD, and serves as entry to all the temples in Bagan. We were only asked to display the pass once at Shwesandaw.When entering temples, be sure your shoulders and knees are covered. No shoes or socks are allowed. Local women and men usually wear longyis, which is a swath of fabric tied in a knot at the waist, similar to a long skirt.
Local children are at all the temple entrances, trying to hawk their goods. A typical exchange went something like this, every single time:
Where you from?
The United States.
Steve was also a novelty, as he is about 3x the size of an average Burmese person.
I hope this gives you a little window into Myanmar and all it has to offer! It was a great experience seeing another part of the world rarely seen by foreigners until recently. However, after 16 hours of travel time each way, we are ready for a nice, short, flight on our next vacation!