Bagan, Myanmar


  • Sunrise at Buledi temple
  • Sunset boat cruise
  • The view of hundreds of temples from Dhammayazika temple (in New Bagan)

Bagan is home to over 4,000 temples built in a 200 year period between 1000 and 1300 AD. It’s being called the “new Angkor Wat,” and while I’m not sure that’s really the best comparison (the two places are so different – Bagan reminds me more of a huge Ayutthaya where the temples are all spread out within the city, rather than in a temple complex where no one lives, like they are in Angkor Wat), the sheer scale of it is truly unbelievable  (at certain viewpoints you look out and can literally see hundreds and hundreds of temples in the somehow always foggy/misty distance). For the second time while in Myanmar (the first being Inle Lake), I truly felt as though I was transported to another time. It was fun to spend the last few days of 2015 feeling as though we were traveling back in time while taking in as many of these amazing temples as possible.

Our overnight bus dropped us off in Bagan (well, 10km outside) at 4am. For the first time, we were actually glad to get dropped off in the middle of the night, as one of the most popular things to do in Bagan is see the sunrise from one of the temples. We figured our hotel wouldn’t let us check in so early and we were already awake, so this would be the perfect time to see the sunrise (assuming we could drop our bags at our hotel and rent an e-bike from them, the main mode of transport around Bagan).

But first, we had to get into town. As usual, whenever we’re dropped off somewhere in the middle of the night, we’re forced to take a taxi to our hotel and we don’t have much bargaining power. We read it should be about $5 to get from the bus station to Nyaung U, the town we were staying in, but after a lot of negotiations, we were only able to get our taxi driver down to around $8. Luckily, we ran into two Israeli girls that we’d met while trekking to Inle Lake and decided to all share a cab (we later decided to all spend the day together).

We knew that at some point, we were going to have to pay around $20pp to get into Bagan. We figured that once we went to one of the popular temples, there would be somewhere to get our ticket there. The $20 ticket is good for a week, so we thought it was a pretty good deal (to compare, Angkor Wat is about the same price per day), but what we didn’t know was that our taxi would stop at a checkpoint at 4am where we would be asked to pay. Had we knownn that, we would have likely spent less time bargaining over $3 on our taxi ride and tried to make a deal with him to somehow avoid this ticket checkpoint. We met several people whose taxi did not stop, so we felt a little bit cheated.

Anyway, we arrived at our hotel and luckily someone was there and awake. They were able to take our bags and rent us an e-bike (FYI, your choices for transport around Bagan are bicycles, e-bikes, or horse and buggy. E-bike is by far the best choice. Things are a bit too far and the roads too sandy for a bicycle and for a lot more money the horses seemed very slow and inconvenient. E-bikes were about $5/day). The 4 of us (us and our Israeli friends) took off at around 4:30 and headed to Buledi to watch the sunrise.

The temple was a little hard to find in the dark, but we finally made it there and couldn’t believe the crowd that was already waiting. The sunrise was beautiful though, especially watching the hot air balloons go up right as the sun was coming up. We had wanted to take a hot air balloon but after learning it was about $350pp for a 45 minute ride (amazingly, all 20 or so balloons are typically booked months in advance), we decided that watching them go up was a better option for us.

Bagan is split into three different areas: Nyuang U, the more local backpacker town where we were staying, Old Bagan, where the majority of the temples are, and New Bagan, the newer area with more mid-range accommodation and several of the further temples. Buledi was on the way to Old Bagan, so we spent the rest of the morning checking out the area and some of the biggest/most popular temples around Old Bagan.

By lunchtime, we were ready to head back to our guesthouse to check in and relax for a while (remember, we’d been up and on-the-go since 3 or 4am), but we planned to meet up with our friends again at 4pm for a sunset boat cruise. After a few hours at our hotel, we were ready for sunset.

When we first started planning our trip, we thought about possibly taking a boat from Bagan to Mandalay.  The ride was supposed to cost around $40pp and take about 8 hours (as opposed to a bus, which would cost around $8pp and take 4-5 hours), but we thought it would be cool to go via boat, so we’d been considering it. Then, someone we met along the way told us that the boat ride was pretty terrible: long, expensive, and no good views and they told us that instead, we should just do an hour-long sunset boat cruise, which was much nicer and cheaper.

We hired a boat with our Israeli friends (there’s a pier next to the Golden Palace) for around $12, which took us up and down the river and then stopped to watch the sunset. It was really nice and definitely a great way to get on the water in Bagan. I think this may have been the first and only time I got to see a sunrise AND a sunset in the same day. From there, we all rode back to Nyuang U for a local dinner before calling it an early night.

Our friends left the next day, so Dave and I were on our own for temple exploring on day 2. We had a great day riding around Bagan and exploring even more of the popular temples, most notably (Htilomino, Dhammayangyi, Sulamani, and Dhammayazika). By the end of the day, we realized that 2 days in Bagan was the perfect amount of time, as we spent a lot of our first day just riding around and getting our bearings. It wasn’t until day 2 that we really got to pick and choose which temples we wanted to see. We saw some of the biggest ones, the most impressive ones, and best of all, some of the ones with the best views of the whole temple complex. It was pretty awesome when we were finally able to look out and see hundreds and hundreds of temples in the distance. It wasn’t until this moment that we were really able to understand just how many temples there were and really appreciate the scale of the place.

We went back to our hotel to relax for a few hours, and then went out once more for sunset, this time from the top of Shwesandaw temple, the most popular sunset spot. We arrived about an hour before sunset and it was already packed. As we started to walk up to the temple, we were very happy when someone FINALLY checked our ticket. It was the first time anyone had asked for it, so we felt a little bit better. We got a prime viewing spot at the very top of the temple, and watched the sunset for the 2nd night in a row. It was a little cloudy, so I’d guess we’d been lucky the day before with our perfect sunset view from the river.

That night was NYE. It just so happened that several of the other teachers from ABAC were also in Bagan, so we all planned to meet up on the “restaurant street” of Nyuang U to celebrate. We read about a bar in our book (HTI) and knew this was the place for us when they described it as having the best cocktails in Bagan and also shishas. We met our friend Brian for dinner at another Lonely Planet recco (San Kabar Restaurant & Pub, known as the “birthplace of Bagan pizza”), which turned out to be a bit of a disappointment, and then met up with our other friends Aggie and Piotr (plus a few other friends of friends) later for drinks. Dave and I had gone over to the bar earlier in the day to reserve a table and a shisha, and it was lucky that we did because when we arrived at about 9pm the place was packed.

We had a great table outside and spent the next 5 hours or so drinking, hanging out, and celebrating the end of 2015. It was a great night. Just as we were about to leave at around 2am, something pretty crazy happened. The whole night we had all been ordering drinks to our table, so when we were ready to leave, we asked for the check. Dave and I were both anticipating a bill higher than we imagined and we figured it would be annoying trying to figure out who owed what. Our waiter came over with what we thought was the bill, but instead placed a blank piece of paper in front of us and asked us to write down what everyone had ordered. After 5 hours of drinking, he wanted US to tell HIM what we owed him. We couldn’t believe it. Dave and I went first trying to figure out how many drinks and of what we’d gotten (and let me tell you this is pretty hard when you’re at a place for that long). When we told our waiter what we ordered, he took our money, said ok, and tried to walk away. I had to stop him to let him know that no, that was only the money for 2/7 of us. Again, I couldn’t believe it.

As if that wasn’t crazy enough, when we finally got our bill sorted (we tried to be as honest and fair as possible!), we walked out of this crowded bar onto a literally completely empty street. We had wanted to get a water and maybe a snack but there was literally nothing open. There were hardly even any street lights! So, we went to bed hungry, but it had been a great night that we were happy to be able to celebrate with friends.

As Dave always likes to do, we woke up early on New Year ’s Day and spent the most of the day traveling to Mandalay. What better to do than plan to spend a day you know you’re going to be tired and hungover sleeping on a bus!

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