We excitedly arrived in Bagan and our hotel, the Oasis Bagan was a short taxi ride (about 4 euros) away located in Nyang-U. There are three sections of Bagan: Old Bagan (where most of the temples are and super pricy luxury hotels) New Bagan (far away from everything) and Nyang-U (mid-range hotels and great restaurants, a short ride away from temples).
At the airport we had to purchase a temple pass for $20 p/p (it was just $10 last year, so things are growing fast) and in the end we were asked to show it at two temples, so make sure you buy it at the airport because I am not sure where else you can purchase the pass.
Our boutique hotel, the Oasis Bagan, was sparse yet cute and we settled in and headed out for dinner. We ate at a little spot called “A Little Bit of Bagan” (I am getting ahead of myself but DON’T EAT HERE YOU WILL REGRET IT) and then headed to get some shut-eye.
Before turning in, we discussed our options for seeing the temples the following day. Basically, you have the option of horse and carriage, taxi, e-bike (which is really a small electric scooter/moto) or regular bike. It was super hot, and so we decided our best option having three days to explore the temples was to start with a taxi and have him route us through the further temples. Then, the following day we’d rent e-bikes and explore the closer temples on our own. Bicycles are not recommended unless you are super fit and love the heat, because it’s a lot of work in a hot climate and you have to ride through a lot of sandy dirt roads which is not ideal.
The horse carts are something I see dying out soon. They were quite popular before the e-bikes made an appearance about 2 years ago but the horses are also exhausted in the heat and it’s a bumpy, uncomfortable ride. So we opted for the taxi tour, which would go from about 830-1230 am and then pick up again from 4-7. This way, you can have a rest and lunch during the hottest part of the day. The full day taxi tour with English-speaking guide was about 30 euros. We booked it and headed to bed.
Jorge woke up in the middle of the telling complaining of intense stomach pain, which worsened. I got a bit worried, but gave him some Pepto Bismol and that did help, but neither of us got much sleep. Nevertheless, we powered through and got up the next morning for our 8:30 am guided taxi tour.
I will include the full list of temples and pagodas we visited below, but for now I will just talk about my favorites. Bagan has about 3,211 temples located throughout a dusty area of 60 miles, though about 2,000 are still standing and not in ruins, so you have a lot of territory to cover.
They range from small shrines to looming broken-down palaces, and it was really cool to see how each one was unique.
We were able to start with about 6-7 temples in the morning. We saw a few you could hike up the steep, uneven stairs for gorgeous panoramic views, and I think those were my favorite. The shrines, elaborate with gilded gold Buddhas are beautiful, but sometimes they all begin to run together, whereas climbing old, dark cement stairs hopeful for a new glimpse of the clouds over the temple-tops, well that is where the real magic lies.
We bought some paintings for our house at one of the temples and chatted for awhile with the girl selling them. She repeatedly offered to “trade” me items she was selling for items of my own like lipstick or bangle bracelets. They really can’t get that stuff here, and it made me wish I had brought alone all those bracelets I never wear or brightly colored lipsticks. I just would have given them to her!
Some temples are famous for things like having unique Buddhas inside, a reclining Buddha, or other unique characteristics like a leaning top, painted walls, etc. We also saw one that is white-washed by villagers once a year and a few with gilded gold tops. By about noon Jorge was looking a bit green and so we headed back to the hotel for our mid-day break. He immediately fell asleep and would stay that way for about four hours, and I took a one hour nap and then headed out for lunch on my own.
Our afternoon portion picked back up with more temples and finished with an amazing sunset view. Although the temple was crowded, the view is absolutely awe-inspiring. Photos just don’t do it justice. I tried to embed the glowing sky hovering over the ancient temples in my mind forever. I feel lucky to have been able to experience such beauty in this fleeting lifetime.
Okay enough of me getting all poetic justice here, there is one other interesting fact I would like to share and that is some info about laundry. I know, pretty mundane after just speaking about what may just be some of the most majestic ruins in the world, but it is interesting.
Obviously traveling with a backpack requires that during a six week trip you will eventually have to do laundry, in fact, several times. Especially when it’s super hot outside and you are constantly sweating. Last year we did laundry in Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam and it is super cheap. Typically they charge by kilo and for a couple plastic bags full of dirty clothes they charge you a few euros to wash, dry and iron.
Myanmar is a totally different animal. THEY DON’T HAVE WASHERS! Yes, you heard me. They wash all their clothes by hand, just like I previously mentioned when I saw people doing laundry in Mandalay in the river.
So we dropped off our laundry in the morning, and it was 300 KYAT (about 23 euro cents) per small item (tanks, undies, a pair of socks) and then 500 KYAT (about 40 cents) for larger items like pants. We actually had about 33 small items and 8 big items to wash, and they hand washed every single item (I feel slightly weird knowing my dirty underwear was washed in the river by some random person, but what choice did I have) dried (obviously they have no dryers, so air drying only) and ironed it during my day at the temple, and couldn’t have been more good-natured about it all and thankful for our business. The total was about 11 euros, and it’s one of the most expensive things I’ve done in Myanmar, but it was certainly an interesting experience.
After an awesome first day, we were completely exhausted– especially Jorge who was feeling better but who still was a bit ill. So we slept a solid nine hours and then woke up ready to take on the e-bikes. It’s funny to me that they are called e-bikes because this conjures up an image of a typical bike with a small motor, not unlike the ones in Madrid used for the Bici Mad bikeshare program. Instead, e-bikes are more like motorcycles or scooters, but electric. There are various kinds and ones that have more power, but the most basic ones sorta reminded me of a faster version of those scooter cards old people drive around Walmart in the USA.
We started out around 8 am, paid about four euros each to rent the bikes and were on our way. Again, full list of visited temples below, but we saw some of the most popular ones today, as well as a smaller complex with a semi-leaning temple that the locals refer to as the “Leaning Tower of Bagan”.
I personally prefer some of the smaller, quieter temples. They may not be quite as grand as some of the more famous ones, but they allow for peaceful, reflective exploring as opposed to knocking knees with people shouting in other languages and Myanmar kids trying to sell you touristy trinkets.
Another interesting fact is that the temples often have fresco paintings inside. Some are destroyed and others more intact. The images are beautiful, showing Buddhas, typical life in Bagan, elephants etc. We went to one temple which was especially cool because the whole inside of the temple was dark with paintings. No photos were allowed and you needed to use a flashlight (I was overjoyed, Jorge made fun of me for taking a mini-flashlight along and it came in handy!) to see them. It was eerie walking about the dark temple shining the flashlight to see the huge paintings all over the walls and ceiling.
Many of the temples allow you to buy these gold papers for about a $1 where you actually peel off bits of gold and press it onto the Buddha. This practice seems to be very popular among locals and we gave it a shot. I think the concept is that you are supposed to make a wish or desire and press the gold on, and then it will come true.
We took our midday break for lunch, pool and nap and then headed back for a sunset, this time at a less-touristy temple. The view was just as great and there were about 10 people there vs. about 100 yesterday. Unfortunately, the sunset wasn’t quite as beautiful as it had clouded over, but we still had a nice time.
We managed to get up at 4:30 am to catch a 5:30 am sunrise! We wrote our e-bikes to the temple Law ka ou Shaung through dark dirt roads. We also managed not to get too lost, thankfully. We carefully selected this temple for two reasons: it wasn’t super touristy and also because there is a neat process to get inside the temple. You actually have to go to the hut behind the temple, where the dogs & roosters alert the “gatekeeper” of our presence. He comes out and unlocks the temple gates and directs you up the spooky, dark stairs so you get walk up to the top and watch the sunrise. Unfortunately, it was so cloudy that there wasn’t really a sunrise, but the experience was still really special, and we were the only people there which made it very peaceful as well.
We decided to take advantage of the cooler temps (it was so early in the morning) and then headed around through Old Bagan and to the Bupaya pagoda which overlooks the river. Apparently the pagoda was destroyed in a 1975 earthquake, but it’s been rebuilt and gilded with gold. It was a great time to go (around 6-630 am) because people were there taking their early morning prayers and meditation before starting the day.
It’s actually worth nothing that one thing that makes the Bagan temples so riveting is that they are active temples. You see locals visiting them, praying in them, meditating, monks paying visits to their Buddha among the tourists. I think it’s so cool that these temples are not just being used for tourism and that local people enjoy them as well.
We walked down the riverfront and saw some of the boats taking off along the Irrawaddy. I was actually bummed because our original plan included taking a 12-hour slow boat from Mandalay to Bagan, but then we realized it only operated in the dry season, so there went my illusions of slowly sailing past the Burmese countryside. At least we will have our cruise up the Mekong coming soon in Laos.
We then headed over to some smaller temples on the way home where we encountered the typical beggar kids trying to sell us things. They were really cute, but I hate supporting the idea that they beg and don’t go to school, so we reluctantly left without purchasing their coins, souvenirs or hand-colored postcards.
By that time we were destroyed from our 4:30 am wakeup call, so we headed back for a nap and breakfast. It started to rain and didn’t stop for awhile, so we were so glad we woke up early and got those few hours in of temple time. Around 5:00 pm it stopped raining and we were able to get in one last cruise with our e-bikes and visited a few spots. Although it was slightly drizzly and overcast, it was fun because the temples were completely deserted!
If you take away anything at all from this long winded explanation of my travels, it’s that you need to see Myanmar, and you need to see it ASAP. In even just six months things will be so different and so go, go now, go soon and experience this pure and authentic one-of-a-kind country!
Next stop, LAOS!
Temple & Resource List
Temples taxi: guide Win: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Bulethi (went up, great views rec’d for sunset)
- Su la ma ni pato
- Dhamma yan gyi temple (smelled of bats)
- North guni (great views recd for sunset)
- Dhamma ya zi-ka Zedi (all gold), like a pentagon, 5 buddhas
- Lay myet hnay-white washed by man-nan-thu villagers once a yr
- Tayoke pyai
- Shwe-kun char (amazing river views)
- Teak wood monastery Nat Htauh Ryacn (not so interesting)
- Gu-byauk-gy (painting, no photos)
- Ma-nu-ha (near Myinkaba village) with reclining buddha
- Sunset: shwe-san-daw Paya (asked for pass)
- Rented ebikes for 5000 each from Sulatt store in Nyang-U
- Route: drove along bagan Nyang-U road
- Shwe-zi-gon Paya
- One near hti lo min lo
- Hti lo min lo (asked for pass)
- Leaning tower of bagan otherwise know as Khay- Min-Gha
- That-byin-nyu (grey and gold) at first we thought it was Ananda
- Ananda (popular, 4 standing buddhas, jorge bought gold paper to press on the Buddha)
- Afternoon sunset–dirt road to Guni (north)
- Dinner at Spice restaurant: carrot salad, eggs, rice for a total under 2 euros (very good!)
- Rec’d for sunrise: Pyat thut gyi, Pyat tha da or Law ka ou Shaung (gatekeeper with key)
- Ebikes again
- Sunrise: Law ka ou Shaung
- Bupaya (along the river)
- Small temples without name along Nyang-U road
–Note—Restaurant that gave Jorge food poisoning: “A Little Bit of Bagan”—don’t eat there!