The area of Bagan in central Myanmar is a large plain next to the Ayerawaddy River that is covered with over 3000 Buddist temples built from 11th to 13th century. After years of neglect, many of the temples have been restored and Bagan is one of the highlights of any itinerary in Myanmar. Given how many other ruins we have seen along our trip, we were especially excited to see these and compare.
Since Bagan is such a big tourist destination, we had quite a few options to get there from Mandalay. Based on recommendations from fellow travelers, we decided to go via boat down the Ayerawaddy River. It was much more expensive than the bus would have been, and slower (even though this was the “fast” boat, it was scheduled to take 10 hours) as well, we decided to splurge and see what life was like along this wide and slow-moving river.
The boat left bright and early from the dock in Mandalay at 7 AM. We had an assigned seat in a lower-level area with airplane-style seats, but as soon as the boat pulled away from the dock we were free to roam around the three different levels. There were a few different open-air decks where we could grab a chair and look out. Unfortunately the day was overcast, so the scenery wasn’t as beautiful as it could have been. Also, there wasn’t quite as much activity on the river as we expected. Nevertheless, this meant that we had plenty of time to catch up on some reading and just relax, so we still were glad we chose this method.
Where We Stayed
The first choice one has to make when visiting Bagan is which area to stay in: Old Bagan – the easiest access to the temples but the most expensive, New Bagan – further away from the temples with midrange options, or Nyaung U – furthest away from the temples, but the biggest town and with the cheapest options. We chose to go for the midrange option in New Bagan.
We had read that booking ahead was preferable, so we used agoda.com to find a place to stay a few days in advance. Here we found the At Bagan Hostel, which seemed new and had good reviews. There were only dorm rooms available, but we figured we could rough it for a bit and booked two beds in a six-bed dorm.
Getting to the At Bagan from the boat dock proved to be a challenge for one big reason: the name on the building it is in and the name the taxi drivers know it as is NOT “At Bagan!” The building is still called the Thiri Sandar, for unknown reasons. If we hadn’t been warned about this by fellow travelers we happened to meet we would have been even more confused.
For this and other reasons, we had mixed feelings about the At Bagan. The facilities were definitely new; it almost seemed like you could smell the fresh paint drying, the beds were quite nice and the Internet was by far the fastest we have had in Myanmar. Breakfast was also nice, in a restaurant across the street, with a local fried rice option. But, the staff was a little hard to get an answer out of sometimes. They certainly weren’t mean, but there were a few times where we felt like we were slightly misled or just couldn’t communicate well with them. So we enjoyed our stay but it won’t get as strong of a recommendation as the other places that we have stayed in Myanmar.
What We Did
We took our two full days that we had in Bagan to try and fit in a good selection of the thousands of temples in the area. We decided to follow the basic path laid out in a sample itinerary in Lonely Planet, which we felt worked out pretty well.
There are a variety of ways to get around Bagan, but we had heard good things about renting an e-bike so we decided to give it a go. For $6 a day each, we were able to rent nice e-bikes from a place just across the street from At Bagan. We were expecting them to look more like bicycles, but we felt they looked and behaved more like scooters. At first we were nervous, but it was very easy to operate and pretty quickly we got used to zooming around on paved and dirt roads like pros. We would highly recommend them as a way to get around!
We could list out all of the temples we visited, but you might get “temple fatigue” just from reading about them all! So, we’ll try to stick to some highlights.
Our favorite was the Sulamani Pahto, which we found to be beautiful both inside and out. It was built in 1181, so it is one of the later ones built and seems to be a little more refined than some of the earlier ones. We enjoyed the stucco ornamentation on the exterior and the extensive murals found in the interior. We also kept wanting to call it the Suleiman, since the name sounded so much like that of the famous mosque we visited in Istanbul :-).
Another favorite was the mysterious Dhammayangyi Pahto. From afar, we felt like this one was reminiscent of an ancient Mayan temple since its spire at the top is no longer there. Inside, this one felt much more abandoned than the others as well. It had very high ceilings, and you could hear birds flying around between the chambers. The interior part of the temple is blocked off with bricks that were supposedly added after the king who built the temple died, as payback to dishonor his memory. All of these factors made this one a spooky one to walk through.
Others of Note
Ananda Pahto felt like the most actively used one – Della was happy that she was allowed to place gold leaf on a statue (not like in Mandalay). Thatbyinnyu Pahto looks impressive from a distance since it is the tallest in Bagan (especially from atop the old city walls which are climbable nearby) but is not very interesting inside. Nathlaung Kyaung was interesting because it is actually a Hindu temple – the people of the area have not always been Buddhists.
Shwesandaw Paya and Pythada Paya have excellent terraces for views over the temples, which mean they are great for sunset viewing – but it also means they get pretty crowded so we avoided them. The first day we saw some other people atop a small temple south of Shwesandaw, so we went to check it out. A local attendant showed us the narrow staircase up to the top. Unfortunately it was almost completely overcast so we didn’t see much and ended up leaving early. The second day we intended to watch the sunset at Dhammayazika Paya. It was a nice and serene area, but under renovation. A friendly local pointed us to a neighboring small temple with a terrace, so we went there thinking we had found a hidden gem. When the first of three tour buses pulled up we realized we were mistaken! The colors were nice but we ended up watching the last parts of the sunset from below because we couldn’t stand the crowds of tourists.
We also enjoyed a few moments where we ventured into areas with only smaller temples. Many of the popular temples felt overwhelmed with crowds of tourists, locals, and vendors, so it was nice to find some spaces to just wander around and feel like we had the place to ourselves.
Where We Ate
There was a stretch of restaurants just across the road from our hostel which we visited for a quick easy dinner on two of the nights. They were all about the same, serving your standard curries and noodle dishes. Della got her favorites fried vermicelli at both places. Eric tried the curry at one and was disappointed that it didn’t come with any sides like we thought was standard!
One of the days we were out visiting the temples we decided to eat at a restaurant that we had been given multiple recommendations for called Be Kind to Animals the Moon (no, that is not a typo). It is a vegetarian restaurant, so a bit different from what we had been eating so far. We shared an appetizer of spring rolls, and then each got a curry with special rice: Della a coconut curry with brown sticky rice and Eric a garden vegetable curry with coconut rice.
Bagan was an interesting place to visit, but two days was probably sufficient for us at least. We definitely recommend using the e-bikes to get around, both for the amount of ground you can cover and for the fun factor! We wish the weather had been a little less gloomy while we were there, but we still were able to find a bunch of different places with great views.