Bagan, Myanmar - All You Need to Know
Days 82-85: Jess is a Wanderer visited Bagan in Myanmar. A place covered with Buddhist temple ruins dating back as far as 10AD, it's an incredible part of the world. Be there for sunrise to see the hot air balloons taking off. Here's everything you need to know...
I took a very fancy express bus using JJ Express from Yangon to Bagan. Booking was easy - either online or at the hostel reception. It cost $19 for a one-way trip and they cover most of the country so you can go on from Bagan to other places. At times I didn't know whether I was on a bus or a plane given the fantastic service: water, snack box, blanket, refreshing iced-towels - it really was a marvellous experience. From Yangon centre to the bus station can be a tedious journey due to traffic, so leave about 2.5 hours for the trip. It cost 1100K in an Uber which was under $10 and I shared the ride with a girl from the hostel I stayed at. The main downside to the bus was that there are stops around every three hours for bathroom breaks. If you have an eye-mask, maybe you'll sleep through but maybe it's good to take advantage of peeing when possible because you wouldn't want to find yourself in a pickle! Journey time was around 8 hours so after leaving at 8pm, we arrived around 4am and were just in time to see the first of many Bagan sunrises. You can see the full gallery here.
I had no idea what to expect other than the few pictures I'd seen on Google. I didn't know how easy or hard it would be to replicate those images or what the chances of seeing the balloons in flight would be. It was all very exciting. I managed to negotiate a shared taxi for 4000K (down from about 12000K) it's 4am, the drivers have been waiting for bus loads all night, they totally have the monopoly on how much to charge but stand your ground and you will be able to get the cost down, especially if you're willing to car share.
En route to Bagan itself from the bus station, there are checkpoints where all foreign visitors are required to pay 25,000 Kyat (around $25) in order to gain access to the site. Some drivers will take you a 'back way' in exchange for a small fee but there are inspections at certain temples so if you want to see everything, you're better off paying out for the ticket.
I got to the hotel to find a hoard of people in the lobby. Some were hiring e-bikes (electric scooters), some were trying to negotiate an early check-in, others were checking out. It was a hubbub of commotion. I cozied up to a bunch of Chinese tourists and listened to the receptionist explaining the best plan of action. With this information I stepped aside, paid a small fee (3000K - £1.50) for a bicycle, dumped my bags and set off in search of Bu La Di temple. Apparently there were some fantastic views to be had from here.
Arriving at the temple, or as close to the temple as I could work out, I met at least three hundred other people all clambering up and perching on the pagoda. They were eagerly awaiyig sunrise with phones, cameras and selfie sticks poised and ready for action. I removed my shoes and began climbing into a spot. I was only there for five minutes before I realised that there was a telegraph wire running right across the field in front - that would be a real eye-sore in my photos. Standing up and making my way back down the pagoda, I was off in search of another base to take my desired pics. Some people scoffed at me saying I wouldn't be able to find a better place. I figured I had three sunrises to work it out so I wasn't too worried. And besides, I'd booked a dorm room and I wasn't allowed to check in until 1pm. It wasn't even 5:30 at this point so I had nothing better to do.
Hopping back on my bicycle I thought about going to the main road but then I noticed some sandy/dirt tracks through the grass. Deciding to take my chances, I cycled underneath the telegraph wires (mentioned earlier) and within five minutes I could hear quiet whispers coming from the top of a, seemingly abandoned, pagoda. I entered the darkness and it was super creepy. Using my phone torch (and all my bravery because all I was thinking about were snakes and spiders), I ascended the tiny staircase and was greeted at the top by only 4 people. All sitting silently, all setting up their nice cameras for a lovely sunrise. I would be much happier here. And boy was the view impressive. I was so pleased with my decision to leave the other pagoda. For the best sunrise experience, I'd recommend avoiding the crowds and finding your own little place to sit and watch. Do be careful on the less well-known pagodas though as some are not in good shape and accidents have been known to happen.
I spent the rest of the day cycling around in the sunshine. There really is no shade so do make sure you've got suncream or you'll be a lobster like I was. I cycled down to New Bagan and to be honest, you can skip it. Unless you want fancy hotels and restaurants and touristy shops, there's far more to see at the 'top end' of the city. The big circle in this pic is where most of the action happens. The small circle is where I recommend you stay - somewhere like the Royal Bagan Hotel or near there. This makes most of the temples accessible by bicycle or e-bike within a short amount of time.
On day two, I paired up with a girl from my hostel and we split the cost of a tuk-tuk tour around town. Picking us up at 5am, we were taken to sunrise then back to the hotel for breakfast, back to the temples, back to the hotel for lunch and once again to the temples for sunset. It was well worth the 30,000KYT and worked out at around £7 each. What a bargain. Also, the driver will take you to some less well-known temples or the famous ones - it's really up to you and what you want to see. The 'going rate' for tuk-tuks is around 35,000 but I managed to barter him down to 5000 less!
Some temples are ridiculously busy: That-byin-nyu, Hti-lo-min-lo, Dhamma-yan-gyi and Ananda which are the tallest, oldest largest and most beautiful respectively. They often have a good number of tour buses parked up outside them with an even greater number of tourists inside them. This is also where you'll find the sellers showcasing their wares and waving things in your face that you probably don't want to buy but perhaps they'll be able to twist your arm. I preferred the less spectacular pagodas as it was just me, the building, a Buddha statue and maybe a local on a push-bike.
Day three was where I totally blew my budget and ended up doing a hot air balloon ride with Golden Eagle. It was truly mesmerising and if you've got the cash to do so, I wouldn't hesitate. It was incredible. The whole experience from start to finish cannot be faulted. With professional pilots from the UK, Switzerland and Australia to name a few, we were treated like VIPs and even had a 'luck' landing on a sand bank in the middle of the river so go a boat ride thrown in too. With snacks upon arrival at the departure field and breakfast with a champagne reception upon landing, along with return transport it was worth every penny. The views of the balloons from up high were incredible, the floating feeling (despite the raging hangover) was beyond peaceful - until the sweat began pouring due to the roaring flames above our heads! I think for me, the most incredible part was seeing just how vast the temple complex is. It stretched for miles and there were stupas dotting the ground below for miles in every direction. On the ground, you can sense the area is large but from above, it really gives perspective. So, go on, knock yourselves out and get a trip booked for $330.
There are plenty of restaurants and bars to eat and drink near the post office where I stayed. There's also a good crowd about and, despite being a solo traveller, I had good company each night. Many of the hotels even offer a pool so you can have a refreshing dip during the afternoon relaxation time. It's definitely too hot to spend the entire day exploring. And dare I say, you do actually get a bit 'templed-out' after a while so it's good to be able to add some relaxing time into the itinerary. You can also go and see the local kids who often try and sell their colouring pictures or the puppets which hang from trees.
All in all, Bagan is a lovely, chilled, scenic and fascinating place to spend a few days. Easily reachable by bus or plane, it's 100% got to be on your bucket list. You won't regret it.