Myanmar’s Most Popular Travel Destination
Bagan is generally considered to be Myanmar’s premier tourist destination. With its prolific spread of ancient temples and pagodas (quoted to be over 2000 structures) it certainly has drawing power for those wanting a first hand glimpse of this major center of Buddhism from the old world. After spending four days there I can confidently say, the attractions of Bagan are well worth the effort of checking out.
Getting there: After my 3 days/2 nights in Monywa I was on the road again for the next stage of my “loop trip.” Generally, most people traveling to Bagan will go there directly from Mandalay (if they are in the north of Myanmar) so getting there from Monywa was a bit of an “off the beaten track” travel experience. Luckily there are regular local buses from Monywa to Bagan. The Buses, which are mini-buses, depart from Monywa bus station and the fare is 3000 Kyats. If you are staying at the King & Queen Hotel you can buy your ticket at the hotel reception desk. They can also arrange tuk-tuk transportation to the bus station for 2000 Kyats. As mentioned, the buses are local buses meaning they cater more to the needs of the Myanmar natives, than tourists. It is quite normal for these buses to delay their departures by up to 30 minutes to ensure a full compliment of passengers before pulling away. During the trip to Bagan the bus will pullover many times to allow local passengers to alight and board. Invariably it will not arrive at it’s destination on time. Often arrival times will be 30 – 60 minutes overdue. These minibuses are often cramped for leg room and for most westerners, a 3 – 4 hour travel time will probably be the limit of their endurance. It certainly was for me. The only benefit of traveling to Bagan on a local bus is you will more than likely avoid being hit by the “zone fee” (25000 Kyats for one week) once you arrive. NOTE: ZONE FEES. All major tourist areas in Myanmar have a zone fee for foreigners. It varies from one region to another but in Bagan, it is the highest. If you are flying into Bagan, you get hit with the zone fee in the arrivals hall. If you travel from Mandalay or Yangon on a VIP Bus (a big bus) you’ll get hit with it as soon as you alight at the terminal in Bagan. If you get lucky and manage to avoid it, as I initially did, at some point in time during a sightseeing excursion around Bagan, a government official will approach you and ask to see your zone fee ticket. If you don’t have one, no problems. Just pay it on the spot.
Where to stay in Bagan: The town of Bagan sits along the banks of the Irrawaddy River and is split into three main areas: Nyaung-U, Old Bagan, and New Bagan. If you are flying in, or coming down from Mandalay on a bus, you will enter the town from the northern end, which is Nyaung-U. This is the most established area of the three and has the greatest number of accommodation choices, restaurants, and cafes. It is the place where most travellers and backpackers tend to stay. Old Bagan is more of an upmarket area and even though it’s closer to most of the major temple sites, it’s filled with expensive resorts. New Bagan is the most distant area from the temple sites but is worth checking out has it has a good number of inexpensive accommodation choices.
During the cooler months (December – February) the number of tourists visiting Bagan tends to be at its peak (due to the dry, clear weather), so it goes without saying many of the guesthouses and hotels are fully booked. To avoid having to do the run around, book your accommodation prior to arrival. In this regard, Agoda or Bookings.com are good options. I decided to splurge for my three nights in Bagan and booked at a mid-range resort in Nyaung-U, called the Zfreeti: http://www.megaworldasia.com/hotels-and-accomodation/burma/zfreeti-hotel-bagan/ This hotel is well located in Nyaung-U and is just a short walk to some of the better restaurants in the area such as Weatherspoon’s and Rain. Another benefit of staying at the Zfreeti is there’s a tour company just across the road, which hires out power bicycles and E-bikes. At 6000 Kyats for the day an E-bike is a better option as the temples are spread over quite a large area and getting around them takes quite a bit of time.
NOTE: An E-bike is an electric bike and when fully charged only has a maximum range of 45 km.
Sightseeing in Bagan: The two “big ticket” things to do in Bagan are watch a sunrise and a sunset, preferably from an elevated viewpoint. Unfortunately trying to achieve these two objectives, without bumping into a horde of others hoping to do the same thing, becomes a cat and mouse game trying to find a vantage point which isn’t packed to the gunwales.
In years gone by sightseers were able to climb up just about any temple to get an elevated position. However, since the recent death of a temple climber who fell, restrictions are now in place and only a few structures are open for ascending. A lot of the structures which are designated as safe to ascend, aren’t even temples or pagodas. They’re just flat roofed, brick buildings. It seems out of the hundreds of structures in the area, there’s only five or six which the authorities have deemed safe to climb. The problem with this is unless you get there early (at least an hour before the sun sets or rises) you will not get a front row position. While at one site, someone jokingly referred to the tripod wars which had erupted between photographers vying for the best position along the edge of the structure. However, as with many things in life, there’s always a way around this ongoing struggle to find a relatively uncrowded vantage point. Normally, in the hour or so in the lead up to a sunset or sunrise, there will local touts running around on motorbikes. These guys often claim they are selling artwork but for a small fee (2000 Kyats) they’ll lead you to an uncrowded vantage point. On my second day in Bagan I got very lucky when I paid one of these touts to take me to an uncrowded structure. He took me to a temple which was undergoing refurbishment. It had a local construction team on its upper levels and with all the bamboo scaffolding about, the place looked off limits. I shared a great sunset view of the surrounding area with just two others.
Sunrise over Bagan: Sunsets are great but it’s the sunrises which are really the “holy grail” of views over Bagan. So much so that some are prepared to pay upwards of 350 USD to experience it from a hot air balloon. Apparently, the views over the landscape are quite spectacular but, having said that, at 350 USD they’d want to be. If you don’t have 350 USD to spare for a hot air balloon ride, you can get yourself into an elevated position to view the hot air balloons as they drift across the landscape. In the cool mornings of the months of December and January the landscape looks amazingly surreal with the mist thick on the ground, and the bright glow of the sun just above the horizon. As with the sunsets, getting to a prime viewing point to beat the crowd is essential. I recommend starting out from your hotel at least one hour before sunrise so that you can get into position early. Once again, I was quite fortunate to get the assistance of an “art seller” and for a small fee, he guided me to a great, uncrowded structure.
NOTE 1: in the peak season months of December to February the weather is decidedly cool (or even cold) in the early mornings, and a warm jacket and hat are definite must haves.
NOTE 2: All the temples or structures you can climb up have no fixed lighting and as such, the narrow stairways are pitch black as you ascend or descend. Be safe and take your own flashlight (torch). A headlamp is highly recommended as these will allow you to use both hands to assist you in your ascents and descents. As mentioned the stairways are often narrow, and they can also be steep and have high steps. If you slip, there’s every possibility you’ll fall to the bottom and sustain an injury.
NOTE 3: As with any temples or pagodas in Myanmar, there’s a requirement to remove your shoes and socks before entering the structures.
Day time sightseeing in Bagan: There are literally hundreds of temples and pagodas in Bagan and the reality is, even if you were there for two weeks, you’d never see them all. For those serious about photography, the early mornings and late afternoons are obviously the best time to be looking at temples. The weather in Bagan in the months of December to February is characterised by cool mornings, clear, blue skies, and bright sunshine during the day. In fact, it gets quite warm in the afternoons so getting sunburnt is a definite factor if you are out and about all day. For those who want to visit as many temples as they can, the main (or largest) in no particular order are:
- Shwe Zi Gone Pagoda
- Gubyaukgyi Temple
- Htilominlo Temple
- Ananda Temple
- Thatbyinyu Temple
- Shwe San Daw Pagoda (crowded at sunset)
- Dhammayangyi Temple
If you are coming from the Nyaung-U end of town then most of these sites are on the river side (right hand side) of Anawratha Road (the main thoroughfare between Nyaung-U and Old Bagan). Basically, if you start at Shwe Zi Gone you can do the others going in one direction.
NOTE 1: Apparently the difference between a pagoda and a Temple is that the pagoda is coated in gold colouring and a temple is just red brick.
NOTE 2: Some of the bigger structures have lighting so they can be viewed in the early evening also
Aside from looking at temples, there’s not really much else to do in Bagan. There’s the evening dinner cruise along the river and also a day trip to Mount Popa (53 km to the east) but aside from that it’s temples, temples, and more temples. I guess that’s the primary reason for going to Bagan. You can get off the beaten track, as I did, and follow some of the dirt trails along the river side, which lead into the villages. But the stark poverty one encounters becomes a bit depressing after a while. If you go in the morning or late afternoon there’s every possibility of getting an iconic village scene shot, but that is also more about good luck than anything else. All in all, I really enjoyed my 4 days/3 nights stay in Bagan (made very comfortable by staying at the Zfreeti Hotel) and the sunset and sunrise, elevated views over the landscape were highly memorable. I’m happy I ticked Bagan off the bucket list for south east Asia, but I figure there’s only so much temple viewing a person can take before boredom sets in. Bagan? Well worth the effort to get there.
TBC in the trip report on Mt Popa…..