Beyond the magnificent temples of Thailand and Cambodia, another sought after cultural and architectural wonder lies in the heart of the neighboring country of Myanmar. Formerly known as Burma, this ASEAN country is located adjacent to Thailand and Laos to the south, China in the west, Bangladesh in the east and a portion of India to the north. It is likewise bounded by the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal. Its land area is relatively huge that it stretches from the south of Thailand up to the southern tip of the Himalayas. Interestingly, it is also home to the highest peak in all of southeast Asia, the Hkakabo Razi (~5,881 m). Its new capital is called Naypyitaw while its largest city and former capital is Yangon (also called Rangon). The country is divided into 14 states and regions and further sub-divided into districts, townships, wards and villages.Myanmar has a long and rich history and civilization, which well explains why it is home of a vast ruins of temples, stupas and fascinating religious structures incomparable elsewhere in Bagan.
Situated in the Mandalay Region, Bagan is an ancient city under the Pagan Kingdom that would eventually comprise the union of Myanmar. Throughout the kingdom’s existence, over ten thousand Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were constructed along the vast plains of the Irrawaddy river. Today, only over two thousand structures remain that comprise the Bagan Archaeological Zone for locals and tourists to experience and get to revisit the once mighty kingdom.
Sunset and Sunrise Watching
Bu Pahya Pagoda
Irrawaddy River Sunset Cruise
Availing this famous sunset tour is must-do in Bagan. Besides the temples and stupas, Bagan also boasts of the Irrawaddy River which practically sustained the once mighty Pagan civilization and cruising its stretch during sunset is truly an enchanting experience. You just need to head to the local pier which is just beside the Bu Pahya Pagoda. Once you arrive, local boatmen usually offers the cruise tour. In our case, we availed this for free courtesy of the Myanmar Bus Ticket. Once you book your bus tickets from them to/from Bagan, you can avail of their FREE Sunset Irrawaddy River Cruise with snacks.
Given the good proximity of the temples, perhaps the most popular options for tourists in exploring Bagan is through the electronic bikes (e-bikes) which can be availed through your hotels. The e-bikes are noise and smoke free and easy to use that only requires some basic skills in biking and of course navigation with your map/app. Foreigners are actually allowed to drive these without special permits. The bikes usually can accommodate up to two people. Note however that given the mostly unpaved roads within Bagan, it is also prone to break down so make sure that it is in good running condition.
While there are other convenient but more expensive options like the private cars of vans, the bikes are the cheapest and most flexible in terms of getting to your preferred temples/stupas. For additional information, there is also the traditional horse cart which we personally do not suggest to avail.
The main gateway to Myanmar is via its main city of Yangon. Daily direct flights are available to/from Bangkok (Don Mueang and Suvarnabhumi), Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. Others also make entry to Mandalay or Naypyitaw from Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur. From either Yangon or Mandalay airports, one can take a quick but costly flight directly to Bagan. But for many, a convenient and cheaper option is to take an 8 hour bus ride from Yangon or 6 hours ride from Mandalay in any day.
In our case, we booked our bus tickets via Myanmar Bus Ticket, a reputable online bus ticket operator that offers affordable and secured ticketing service. Interestingly, tickets come with complimentary insurance cover and a FREE Sunset Irrawaddy River Cruise with snacks once in Bagan. Another option that we took was getting a ticket from Joyous Journey or JJ Express Bus on our return trip from Bagan to Yangon. You can either chose to book via Myanmar Bus website or directly at the JJ Express Bus website or Facebook page.
Yangon to Bagan
For our Yangon-Bagan/Nyang U leg, we selected the Elite Normal (2+2 Executive) bus that leaves 21:30 and arrives at around 6am. Ticket price is USD 13.00. The bus trip is very smooth, the roads are well paved and there was no traffic. A toilet and food stop was made only once. We arrived earlier than scheduled at the Bagan Shwe Pyi Bus Station a little past 5am and we were not ready to be welcomed by a very chilly and foggy weather. We were there late November. A few men approached and offered rides so we observed first and opted the taxi to bring us to our hotel. A standard tourist fee is collected in a checkpoint after the bus station.
Bagan to Yangon
On our way back, we make sure to try the JJ Express Bus, a reputed operator with great review. This time, we booked directly in their website and all went smooth as expected. We made a stop somewhere in a small town and was able to quickly get a glimpse of local life and food. Again, we arrived on time just before sunrise and we were dropped off along the main road leading to Yangon where a mini-bus fetched us and ferried us to the city center. From there, we started our quick Yangon city walking tour.
Bagan to Other Destinations
If you decide to take and onward trip to nearby tourist destinations, buses are also available for booking going to Mandalay or Inle Lake. Check out Myanmar Bus ticket for schedules and prices.
Yangon Airport to Bus Station. From Yangon airport, you can avail of available metered taxis. But make sure to take the legitimate operators. During our arrival at around 7pm, a middle-aged man approached us, offered a taxi ride and led us towards the parking area which turned out to be a unmarked, private car. Realizing that he’s a sham, we walked way towards a uniformed staff posted near the taxi line and asked for help. He obliged and led us to a parked taxi and talked to the driver. Despite some relief, we make sure that were on top of the situation so we engaged him in small chat and asked his name. Luckily, the driver knows some English and was actually fond of Filipino TV programs shown on local TV and of course, he knows President Duterte. That time, some inroads towards the Aung Mingalar Bus station was a bit bumpy and not so well lit. Good thing, we made on time for our 9:30pm trip.
Bagan. A popular and practical choice for visiting tourist is getting to rent an electric bike like we did. For a minimal fee, you get to use the bike for an hour tour of the whole site at your own pace and choice of temples. This is particularly good for solo or travelers or couples like us. Taxis are convenient for families but could get pricey. Another local alternative is the horse-drawn carriage but this too is expensive than the bikes and we do not suggest or even promote this considering the welfare of animals.
WHERE TO STAY
Bagan is an ideal place for tourists given its variety and choices of accommodations, from basic backpacking hostels to star-rated hotels and river-side resorts which are situated in three major areas within the Bagan Archaeological Zone. For those seeking for budget accommodations, then the best option is stay in Nyaung U area, which is closes to the Bus Station and the airport. Midrange and affordable hotels are also available in New Bagan area, which us further away from the main town, while the upscale and luxury hotels are located in Old Bagan. Regardless of where you stay, the temples and stupas are just around every corner and getting into one is as easy as walking in the park, not to mention the readily available transportation options.
Our usual choice in hotel reservations is via Agoda or Booking but Airbnb is another cheap option. We usually prefer hotels with basic amenities and, if possible, free breakfast but have good access to tourist sites and transport hubs. Fortunately, our trip was kindly supported by an online travel/tourism outfit as a prize for an online contest months prior. They generously booked us at the Bagan Thiripyitsaya Sanctuary Resort, one of the more popular and pioneer upmarket hotels in Old Bagan and located by the Irrawaddy River and very close to the major temples. We stayed in one of their Deluxe Garden View bungalow for almost 3 days and 2 nights that comes with daily sumptuous breakfast buffet. It is by far one of our best hotel experiences in our travels.
- Asked your hotel for Bagan map for guides and easy reference. Plan out your daily itinerary to cover the major sites and as many temples you can visit
- Please ask your hotel or local authorities where to see/witness the legit/open sites for SUNRISE and SUNSET watching. There are designated temples for these activities, so be careful when some locals led/guide you to isolated but prohibited viewing points. It could get you in trouble.
- Always bring with you your passports and tourist zone permit collected upon entering Bagan since these are routinely checked around the temples.
- Please observe proper attire, decorum and respect local culture and laws when going around the tourist zone.
- Driving e-bikes are allowed for foreign tourists. As precautions, make sure operators provide helmets and the bikes are in good condition before availing. Also, we noticed that in Bagan, people in general drive on the left although some vehicles we saw are right hand drive
- Since going to and getting around Bagan involve transfers and bikes and going temples, risks of injuries maybe a possibility. Getting a travel insurance with medical and repatriation benefits become handy. Also, take note of the contact details of your country’s embassy/consulate for any emergencies.