The ancient capital of Myanmar where more than 2,000 temples that have survived since the 11 -13th centuries still stand the test of time. Dotted across a mostly green landscape, they come in varying heights and architectural styles, and each one has a story to tell, with some of these stories fading from memory over time.
Today, the Bagan Archeological Zone is home to the largest and densest concentration of temples in the world. Some of them have grand names that everyone in Myanmar knows of as they were frequented by the royals of their time, and are covered in gold with elaborately carved statues fringing its exteriors. Many more have been left open to the onslaught of nature, built by families who wanted to thank the gods for the good they had received and forgotten over the years.
Entering Bagan, you’ll be greeted by a sight that you’ll be hard-pressed to ever forget as the temples stretch as far as the eye can see, with the majestically grand ones catching your eye immediately. And there’s lots to do as you explore the remains of the Kingdom that once stood here.
1. Take a horse cart and go around like the locals do
Before e-bikes descended upon the city, back in the day, the defacto mode of transport was via horse cart. They’re easy to find anywhere in the city, or simply ask your accommodation for a recommendation and you’ll be set for a day of exploration the traditional way.
Ranging from 15,000 to 25,000 Kyats for a day tour, you can fit up to three people on a cart and your journey will be accompanied by the constant clip-clopping of your horse’s cadence. The ride can be bumpy at times, but you’ll be able to freely admire your surroundings and take all the photos you want unhindered.
2. Sunrise/Sunset chasing
On my first trip to Bagan back in 2013, the go-to way to admire the sun was from the top of a pagoda, with several even earmarked as unofficial sunrise/sunset pagodas and the hustle to get a good spot could be overwhelming. It was worth it though. The sight was simply stunning.
I remember stumbling out of the night bus at the wee hours of the morning and urging our horse cart driver to quickly bring us to the pagoda before the sun actually rose. Sleepily navigating the tiny steps that led to the top, I found a spot and was in awe as the golden hues of sunlight fell upon the temples right in front of me as a perfect red egg yolk peeked out from the horizon.
These days though, thanks to the earthquake in 2016 and stronger calls for action to be taken to preserve the heritage of the area, pagoda climbing is no longer allowed. Instead, the government has created artificial hills for visitors to get a similar view of the temples. No surprise that the mounds are usually crowded during the sunrise and sunset timings too, so be forewarned.
If you prefer to stay away from the crowds, just pick a spot where you can see the sun and a few temples in sight. It may not be as ideal, but the seclusion from the hoards of people might just make the experience much more enjoyable.
Another popular sunrise viewing side activity is to get photographs of the hot air balloons that take flight early in the morning. Reminiscent of the well-known hot air balloon scenery in Cappadocia, Turkey, the mornings of Bagan during hot air balloon season are filled with red, yellow and dark green spheres. You’ll only have a short window of time before the drift away though, so be quick when you spot them.
3. Get a panoramic view of Bagan from the Nan Myaint Tower
Possibly only place to get clear unspoiled panoramic views of the mystical landscape is the Nan Myint Tower also known as the Bagan Tower. Standing at 60m tall, you travel up to the viewing deck on the highest floor where 360 views of Bagan can be had. Limited seating area is available though, so be ready to stand, and you can also order drinks to sip on as you admire the view.
Tickets cost US$5 per person or you can enter for free if you are a guest of the adjoining hotel, Aureum Palace Hotel. As can be expected, the tower is a popular place for sunrise and sunset, so get there early if that’s the view you are looking for. You’ll also be able to spot the hot air balloons from here, up close if the wind for the day is in your favour.
4. Go temple hopping respectfully
The main attraction of Bagan: the temples that have stood there for a really long time. Though great to admire from afar, it is only when you get up close to the building can you really appreciate the intricate artistry that these masters had when they built these ancient structures with very limited resources. This trip was a tight one and I only got to visit three of what the locals dub the big four temples: Dhammayangyi – the largest, Shwezigon – the most powerful, and Ananda – the most beautiful.
Remember to also dress in the appropriate fashion for temple visiting, ensuring their your shoulders and knees are covered with at least a shawl. Don’t have anything suitable with you? The street vendors near the temple entrances will have you covered.
I highly recommend spending more time at Bagan, at least two full days at minimum, to be able to take your time to take in all that Bagan has to offer. With over 2,000 temples to explore, you would have barely scratched the surface.
5. Explore the temple zone on two wheels
If you like to be in full control of where you are going, two wheels are probably your best bet for getting around. The temples in Bagan are numerous and spread across quite a bit of land area though it is considered a highly concentrated temple zone so going about on foot is not the wisest option.
The best alternative would be to go around on bike. The paths between temples can be tight and many areas within temple clusters are narrow and winding, off-access to four-wheeled vehicles. Fair warning that peddling on the sometimes sandy paths can be hazardous and though the terrain is mostly flat, you will still encounter the odd slope here and there.
If you don’t think your legs will be able to hold out, rent a e-scooter instead. No license is needed and you’ll be able to zip safely from one temple to another with little difficulty, and no license is required to drive one of these, just good balance and some courage if you have never done so. It does have a speed limit of 40km/h, so those use to faster speeds might find it slow
6. Take a refreshing horse ride
One of the more unique ways to see the temples in Bagan is on horseback, which I got the chance to do during a recent trip. Ayeindamar Travel and Tours offers several horseback tours in Bagan, some which span several days, and we went on a special sunrise trot (US$95, 2.5hours). We arrived at base camp while it was still pitch black and were provided with shin to knee guards to wear over our shoes in place of traditional riding boots.
Have no riding experience? Don’t worry. You will be accompanied by a trainer who will guide the horse by a rope throughout your entire ride. Those with more experience can opt to do the ride on their own. For those who haven’t ridden much before, your thighs may hurt after the two-hour long ride, and it can get bumpy at times.
7. Take a hot air balloon ride
One of the most recommended and expensive activities to do in Bagan, and for good reason. It’s a stunning view of Bagan and its temples that you get from high up in the air. A ride will easily set you back upwards of US$290 and even at that price, it is booked solid weeks in advance. You have to go during the right season too, from October to March as the balloons don’t take flight outside of that timeframe. Three companies, Balloons Over Bagan, Oriental Ballooning and Golden Eagle, dominate the Bagan skies, and all companies will include an early morning pick up from your accommodation.
Which of these activities in Bagan do you think you will enjoy the most?