TEMPLES OF BAGAN: BURMA’S WAYWARD WONDER OF THE WORLD
“They make one of the finest sights in the world, being exquisitely finished, splendid and costly. When illuminated by the sun they are especially brilliant and can be seen from the great distance’
-Marco Polo, upon visiting Bagan’s temples in the 13th Century
Cambodia’s more-iconic Angkor Wat complex may be the most famous of the Hindu / Buddhist temples, but many (including myself) would argue that the temples of Bagan, in central Myanmar, are the most spectacular to visit. While Angkor Wat has increasingly become a saturated tourist hotspot over the last 20 years, Bagan is still comparatively untouched.
With Myanmar finally opening up to tourism, this is going to soon change. Bagan will become the next Angkor Wat and you will not be able to experience it in solitude. Go now before the Chang Beer tanktops take over.
I’d heard great things about Bagan for years before I made it there in 2011. For me, Bagan was one of those rare places that not only reaches that hype but surpasses it.
Myanmar is not easy to visit. Bagan is even more difficult to reach. That’s half the fun.
Bus: Most travelers arrive by bus from the largest city and tourist gateway of Yangon (16 hrs / 15,000 kyet / $17usd). A bus to/from Mandalay to the north costs about the same as Yangon, but takes about 7 hours.
Train: A 17-hour train leaves Yangon each day at 4pm. Reports range from ‘uncomfortable’ to ‘terrifying’. Prices from $10-$40 depending on class from hard seat to ‘soft’ sleeper.
Plane: Bagan also has a small airport with quick flights to Yangon or Mandalay for about $90 usd each way. A taxi from the airport to the hotel area should be about $8-10.
Temples and Stupas
The various temples of Bagan are peppered throughout a flat, dusty plain on the banks of the Irrawaddy River. The atmosphere has not been kind to the temples here, and the sand has weathered the temples and stupas, often to their red brick foundations.
Additionally, the government’s mishandling of the ruins has led to UNESCO denying it’s ‘World Heritage Site’ status to Bagan. This adds to its informal, porous feeling.
Hot Air Balloon Ride
Prices are currently around $300 per person for the 1,000 ft high trip. Balloons leave before sunrise for the best ambiance. https://www.facebook.com/balloonsoverbagan
This small food market and carnival features a human foot-powered ferris wheel that has to be seen to be believed.
There are two locations. I frequented the one in New Bagan, with a great view of a roundabout, stupa and local traffic. The food is a mix of Burmese and European, all made with local ingredients. You can try the famed fermented ‘tea leaf’ salad here.
Near New Bagan Market (+95) 9 40152 3810
I like Myanmar Beer, but I was pleasantly surprised to see that Mandalay Beer was available most places. That’s my preferred brew in Burma.
I had a standard room at Kaday Aung Hotel for $18 (walk-in, negotiation). It was great. I hear the rates have risen dramatically. Actually, I am reading that rates are currently soaring in Bagan. I’d recommend putting the bag(s) down at a cafe and walking on foot to negotiate a good price. When hotel managers see sweaty newbies with backpacks they tend to quote a higher price. Walk-in with easy and little burden and you might slide your way into a better rate.
Bagan is a photographer’s dream, maybe even moreso than Angkor Wat. While Angkor is more formal and rectilinear, Bagan is dispersed and unpredictable, leading to great opportunities to juxtapose structures, along with grazing animals. The sunsets and sunrises are particularly spectacular, as the dusty air lights up in orange and reds.