As one of Burma’s main attractions, it’s easy to see why Bagan is renown as the temple town and why many see the Bagan Archaeological Zone as an equal to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat!
Irrawaddy River Trip
Caught the 6-hour bus from Hsipaw to Mandalay, which arrived at around 20:00 for the one-night stopover in Mandalay. Headed out the next morning for an early 05:30 start, to catch the expensive 06:30 government-owned RV Shwe Keinnery ferry along the Irrawaddy to Bagan.
The service and quality on this 10-hour ferry trip is average at best and the glossy brochure received on booking, definitely does this ferry justice – photos need updating! The food was basic, and the drinks were hideously expensive, about 3-4 times the price of beverages in town. Included in the US$43 (+5% card fee) price is a basic breakfast and lunch at controlled quantities; you can’t really ask for more as staff show annoyance; meals do not include any beverage at all, not even water.
Save yourself some money and take the local public ferry from the same terminal, which leaves half an hour earlier than the RV Shwe Keinnery. Unfortunately, our timing in Mandalay meant we may have missed the local ferry as didn’t have a ticket, so opted to book the expensive ferry trip just to be sure. The local ferry takes about 2-3 hours longer and you need to take your own food for the trip; I would have taken this ferry instead, especially as we saw it along the way during our trip!
The actual trip down the Irrawaddy is fantastic! You see village river life at it’s rustic reality. The bustle of river life is a treat for any photographer or just relaxing on deck and taking it all in is also pretty cool. A once in a lifetime experience (unless you’re lucky enough to do it again); not to mention the abundance of gold gilded temples dotted along the river during the 10-hour trip. It’s also a smooth mode of travel and takes you away from the rough Burmese roads that sometimes don’t even resemble a road! But, I’m probably biased as I love being on the water, whether it’s a river, lake or the sea.
Bagan Archaeological Zone
Bagan was the capital, political, economic, and cultural hub of the Pagan Empire from 1044 to 1287. The spectacular temples on the Bagan plains is the result of 250 years of Bagan’s rulers and their wealthy subjects constructing over 10,000 religious monuments in an area of 104 square kilometres.
Apparently, the best way to see and appreciate Bagan’s expansive temple site is by taking to the air in a hot air balloon and no doubt most of you have seen iconic images of the formidable temples from the air. However, at a starting price of US$320 in a basket of 12-16 passengers, unfortunately, this was a bit too pricey for my budget!
The first day, we opted for a Songthaew (US$0.90) out to Tharabar Gate and onto the Archaeological Museum. Walked around in the scorching heat until hitching a ride back into town and hiring an eBike (US$4 for half-day or US$10 for full-day) for the rest of the day – until dark. The second day, walked to Restaurant Row and hired another eBike for half the day, which again, was until after the sunset. Also did a lot of walking (free) around but it’s so hot that the eBike provides some relief in the heat. Be warned, these bikes are embarrassingly slow and at only 10 kilometres per hour, even locals laugh and point at tourists on these! The battery seems to always die by sunset!
Bagan is in Myanmar’s dry zone and it’s really hot and sunny all the time, even during the wet season. You can hire bicycles but you’ll probably suffer from heat exhaustion! Tourists are forbidden to hire scooters or motorbikes, the reason provided from officials was “safety’; another form of controlling the distance in which tourists can venture independently.
Regardless of the method of arrival to Bagan, there is no way you can avoid the Bagan Archaeological Zone entry fee. At the time of writing, the fee was US$15 or €15 (more if you pay in the local currency) for a 5-day pass only. However, in May 2015, the government increased the fee to US$20 or €20! This fee goes straight into government coffers and I didn’t really see much evidence of money going back into any temple maintenance, cleaning, or restoration work.
If you arrive by ferry, not only are you swamped by taxis, Songthaews, Trishaws, and motor bikes, but also horse cart touts, vying for your business. As the ferry terminal is 4-5 kilometres from town and too far to walk with packs (especially in the heat), you will need to bargain hard for an agreed price. Regardless of the mode of transport, you won’t avoid the zone fee; our taxi tout’s from the ferry jetty first stop at the ticket office and waited until we went in to purchase the entry tickets.
The duration of your stay and where you stay in Bagan will probably dictate the order in which you visit the temples, you’ll need at least a couple of days at the temples. With your expensive entry ticket, you receive a map, which is great for following the temple route. The plethora of temples can be exhausting so I suggest to start with the main temples then go back to the smaller ones, but over 2 or 3 days, if you have time.
Of course, try to see a sunset at one of the temple sites…it’s pretty spectacular (if it’s not too cloudy). The first sunset was from the smaller Shwe-san-daw-Paya temple, which was great as we only had a few other tourists and touts for company. Also from this temple, we could see the hoards of people at the Su-la-ma-ni Pahto temple gradually building up for the sunset photo shoot.
The second sunset was from the very popular Su-la-ma-ni Pahto temple together with masses of tourists and touts. Get in early, otherwise, your photos will be filled with many heads and not much sunset! I hear it’s also spectacular to see a sunrise from the temples, but alas, as I love my lay-ins, didn’t partake in a Bagan sunrise.
Tip: To see the smaller less frequented temples, hire an eBike for the day so you have a little more scope to do a greater loop. From Old Bagan, travel south on the Bagan-B Auk Road, then turn left on the road that takes you right through New Bagan and at the end of this road, left again. Stop along the way at the smaller temples until you pass the Tourism Services Centre, there’s a few more temples around here. Just after the centre, turn left and pass the Min-nan-thu Village, you’ll see the lovely Tayok-pyi Paya temple on your left. Turn left at Nyaung U-Kyaukpadaung Road and head past the flashy Bagan Golf Course and onto Nyaung U.
Bagan Princess Hotel (Wet Kyee Inn Village | Nyaung U Township)
Friendly staff, good breakfast, room serviced daily, toiletries and hot water provided; good-sized room but needs renovating. Hotel staff can organise e-bikes, bus trips, and anything else you require.
The room didn’t have wifi and only sporadic wifi at the reception area, although staff are kind enough to allow you to use their phone to book your next destination’s accommodation. The hotel is a 20-minute walk to Restaurant Row and a 15-minute e-bike ride to the Tharabar Gate, entry to the Bagan Archaeology Zone; so, nice and central.
Tip: When you’re booking accommodation, note that there’s three levels offered. Old Bagan is close to the main temples, is pretty central to everything, and understandably, offers mostly high-end accommodation. New Bagan is further away from the temples but offers more mid-range accommodation. Nyaung U is about 3 kilometres from the temples, offers budget accommodation and also a great restaurant scene.
Weather Spoon’s Bagan Restaurant and Bar (Restaurant Row, Yarkinthar St, Nyaung Oo)
Tried several restaurants along restaurant row and the main road but after 5 days, my pick for food in Bagan and the best place to eat a burger and chips (and in SE Asia, I found) is Weather Spoons. The owner/chef trained in Bristol, UK. Not only are the beef burger and chips excellent quality, the local dishes are delicious and reasonably-priced. For me, the fresh juices are the best in a month’s travel in Myanmar; not watered down, delicious, and at 700K, the cheapest I found! Service is very good and there’s free wifi that works (as long as not too many people are on at once).
Don’t forget to try the Myanmar beer! As a non-beer drinker, I still have a swig of beer in each country, just to see if it’s any good; I haven’t found one that is palatable for me yet…
Leaving Bagan for Inle Lake
Decided on the 07:30 bus to the next destination…spectacular Inle Lake!