On the Irrawaddy to Bagan – Central Burma

July, 2014

As one of Burma’s main attractions, it’s easy to see why Bagan is renown as Burma’s Temple Town and why many see the Bagan Archaeological Zone as an equal to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat!

Bagan, Myanmar, BurmaIrrawaddy River Trip

Caught the 6-hour bus from Hsipaw to Mandalay, which arrived at around 20:00 hrs for the one-night stopover in Mandalay.

Headed out the next morning for an early 05:30 hrs start, to catch the expensive 06:30hrs 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. The glossy brochure received on booking, definitely does this ferry justice and is misleading – photos need updating!

The food is basic, and the drinks are hideously expensive, about 3-4 times the price of beverages in Bagan. Included in the USD$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 bottled water.

Irrawaddy, Burma, Myanmar
Along the Irrawaddy

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.

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Public ferry

Unfortunately, our transiting time in Mandalay meant that we may have missed the local ferry as we 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 the ferry along the way during our trip.

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Docking along the Irrawaddy
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Our ferry skipper- hard at work!
bagan, irrawaddy, myanmar, burma, temples
You’ll see numerous gold-gilded temples along the river

The actual trip down the Irrawaddy is fantastic!

You see village river life at its 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. This is a once in a lifetime experience unless you’re lucky enough to do it again.

Worth mentioning is the abundance of gold-gilded temples dotted along the river during the 10-hour trip, which is a stark contrast to this country’s poverty and for me, such a display of opulence.

The river trip is a smooth mode of travel and takes you away from the rough and uncomfortable 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.

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River life
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Playing on the riverbank

Entry fee on arrival

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 is USD$15 or €15 (more if you pay in the local currency) for a 5-day pass only.

If you arrive by ferry, not only are you swamped by taxi drivers, Songthaews, Trishaws, and motor bikes, but also horse and cart touts, all 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.

May 2015 fee update: The government increased the entry fee to USD$20 or €20 for the 5-day pass. This fee goes straight into government coffers. I didn’t really see much evidence of money going back into any temple maintenance, cleaning, or restoration work as many of the temples are crumbling.

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.

bagan, temples, burma, myanmar
Spectacular temples

Apparently, the best way to see and appreciate Bagan’s expansive temple site is by taking to the air in a hot air balloon.

No doubt most of you have seen iconic images of the formidable temples from the air. Although, at a starting price of USD$320 in a basket of 12-16 passengers, unfortunately, this was a bit too pricey for my budget.

bagan, temples, burma, myanmar
Bagan Plains


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 spread over 2 or 3 days, if you have time.

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Temple entry
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Temple touts

The first day, we opted for a Songthaew (USD$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 (USD$4 for half-day or USD$10 for full-day) for the rest of the day – until dark.

bagan, temples, burma, myanmar, ebikes
Embarrassing eBikes

For the second day, we 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 around (free of course) 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 so you end up slowly cycling or pushing the bike back.

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Public pick-ups

Bagan is in Myanmar’s dry zone and it’s really hot and sunny all the time, even during the wet season.

You can also hire bicycles but you’ll probably suffer from heat exhaustion. Tourists are forbidden to hire scooters or motorbikes. The reason provided from officials is “safety’. I don’t believe this and believe that this is another form of controlling the distance in which tourists can venture independently.

Sunsets at the temples

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.

Bagan, myanmar, burma, temples
First night’s sunset

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!

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Second night’s sunset
Bagan, myanmar, burma, temples
Su-la-ma-ni Pahto temple

I hear it is also spectacular to see a sunrise from the temples, but alas, as I love my lay-ins, didn’t partake in a Bagan sunrise – naughty I know.

Buddha, shwe-gu-gy, Bagan, Myanmar, Burma
Buddha of Shwe-gu-gy


Smaller temples

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, turn left again.

Stop along the way at the smaller temples until you pass the Tourism Services Centre, there are a few more temples around this area.

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 again 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 did not have wi-fi and only sporadic wi-fi 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, which is the entry to the Bagan Archaeology Zone. So, this hotel is nice and central.


Note that there are three levels offered, when you’re booking accommodation in Bagan:

  • 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 a more mid-range of 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 is 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 is also free wi-fi 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 or I can get used to drinking beer as it’s cheeper in SE Asia than wine. Sadly, I haven’t found one that is palatable for me, yet…

Leaving Bagan for stunning Inle Lake

Decided on the 07:30 hrs bus to the next destination…spectacular Inle Lake! I’m hoping that the roads may be a little kinder to us than previous bus trips in this country.

Visit Nilla’s Photography for more images. More blogs on Burma.


4 thoughts on “On the Irrawaddy to Bagan – Central Burma

Add yours

  1. I appreciate your honesty in your reviews – not everything will be great in every place and I think it’s good to pass on experiences – the good and the bad. It sounds like a fascinating couple of days though 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the feedback.

      The 28 days (visa restriction) in Burma was fascinating but it’s fast becoming very popular. Although Bagan and Inle Lake have always been a tourist destination.
      I always write honestly about my experiences whether good or bad, as travelling is not always perfect, as some may write.

      Liked by 1 person

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