Gliding effortlessly along the Irrawaddy River to the archaeological town of Bagan, also renown as Burma’s Temple Town, which sits in central Burma…
Starting in Mandalay
Today, it’s an early 05:30 am start, to catch the expensive 06:30 am government-owned RV Shwe Keinnery ferry, which is taking us along the Irrawaddy to Bagan.
Along the muddy shores, the bustle of village river life at its rustic reality, floats by and treats any photographer.
Why not relax on deck and absorb your surrounds? This is a once in a lifetime experience unless you’re lucky enough to do it all again.
Worth mentioning is the abundance of gold-gilded temples dotted along the river during the 10-hour trip. A stark contrast to Burma’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 crazy Burmese roads, which sometimes don’t even resemble a road. Although, I’m probably biased as I love being on the water, whether it’s a river, lake, or the sea.
The journey down the Irrawaddy is memorable and fantastic.
A little on the government ferry service
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 very 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 ask for more as staff get quite annoyed.
Meals do not include any beverage at all, not even bottled water.
Unfortunately, our transiting time in Mandalay meant that we could miss the local ferry as we didn’t have a ticket, so opted to book the expensive ferry trip from Hsipaw just to be sure.
Advice? Save yourself money and take the local public ferry from the same terminal, which leaves half an hour earlier than the RV Shwe Keinnery.
I would have taken this ferry instead, especially after seeing the ferry along the way during the 10-hour trip.
The local ferry takes about 2-3 hours longer and you need to take your own food for the trip.
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.
Arriving by ferry, you are 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 don’t really see much evidence of money going back into any temple maintenance, cleaning, or restoration work. Sadly, many of the temples are crumbling.
Bagan Archaeological Zone
As one of Burma’s main attractions, it’s easy to see why many see the Bagan Archaeological Zone as an equal to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat.
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.
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, this is a bit too pricey for my budget.
The duration of your stay and where you stay in Bagan will most likely dictate the order in which you visit the temples. You need at least a couple of days at the temples.
You receive a map with your entry ticket, 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.
On the first day, we opt for a Songthaew (USD$0.90) out to Tharabar Gate and onto the Archaeological Museum. After walking around in the scorching heat until hitching a ride back into town, we then hired an eBike (USD$4 for half-day or USD$10 for full-day) for the rest of the day until sundown.
On the second day, walking to Restaurant Row we hire another eBike for half the day, which again, is until just after sunset.
Walking around is free 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 bikes! The battery seems to always die by sunset so you end up slowly cycling or pushing the bike back.
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.
Sunset 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 gorgeous sunset is from the smaller Shwe-san-daw-Paya temple, which is great as we only have a few other tourists and touts for company. From this temple, we can also see the hordes of people at the Su-la-ma-ni Pahto temple gradually building up for the sunset photo shoot.
The second stunning sunset is from the very popular Su-la-ma-ni Pahto temple together with masses of tourists and touts. Arrive 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. Alas, loving my lay-ins I didn’t partake in a Bagan sunrise – naughty I know.
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. A a few more temples around this area are worth checking out.
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.
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.
Bagan Princess Hotel (Wet Kyee Inn Village | Nyaung U Township)
Friendly staff, good breakfast, room serviced daily, toiletries and hot water provided in a good-sized room, which needs renovating. Hotel staff can organise eBikes, bus trips, and anything else you need.
The room does not have wi-fi and only sporadic wi-fi is available at the reception area. 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 eBike 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:
Close to the main temples, Old Bagan is pretty central to everything and offers mostly high-end accommodation.
Further away from the temples, New Bagan offers more mid-range-priced accommodation.
About 3 kilometres from the temples, Nyaung U offers budget accommodation and also a great restaurant scene.
Bagan offers many great restaurants at differing prices.
Weather Spoon’s Bagan Restaurant and Bar
Tried several restaurants along Restaurant Row and the main road but after 5 days, my pick for food in Bagan is Weather Spoon’s On Restaurant Row, Yarkinthar St, Nyaung O.
The best place to eat a burger and chips (and in SE Asia so far) if you need a break from local food.
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 in the restaurant.
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
Deciding on the 07:30 hrs bus to the next spectacular Inle Lake destination!
I’m hoping that the roads are a little kinder than previous bus trips in Burma.