I’ve been dying to visit Bagan for years now, but given how long it takes to get from New York to South East Asia, it wasn’t until I had time in between jobs to finally get all the way over there.
I ended up booking to stay in Bagan for five days. Most people only stop in for two or three days, but I’m really glad we spent a lot of time here. There are literally 1,000s of old temples here, and there are so many corners to explore. It’s like an immersion into an Indian Jones movie. Usually compared to Angkor Wat, the two sites are very different, but I personally enjoyed Bagan more mostly because I felt we had more independence to explore.
Bagan was once the capital of the Pagan Kingdom which constituted modern day Myanmar. During its height they built over 10,000 temples, pagodas and monasteries. Over the years, all common buildings, made from wood, crumbled and disappeared, but 2,200 of the Buddhist temples and pagodas built from brick still stand (some in better conditions than others).
See it on your own. The major tour groups only hit the main sites, and seems to lack flexibility. Not to mention I hate crowds.
You’re gonna need a moped/e-bike. Especially if you are going to self tour. Bagan covers a massive area, and you can’t get from one site to another solely on foot, biking would be difficult too. You can pretty much rent mopeds for cheap anywhere.
Follow the back roads. In my opinion, the real wealth of Bagan lies hidden off the beaten path. So follow some random dirt roads and explore any ruins you come across (there will be tons). Most tourists stick to the main road, and hit the major temples. The main sites are beautiful, and impressive, but swarmed with tourists, which takes the charm away. The empty, crumbling temples were what I liked best.
Keep going… Just when you think you’ve hit the end of the road, look around, there is usually another path heading further in to the ancient city. Remember you are allowed to follow the back roads. They are not off limits (one of the best parts of Bagan.
Explore every nook and cranny of each temple. Some of the temples have hidden staircases leading to roof access and awesome views.
Be careful while climbing. While climb down off a roof, I fell (only about a foot), and managed to slice my foot open on a brick (we were climbing barefoot because you can’t wear shoes in temples). Unfortunately, I managed to gush blood all over an ancient monument. Cool. I hobbled down, and was wailing while my brother tried to calm me down. Some men from the village near by even came over and offered to put me on their ox cart and take me back in to the town (lol). It was deep enough I may have needed stitched but that wasn’t really an option, so we had to bandage it up as much as possible and power through. I couldn’t really walk on it the rest of the trip, and had to toss my sneakers due to the blood stains.
Have Lunch at the Aureum Palace Bagan. If I was traveling with someone who was going to bank roll my trip, I would have had them book me at this hotel. It’s gorgeous. The view from the pool is unreal. Lucky for lowly hostel dwellers like me, you can visit for lunch and take in the view.
Wake up for sunrise… and stay out for sunset. You need to get to a good view point for both events at least once. Otherwise, did you even go to Bagan?
Find your hidden gem. Especially important for watching sunset or sunrise! I’ll lend you my favorite spot. We visited it for both sunrise and sunset multiple times. Go to Dhammayazika Pagoda. When you get to the gate, where you would take off your shoes, turn right, and continue down the dirt road. Go for a while, until you find a medium sized temple. In good condition. Look for the staircase inside the temple, and climb to the top. There was only a few other people here on the occasions we went. It was perfect.
Balloons Over Bagan. Expensive, but worth it. I wasn’t going to come all the way to Bagan and not do this!