Arrive at Bagan and prepared to be amazed by one of life’s most breathtaking scenes, as you experience the unrivaled majesty of thousands of ancient temples drifting past you.
Three days are best for temple-hopping in Bagan but with an extra day, visit the nearby Mount Popa.
Psst…Want more quick guides? Check out these other posts:
Your Quick Guide to Visiting Myanmar
Your Quick Guide to Visiting Yangon for a Day
Your Quick Guide to Visiting Japan
Your Quick Guide to Visiting Hakone for a Day
Read on for my quick tips and a history of the hot desert sands of Bagan and its hidden temples.
Table of Contents
Quick Tips When Visiting Bagan
Understand the History of Bagan
quick tips when visiting bagan
You should first take your chosen mode of Myanmar transportation, whether rented bicycle, e-bike, or taxi, to visit the most culturally significant and best-preserved pagodas of Bagan, including the Shwezigon, Gubyaukgyi, Htilo Minlo, and the amazing Ananda temple.
When renting, make sure you know what to do if your bike breaks down, especially at the more remote temples. In the dry season, bicycling through the sandy paths connecting remote temples like Ananda will be difficult even for the most experienced bicyclists. The main roads connecting Old and New Bagan by two straight roads are almost impossible to get lost on but pack enough water for the sun as it gets hot on the red roads.
Pay attention to what sites like WikiTravel say. Like everything else in Myanmar, the bikes can be old and ill-maintained. Before heading out, make sure you have written a phone number to call either the kiosk at the Nyaung U airport terminal or the hospitality desk at your hotel, as your e-bike key can easily be lost while whipping your bike around pagodas in the ancient city of Bagan.
BE PREPARED TO PAY to see bagan
The value of the site has not been ignored by the Myanmar government's Bagan cultural authority, which will force you to obtain a pass to the Bagan Archaeological Zone for a tax against all foreigners at $20 USD, 20 EUR, or 25,000 Kyat upon arrival. They'll ask you to pay before you exit the airport terminal in Bagan, however they'll not ask to see it again except at the most popular temples. Even WikiTravel offers tips for avoiding payment.
Take the reigns
You can rent a horse cart or a pony carriage with a driver for between 10,000 to 15,000 kyats for a full day. Due to the increasing popularity of the e-bikes, this legacy of Myanmar's colonial history is becoming intangible. As many drivers cannot properly care for their horses, the horse carts and their drivers are disappearing from Bagan.
In New Bagan, I rented one for an hour to the major temples, and many smaller sites. As my driver made for a good tour guide, he let me take the reigns as we hurried to the Pyatthada Pagoda before sunset.
ask for help
A Buddhist monk I met said, “The Myanmar (‘Land of Smiles’) are the happiest in the world.” Most people are likely to know English, and even more likely to help you. When I lost my bike key in Bagan, the family who owned the hotel I rented from drove me over to look for the key. They even brought their grandmother along so that I would feel safe! I found that this was a perfect example of Myanmar hospitality.
Download reliable apps for finding directions and translating. I like maps.me and Google Translate, as you can keep the files for languages on your phone without needing to use Wifi or data.
understand the history
The temples are sheer expanses of ancient stone, stretching for half a mile, as they emerge to light the empty, enormous, ruined magic of an ancient past from the days of the Bagan Empire. Sheer expanses of sand-blasted stone turn red at sunrise when the Western light shines on them.
The Bagan Archaeological Zone has been on UNESCO's tentative list of world heritage sites in Myanmar. The site itself measures 13 by 8 km and contains more monuments built from the 10th to the 14th centuries AD.
Stone inscriptions inside the temples have been the most reliable source for the history of the kingdom. The mural paintings inside more than 300 temples constitute a history of that time for the capital city of the first Myanmar Kingdom.
Several of these monuments are still highly admired by the Myanmar people, and numerous pilgrims from all over the country devote themselves to these religious sites, particularly at festival times.
By the roadside between the entrance to the only Hindu temple of Bagan's 2,500 religious sites, the fragments of stone pagodas have been littered, cracked, and overthrown by the strong roots of the peepul trees. Others are in various states of conservation and maintenance.
In India, there is the belief that knowledge is as if throwing the seed of a sacred peepul tree into the cracks that its great blind roots will push eventually into the past with the ruining of the temple. Travel, especially in Myanmar, is like this knowledge: it will throw a seed into the cracks, expanding you, pushing your past knowledge into the past, and ruining you to the rest of the world.