Land of a Thousand Pagodas

Bagan was the second stop of our journey to Myanmar, and is also the main reason tourists come to Myanmar. This mystical land will bring out the Indiana Jones in you as you explore the ancient temples. For more on Yangon where we started our journey, click here.Land of a Thousand Pagodas is really an understatement. There are actually more than 2,200 pagodas in Bagan making it the world’s largest and densest site of Buddhist temples. Most tourists will only visit a few of them which are the larger ones used actively as places of worship and of historical interest.

Bagan is an ancient city dating back to the 9th century and was the capital of the ancient Pagan Kingdom that forms much of modern Myanmar. More than 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were constructed during the height of the kingdom’s power. However, in the 13th century, Bagan was invaded by the Monguls and it’s people fled. Bagan was reduced to a small town. It never regained it’s prominence and in 1927 a new capital was declared in Central Burma. Of the more than 10,000 structures, only more than 2,200 survived till this day.

Getting There

The nearest large airport is in Mandalay with international flights. From Mandalay there is a mini-bus service to Bagan (5 hrs drive).

Bagan itself has a small domestic airport in Nyaung-U and most visitors will fly here from Yangon or Mandalay via domestic flights.

There are also train and ferry services from Mandalay to Bagan, but these are quite slow and the ferry rides are rather expensive as they cater mainly to tourists as leisure cruises.

Overnight buses also connect Yangon and Bagan. For ourselves, we had engaged a driver and mini-bus throughout our trip and took the land route from Yangon to Bagan. It took us almost 9 hours for the journey including breaks.

A good thing about driving from Yangon to Bagan is that you’ll pass by many small towns and villages and get to see the daily lives of the villagers. Cattle and goat jams are pretty common on the rural roads.

Getting Around

More like a village or kampung then a town. Bagan itself is not that big and most tourists get around by renting E-bikes. If you are in a group, you can rent a taxi for half day and whole day periods to get around.

We didn’t rent any bikes since we had our own transportation, but the roads here are really dusty and you have to share the road with other vehicles like trucks and buses, so make sure you are confident of riding on roads and bring a pair of riding goggles and wear a bandana or scarf to cover your nose and mouth, otherwise you’ll be eating dust. Dust masks for riders are the best choice.

Some hotels like the one we stayed at offer E-bike rentals to their guests. Most of Bagan is on flat plains so you don’t have to worry about climbing steep slopes.
Otherwise, there are plenty of tour agencies to rent motorbikes and taxis from.

Bagan is mostly quiet at night and the only things to do is have dinner, visit some shops and a couple of the pagodas which are lighted up at night.

Near our hotel was a street full of restaurants. The locals call it ‘Restaurant Street’. We could find Indian, Thai, Chinese and Burmese food here at local prices. This whole steamed fish only cost us 6,000 Kyats (SGD6).

Visiting the Pagodas

All pagodas are functioning temples of worship and you have to remove your footwear and socks before entering. You also have to be dressed properly. ie. No shorts and sleeveless tops. So if you are planning a whole day of visiting pagodas, it’s best to wear easy to take off footwear like flip flops or slip ons. Wearing hiking boots and taking them off and putting them on again while fiddling with laces throughout the whole day starts getting tiring after a while. Many of the hotels have complimentary flip flops for their guests to use for pagoda visiting, so use them, as your bare feet are going to get dirty from walking around in the dirt a lot. It’s a good idea to bring wet wipes for cleaning your feet.

All tourists have to pay a 25,000 Kyat entry fee (SGD25). You will be asked to present this ticket or pay for one at most of the pagodas by the security personnel. This is the most expensive entry ticket compared to other places in Myanmar, but it’s valid for 5 days and allows you to visit all the pagodas in Bagan.

When to Visit the Pagodas

For ourselves, we found that the best time to visit the pagodas is sunrise when there are less crowds and you get to see hot air balloons taking off as the sun rises.

The typical image of Bagan that everyone has is of balloons flying over the misty jungle as ancient pagodas rise out of the trees. We didn’t go for the balloon rides as they are rather expensive (USD350/person) and only operate from Oct-Apr.
While we were there (December 2017), only a handful of pagodas were opened to tourists to climb up for sunrise and sunset views. The latest update is that all pagodas have been closed for climbing. A couple of elevated earth mounds have been built for tourists to see sunrise and sunset now. So check with your hotel on the latest development when you are there.
If you plan to visit during the cool season (Dec-Jan) which is also the peak tourist season since it coincides with the dry season where almost no rain falls, pre-dawn temperatures can drop to 15°C or less. So bring warm clothing if you plan to see sunrise.
A cloudy sunrise on our first morning in Bagan.
Get to the pagoda of your choice early, preferably half an hour or earlier before the sun rises. Some of the more popular pagodas will see bus loads of Chinese tourists coming just as the Sun rises. You don’t want to be caught in the human jam when they start swarming over the pagoda.
A pretty view from the archway of a pagoda.

Another popular time to see the pagodas is sunset. Compared to sunrise, this timing is even more crowded. So you might have to come even earlier to get a good spot.

We decided on this pagoda for our sunset viewing. It was already quite crowded with tourists when we arrived, but luckily no bus loads here.
Yes. you have to climb bare footed since you have to take off your shoes before entering any pagoda. If you plan to climb pagodas, make sure you observe personal safety. Several tourists have been badly injured or killed recently when they fell off the pagodas.
The sunset scenery is different from sunrise. No morning mist, but a golden light that gives a magical glow to the pagodas.
A stunning view to end the day.

A note about climbing pagodas: If you want to see sunrise, you have to plan which pagoda to go to and get there in time, especially if you are E-biking it. You will be cycling off road and climbing some steep stairs in the dark and cold while barefooted. So be prepared with warm clothing and torch lights.

In between sunrise and sunset there is no stopping you to visit the pagodas. Although the afternoons in December are still hot and temperatures can go up to 30°C. Here are some notable pagodas that we visited.

Shwezigon Pagoda is in the town of Nyaung-U and walking distance from our hotel. It’s opened at night for visitors and is believed to have been built in 1102AD. The pagoda is said to contain a bone and tooth relic from Buddha.
The pagoda at Lawkananda along the banks of the Irrawaddy River. It was built in 1059AD by King Anawrahta, founder of the Bagan empire. A tooth relic of Buddha is also believed to be enshrined inside the pagoda. The top is covered by scaffolding for repairs due the to the recent earthquake in 2016 that damaged many of the pagodas in Bagan.
Lawkananda is also a good spot for sunset as the sun sets behind the mountains and the Irrawaddy flood plains.
Small boats like this ferry people and goods across the Irrawaddy River.
Another pagoda by the Irrawaddy River is Bupaya. The structure is quite new (reconstructed in 1978) after the old pagoda was destroyed in an earthquake in 1975.
Bupaya lies by the banks of the Irrawaddy River. As December is the dry season, the level of the river is low. I’m, told that the river floods until the first terrace during the wet season.
The pagodas are built in different styles, reflecting the tastes of the different kings who ruled the kingdom.
Thatbyinnyu Pagoda built in a completely different style. At a height of 60m this is one of the tallest pagodas in Bagan and built in the 12th century.
A Buddha statue that has been completely covered in gold leaves pressed onto it by devotees through the years.
An artist displaying his works for sale at one of the temples.

We spent 2 days in Bagan, although you can spend more time like 5 days to fully utilize the archaeological zone ticket, and if you are interested in covering as much of Bagan as possible. But for myself, after a while the various pagodas started to look the same to me as fatigue set in. And then maybe I don’t have that much of Indiana Jones in me.

My next blog post will be on Mandalay, the second largest city in Myanmar, and also our third stop of the trip.

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