Last Updated March 2016
See my other Myanmar Travel Tips
A few notes before we get started. Myanmar / Burma is a place that is rapidly changing, so some things (like prices) might be slightly different from what you see here when you go. Use them as a guideline, and not a rule. If you have been recently, let me know your experiences in the comments below.
I've spent several months in and around Bagan / Nyaung U area between 2013 and 2016, and here is what you need to know to make the most of your time there. Prices are often listed in Myanmar kyat, which is roughly 1250 kyat / $1 USD (give or take).
Quick Links to the Bagan Super Travel Guide:
How Long Should I Spend in Bagan?
You might have set aside 1-3 days for your time in Bagan, and I'm telling you to take whatever you have planned and add a day or two. Bagan is not a great place to rush through, and you'll just leave feeling exhausted and may not appreciate it in the way you perhaps could.
Take your time, get your rest, and try to make every sunrise and sunset. These are the times that are the most magical, and you probably came to Myanmar to take in the magic it has to offer. Don't ruin it by rushing around and trying to check off a list!
How to Get Around Bagan
First, get a map!
The first thing you should do when you arrive is get a map. For 1000 kyat (~$1 USD) you'll get a large foldable and detailed map with the main temples of interest labeled, as well as hundreds of others that are nameless but also potentially awesome.
Also importantly, you'll have all of the roads / paths listed on there. This is great for (generally) planning your day, and finding ways to avoid the traffic around the major sites, which is particularly horrible around sunset time.
Traffic can be horrible around sunset, so plan ahead!
This map is much better than the one you have in your guidebook, and at 1000 kyat, it's a steal. You can get it from pretty much any little shop in Nyaung U, Old Bagan, or New Bagan.
Now that you have your trusty map, There are a few ways to make your way around the Bagan area.
An old favorite. If you're going with a bicycle, get one with gears, and be sure you take it for a spin first. Many of them are poorly maintained, and the last thing you'll want is to be pushing it back home at the end of the day. Speaking of, many of the paths and secondary "roads" are quite sandy, so expect to be pushing the bike a reasonable chunk of the time anyways.
5000k-12000k / day or ~1000k-2500k/hr
My personal favorite, these electric bikes are a recent addition (2013) to the Bagan area, and if you ask me, they're awesome. All the freedom of the bicycle, without the pedaling. What more could you want?
It's not all flowers and high-fives though. These cheap, made-in-China bikes are sometimes treated poorly, so it's very important that you give it a quick ride before picking one out. Check to see if the handlebars are tight, the breaks work well, and the accelerator works properly. It's also important to make sure you have the company phone number on the bike or a card in the case of breakdown. The e-bikes have pedals as a backup, but they're awful and you do not want to bike a few km like that. Seriously, I've been there.
E-bike is the best option for getting around. No question.
Cheaper vs more expensive? There are a few differences. The cheaper bikes have been around for a couple of years now, and they are in a bit rougher of shape. I'd say they are doable if you're trying to stick to a budget, but the more expensive ones are definitely more comfortable on the bumpy "roads" you'll be spending your time on. The bigger bikes have a larger battery, and max out at about 25km/hr.
Don't double up on the e-bike unless you spend the extra cash for the larger, nicer ones. In my experience, this made them quite unstable. Add this to the fact that you won't have a helmet, and you should play it safer... in relative Myanmar terms of course.
One common problem I ran in to is the power cable to become loose from the battery. This happened occasionally on the bumpy roads with the older (now cheaper) e-bikes. So if you lose power suddenly, or your power meter flickers on and off, pull over and check it out. Could be a 10 second fix instead of a several hour-long ordeal.
Driving fast saps your power, so if you're running low, ease off the accelerator to preserve your juice so you can make it back. Also, your max speed and power will decrease as the battery power drops. You'll be able to get about a full day out with a full charge I find. Recently, I nearly drove to Chauk and back (~80km) returning with battery to spare thanks to choosing a slower (and slightly less fun) speed.
Important sunrise tip: If you're planning on a sunrise, it's important to know that most of the bike shops won't open until after 8am, a couple of hours too late to witness the magic you came here for. Talk to your bike rental place about keeping the bike overnight at your guesthouse and returning it the next day. If you're planning on keeping the bike for multiple days, I recommend taking the bike back after sunrise sometime, and having them swap the battery for a fresh one so you can keep going, and continue driving an e-bike you're familiar with. My favorite place is "Modern Bike" along the main road in Nyaung U near the turnoff for Shwezigon Pagoda Road. They take good care of their bikes, and were very accommodating when I would come and swap out my battery each day. They also quickly came to the rescue when I had bike troubles.
~20000+ / day. More for sunrise.
Ahh horse carriage, what a romantic way to see the temples of Bagan. Or maybe not.
Expect a bumpy, uncomfortable, and dusty ride with a horse carriage. It's not at all a grand experience, in the same way that you're not Victorian-era royalty.
On the plus side, horse carriage is low effort, as your driver will probably just drive you around from place to place, maybe giving you a bit of information here and there.
On the down side, you'll need to hold on tight and you'll be exhausted when you're finished. If you feel like you must give the horse cart a try, I'd recommend getting one just for sunset.
It's against the law for foreigners to drive or ride on a motorbike in and around Bagan, so don't bother trying to rent one, and don't try to solicit a ride on one. I'm told that the police have hauled in a few locals for giving rides to foreigners or renting them motorcycles, so it's not just yourself that you're putting at risk.
20000--60000k / day
If you'd like A/C during your temple run, then a hired taxi will be the way to go. Expect to pay between 20000k to 60000k for the day, perhaps more with a guide. Some temples are inaccessible because of the sandy "roads" and others you can walk to faster than a car get drive to.
What You Need For a Day of Temple Hopping in Bagan
- Flashlight / headlamp for dark temples, or late / early explorations.
- Light jacket for the early mornings or late evenings, particularly if you're creating a wind flying down the road on your e-bike (like me!)
- Clothes that cover your knees and shoulders. (see "Respect in Bagan" below)
Making the Most of the Bagan Temples
Avoid the crowds by getting out for the early morning. I suggest getting up and on the road before 6am. The touts don't come out until 7:30 or later, and they're lazy in the morning anyways. The sun isn't as intense, the air is cooler, and the light is great for photos. Add the fog and smoke in the air, and you've got yourself a magical morning just waiting for you. So get out of bed, grab your jacket, and fire up that e-bike! (note: I hope your e-bike doesn't actually start on fire)
Start early, Stay late.
After a morning jaunt, head to someplace cool and quiet for lunch, or grab an afternoon nap (or my favorite, both). The light will be harsh and poor for photos in the mid-day sun, not to mention the intense heat. Besides the odd temple, there aren't a lot of places to hide from the sun in the plains of Bagan. Save your energy for later in the day.
About 3:30pm or so, head back out for a sunset to remember. Plan to be at your temple of choice early, in case you get yourself caught behind a traffic jam of buses and ox carts trying to make the mad rush as well. Seriously, it happens. It'll also give you a chance to check out the light in both directions. Don't forget to look backwards to see how the warm light looks opposite the sunset. Sometimes it's actually more beautiful than watching the bright sun dropping behind the horizon itself.
Most people clear out of the temple area and rush back for dinner right after the sun goes down. This leaves you with an excellent opportunity to enjoy the place for awhile by yourself. If you want to visit the big temples without another tourist around, just head by after 7:00pm. You'll probably be the only one there and you'll have a completely different experience. Check out (haunted) Dhamayangi after dark, but bring a flashlight or headlamp. If you don't have one, someone outside might rent one to you for a small tip.
The Best Bagan Sunrise and Sunset Temples
Here are some of my favorite temples for sunrise and sunset. They are ones that don't see the masses that the main ones can because I prefer solitude over tourists elbowing their way to a better view. In no particular order.
Popular with the backpacker crowd as it's relatively close to Nyaung U along Anawrahta Road (easily accessible by bike), and the sandy "road" going in can't handle a bus. Expect to share it with hosts of others, but at least there are a lot of places to sit on either side. The stairs are steep, so be careful and take your time. Good for sunrise or sunset.
One of my favorites. Looks out over Sulamani at sunset, and is accessible from around the back of it. It's worth noting that the road back to Nyaung U on the map is very rough and a great way to get lost, so take the road back towards Sulamani instead (particularly after dark). There is one steep staircase, one OK one.
NOTE: When I was last there in February 2016, the temple was unfortunately locked. The family that watches over it (Myint Thong) told me that the government took the key, and currently no one is allowed up there. If this has changed, let me know in the comments or by e-mail.
This unnamed temple is easily accessible from Anawrata Road heading south from Nyaung U closer to Old Bagan. It's not labeled well, but it's your second left after passing the turnoff for Buledi from Nyaung U. Getting to the first platform is just a set of stairs (nothing too crazy) but requires some climbing to get to the 2nd and 3rd platforms. Thiri and her friendly family are the keyholders to the temple, are very friendly and will help you up.
Off the beaten path so you'll likely have this place by yourself for sunrise. At sunset expect 20-30 neighbors, but like most places, it clears out as soon as the sun goes down. Stay for 30 minutes after sunset for the best photos looking south towards Old Bagan.
Access the temple off the Bagan-Nyaung U Road south of Hti-Lo-Min-Lo at the Raya-Nda-Zu group. Follow the increasingly more sandy road until you see it on the left. It's a square temple, and you'll enter and head up the stairs along the inside wall on your right. This place is dark, so have your headlamp ready. Keep moving up, there is only one way to the top, but watch your footing. While not particularly tall, it's a great place to enjoy the plains by yourself at sunrise just to take everything in or catch up on your journal.
Easier to access than Oak Kyaung Gyi just off the Nyaung-U / Old Bagan road means that you'll likely share it with a few extra people, but I've never seen a bus there as it can be a little tricky moving through the areas up top. Good views of Hti-lo-min-lo particularly at sunset if you stick around a little after the sun dips below the horizon, and the lights come on.
Located behind Dhamma-yan-gyi on a slightly sandy road, this temple is an excellent sunrise spot. There are a few sets of stairs, but to get to the very top you'll need to squeeze through a few tiny passages. This one gets you quite high up with good views of Dhamma-yan-gyi.
Neighboring South Guni is a little shorter, and a bit farther away from Dhamma-yan-gyi, but you'll likely have it to yourself at sunrise.
Anywhere I can climb, I'm up for. This small group off the Min-nan-thu village road is a quiet little spot in a place that doesn't get a lot of visitors. Worth a stop by to get a different viewpoint, and for pretty landscapes, particularly if you have a zoom lens. Sunset is better than sunrise here because of the proximity to the Bagan Viewing Tower, and you'll probably have the place to yourself to boot.
Sunsets here give good views of shiny Dhamayazaka and you'll be in the highest spot around. South of Min-Nan-Thu village junction, this would be a tough one to get to from Nyaung U for sunrise, and a longer drive in the dark after sunset, but possibly an excellent one if you're staying at New Bagan. Several sets of stairs, including some narrow squeezes to get to the very top, but nothing too crazy, and the lower levels are also beautiful.
Other Bagan temples of note:
Again, these are some of my favorites, not necessarily the ones with the most historical significance. If that's important for you, I strongly suggest hiring a guide for a day to tell you all about them. In no particular order.
One of the "big" ones, this central temple has high ceilings, and plenty of buddhas. What more could you ask for? More seriously though, nice paintings in here, and it is generally nice and quiet. Arrive early in the morning to avoid the crowds and touts. Nothing to climb here, other than a small set of stairs to give you a nice view of some paintings inside.
Another major temple, this one on the Nyaung U / Old Bagan road. Again, no access up top, but worth seeing. Recommend to head here after 7pm when you'll likely have the place to yourself or maybe a monk or two.
THAM-BU-LA TEMPLE / PAYA-THONE-ZU GROUP
Famous for their paintings. Bring a flashlight. Located along the Min-nan-thu Village road. Also check out the cave monastery here.
THET-KYA-MUNI / KON-DAW-GYI
Hire a boat for 15000k-20000k at the Nyaung U jetty to take you up the river and see a few temples along side. Just head to the jetty, and someone will approach you, no worries. Plan to be out on the water about 2:30pm or 3:00pm so you have enough time to check out the temples on shore, and be back on the river to enjoy a sunset on the Ayeyarwaddy.
What to Eat in Bagan / Nyaung U
The breakfast at your guesthouse is almost certainly awful, so head to a local place down the street for mohinga instead. It's essentially the national dish, and will only set you back 300kyat ($0.30). Look for a tea shop or other gathering place with a big vat out front or in the back. Yum.
Ditch the breakfast at your guesthouse and grab some mohinga instead.
Lunch & Dinner
Weather Spoon's run by Win Tun makes a burger you actually want to eat, thanks in no small part to the fact that he worked in a pub for a year in London. He has the buns made specially at the bakery without all of the sugar you find in the blindingly-white breads in Asia, and the fries actually taste like fries. It's a SE Asia miracle, and it's a steal at 4900k (about $4.00). The Thai curries are also delicious. Particularly popular in the evenings, head by in the afternoon for a quieter time. Located on "restaurant row" in Nyaung U.
Aroma (2) is the best Indian place in Nyaung U. Prices for meat dishes will set you back a little more, but the veggie dishes start at 4000kyat ($3.00), and are served on a banana leaf (in season). Particularly nice spot in the evenings, with the tables moved outside lit by candles and with views of the stars above. Located on "restaurant row" in Nyaung U.
The Black Bamboo is a quiet place in a garden, which is particularly nice in the evenings. Caters a bit upmarket, but the veggie dishes in particular are decent, though unfortunately "European spicy" (aka not spicy at all). Located just off of "restaurant row" in Nyaung U (look for the sign)
If you're out and about in Old Bagan, check out vegetarian "Be Kind to Animals - The Moon" just north of Ananda Temple. Check the board for their seasonal specials as they will offer you the best options from in-season fruits and veggies. I like the tamarind leaf curry, and their spicy chapati dish. Their lime-ginger-honey drink is tops, and you may just order two. This place can attract a tour bus, so for lunch try to go a little early, or a little after the rush and it'll be calm and quiet. In the evening it's quite charming.
Starbeam Bistro (also in Old Bagan near Ananda Temple) was completely empty on the first evening I arrived. The chef's chicken curry was tasty and creamy, the steamed fish was nice, and warm bread was served with each meal was a nice touch. Completely unexpected and worth a return visit I'd say.
I'd recommend that you pass on Pho Cho and Wonderfully Tasty which were both pretty meh.
Stuff your bag with tamarind flakes, then send me some!
Tamarind flakes are awesome. You might be given some of these little brown disks wrapped in white tissue after dinner as a nice sweet dessert at some of the local restaurants. Betcha can't eat just one. In my experience, once you crack a bag, it somehow magically disappears into your face, so I've playfully named these "Burmese crack." You can pick up a big bag of these at the market for about 1000k (~$1 USD) or if you're not in the area there, the friendly folks at Weather Spoon's can set you up. Take as many home with you as you can. The best brand is Min Yar Zar and had red lettering on clear plastic bags, and my second favorite is Myin Mo Oo (green letters). Yum.
They are special for the area here, and you likely won't find them in other parts of the country. So maybe do like me, and bring 20+ bags back with you. If you don't have room in your luggage, just toss that ratty, old shirt you've been hanging on to.
Where to Stay in Bagan / Nyaung U
In short, you'll find the most budget places in and around Nyaung U, the midrange places in New Bagan, and the priciest resorts around Old Bagan.
Independent travelers will want to stay around Nyaung U, which offers the most restaurants and more of the bustling local life and markets. New Bagan is pretty blah, and Old Bagan is filled with fancy resorts owned by croonies.
My top pick is Shwe Na Di along the main road, not too far from the Shwezigon Pagoda junction in Nyaung U. Great location, within walking distance to Restaurant Row, some great tea shops, and the best e-bike shop. Rooms start about $10 (basic w/ share toilet outside) to ~$25 for the nicer, quieter places in the back w/ bathroom. Give breakfast a pass and go and find some mohinga instead.
It's now possible to book many places online, which is much easier than the "call a bunch of places and hope for the best" method of years gone by. You also have ratings to go by, instead of 4 year old guesthouse endorsements. Check Agoda for the best choice in listings, and definitely book in advance if you're heading there in the high season (Nov-Feb). These days, it's not worth calling around in hopes of securing a better rate.
When to Go to Bagan
High season in Bagan is also the dry, winter season that runs Nov-Feb. The temperatures are milder, and there will likely be little or no rain. You'll find the highest concentration of tourists around this time, and you should book your accommodation ahead if possible. In my experience, the photos are better from late Nov-Early Feb, with the haze in the air getting in the way in mid Feb. This is also the only time of the year that the famous Bagan hot air balloons launch.
Summer time, or hot season, runs March-April and would be pretty unbearable here. We're talking 40c. Many restaurants will be closed, particularly around Thingyan (water festival). Avoid.
Avoid the summer season like the plague
May - September is the wet season. Some of the roads might be in rough shape at this time of year, and you may be missing the blue skies and epic sunrises and sunsets Bagan is most known for. On the other hand, you'll also be missing the crowds of the high season, and might be able to negotiate a better rate for a guesthouse.
How To Get To Bagan
There are a few options when it comes to getting to actually getting to Bagan.
Planes, Trains and Automobiles... and boats...
Day and night buses roll through Bagan every day from every locations in Myanmar you're likely to hit (Myanmar, Inle Lake/Nyaungshwe, Yangon, Pyay etc). The regular bus is about 10000-12000 kyat, but I'd recommend that you splurge for one of the VIP buses. These will run you in the 15000k-22000k range, and are usually 3 seats across vs the 4 on a regular bus, or have greater leg room. The bus will be cooled to meat-locker temperature so be sure to wear your layers. Seriously, it's freezing. Ear plugs are also a good bet as there will often be a movie or loud Myanmar music playing (particularly on the regular bus), which is fun for about 5 minutes.
One small water is usually provided, and they stop every 4-6 hours for a 30min rest stop / toilet break / food and you will have to get off the bus for this time. Buses are typically 8-12 hours in length, and it's worth noting that the night buses arrive early in the morning (2am-5am). Just standard operating procedure here.
Easiest to book the bus via your guesthouse or a travel agent. VIP buses include JJ Express, E-lite, and Shwe Nan Taw Express.
The bus station is now about 8km outside of town, and the touts are looking for about 3000k/person to drive you to Nyaung U (more for Old Bagan / New Bagan). They have a bit of a cartel going on to keep the price high and limit your ability to negotiate, even making a sign that purports to show the "official" rates. This is BS, and 3000k/person is more than reasonable for them.
Train service available from Mandalay and Yangon (among others), but it's a particularly slow and uncomfortable experience. Prepare to have your body shaken, beaten, and broken. Not recommended, not even for the "story" afterward.
Flights arrive daily to Nyaung U from Yangon, Mandalay, Heho (Inle Lake) and others. Book in advance with a local travel agent as most of the airlines don't offer reliable online booking. Expect one way tickets in the $100-120 range and flights to be about an hour. The most predictable thing about flights here is that they'll be delayed. Will save a bunch of time in your travel schedule, particularly if you have a short amount of time in the country.
The airport is about a 10min drive from Nyaung U, and it's easy to arrange a taxi there.
Some boat journeys are available from Mandalay and particularly popular with package tourists. I've never done one so I can't say one way or another, but it doesn't really appeal to me. Check the comments below for more information.
Staying Safe and Healthy in Bagan
Your biggest enemy in Bagan will be the sun. There are few places for shade in the hot and dry plains, so sunscreen and water are your friends. Carry a liter of water with you, as when you're out temple hopping, you may not find any. Major temples will have hawkers who are willing to sell you water, although you may pay a small premium over the price in town. Don't let your self become dehydrated!
Beware the sun, and always drink more water
Mosquitoes aren't much of a problem here, but you should have insect repellent on in the mornings / evenings at least, particularly around your legs / feet. Malaria isn't much of a problem, but dengue might be depending on the season.
Snakes are slithering around here, but along the main paths you shouldn't see one. Whenever I'd be on a quiet path, or one that is more covered in foliage, I would stomp my feet on the ground when I walked, hopefully telling any snakes that might be nearby that I'm around and they should get lost. I have never seen a snake myself in the Bagan plains, but I have come across shedded skins in a couple of quiet temples, and a dead one on a road. If you're bitten, seek medical attention immediately.
I have a friend (local) who was bitten & hospitalized, and I've never seen a leg more swollen in my life (and this was 2 days after the bite). You're more likely to find snakes in farming areas and places with long grass, so my advice is that you don't go farming. Everywhere else you should be good.
Don't worry about not having a phone if you have a bicycle / e-bike malfunction as there are tourist police sitting around all day along the main roads, just waiting for a tourist with a problem. They can call the rental company, or help to troubleshoot the issue for you. They also may be able to help you find a particular temple, or at least send you off in the right direction.
On one of the nights I was out late, the tourist police drove a truck along the road where I was shooting the stars over the temples around Dhamayangi. They don't want people out much after dark obviously, but they were cool with waiting around while I finished up my shots and packed up my gear.
Budgeting Your Trip to Bagan
While I can't speak for anyone else, I can give you a small look into how much I typically paid for a day in Bagan.
Breakfast: (mohinga) 300k
Lunch: 6000k (including lime juice)
Dinner: 6000k (including lime juice)
Snacks (fruit etc): 1000k
Water: 4 @ 300k
Hot ginger-lime-honey drink at the end of the day: 1000k
$23 / night at Shwe Na Di for a decent, quiet room in the back. Western toilet, A/C, multiple power plugs, mini fridge.
8000k / day e-bike
Total: ~45000k / ~$45 USD per day.
Other things you might spend money on:
- Hot air balloon ride: $280 - $380 / person (read my article on hot air ballooning in Bagan)
- Beer: 500k-3500k
- Sand painting souvenirs: $7 and up
- Postage stamp: 500k
- Tamarind Flakes: 1000k / large bag
If you're looking for some unique gifts which are made in Myanmar, and will benefit the local people, check out the social development project MBoutik on Anawratha Road (near the post office).
Their selection of goods are hand made by poor women in the region who are taught the skills thanks to funding and support from international aid organizations. These same organizations take care of the administrative costs of the store and staff, ensuring that the money you pay for your souvenir goes right back into the hands of the women who made it.
Bagan Entrance Fee
There is a government fee for entrance to the Bagan Archaeological Zone, and it is typically taken care of when you enter one of the major temples such as Shwesandaw in the afternoon & sunset, Hti Lo Min Lo in the mornings / afternoon, and Pya Tha Da for sunset. If you're flying in or coming by bus, they might stop you on the way to town to pay. Typically cheaper to pay in USD than in kyat.
It'll set you back $20 and is good for 5 days. Since I avoid the main temples during the busy times of the day, I've only been asked for it once, and only paid for it twice.
Update: They seem to be very firm on having you pay when a taxi brings you into town from the bus station / airport now, and on my last trip I had no option but to pay.
Internet / Mobile Phone in Bagan
In a great change from a few years ago, almost every guesthouse will now have wifi. Don't expect the same speeds you're used to at home, but at least you can check your e-mail, facebook, and maybe even upload a picture of your dinner to Instagram. Internet access is typically fastest overnight and in the early morning, getting progressively slower as the day goes on. Read my article on internet access in Myanmar / Burma on Too Many Adapters.
Internet access? Don't bother. Go explore!
Mobile phone coverage in Bagan for the tourist is available with Ooredoo, Telenor, or MPT. Ooredoo has the fastest data speeds in my tests, but Telenor has better coverage in the area here. Generally, access is really poor in and around Bagan. You can read more about mobile phones in Myanmar / Burma with my post on Too Many Adapters.
Respect in Bagan
Myanmar is a Buddhist county, and Bagan is an important and active religious site. Be sure to show respect by having your shoulders and knees covered when you enter temples. That means you should be careful with the length of your shorts, and women in particular with your tops. If you insist on wearing shorts above the knee or a shirt without sleeves, bring a scarf or longyi to cover yourself while you're in the temple. You're not at the beach...
No shoulders, no knees
You will also need to take off your shoes when you enter a temple, and with so many temples around (it's why you're here...) you'll be removing them often. This means that it's best to wear flip-flops or sports-sandals (my favorite) instead of shoes or hiking boots so it's a quick and easy process to remove and put them back on. I like sports sandals because they protect your toes. Don't worry, it's very unlikely that someone is going to run off with them.
The temples are typically taken care of by a keyholder, or a family that lives nearby. They get paid very little for taking care of these ancient temples, so it's customary to drop them a few hundred kyat for opening a temple for you if you're off the beaten path. If the place is locked and they need to unlock it, I'll give 300k-500k. If they're helping me light the path up a set of treacherous stairs, maybe 200k.
Care to know more about planning your upcoming trip to Bagan, or want help on a tailoring your trip just right? Click here and I can help you make a plan to make your time in Bagan and Myanmar unforgettable.