The second place we visited in Myanmar was Bagan, currently a little town on the Irrawaddy River. At one point 700-900 years ago, it was the center of a thriving civilization. The reason it is a popular tourist destination is because it has the highest concentration of pagodas and temples in the world, all dating from the 11th and 12th century. The other amazing thing about this place is it’s not yet overrun with tourists like Ankor Wat in Cambodia or places in Thailand. Granted there are thousands of pagodas so the tourists are spread out even more, but it really is quite empty. As an example of how few tourists there were we would run into the same travelers each day, all of us exploring the pagodas, biking around, climbing the temples when we could, and just reveling in the magnitude of ruins. I felt like Laura Croft as I explored the dark corners of these ancient pagodas, stumbling upon the gold Buddhas inside and searching for staircases to climb to the top to see the view.
Quick note: We have a lot of pictures next, but there is plenty of practical information toward the end of the post you shouldn’t miss.
The first day we rented bicycles and biked around the area looking at pagodas and observing villagers until our butts were too sore.
If you believe it, every pagoda–large or small– has a buddha inside, some covered in gold others made of stone. The larger pagodas are well maintained, with fresh offerings to Buddha everyday. Many Buddhas had food in front of them, such as rice or vegetables in little bowls. Or a bottle of Coke with a straw (straws are big in Asia, they even give you a straw with your bottled water).
The next day we rented electric bikes and enjoyed the freedom of being able to get around faster and further. We also woke up at 5:00am the second day to ride a hot air balloon at sunrise over the pagodas. It was a magical experience which is getting a well deserved separate post.
Sunset was a big deal in Bagan. Around 5pm we headed to a pagoda of choice, you have to pick wisely, finding one that you can climb up on, one that faces West and is close by. We ended up going to Bulethi Pagoda both nights because it was near our hotel, wasn’t crowded and had great views. If we had more time we would have tried out Shwesandaw Temple, the most popular place to watch the sunset due to its height and location.
Bagan consists of three little towns: New Bagan, Old Bagan and Nyaung Oo. New Bagan has the newer nicer hotels but is a little out of the way. Old Bagan is the center of the Pagodas and Nyaung Oo is where the boat lands, has many hostels and restaurants. They are all basically surrounded by pagoads, with Old Bagan being the largest area of pagodas.
We stayed at the Bagan Umbra hotel, in between Old Bagan and Nyaung Oo. I really enjoyed that location because it was near resturants in Nyaung Oo and all of the pagodas near Old Bagan, and we didn’t have any need to go to New Bagan. Best resource for finding a place to stay was Agoda.com, a hotel booking website which is fantastic in Asia. The hotel has a free breakfast buffet where was quite impressive, they have a pool (great for when the weather is hot), and their rooms are pleasant, no frills. Internet, like the rest of Bagan was spotty, faster in the early morning and late night. Because of this don’t expect to be able to book hotels or flights online in Bagan; do this before you come to Myanmar if you want it all planned out.
One should note that in Bagan, and the rest of touristy Myanmar locations, they had restaurants that cater to travelers so you could get all cuisines. We tried to stick to Burmese food so we could experience their cuisine. Our favorite restaurant was Wetherspoon’s, which is on the main restaurant street in Nyaung Oo. Their tea leaf salad was our favorite and every dish we tried was spectacular. We were sad we discovered it our last day. Moon Vegetarian Restaurant (located near the Ananda Pagoda just outside Old Bagan) had the amazing dragon fruit/mint drink and guacamole with papadum. Both of these are listed in Lonely Planet so they were crowded. We noticed that being in Lonely Planet really makes a big difference for the restaurants and hotels in Myanmar. We didn’t have the book, but we could tell immediately which places were featured in Lonely Planet by the amount of tourists. As a comparison, we tried another vegetarian place across the road from Moon Vegetarian, Yar Pyi Vegetarian. This place was just as tasty, if not more, than Moon (they are actually higher ranked on Trip Advisor), but was almost empty the day we went. While we ate there we watched about 10 different groups pull up on their E-bikes and go to Moon for lunch. As we walked by afterwards, half of them had their Lonely Planet guides on the table.
Bike and E-bike rentals are everywhere, we got ours at our hotel. The cost is $1 a day for bikes and $8 a day for E bikes. Taxis are a rip off (comparatively anyways, if you come from NYC or SF they probably seem like a fine deal) and horse carts, not much better, seem bumpy and slow, but can be rented for the day to take you around.
Bring a hat and sunscreen for pagoda exploring during the day, you will be in the sun and it can get hot. When we were there in December, Myanmar was experiencing a cold front, so we didn’t have enough warm clothes. Bring a nice thick sweater, a warm hat and cozy socks, you won’t regret it if it’s cold in the evening and early morning. All restaurants are outside.