Getting to Know Bagan

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The ancient city of Bagan,  located on the banks of the Ayeyarwady River,  is home to over 4,000  Buddhist temples, pagodas, and stupas. It is one of the world’s greatest archaeological sites, rivaling that of Angkor Wat, with ruins dating back to as far as the 11th and 12th centuries. Over half of the original temples have managed to survive the years.  The stunning images of temples peaking through the canopy of trees is THE reason why I wanted to come to Myanmar.   The reality was every part as amazing as I imagined.

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Getting There – Bagan is located 118 miles southwest of Mandalay, about 3 1/2 hours by car.  There are several ways to get there – you can fly, hire a car for $100 USD, or take an overnight bus that’ll cost about a tenth of the price.  We chose to fly and the short flight cost us $120 USD for two one way tickets.  Traveling to and from the airport can cost up to $15 USD, so you need to factor that into the overall cost as well.  If there are 3-4 people, it might be worth it to hire a car.  Once we got to the airport in Bagan, we had to pay an archaeological fee of  $20 USD per person that goes towards the preservation and upkeep of the temples.

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Accommodation –  We found that location-wise, it’s better to stay in Old Bagan because it’s close to the majority of the temples.  However, if cost is an issue, New Bagan or Nyaung U is cheaper. Keep in mind that the further away you are, the earlier you’ll have to wake up in order to catch the sunrise.  We stayed at Aye Yar River View Resort in the middle of old Bagan, which cost $143 USD per night after taxes.  They have a very nice pool that’s perfect to cool down in on a hot afternoon.  The sprawling complex overlooks the river and even has a few stupas on the premises.

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Transportation –  There are a variety of transportation methods to get you around Bagan, anything from horse-carts to bikes to taxis.  We can only provide information on the e-bikes, because that was, in our humble opinion, the best way to get around. The e-bikes are easy to maneuver once you get used to them.  They can go up to 35 km per hour, which allow you to visit places that are further away. Since the bikes are smaller, there is also greater freedom to roam the smaller dirt roads that lead to less frequented temples, a luxury that a car or bus doesn’t have . You can rent an e-bike at your hotel or walk out onto the street and get one there for a few thousand Kyat cheaper. It usually costs about 5,000 Kyat for a half day rental and 8,000 Kyat for a full day rental. The cost varies depending on the length of rental period and the size of the e-bikes.

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TIP: It’s quite thrilling driving the bike at night, but make sure you are careful to avoid cars and busses especially since the road is dark. Before taking off, make sure your headlights are fully functional.

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Temperature – The temperature ranges widely in Bagan. We were there at the end of November and found that it was incredibly hot during the day but much cooler when the sun went down, especially while driving the e-bikes with the wind whipping in your face.  It’s best to always bring extra layers for warmth. I usually kept a few extra sweaters and scarfs in the locked compartment in case I got cold.

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Eating – Bagan is a very small town with a limited number of restaurants, most of which are located in New Bagan or Nyaung U.  One of our favorite places for dinner was Harmony BBQ, located on the big road into town. On the first night we passed by and saw how busy it was and decided to stop there for dinner. They have a variety of food on skewers, everything from vegetables to fish balls to sausage that they can grill for you on top of other items in the menu. The freshly grilled food goes great with an ice cold bottle of beer.  We highly recommend this place, the price was reasonable and both the service and food were great.

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Exploring – Bagan was created from the legacy of the Buddhist belief that to build a temple was to earn merit. So it’s not surprising that everywhere you look there is a stupa, some only big enough to fit a person and others that are quite massive.  One of the best parts of exploring Bagan is searching through the thousands of temples scattered across the sacred plain to find secret stairways in a deserted temple. Usually, hotels will provide you a decent map of the area with the names and locations of the bigger temples.  I find that it’s helpful to cache the maps of the town on your phone.  While driving around, you can use GPS to zoom in to your location and figure out where to go. Even though we had the temples mapped out, we kept getting distracted with random ones along the road. We stumbled upon some of our favorites while we were randomly driving around and their names will forever be a mystery to us.

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As more and more people descend upon Bagan, the government began to close down some of the temple terraces for both safety and preservation reasons. They are afraid that too many people climbing to the top might deteriorate the structure faster, and so the stairway to the top of some temples is usually locked to prevent people from going up. Don’t be discouraged, there are still a lot of temples with access to the upper terraces, you just have to find them. Usually the stairs are discretely hidden away in a corner.  Some of them are quite small and require some acrobatic moves to get to the top.  Once you finally make it to the upper levels, the landscape opens up before your eyes and you’ll be greeted with a stunning view of stupas peaking through trees across the plain that seem to go on forever.  

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TIP:  Since it’s so hot during the day, it’s better to start early or late. The best time to see the temples is usually before 11 am or after 3 pm.  While exploring, be sure to bring a flashlight to navigate the dark passageways.  Stay hydrated with lots of water and sunscreen.  A lot of times the bikes will have a locked compartment for you to keep all your belongings. Also make sure you’re dressed appropriately when visiting the temples.

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Temples at Sunrise and Sunset – As everyone knows, the best time to see the temples is at sunrise or sunset.  Now, the real question is – WHERE?  If you type ‘sunrise/sunset in Bagan” into Google, you’ll get a ton of hits, each with their own personal recommendations.  From my experience, I think those suggestions should only be used as a guideline. The thing is, some of the lesser-known places from a few years ago might have gained popularity (case in point Pya tha da), while others might have deteriorated. A terrace that was there last year is not guaranteed to be around, things change quickly in Myanmar and the government can lock down a pagoda for preservation.  The best thing to do is have a general idea of the direction of where you want to go, map it out on your phone, and spend some time exploring to find your own special place.

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That being said, here are some of the places we visited.  It’s a mix of the bigger, more well known pagodas, and the smaller off-the-beaten path ones:

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Sunrise

Every morning we woke up at 4:30 am and fumbled around in the dark, grabbing whatever clothes we could find within arms reach and shuffled out the door.  We jumped onto our e-bikes and rode like the wind heading as far west as we could go, because that’s the best place to see the sunrise.  “Is it worth it?” you might ask, and I asked myself the same question every morning while we were in Bagan, and without fail, every morning I still woke up at an ungodly hour because, YES, it’s definitely worth it.

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On our first morning we went to Shwesandaw , one of the main pagodas.  If you have ever seen a picture of a sunrise in Bagan, it’s probably taken here.  Due to it’s central location, this place is on everyone’s list, which translates to it always being packed with people.  If you want to have a good place to sit and enjoy the sunrise, you should get there as early as you can, before all the tour buses drop off their passengers.

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At the crack of dawn, a sliver of light spreads across the horizon and temples peak out from a layer of mist.  The black silhouette of Dhammayangyi  is prominent in this mystical landscape.  Even with the whirling of the camera lenses, it was still a magical moment.  It’s so stunning that for a few moments, I completely forgot where I was and all I could do was stare out at this mesmerizing view.

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As the sun comes out, balloons slowly ascend into the sky, drifting across the sprawling dusty plain. One of the must-do things while in Bagan is to take a hot air balloon ride at sunrise where you can see the pretty stupas in morning light.  The pricey excursion will set you back about $325-380  USD per person, depending on the number of people in the basket. Since there are a limited number of balloons that go up each morning, it’s advisable to book ahead of time.  We left it until the last minute and ended up missing out on the hot air balloon ride.

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On the second morning, with more experience and familiarity, we decided to head out to Bulethi , the pagoda that’s closer to the site where the hot-air balloons take off.  From this vantage point, you can see the people in the baskets as they glide past. Since it’s a smaller temple, there were only a handfull of people who came on bikes. We leaned back against the ancient brick walls and  watched the balloons float leisurely across the pink-hued sky.

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On the last morning  we decided to drive around and take pictures from the ground. We drove west,  stopping every so often to snap a few shots.  The vibrant color of the sky was softened by the fog, giving it an ethereal feel.

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Sunset

On our first night we decided to go to popular Pya tha da Paya, one of the furthest temples on the the eastern sideIt has a big terrace at the top, with plenty of room to sit, which is good, because there were a lot of people.  Even as the sun was starting to set, bus loads of people continued to pour in. At one point, there was a traffic jam where the latecomers were stuck behind a herd of cattle.

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Looking around it’s pretty intimidating, everyone seems to have a big professional looking camera mounted on a tripod.  From above you can see  a field of temples dotting the horizon as far as the eye can see.  As the sun sets all you can hear is a whirl of click sounds as we all look west to capture the same moment.

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On the second night, we decided to see the sunset from North Guni, one of the smaller temples.  The advantage of going to a pagoda off of the beaten path is that the bigger buses can’t get in, which means there are less people.  From this vantage point, we can see Shwesandaw in the distance,  framed by the hazy silver-grey mountains. When the sun started its descent behind the Tangyi Mountains, it was an entirely different scene. The sky was painted with streaks of red, orange and purples.  Once it completely disappeared, the gold landscape turned into varying shades of purple signaling the start of the twilight hours.

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Here are a few of my tips for taking pictures of the sunrise and sunset.  Be prepared to get up early and stay late.  Be patient, because the perfect shot is not always guaranteed.  Bring a tripod and a zoom lens if you have it, but it’s not necessary.  Explore the different temples so you can get many points of view.  Most importantly, enjoy the moment and take lots of pictures, one of them will turn out alright.

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One thought on “Getting to Know Bagan

  1. Pingback: Photo of the Week: Sunrise | life after 9to5

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