It’s safe to say that Bagan just BLEW MY MIND!
Around 18 months ago when I started to plan my backpacking adventures I saw a photo on Instagram of hot air balloons going up over some pretty temples. *Helen adds to bucket list* Since then I didn’t really look into it much. Type in Bagan and Instagram is constantly providing photos of some chick in a maxi dress swinging off the side of a pagoda at sunrise. I was looking forward to getting there, but I certainly didn’t know how much I was going to love it.
As a general rule when someone is talking about religious sites in Asia that will knock your socks off, the Angkor Wat complex in Cambodia always seems to top the bill. I have visited there twice now, and not to be a negative Nancy … but I don’t get it! Yep, the ‘Tomb Raider’ temple is pretty cool with the trees growing through it. And the temple covered in faces is pretty nifty. Angkor Wat itself is huge, with a moat around it – cool. But it’s hot and its busy … SO BUSY! You are constantly queuing, to take a photo, to go up some stairs, to shuffle past a bus load of Chinese tourists. Considering it’s a religious site I find it more relaxing trying to get on the Northern line at rush hour.
Bagan however, was a whole different story!
The second I stepped off the boat at the docks I felt like I had gone back in time. At the time it was a bit of a shock to the system and I wasn’t sure what I had let myself in for. To get off the boat you had to literally ‘walk the plank’. The handrail for this plank was a pole, one man on the boat was holding one end and another on the river banks had the other side. If I had actually needed to put any weight on it I’m pretty sure I would have been man overboard!
Once I made it safely to dry land I was greeted with sand covered roads with horse and carridges lined up as taxis. There was of course the usual taxi drivers in your face so once I agreed a price with one we were on our way to my hostel. Stopping immediately at a ticket office to buy a ‘Bagan Archaeological Zone’ ticket. For 25,000 Kyat (£13.50) you get entry to the ‘zone’ for 5 days. Whether you arrive in Bagan via boat, bus or plane you have to buy this ticket straight away. During 2 days exploring I was only asked for my ticket once, and I couldn’t find it so they waved me through anyway! I assume because they knew I would have had to buy it when I arrived it.
So what’s in Bagan?
Anyway, back to the point – Bagan! Here’s a speedy low down!
In 1044 King Anawrahta took control of the country and unified it. He brought Buddhism with him and built the big old Shwezigon Temple. Everyone went nuts building temples all over the area and voila! Bagan was born! King Anawrahta got killed by a wild buffalo in the end. Turns out my friend Anni was right about them being scary all along!
The area was once made up of over 10,000 temples of various shapes and sizes. Sadly after a whole load of earthquake damage there are only estimated to be around 4,000 now. (Yep, I said ‘only’).
The best way to get around and explore is on an e-bike or a bicycle. The best times to get your snaps across Bagan are sunrise and sunset. This means navigating the sandy ‘roads’ and tracks in the dark at some point. I can’t follow a map in the daylight so I thought it was for the best I hire a taxi for my exploring. Luckily I met my lovely friend Julie in the hostel who was on the same wavelength. She’s from Paris so she’s way too chic for cycling in the dirt. So we explored together, from the comfort of our air conditioned taxi. Perfect.
Sunrise at Bagan means waking up at 5am, leaving the hostel and climbing up the side of something high in the dark. Not my usual start to the day! But it’s well worth it. Unfortunately I was there for 3 mornings, which meant 3 5am alarms, and each morning was too cloudy for the hot air balloons to go up over the temples. Which is a massive shame because that was what initially put Myanmar on my bucket list when I started to plan my trip!
The perk of being up so early is that it’s still cold, you’ll need a jumper or a jacket! Once the sun comes up though you have a couple of hours before the heat really kicks in! We found the best way to explore was to be up for sunrise, explore after and then head back to the hostel for a nap when it got hot at midday.
Then you can get ready to head back out mid afternoon ready to find a good spot for sunset. And to get a good spot for sunset can be a competitive business! People arrive early and sit tight on the front rows and are not for moving. What surprises me is that most people leave the second the sun has gone down and don’t seem to know the sunset is a waiting game! Sit tight for a good 20 minutes or so and the sky will all of a sudden explode into colour. While it baffles me that people don’t seem to realise this, I also prefer it, as it means they make a move leaving more space for you to mooch around whichever pagoda you climbed up and get photos from all angles!
One evening we ventured to Nann Myint Viewing Tower – not the most attractive building in Bagan but it’s a tower 60 metres high which offers amazing panoramic views of Bagan for sunset. It was the perfect end to our last night in Bagan and once the sun set that night I was very sad to be heading home to pack up my bag and get ready to move on the next day.
How long should you spend in Bagan?
How long is a piece of string!? I had 3 days but could have easily spent much longer! There is so much to discover but it obviously depends on how long you have and how interesting you find the area. I met people who were staying for over a week to give themselves loads of time. Others would only have a day so would book a tour to hit up the main attractions. Personally I wasn’t a huge fan of the ‘main’ temples. The smaller ones were much quieter and in my opinion way more beautiful!
Where should you stay?
Bagan is split into three areas, Old Bagan, New Bagan and Nyaung-U.
Old Bagan is where the higher end, more expensive hotels are.
New Bagan is a little further out, but where the cheaper and more backpacker style hostels are popping up. There are a few good options for eating out but it’s still very much the ‘up and coming’ section of Bagan. I stayed in New Bagan in Ostello Bello Bagan and I couldn’t recommend it more! It was around £15 per night, which for a hostel is pricey but you won’t find much different in Bagan! The staff were friendly and helpful, with free pasta being served 3 times per day, free tours on offer and happy hour each evening with a themed activity such as a pub quiz or bingo. They really encourage a social atmosphere which is ideal for solo travellers! The rooms were big, clean and had comfy beds which is a treat after some places I have stayed in!
Nyaung-U is probably the busier area of Bagan if you want food options close by with a lot of accommodation for all budgets. I didn’t actually venture up there to be honest so can’t give you much more on it that that.
So there you have it, a brief guide to the fairytale heaven of Bagan! I’ll be posting more on Bagan soon, where to spot the sunsets, the sunrises and where to find a whole temple to yourself!
Where do you stand in the great Bagan vs Angkor debate?! Comment below and let me know your favourites!