If there’s one reason people choose to head to Myanmar, Bagan is it. The sprawling plains dotted with thousands of orange-hued temples exert a compelling draw on the traveler’s imagination. And while the temples are certainly reason enough to visit, Bagan has so much more to offer. Here’s what to look out for.
Trawl the temples
In the immortal words of Rihanna, this is what you came for, after all. The Bagan plans are littered with thousands of Buddhist temples, many of which are centuries old. Many are well-maintained and spectacularly impressive, while others are crumbling relics that are even more impressive in their evocative state. Start with the big-name temples like Ananda, Shwezagon and Dhammayangyi, then go off the beaten path and explore the smaller, no-name temples. You’ll find plenty of centuries-old architecture to oogle and all sorts of peeling oil paintings to ponder.
Take a sunset cruise
The Ayeyarwady river is the lifeblood of Myanmar, offering a way to transport people and goods the length and breadth of the country. Many visitors will take a trip down the river at some point, most making the trip on luxury cruisers that ply their routes between Bagan and Mandalay. Whether you make the full trip or not, a sunset cruise down this epic waterway is a must. Head down to the docks around 5pm and negotiate a two-hour trip with one of the many boat that hang out there (though most hotels will also be able to organize this for you). Don’t forget to grab some drinks and snacks from the nearby convenience store before you board so you can have sundowners as your watch the sun go down.
Hop in a hot-air balloon
Have you really been to Bagan if you haven’t soared over the temple plains in a hot-air balloon? You’ve probably seen the dramatic pictures all over Instagram – a picturesque sunrise, balloons bobbing effortlessly over the temple spires — and wondered if all the fuss is worth it. Rest assured, the reality is even better than you imagine. Not only are the views (and resulting pictures) incredible, but there’s also no better way to get a sense of just how vast Bagan is, both in area and in the number of temples. There are several operators, but Balloons over Bagan is the original. You’ll celebrate your flight with a light Champagne breakfast when you land.
Check out the Archaeological Museum
One thing you’ll notice as you cruise Bagan’s temples is that there is a distinct lack of statues. That’s because many of them ended up at this rather vast museum — along with some paintings, scriptures, photos and a host of other archeologically fascinating items. Showing an instinct for preserving the area’s heritage, the government moved a lot of the important pieces from their original locations in the temples to this museum in an effort to avoid looting and vandalism. The museum is surprisingly well laid out, with galleries dedicated to temple paintings, Buddha statues, language stones, and more.
Rent an E-Bike
Bagan is surprisingly widespread, which means that there are thousands of temples scattered over a huge area. Whether you’re hitting the temple trail hard or meandering through the urban zones like Nyuang U, you’ll need more than your two leg to get around. Enter the e-bikes. These scooter-like vehicles aren’t zippy (you’ll probably be limited to about 30km/h) but they’re the most popular choice for getting around. You can rent one from one of the many bike stalls around town – just make sure to do some haggling, and don’t forget to ask for a number to call in case you break down. The best part is that these little cruisers will get you down some of the smaller dirt roads, meaning you’ll be able to go off the beaten paths and find tiny temples with no one else around.
Catch the Sunrise
If the sunsets in Bagan are great, then the sunrises are truly magical. You’ll need to head out around 530am in order to catch it, but it’ll be well worth it. There’s something so incredibly awe-inspiring about finding your way to a deserted temple or viewpoint in utter darkness, and patiently waiting to watch as the sun rises to paint the temples and fields in dramatic shades of orange and pink and the hot-air balloons begin to rise. There are many places to catch the sunrise from, but most of the ones you’ll read about or hear of will be crowded, cheapening the experience. Your best bet will be to ask around — locals will usually be able to direct you to under-the-radar spots where you’ll be able to catch this wonderful experience without another soul in sight.
A great spot for a leisurely lunch in between bouts of temple touring, the alfresco Starbeam Bistro is something of a Bagan institution – and for good reason. The chef learned his trade in the hotel of Yangon and Dubai before coming back to open his own place. Burmese and European traditions come together in simple yet flavorful dishes. Try the Chef’s Signature Chicken Curry.
Classy, casual and effortlessly charming, this little spot is a cozy retreat where you’ll dine surrounded by tropical plants. This is basically the Myanmar equivalent of tapas. There are plenty of intriguing small plates showcasing local cuisine – think river prawns and catfish curry, or pan-seared squid stuffed with pork.
Myo Myo Myanmar Rice Food
This popular sport specializes in the personal buffets that are prevalent in Myanmar. Grab a table, and 25 small dishes will quickly appear, offering a taste of all types of meats, fish, vegetables and the like, many of them seasonal. Considering you’ll only pay for what you eat, this is great bang for your buck.
Be Kind to Animals the Moon
If you’re seeking plant-based fare, look no further than this oasis-like eatery, the original vegetarian joint in Bagan. Tucked away in Old Bagan, right by the Tharabar Gate, the menu here offers hearty, healthy fare like pumpkin curry and sautéed vegetables with vermicelli.
Over in New Bagan, this bustling teahouse offers up one of the best breakfasts in town. Grab a perch on the outdoor deck and tuck into the traditional Burmese brekkie before heading out on a day of temple explorations. If you’re here for lunch or dinner, slurp on some Shan noodles.
If you’re pressed for time, just hire a car and driver for a quick but comprehensive immersion into Bagan. If you’ve got more time to explore and get lost, you’ll definitely want to rent an e-bike. For occasional trips, a tuk-tuk will do the job well.
A charming boutique property in New Bagan, the Blue Bird Hotel boasts spacious rooms with contemporary handicrafts, verdant gardens around a central pool, and impressive fusion food in the restaurant. In Old Bagan, the Aye Yar River View Resort has huge rooms with a whiff of colonial design, a tree-fringed pool, and a cute spa offering relaxing massages.
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