The sight of over a thousand magnificent red brick temples and pagodas scattered across a vast plain beside the mighty Ayeyarwady River will take your breath away in Bagan, Myanmar. In their shadow, Burmese people drive oxen through the fields and have fun playing chinlone, just as they have for centuries.
The Bagan temples are the great legacy of the kings of Paukkan, the first capital of Burma or Myanmar, built between 1057 and 1287 AD. They are an enormous testament to the Buddhist faith and the pagodas display impressive architecture, as well as interiors of colourful murals and exquisite statues.
Experience Bagan holidays your way
Travel from Yangon to Bagan with a short flight; or take the boat from Mandalay to Bagan for an unforgettable slow travel experience. Once there, you can choose to tour the Bagan temples by e-bike or bicycle, with an epic hot air balloon ride, by horse and cart, or by private car.
This isn’t a ‘top 10 temples you must see in Bagan while spending three full-on days touring’ post. I definitely have some recommendations for Bagan temples to see but the Wandering Kiwi family took things at a slower pace and took a different approach to that recommended in the guide book. In other words, this is more of a ‘Bagan with kids’ post but it might be equally useful to those who like to take things slow when they travel!
Hiring e-bikes in Bagan
We decided to hire e-bikes, which is a typical way to get around the Bagan area. Other options include bicycles, taxis and horse carts.
Most hotels have a bike hire stall. We hired two bikes – a large one for an adult and Wandering Kiwi Jr (who is now eight years old) and a smaller one for the other adult.
We set off at about 11am after spending some time relaxing by the pool in the morning. The bike hire period is about eight hours so that meant we could return them after sunset but discuss this with the hire people. We paid 8,000 kyats for the two bikes.
I have never ridden a motor bike or scooter before and was a bit nervous but I gained confidence as the day went on. In fact, at first I went so slowly as I got used to the handlebar accelerator that even a woman running passed me without breaking a sweat. Fortunately, Wandering Kiwi Jr thought the e-bikes a great adventure!
Overall I can confirm this is a good way to get around and I felt quite safe. I did see a couple of other tourists who had fallen off but I found that as long as we kept to a slow and steady pace there was no danger of an accident. A lot of the trails are very sandy so be extra careful as bikes can skid in soft sand.
The best thing is that you have the flexibility to get out on this huge plain studded with ancient temples and get lost wandering. We were never really lost but it felt like we were exploring.
Do your research and pick a few prime Bagan temples you particularly want to see and then putter about the rest of the time stopping when the whim takes you.
Which temples to see in Bagan
So which temples, pagodas and monasteries did we choose to see in Bagan? There are over 2,000 of them in the Bagan Archaeological Zone after all! Although that is nothing to the 10,000-plus there were at the height of the Pagan Kingdom in the 13th century.
I read the guide book and did some research on which temples to see in Bagan, particularly pertaining to sunrise and sunset viewing. There are some useful blog posts out there with lists of the most beautiful temples.
We started with the exquisite Ananda temple and also the Sulamani temple (although this was damaged in an earthquake last year and you can’t go inside it at the moment). Another one we made sure to see was the Dhammayangyi with its unusual double buddha statue.
These all had interesting features and formed a nice route on the Bagan plain. Other than that we just wandered and stopped where we liked the look of a place.
Sunrise and sunset temples in Bagan
From the top of a number pagodas the views over the temple-dotted landscape in the golden light of sunrise or sunset are spectacular. Get there early for a good vantage point at the more popular sunset sites, or choose a more out of the way pagoda to climb for your sunset view. We did two sunset temples during our time in Bagan. I recommend getting to your chosen Bagan sunset spot an hour before the sun is due to go down to get a good viewing spot and enjoy the golden light develop over the landscape. There is so much to see from up there!
First we went to the Pyathatgyi temple, which is further out onto the plain and a bit quieter. The atmosphere here was really lovely and we could see herds of bullocks being driven along the lane and in the surrounding fields.
The second evening we went to the famous Shwesandaw temple, which is a bit of a circus band absolutely thronged with tourists but I have to admit this is where I got my best photos of the famous Bagan sunset over the massed pagodas.
I got up early by myself and got a taxi to the Thitsar Wadi Paya, which is the most convenient for New Bagan and not far off the sealed road. There were other people riding bikes and e-bikes but I didn’t feel comfortable doing that by myself in the dark.
It was a beautiful sunrise, which only around 15 travellers and a family of souvenir sellers there to share it with me. The nearby Dhamma Yazika Paya looked spectacular as the dawn contingent of Bagan hot air balloons sailed over. I may not have been able to afford a $300 balloon flight but it wonderful watching them launch and travel across the sky.
Bagan with kids
You can probably tell we took it fairly easy as we wandered through Bagan. We made time each day for the pool (even though I had been champing at the bit to get out and explore ever since we saw the view of the Bagan plain from the decks of the slow boat from Mandalay) and recognised that children have a limited attention span for temple viewing. We picked a number of temples that sounded distinctive and then stopped at a few more that we just liked the look of, or when we wanted a break.
There are always salespeople with Myanmar crafts, which might get annoying for grownups but children love to look at. Especially the puppets suspended in tree branches. We saw a few games of Chinlone going on beside temples and this unique Myanmar game (it’s like hacky-sack with a rattan ball) is fun to sit and watch.
I can highly recommend Isabelle DeMenge’s Leap & Hop guide book to Myanmar – designed specifically for travelling children in mind this has just the right level of information about the country, culture, and each destination, as well as activities to stimulate interest in the most important sights in Myanmar. We also used her kids’ guide to Sri Lanka and can’t wait until she brings out more!
Where to stay in Bagan
There is Old Bagan, New Bagan and Nyaung-U, which I found confusing when I was planning our Myanmar trip and trying to figure out where to stay.
There are significantly more good value accommodation and eating out options in New Bagan, Nyaung-U is near the river boat jetty, and Old Bagan is nearer the most important temples.
We chose one in New Bagan – the Arthawka – and I was very happy with it (the large room, the beautiful pool area, the helpful staff). It was quiet and had a useful fixed-price list for services such as taxis and e-bikes. If you want to be close to the restaurant area you should stay nearer the river.
However, we did visit Old Bagan on both our days exploring the area so in hindsight it might have been better to base ourselves there. Being near restaurant options would also have been an advantage as hotel food doesn’t tend to reflect the best of Myanmar’s amazing cuisine.
Having said that, it was only 10-15 minutes by e-bike to Old Bagan so it wasn’t really a big deal. It was also only a 10-minute walk to the restaurants of New Bagan but that wasn’t appealing after a day of exploring for Wandering Kiwi Jr so we asked the bike hire man to keep our bikes for a bit longer so we could go out to eat.
Where to eat in Bagan
Bagan has a good range of eateries, with kitchens cooking up both traditional food and international fare. Restaurants such as Ayeyarwady River Terrace offer nice food with pleasant river views. Another favourite is the Moon Vegetarian Restaurant near the Ananda pagoda, set in a shady garden. Try classic burmese spicy salads and tasty tamarind leaf curry.
However you experience it, the magic of Bagan has inspired visitors to Myanmar for nearly 1,000 years and that’s not going to change any time soon. I hope you find my tips useful!
By Natasha von Geldern
During your time in Burma, combine your Bagan holidays with a trip to lush Inle Lake or explore the teashops of Mandalay, the cultural capital of Myanmar. Of course you’ll want to explore vibrant Yangon and perhaps extend your travels in the Far East with a few days in neighbouring Thailand.
If you liked this post on Bagan in Myanmar, why not pin it?