For me, the main appeal of visiting Myanmar was to visit Bagan.
An ancient city that dates back to the 9th century, Bagan has become famous for its archaeological zone – where over 10,000 Buddhist pagodas, temples and monasteries were constructed between the 11th and 13th centuries, and of which over 2200 remain today.
Bagan has been referred to as the ‘Angkor Wat’ of Myanmar, and believe me, it isn’t hard to see why.
Getting from Yangon to Bagan is very simple.
If you are short on money but have the gift of time, then going by bus will be the best option. There are many overnight buses that serve this popular route, and these buses are safe options – albeit not the most comfortable – and they do book up several days in advance. These trips take between 9 and 10 hours, cost around $12 and are subject to delays and the not all that uncommon vehicle breakdowns.
If you have a little extra moolah but are limited on time, then it might be a good idea to consider flying. Domestic connections are serviced by Myanmar International Airlines, KBZ and Golden Myanmar Airways – amongst others. This was the option I chose, as I had only a week in Myanmar and didn’t want to spend that week being exhausted from not sleeping on night buses! Flights between Yangon and Bagan can be purchased for between $80-$100 one way.
Once you arrive in Bagan, you will need to pay a 25,000 kyat ($24 AUD) archaeological entrance fee, and it is worth noting that scams around this fee are not uncommon. At land crossings many tourists have reported being forced to pay 30,000 kyats, despite signage showing the correct price. I paid my fee at the airport desk and had no such issues.
Once you pay this fee, you will be issued with a ticket that allows you to explore the temples for 5 full days.
Honestly, my ticket was only checked once in my entire time in Bagan, so you could possibly get away with not having it, but I wouldn’t feel particularly good about that, as it would essentially be stealing.
We arrived in Bagan at around 8am, threw our bags into storage at our hostel and were keen to get exploring.
Now, it was here that we encountered our first hiccup.
A little prior research had told us that the best way to explore the archaeological zone was by e-bike. Now, when I read ‘e-bike’, my brain figured that these would just be bicycles with little motors on them, no problem! However, this is not what they were. E-bikes are essentially scooters…. and upon realising this I was not feeling great.
Full disclosure – I do not have a drivers license – I am honestly such a terrible driver that I am a menace to all human life! I am not even that great on a bicycle, so getting on a scooter felt rather terrifying.
However, really the only other option was to rent a bicycle, and with Bagan spanning 104 square kilometres, this wasn’t a wholly appealing option. So, with much hesitation, I paid the 5,000 kyat ($5 AUD) rental fee and hopped onto my bike.
Those first few minutes were absolutely fricking terrifying. I really struggled to control the speed of the bike and felt like the handles were extremely stiff. I literally only went a few metres before I stopped and started telling my friend Chelsea (who had zoomed off a little way ahead) that I couldn’t do it. I was actually on the verge of tears (I was really that scared, isn’t that pathetic) but eventually, with encouragement from Chelsea (and the truly motivating comment ‘well do you really want to cycle the entire way in this heat?’) I started getting steadier, gained a little momentum and started to get the hang of it.
Getting to the first pagodas took quite a while due to my nervousness, but eventually we got there, and it was absolutely worth it!
As my confidence on my little scooter began to grow, I started to feel okay with going ‘off road’.
It was during this off-roading that we came across some truly lovely pagodas. These weren’t the famous ones marked on maps or written about in guidebooks, but that just added to their appeal.
As it turns out, even if you completely ditch the map, you still end up coming across the most famous sites in Bagan! It was by pure chance that we came across Ananda Temple.
Built in 1091, this temple is now home to a rather unsightly market, but if you proceed past the many vendors, you will eventually come out at an absolutely stunning courtyard.
After I was done at Ananda, it was time to hit the road again…
…and this menace was starting to like her scooter!
Without a well marked tourist map, we ended up exploring many empty temples and pagodas, most of which I would probably never be able to find again. I have tried to research the names of many of these unknown temples, but have come up empty handed.
If you have been to Bagan and recognise any of the unnamed spots, please let me know in the comments!
At one stage my friend Chelsea and I ended up so far from the beaten track that I honestly thought we had somehow ended up in the Burmese version of a gated community! There were fancy houses, pretty little lakes and exxy cars – not a common sight in Myanmar. I still have no idea exactly what we stumbled into, but we ended up leaving in quite a hurry – getting caught accidentally trespassing wasn’t something I wanted in my future!
While many of the pagodas in Bagan have a similar look about them (obviously the Burmese were big fans of red bricks) there are a few that stand out, Shwezigon Pagoda is one such example.
This pagoda is located a fair way away from the main tourist trail, but it’s distance in no way leads to a reduced number of visitors.
Honestly, it was a bit of a shame! This pagoda was visually one of my favourites, but the relentlessness of the hawkers and the cheap tactics used by them was just plain frustrating.
Before entering the pagoda, you must take off your shoes, but be prepared that if you don’t carry them with you they may not stay where you left them! My beloved birkis had been moved to the front of one womans stall, and as I went to pick them up she started loudly insisting that I buy things from her shop as she had watched my shoes. I was so over it by this point that I told her she needed to cut it out and that she was being way too pushy. If I had been further away from a house of worship I would have just told her to fuck off, but I try to be respectful when in the vicinity of religious sites.
However, don’t let the hawkers stop you from visiting this pagoda! It really is beautiful, especially when the sun is shining…
…just make sure you carry your shoes!
Ta Wet Hpaya
This was quite possibly favourite temple! It is one of those places that is hard to find when you are actually looking for it, but easy to come across just by chance.
This is one of the few pagodas that can still be climbed, and though it doesn’t provide the absolute best views in Bagan, it is still well worth a visit.
As a bonus, there was a man selling cold coconuts right outside the temple and he had the absolute cutest kids! It was a great place to take a break from the unrelenting Burmese heat.
Hitlomono is one of the more popular temples in Bagan, but our visit to it coincided with a bit more than a spot of rain! We had parked our bikes on a muddy hill – so bailing early to avoid a bogging/bike related landslide was required.
Dating back to the 12th century, this 61m high temple is the tallest in all of Bagan. Housing a large number of Buddha images inside, many of the walls and roofs have been repaired, but several remain in their original condition, and these are absolutely worth seeing.
After leaving Thatbyinnyu, off we went, motoring on dirt roads between seemingly endless pagodas, before eventually coming across what is quite possibly the most well known pagoda in all of Bagan…
This pagoda is famous for the incredible views it provides out over Bagan, and also infamous for the sheer size of the crowds that it draws, something that I will get to later on!
The pagoda itself didn’t really thrill me all that much (in fact, with all the structural scaffolding it looked like quite an eyesore) but the views you can get from the upper platforms are second to none.
For stunning views like these, a great time to visit is around 2-3pm, but be warned, the sun will be brutal!
These views out over Bagan were exactly what I had hoped for when I imagined my visit. Looking out over the emerald green vistas filled with countless pagodas truly was wonderful.
I particularly love this next shot. All that empty space just makes the skyline ‘pop’ all that much more!
After getting our fill of Shwesandaw, we motored back to our hostel for an afternoon nap and a cold shower with plans to return back to Shwesandaw for sunset.
We ended up leaving a bit late and we were close to missing the sunset, so we came across another small pagoda on the way and decided that it would be better to see the sunset from a smaller vantage point than to not see it at all, and this ended up being a fricking great decision.
Look at that sky!
We returned to that temple the following morning to get this next shot – gorgeous right?
Nearby, we came across Thambula Temple. This single storey temple dates back to 1255 and is one of the few smaller temples that manages to catch a lot of beautiful natural light. It also has one of the most eye-catching Buddha images that I saw whilst in Myanmar.
Shwesandaw Pagoda (again)
The next evening we decided to catch another Bagan sunset, and this time we actually did make it to Shwesandaw, but this ended up being a blessing and a curse.
Sure, the views were pretty…
…but the crowds were absolutely fricking mental!
This next photo pretty accurately sums up how we felt about the whole situation.
There were quite literally thousands of people packed onto this pagoda, and being so squished was not exactly a comfortable experience, and to be honest, the sunset wasn’t all that impressive.
However, the moonrise (is that a word?) which occurred on the other side of the pagoda was a whole different story.
This was bloody spectacular, and it made all the pushing and the feeling like cattle worth it.
I spent two days in Bagan exploring these temples on an e-bike, and despite thinking “this isn’t covered by my travel insurance!” at least 1000 times, it was easily the highlight of my time in Myanmar.
This vast land full of temples, the pagodas and the stupas was truly a sight like no other, and seeing it with the wind in my hair and the sun on my skin from the seat of my bike was absolutely perfect.
Bagan – I absolutely love you!
As always, thanks for reading and happy solo travelling xx
Getting to Bagan: Bagan is well connected via bus, train and domestic flights
Ostello Bello Bagan: The most popular hostel in Bagan, prices start at $25/night in an 8-bed dorm
E-bike rental: There are a tonne of places renting out e-bikes, you should NOT pay more than 5,000 kyats for a full days rental
Camera: Images captured with an Olympus OM-D E-M1 in conjunction with M.Zuiko 12-40mm f2/8 lens
Remember: Almost all travel insurance policies will have a clause relating to scooter related injuries not being covered, so if you choose to rent an e-bike, ride cautiously!