Destination: The ancient city of Bagan
TRIPS to Burma begin in Yangon, but they culminate in Bagan. Its highlights can be summed up in a word: temples. Thousands of them date back centuries or more, and this is one of those places tourists would talk about for another thousand years if they could.
Southeast Asia has plenty of prolific temple-cities like Sukhothai in Thailand and Luang Prabang in Laos, but Bagan is different. It has more in common with Angkor Wat, and it would probably be as popular if not for Burma’s former junta government and lousy human rights record. The fact that tourists still flock here is testament to its allure.
Bagan in 24 hours
Many package tours only allow for one night in Bagan. Here are a few things to do and places to visit in a day.
Hot-air balloon ride
If your budget allows it, book an early morning ride. You’ll depart early in the morning as the sun peaks over the plains. Temples abound, and you’ll soar knowing that even the original architects never imagined a view like this. If the price intimidates you, chock it up to the champagne brunch.
Built in the 11th century, this is the crowning pagoda of Bagan. Legend has it that Buddha’s collar bone is enshrined inside. It’s worth exploring the pagoda on foot and up close.
This is right up there with Shwezigon. This gleaming, golden temple was also built in the 11th century, but had to be rebuilt after an earthquake in the 1970s.
Best of the rest
The earliest temples and pagodas of Bagan defined a millennium’s worth of Burmese architecture. The building campaigns that followed gave architects the chance to experiment. This is some of their more interesting work:
This was built in the 11th century, and a few swatches of its original frescoes are still hanging on. Sulamani draws in the outside light in a way its predecessors didn’t, presumably so worshipers could appreciate the artwork.
About three centuries younger than Sulamani, this temple sheds some of the architectural weight that characterizes earlier temples and boasts nice stucco carvings.
If you have the time, consider booking one of the many temple-viewing cruises. Many of the pagodas and temples can be seen from the river. It’s a great way to add to your photograph collection.
The Myazedi Inscription is a rather subdued attraction named after a nearby pagoda. It’s easy to bypass if you don’t know the story behind it, but this is the oldest stone inscription in Burma. It was cut in 1113.
Relatively few tourists climb Mt Popa, revered home of ancestral spirits. It stands 50 kilometers outside of Old Bagan and has to be climbed barefoot since you spend most of the time treading on temple grounds. You’ll be under the shade of corrugated metal awnings most of the way, but you still have to contend with monkey droppings on the path. It’s worth it for the rare view over the plains. You may not be as impressed if you’ve already seen the view from a hot-air balloon.
The best selection of accommodation in Bagan is for budget travelers. If you’re looking for a room that costs less than US$20, New Bagan is your best bet. The atmosphere isn’t as nostalgic, but if all you require is a clean room with a fan, you’ll find it here.
Old Bagan is more attractive. Hotels cost twice as much, or more, but they’re oozing with character. With so many temples on the horizon, every room has a view, and the nicer mid-range options have their own gardens and Western-style restaurants.
If you’re really looking to splurge, you’ll find good value for money around Old Bagan. Colonial estates, or resorts that are made to look colonial, are within a 10-minute drive of major attractions. Less than $100 affords an opulent room, expansive gardens, spa facilities and excellent service. Something about the thousand year-old architecture and the balloons lofting overhead makes splurging feel like a good idea.
Bagan at night
It’s probably safe to assume that anyone who traveled all the way to Bagan, land of ancient temples, probably isn’t terribly concerned with finding the nearest disco. By all rights, there isn’t one.
In Bagan, ‘nightlife’ means after the sun sets, but it shouldn’t be confused with early-morning partying. Instead, the focus is on riverside restaurants where diners can watch the sun set over the Irrawaddy River. It’s an enchanting sight, worth enjoying as often as possible.
Of course, most of the restaurants serve Burmese and Chinese fare, both of which are well-done and authentic. If you want to branch out and try something more (or less) familiar, expect variable results. Italian restaurants are starting to catch on, and a few of them aren’t bad at all. Authentic Thai restaurants are cheap and satisfying.
There aren’t any boutique gift stores or shopping plazas in Bagan, but you’ll find a great deal of market atmosphere around the major temples.
Lacquerware is the product of choice in Bagan. It’s everywhere—in gift shops and at souvenir stands. If you want to take a peek behind the curtain, there are several artisan workshops with exhibitions and workshops.
Religious art is also abundantly available. The thousands of temples in Bagan are admittedly inspiring, but most of the artwork comes from the same basic stock. All the same, a painting of a stupa at sunrise with a few Burmese monks in saffron robes milling around is a one-of-a-kind souvenir for someone who’s seen the real thing.
Flights connect to Bagan from Yangon (1 hour, 10 minutes) and Mandalay (20 minutes). The fact is, some travelers aren’t comfortable flying on Burmese airlines due to a sketchy string of accidents that struck a few years back. If you do fly, avoid Myanmar Airways. Their airplanes belong in museums, where they would probably be better maintained.
For those who’d rather keep their feet on the ground, it’s possible to get here by train from Mandalay and Yangon. Both take several hours, and service from Yangon is conducted overnight. Express and slow-boat river cruises saunter down the Irrawaddy from Mandalay, taking anywhere from five hours to all day to arrive.
At the end of the day, it’s easiest to hire a car and driver at Yangon. This costs quite a bit more, especially if you go with a reputable company, but you get a driver and some level of breakdown protection with the package. A private car-and-driver is cheaper than an official ‘tourist car’, but you won’t have any guarantees this way.
Once you arrive in Bagan, there’s a lot more flexibility in getting around. If you’re feeling extra nostalgic, horse-carts can be rented for entire days. Otherwise, there are bicycles for hire, trishaws or that trusty car-and-driver you hired back in Yangon.