When you've done the rest of Asia and want something a little different...
Reputation: amazing temples but hard to get around.
Why you should go: thousands of truly amazing temples in one small space. Really lovely people. Surprisingly easy to get to.
Everything's free unless stated.
Fly over Bagan in a hot-air balloon
This is by far the best way to see the amazing temples of Bagan. Balloons over Bagan employs highly-trained local and international staff to run its very tight operation.
The experience starts early in the morning as you watch the balloons being filled and get a safety briefing. The flight itself is magnificent with views of temples, the Irrawaddy river and local life. The route varies from flight to flight depending on the wind direction but generally takes in all the major temples. It ends with champagne and a light breakfast when you land.
This isn’t cheap but it’s totally, completely worth it. Neither of our contributors like heights but did this anyway and LOVED it. Operates October-March.
Explore the temples
Grab a bike from your hotel or one of the many family-run places that hire bikes and pedal around the temples. There are literally thousands to explore. Big, small, old, new, pristine, falling down. Find one you fancy and nap in the shade if you like.
Here are our favourite temples, although we love them all. All temples listed here date from the 11th and 12th centuries:
- Dhammayazika Paya - our top pick. It's an unusual shape, surrounded by gardens and apparently haunted.
- Thatbyinnya Pahto - a white, boxy temple (in a good way!) with a gold spire.
- Ananda Pahto - a gorgeous, well-preserved temple but watch out for the hawkers (although they're not very persistent).
- Abeyadana Pahto - check out the murals inside.
- Shwezigon Paya - very, very gold.
You'll need to buy a permit at the airport (where most travellers arrive) to visit the area but it's not expensive. Temples are then free to enter although you may be asked to present your permit. Avoid showing your knees and shoulders, and remember to remove your shoes before entering the temple. Your bike and shoes are safe outside.
Bikes generally aren’t in great condition but they're still a good way to get around Bagan. Check the brakes before heading off! Most hotels have bikes available free-of-charge for guests. It’s possible to hire electric bikes but they tend to break down. A lot.
Or, you can hire a horse and cart. This is a good option if you don't feel like peddling in the heat but means you’re limited to visiting temples on roads and the wider dirt tracks. All the horses we saw were clearly well looked after. Drivers generally don’t speak a lot of English but they know all the great temples so sit back and enjoy.
Bagan’s shopping scene is fairly limited but they do specialise in lacquerware. The process involves many layers of lacquering, sanding and polishing to get a perfect finish. Just about anything you can imagine is available and the items are really lovely. Italy specialises in lacquerware too but what you’ll find in Bagan is every bit as skilful and much cheaper.
There are a lot of family-run shops selling lacquerware – and demonstrating how it’s made – so have a wander around and find something you like. Many larger shops take credit cards.
Where to stay
We stayed at locally-run BlueBird Hotel, which is gorgeous. Reception is reached by a boardwalk over a tropical garden. The very spacious rooms are built around a swimming pool, and the bathrooms are huge. Staff are lovely and the whole atmosphere is really peaceful. The hotel runs a free tuk-tuk service to local restaurants at night.
Don’t be put off by the crappy side street the hotel is on - we can’t recommend the BlueBird highly enough. Oh, and we woke up one morning to find an elephant outside. As you do.
Side trip to the beach
Go to Ngapali.
Okay, so this isn’t really a side trip, it’s more a different destination but it’s worth the effort. Asia is known for its beaches but most are crowded, sometimes dirty and often a bit seedy (sorry Asian beaches! You're a victim of your own gorgeousness). Ngapali beach, on the Bay of Bengal, is the perfect escape and can be reached via plane from Bagan. The flight takes about an hour*.
We recommend staying at locally-owned Yoma Cherry Lodge (it has the most beautiful garden we’ve ever seen), eating at the shacks on the beach (the best seafood we’ve ever had), volunteering at Vera Thomson English School so kids can practice their English, and watching the fishing boats come and go. The staff are the friendliest, loveliest people you'll meet.
Our CFO (chief fishing officer) spent the day on a boat with a local fisherman and had his catch cooked at one of the shacks on the beach. Brilliant. Simply ask around at your hotel or restaurant/beach shack and you'll quickly find someone to take you fishing.
Note that Ngapali beach stretches along two gentle crescents. The Yoma Cherry Lodge is on the much quieter part and this is where we recommend spending your time.
* Myanmar is not well served by buses and trains. They exist but take an obscenely long time to get anywhere. If you feel the need to be a 'real traveller' and do an epic bus trip, do it somewhere else. Seriously.
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Contributors: Ann-Marie Nansett, Michael Nansett
Updated: 5 December 2017