How to get to Bagan? Boat & Bus Basics
From Mandalay we had intended to reach Bagan by boat, sailing down the river for 12 or so hours, alas the low season meant this did not fit our itinerary. The fast boats only run in the peak season, so we were left at the mercy of the twice weekly government public boat (very slow) and that only leaves twice a week and was not scheduled for another few days. The bus it was then, and off we went to the Mandalay Central bus station in the south of town.
This is a massive place with a mind blowing array of buses setting off in all directions from Mandalay. We chose the Nyaung U Mann company. The fare was 9000 Kyat, but we paid a little more for the hotel to arrange the purchase of tickets. It would have cost one of us more to get a taxi to and from the station.
The bus leaves at 8.30am, and you get a comfortable seat, as its three seats across rather than the regular four, giving you more spread space. Most of the roads between here and Bagan are sealed and with the exception of a few stretches, so its not too bumpy and in around five hours you will be arriving in the outskirts of Bagan. You’ll know when you’ve arrived as all ‘foreigners’ are offloaded from the bus to pay your compulsory Bagan archaeological $10 ticket fee.
Where to Stay in Bagan? Bagan Hotel and Accommodation Options
From here its a short ride into the village of Nyaung U, which has the best budget accommodation in the Bagan area and well located for restaurants. If you have plenty of money you can stay in the Old Town, but your wallet will be emptier than one of the old abandoned temples. We didn’t stay in Old Bagan out of principal, but I’m saving the politics for our final Myanmar blog post.
Getting off the bus we found a friendly horse cart driver who agreed to drive us around until we found a hotel we liked. After looking at a few drab and dingy places for $20 – $25 dollars we decided on the Aung Mingalar, the staff were charming, but would not budge on the $30 a night price ticket. It was well worth the few extra dollars as we got a meticulously clean bungalow with air con, TV with movie channels, a fridge and a spacious bathroom with skin blistering hot water and a nice little patio overlooking the gardens.
Nyaung U is a charming village with a touristy heart in the form of Restaurant Row where you will find the main stretch of tourist focussed restaurants, internet cafes and tour operators. We ate a few times here, but on the whole we found a local place right, next to our hotel to be more to our taste. It had wifi (of the Myanmar crunchingly slow variety) and lovely staff who looked after you while mama made some delicious food.
We met a lovely French woman on the bus here, who spoke Burmese and ended up in the bungalow next to us, chatting one night it transpires she is the Director Burmese studies at a university. She offered us some interesting outlooks on her time in Burma over the last 20 odd years she’d been visiting and she also said she liked my photography, so she had great taste.
Bagan was a time for us to also bump into another new travel friend, Mon from Australia. Mon is extremely well travelled, but not the pretentious or name dropping kind you sometimes have the misfortune of meeting. We ended up having quite a session with her one evening which put paid to much of our sightseeing for the next day – Aussie and Brit cocktail, a dangerous brew!
Things to do in Bagan
A visit to Bagan in Central Myanmar is about the archaeological zone, a 26sq mile plain with some of the richest and most archaeologically significant relics in the whole of Burma. Like us, if you are not here on an archaeological survey you probably have a couple of days to squeeze in some of the most significant sites and enjoy a day in the back of a horse cart ambling along the dusty roads that connect the temples.
We had the ‘experience budget’ on standby here for a sunrise balloon ride over the temples, alas it was the same as the boat trip . The hot-air balloons only operate in the peak season, either due to visitor numbers or perhaps the increasing winds across the plains at this time of the year. John did his best to try and commission a balloon for us, but it wasn’t to happen. We were really looking forward to that treat, especially when we got to see the vistas on the top a temple, at sunset, on our second day. A hot-air balloon trip here is something I would definitely recommend, as I can only imagine what an a breathtaking viewing experience of Bagan this would allow.
Travel Around by Horse-Drawn Cart
We are no experts, but here is how we did Bagan. On our first full day we went off in search of a horse cart driver who spoke some English and a horse that looked fit for the job. In the end we found a guy near the bus station who convinced us to hop in his pick up and go see his ‘cousin-brother’ (sic) who seemed to meet our requirements and of course price.
As there were plenty of horses and carts on offer where we stood, we knew something was amiss. So we guaranteed free transport back, should we not be agreeable with what was on offer on our arrival, although John did somewhat become obsessed with the size of cart and horse he wanted during our negotiations, which were at rock bottom rates. We ended up at the far side of town at the stables, where his ponies are kept and had the pleasure of watching the carriage horse being tacked-up to the cart, as well as the bemusement of the local village kids at these tourists amongst their midst. Cute.
For 12,000 Kyat (10 GBP) we had a driver that spoke good enough English and a massive pony pulling us around. We learnt as the day wore on though that the pony was a bit feisty and its particular ‘spook’ was a bicycle laid down underneath a tree.
Now you may think that a rare thing to see and we would be OK. But in Bagan if you are not in a horse cart you are on a bike, and if you are on a bike you get hot so the best place to lay down your bike is under a tree while you sit under it to get some respite from the blistering sun. So we have at least half a dozen of these incidents throughout the day where she went a bit crazy.
Once you have had your first day, with your expert guide, you are then in better shape to hire a bike from your hotel or one of the many stores that do the same around town. It will cost you no more than a couple of US dollars and you then have the freedom of the town and temple plains, providing you can stand the heat to explore any of the 3995 temples you didn’t see on your horse cart tour.
Which Temples to See in Bagan?
The temples are truly incredible; the tour our guide took us on started with some of the oldest and least restored, working through the tallest (Thatbyinnyu), largest (Dhammayangyi ) and ended the day at Shwesandaw Pagoda where you can climb to the top and get one of the most spectacular views available to you on this earth.
Being atop this piece of architectural heritage is one of those rare moments in your life that you cannot explain to anyone else who hasn’t really been there. The pictures give you a partial idea of what you see. We stood there, with the wind gently cooling us from the steep climb, struggling to catch our breath. Not from the exertion of climbing, but from what you can see from the north, south, east and west plains as the temples and pagodas dot the landscape like sentinels guarding the treasures which lie within and around them.
There are over 4000 temples in Bagan, dating from the 10th to the 13th centuries. Our visit to Bagan allowed us to view some of the more popular and impressive among them. We still had time to explore some of the smaller outlying brick temples, with their faded, but yet still colourful murals and scripture adorned walls.
Given this is the number one tourist spot in the whole of Myanamar you can expect a fair number of vendors wanting to sell you things and there are quite a few, but they are pleasant and not too pushy. Also the temples are not busy, in fact many we visited alone and it is not difficult to find a secluded spot even at the most popular. It’s a far cry from the mass tourism taking place at Angkor Wat or the Pyramids, which is surprising given the scale and wonderment of this place.
We broke up the day with a leisurly lunch stop in Old Bagan at The Moon restaurant. The vegetarian menu is good and extremely tasty. Its been going strong since 1994 and the staff are charming offering free travel tips and advice, so if you fancy a pleasant hour or so, try them out.
Whilst in Bagan, we also got treated to a mini display of Thanaka production. The traditional Myanmar make-up/sun block. It is made from the bark of trees which are ground on a slab of stone with a little water, and the resulting sludge is made into cakes of cream. This is then applied to the face in designs and swirls. The use of this make-up isnt just a show for the tourists either, it is widely used by throughout Burma. Primarily applied to children and used by women, we’ve also seen men wearing this. Admittedly around the tourist sites you will see a more creative application of Thanaka in the shapes of leaves or swirls.
We had another rest stop at one of the temples and our driver joined his mates for a chat and a betel nut chewing session. We joined them after our tour of the nearby temple and had a very interesting half hour chatting to them about their views. On tourism (they are worried it will grow too quick and spoil what are to them holy sites), Aung San Suu Kyi (she is their hero and there is REAL hope she will change things but not like Thailand who they thought wasn’t a religious country any more), and finally their fascination with Thai ladyboys (dont ask!).
Bagan is home to a large military academy, so you will no doubt bump into the many training soldiers around town. The soldiers are fun, chatty and charming like most Burmese people we met.
For our last day in Bagan we got on our bikes again and explored Nyaung U just soaking in the village life, the activity around the Shwezigon Paya and the local Zeigyo (market) . There was a real buzz about town as the Circus had arrived and had been setting up for its innaugral performance that very evening.
We chatted to some locals about the circus and it is a big thing; it only comes to town about every five years. As dusk fell you could see excited kids around town clutching their Kyat notes ready for this once in a childhood extravaganza that had come to town. We only got a glimpse of the some of the acts, as we had a very early start the next morning, and it didn’t actually start till near 11pm and it was due to finish around 3am. I guess childhood sleep doesn’t matter when the circus comes to town so infrequently.
Bagan was truly stunning, both the local people and the spectacular historical sites give Angkor a run for its money in terms of significance. We also tasted some decent food too, nowhere near the taste standards of Vietnam or Thailand, but it was certainly getting better. Like a fine wine, Myanmar it seems needs a little time to wash about your taste buds until you really begin to appreciate what it has to offer. Our final journey will be to Inle Lake, but we don’t want to leave Bagan, we’re slightly worried that it’s going to be a bit of an anti-climax after here.