When I was growing up, I wanted to be an archaeologist because I wanted to be like Indiana Jones. Bagan is the closest I’ve come to achieving that goal.
Bagan is the land of 4,000 temples. No, that’s not a type-o. Four THOUSAND. Which makes it kind of like a huge archaeological playground – unlike most temples and historic sites, not everything is roped off. I mean how could you? Regulating 4,000 temples is next to impossible, especially in a country that can’t even get it’s wifi situation sorted out.
The lack of patrolling/regulation makes it easy for you to wander off and find your own secret passages and perfect sunrise views. Which is exactly what we attempted to do.
Note – the archaeological fee to get into Bagan is 14,000 kyat, or $10, and is good for 5 days. We were pissed when our taxi driver brought us to a stop to buy our tickets on our way in after our bus, as we thought it was a scam. After much crabby yelling, making the dude working at the stand show us his badge, and being our usual rude American selves; it turns out that it was not a scam. Oops.
Cheapskate travel hack – if you can sneak your way into Bagan, try to get used tickets from someone leaving Bagan if you don’t plan on staying 5 days. When we were waiting for our bus to leave Yangon, a couple approached us and traded us their Inle Lake entry tickets for our Bagan tickets. And it worked – $10 saved is $10 earned.
Given that Bagan is a raging hot, dusty hell during the day like most of SE Asia, the top things to do in Bagan(for poor backpackers who can’t afford/stomach a guided tour at least) is scale a temple for sunrise and sunset. I say “scale” because while insanely tight passageways bring you to the roof of temples, the best view is usually found when you get a little dirty and climb a higher yourself. You aren’t allowed to wear shoes or socks in the temples, as in most of SE Asia, so you have to climb barefoot.
Hot Air Balloons
A popular thing to do in Bagan is go up in a hot air balloon to watch sunrise. This usually costs around $300/person. My friends and I are peasant backpackers, so we opted to instead view the air balloons from the temples.
On our first day in Bagan, Calli, Steve & I rolled in off our overnight bus from Yangon at around 4:30AM(14,000 kyat, took about 9 hours). We couldn’t check in yet, so we decided to carpe diem and rent motorbikes to catch our first temple sunrise. Our guesthouse recommended a temple that actually has no name, down the dirt road from popular Dhammarangyi temple.
The best way to explore temples is to rent motorbikes. Unfortunately, thank you idiot previous backpackers who ruined this for everyone by driving too fast, they only rent out electric bikes to tourists. Although I read that they temporarily stopped renting bikes to tourists period, so I guess I should be counting my blessings. Electric bikes are INSANELY frustrating to drive because they are SLOW. After driving a gas-powered bike for 9 months it’s really irritating, but on the plus side I guess they are actually taking safety into consideration, something Thailand should really think about.
This temple only had a couple other people here and had a great view of the sunrise. It was absolutely perfect, and we didn’t have to pay any entrance fee. Sometimes the temples are “owned” by a family that asks for a donation when you enter, which can be kind of irritating at 5:30AM after you’ve already paid an archaeological entry fee.
Also close to Dhammarangyi temple, we attempted to go to North Guni temple for sunset. I had read that it wasn’t very crowded, and is one of the few larger temples that doesn’t have it’s passageways to the top blocked off, allowing you to climb all 7 stories for a great view.
Unfortunately, North Guni was closed, as it suffered some damage during a recent earthquake in August 2016. So we went right next door to South Guni. It had a good view of the temple, but was absurdly crowded, which kind of ruined the sunset. We also had a crappy sunset – it was cloudy, although I was fine with it because our sunrise was so great.
If you visit and you care about getting a good sunrise/sunset, try to book a couple days just in case one or the other is crappy.
We went here for sunrise on our second day, and again, we were disappointed with a crowded temple and mediocre view. There were a couple Burmese people at the entrance asking for donations in order to enter the temple, which is always a turn off for me. It’s the principle, not the money. Okay maybe it’s the money a little bit. The same people that were asking donations came up to yell at everyone that climbed to get off the top of the pagoda, talk about a buzzkill.
Other than that, all we really did in Bagan was chat with some monks(casual, post coming soon), walk around to see the town, and eat. Same as Yangon, it’s easy to find cheap street food in Bagan.
Bagan was great, but personally 2 days was enough for me. I get temple’d out really easily, especially when it’s too hot during the day to see stuff.
Shwe Nadi Guesthouse. Good wifi(by Myanmar standards), comfy beds, and amazing free breakfast. It’s awesome coming back from sunrise around 8AM and being greeted with fruit and samosas.