Shortly before sunrise we arrived in one of the most spectacular cities in Myanmar, Bagan. We took the night bus from Yangon, as soon as we landed and headed towards Bagan. My boyfriend and I had read a lot of the stories in the travel communities, in which people get often tommy problems from the food served in Myanmar. Therefore, we wanted to check this city off of our lists right at the beginning of our travels. That way we won’t get the chance to eat something that will prevent us seeing this amazing temple city.
A short Flashback
Bagan, also known as the “Land of Thousand Temples”, is a symbol of the Burmese religion. In the past, Buddhism did not play an important role in Myanmar. Only after the conversion of King Anawrahta, it spread across the country. The king then started a massive campaign of building of temples and pagodas, propagating the new religion.
Between the 11th and 13th century, more than 10,000 temples were built. The successors of the King, dedicated further resources and time to building religious monuments and expanding the Kingdom. Towards the end of the 13th century, Bagan was invaded by Mongol armies, aiming to conquer the fertile farming lands of Bagan. After many attacks, at the end of the 15th century, the city was deserted and only a few temples survived.
Nowadays, there are around 2,200 temples and pagodas left. Only a few of those temples are being on a regular basis maintained. As a result, some are restored and in good condition, and some are neglected and left to the vegetation.
The difference between a stupa, a pagoda and a temple
I was wondering, what is the difference between a stupa, a pagoda and a temple, so I decided to do some research the good old fashion way – online. Here is what I found.
A stupa means a dome-shaped building erected as a Buddhist shrine, which contains relics and used as a place for meditation. One cannot go in, as there is no entrance. (Bu Paya Pagoda)
P.S. do not mind that it is called pagoda even in its title
A pagoda is a tall building, which is used for religious purposes by Buddhists (as defined by Collins dictionary). It is the generic term for a stupa or a temple. (Dhammayazika pagoda)
A temple is normally a pagoda, in which you can actually go inside. They tend to have 4 entrances/exists, located respectively north, south, east and west. There is a Buddha at each of entrances. (Ananda Temple)
Things to do in Bagan
If you are wondering what to do in Bagan, here are a few options that you can explore.
Flying with a hot air balloon over the temples
A definite MUST DO! If you have googled the city before, you most definitely know that in Bagan there is the possibility of flying with a hot air balloon. There are a few companies that offer the rides, which last for about 45 to 60 minutes. They take you on one hell of a ride over the city, from which you can enjoy the sunrise and a beautiful view of the temples.
In the begging, I didn’t even imaging doing it, as the rides are quite expensive. That is why, my birthday was that much special. My boyfriend surprised me on my birthday with the news that we are going to do as a birthday present, even if we had to pay a little bit more. You only have one chance, right?
Booking a hot-air balloon ride
In Bagan, there are a few companies that offer this experience. You can check all the possibilities on this site from Tripadvisor. There you can find reviews and comments from people, who already did the balloon ride.
We chose to book by Balloons Over Bagan, the pioneer in the balloon rides. When booking, you have the option to chose between a normal ride or a VIP one. There is no difference in the rides that you get, just in the service that you get. The normal ride is with a bigger balloon, together with 16 people and everyone can walk free around in the balloon. The other options gives you the possibility of flying only with 8 people. Another good thing for the additional cost was that we also had a breakfast after the balloon ride.
Rent an E-bike
Yes, I am including renting an E-bike in the list of fun things to do in Bagan! Why? Because it was one of the most cool things I have personally experienced. We rented it directly from our hotel (but there are also other places offering E-bikes) and headed straight to the city.
Why it was so cool? I guess it was the combination of many things – the sun shining, the cool breeze in our hair that comes with the driving and the landscape surrounding you. It is amazing how many temples were built and how many are in close proximity to the street. So, when driving, it is you automatically drive past them and enjoy the view.
See the sunrise and sunset over Bagan
Seeing the sunrise over Bagan is probably THE experience or should I say, THE one thing, why people are initially drawn to Bagan. It is a breathtaking moment, when the sun rises over all the temples and pagodas in the morning and the hot air balloons are already up in the air. The sun paints such a beautiful picture that a person falls automatically in love with it.
Sadly, at the time of our stay, the weather in the morning was not the perfect one for a sunrise view. It was cloudy in the morning, so we were able to see just some pieces of the magic. Therefore, be sure to plan enough days in Bagan, so that you can at least once see the sunrise.
The best way to see sunrise and sunset over Bagan
For many years, people watched the sunrise sitting at one of the levels of the big and famous pagodas. From there, a person can see the iconic view of a thousand temples as far as the eye could see. Since last year (2018) this act of “climbing” the temples is now banned. This ban was imposed due to the fact that these temples are thousand years old.
Despite the ban on temple climbing, thousands of tourists are still coming to Bagan with the intention of seeing the sunrise from above. Predictably, people ALWAYS find a way around, when in comes to rules and regulations. Even some of the locals are still encouraging this. While visiting the temples, they approached us several times, offering to take us to the best spots for watching the sunset/sunrise. Of course, for a certain price.
Sunset and sunrise locations in Bagan
However, we preferred to make it on our own. Clearly, breaking the law in a foreign country is not advisable and should be avoided at all times. But it was the apperantly the option that many tourists choose since the new law is not being completely enforced. After researching this a little bit more on the internet, I found a blog article, which had a really good locations of temples, which were still opened to tourists. They also regularly update the page, when people comment with the newest information from their travels.
After we spent the first day, sharing the one temple with 20-30 people, we were determined to find a better one the day after. On the next day, we were driving to another temple, when we saw some people on a nearby one. So, we decided to abandon our original plan and head towards the other one. The sunset from there was truly amazing. In addition to that, there were not that many people, as compared to the bigger temples close by.
Accommodation in Bagan
Bagan is divided in three parts – Old Bagan, New Bagan and Nyaung U. Most of the temples are situated in the old part of the town. Therefore, the hotels there are pricey than the ones in New Bagan, which are more mid-range. Both parts are in my opinion equally attractive. If you need more luxus, then the hotels situated in the Nyaung U area are the best for you. In my opinion, one can find good accommodation in each location.
Where to stay? When staying in Old Bagan, you are closer to the bigger and “better”/touristy temples. Whereas when staying in New Bagan, you have a nice range of good local restaurants. The hotel that we chose is “Areindmar Hotel” in New Bagan, which is not at all pricey but really, really good.
The rooms were huge, with a great and really comfortable bed. Their staff was extremely friendly and spoke just enough English so that we can understand each other. Breakfast is included in the price of the room and you can even eat it close to the pool.
Good restaurants in Bagan
As you know, I cannot make a post and forget to include our favorite food places. To be honest, I was really sceptic about food in general in Myanmar. We all have heard stories about food poisoning and complete trips going down the drain because of that. So, you can understand, why I was so reluctant in trying out the local cuisine.
However, you have to eat something, at some point, right? But how do you choose where to go for a good meal with such high risk of getting ill? We followed one simple and straightforward approach, which did not let us down. No matter, in which city we were – just ask Uncle Google.
Before going for a bite, we always researched the options that Google showed us. AND read the comments and reviews left by people that actually went there. It was a good tactic, since if there was an issue with the food or somebody complained of getting food poisoned, then you know – steer clear from this place. In addition to this, you can actually see what are they serving you, when there are pictures online.
1. 7 Sisters Restaurant – This restaurant is actually held by 7 sisters. The women are really nice and the food is amazing. You can find not only Thai specialities but also Burmese traditional meals. The place is kept clean and the decorations outside the restaurant, makes it even more welcoming.
2. Royal Restaurant – It is a small family-owned Indian restaurant in New Bagan. It was just a few minutes away from our hotel. You may not know this fact, but I am a huge sucker for light decorations. So, on our way back from our temple tour and we passed by this really cute restaurant with so many lights.
Once in the hotel, we googled it and it turned out, it had really good ratings. And the restaurant did not disappointed us. The food was top quality and the staff extremely polite and careful. After sitting down, they came back with a small circle candle. The man explained that it was used for keeping mosquitoes and other bugs away! How cool is that?
3. Bibo Restaurant – It is located in the area of Nyaung U, close to all the big and famous temples in Bagan. Once we got there, we were really confused, if we got the right address, since it looked like an extension to a local’s house. Well it was exactly like that. The family living in the house is owning the restaurant as well and serving some delicious food. The service was excellent and they offer as well a cooking class. We were not able to go, but I guess everybody on Tripadvisor found it excellent.
And that is what our experience in Bagan looked like. I hope I didn’t miss anything or do you have any questions? Let me know in the comments below.