I probably first saw a picture of Myanmar’s Bagan – a vast plain of 900 year old semi-ruined temples – about 10 years ago and it’s been lurking on my travel bucket list ever since. It was one of those places you say you’ll definitely see one day but secretly believe you never will.
So when the opportunity to visit Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) for work came up, I jumped at it. I knew of very few people who’d made the journey out there and I was determined to clear the mystery for myself and capture some great images while I was at it.
If you’re looking for tips on getting to, getting around and staying in Bagan, scroll on down…
14 Photos to capture what Bagan is all about
Getting to Bagan from Yangon
So there are a bunch of ways to get up there, but arguably the best – in terms of price and comfort – is actually by bus. I did a bit of research and found the best was supposed to be JJ Express.
I booked my tickets online which came to less than $20 for a one way – not bad for a 10-hour journey.
All buses leave from the Aung Mingalar Highway Bus Station which is nowhere near downtown Yangon, located some 23 km (14 miles) from the old town center. Expect a 1-2 hour taxi ride through Yangon’s somewhat hair-raising boulevards and side alleys to get there – at some point our driver even had to go off-road to get around some roadworks.
The bus station is an experience in itself. It’s massive, messy and chaotic so tell your driver exactly which bus company you’re going with. Getting to the wrong side of the station will see you dragging your nice luggage through muddy puddles for ages looking for the correct company, meaning you could even miss your bus.
Despite the initial shock of getting to the bus station the bus itself was like it came from a different country, possibly even a different planet! You have pre-assigned seats which are laid out 2 – aisle – 1 meaning there’s tons of space and great options for solo and couple travelers.
Each seat has a screen on the back for watching movies, they’re cushy and soft like a lazyboy and recline (almost) fully flat for a very comfy sleep. You’ll get a blanket, snack box, water, and little candies our cabin attendant (yes) told us were medicine: “Good for stomach”.
Speaking of cabin attendants, the ladies on this bus would not be out of place seeing to Singapore Airline’s First Class private suites – friendly, super neatly dressed and uber-professional.
The bus left at 8pm and stopped twice on the journey, once at a lux KFC after about 2 hours and then again at about 2 in the morning for a loo break at a roadside service station in the middle of nowhere.
The bus arrives at about 04:30-05:00 in the morning at the BaganShwe Pyi Highway Bus Station, also several kilometers outside of Bagan town, sandwiched between the train station and the end of the airport’s runway. Be prepared to haggle and probably fail at negotiating a less-than-tourist price to town in your groggy 5am state – even the tourist fares won’t break the bank.
Staying in Bagan
So if you haven’t worked it out yet, Myanmar is crazy affordable; even Bagan, the tourist Mecca of the country, while pricier than the rest is still really reasonable. I stayed at a glorious 4-star hotel with a pool, gym, and free bikes, walking distance from the spectacular 900-year-old golden Shwezigon Pagoda in Nyaung U Town. It cost me just around $45 per night per room, including breakfast for two people!
You could also opt for a bed in a dorm in a hostel (with a pool) for around $15 per person per night or one without a pool for around $6 if you’re on a serious budget.
As I mentioned, Bagan is a vast plain, full of fairly evenly spaced temples. It’s bounded by the massive Irrawaddy river to the North and West, the highway and airport on the East and to the South it just sort of fades into endless crop fields.
There are 3 main towns that one can stay in, Nyaung-U, closest to the transport hubs is at the northeast corner. Old Bagan is at the northwest corner – don’t be fooled this doesn’t mean it has more temples, it’s just the older of the modern villages. New Bagan is the furthest from the buses, planes, and trains in the southwest corner.
Getting around Bagan
Again, Bagan is huge. It’s spread over 104km² (40 sq mi), so you can’t simply arrive and walk around. You’ll need help.
Tourists may not drive motorbikes and so you have to use e-bikes which you can usually hire through your hotel/hostel. They cost very little (around $5 per day), have batteries which last up to 8 hours, are slower than a normal bike and much quieter.
You’ll be able to go where you please when you please if you know where you’re going.
Okay so, if you’re like me and not a big fan of riding motorbikes – I had a nasty accident several years back and never quite gotten over the fear – a private driver may be a great alternative. I was skeptical, and ready for a hefty bill, but was very pleasantly surprised. Daily trips, spread over 4 days with a driver in an airconditioned car came to just around $60. He took us to places we would have struggled to find, let alone think of ourselves such as a monastery with incredibly ornate carved woodwork, an epic sunset spot overlooking the river and ancient temples hidden down back alleys with strikingly well-preserved frescoes inside.
We managed to go as far afield as Mount Popa, an extinct volcano with a prominent rocky plug with a striking golden temple on top – a 1-hour drive by car. The driver took us to nearby villages he knew had the best views and even drew a map for us on how to ascend the mountain and where to find him at the end. This would have been far out of reach by e-bike!
Got any questions? Ask in comments below!