Pick up any guide book and you’ll quickly work out that the main attraction in Bagan is the thousands of temples dotted around the 26 square mile archaeological zone. You can’t visit Bagan without spending at least a day exploring them, however there are some other activities that are not to be missed too!
We stayed a total of 3 days in Bagan which was enough time to get a taste for the temples and also do a few other activities.
One thing to note is that there is a $15 entry fee that is valid for a week – this is essentially the admission fee to get into the archaeological zone and you will be asked to pay for it when you arrive in Bagan.
There is more to Bagan than the famous temples, read on to find out my tips for exploring them and the other activities we did during our stay…
As I said before, the main attraction in Bagan is undoubtedly the many temples. You can explore them at your own pace and they are an amazing sight to see. There are several ways to get around the area and it depends what you want to get out of it:
- Rent e-bikes/scooters: This is the option we chose as it means you can get around reasonably quickly without getting too hot and tired. It costs about 4000Kyat a day ($3.50) per bike. We shared one bike between the two of us – this worked well as it meant you could take the driving in turns. It took me a few minutes of practice to get the hang of the bikes and how to balance, but after that it was no problem and definitely the easiest way of getting around.
- Cycle: You can rent bikes to cycle round the temples if you don’t fancy e-bikes and these are about 2000Kyat a day. I’m not sure what quality the bikes are in/if they have gears etc but it is a nice option if you are happy to take it slow. I saw a few groups cycling and it looked like hot and sweaty work!
- Horse and Cart: you can rent a horse and cart for either a half or full day and a driver will take you on a tour of the temples.
I am quite a nervous driver and was a bit worried about driving in Asia, however it was actually pretty easy. The area with all the temples is made up of dusty, sandy tracks and you will pretty much only come across locals and tourists on bikes.
There are some parts where you have to travel on the road and this was a little more stressful! The cars will give you a wide berth and will let you know they are overtaking by honking as they approach you.
One tip I would say is to try and be back at your hotel/accommodation before the sun goes down. There is no lighting on the dust/dirt tracks around the temples and we tried going down a path when it was dark and very quickly realised it wasn’t going to be a good idea. As a result we had to take the main road back to our hotel.
Luckily we met a Bagan local who we had been chatting to earlier in the day and he very kindly showed us the way, but as it was the equivalent of their rush hour it resulted in a slightly stressful journey home, with a couple of near misses!!
When it came to actually exploring the temples we used a map from our hotel and also maps.me (which I mentioned in my previous post about what to do in Yangon. It’s not perfect but it gives you a rough idea of where you are and also highlights any points of interest noted by other travellers e.g best temple for sunset viewing.
You can tell when you are at one of the main temples as there will often be groups of tourists outside. Locals will also have set up stalls with refreshments and souvenirs and little kids will come up to you and ask you to buy postcards/mementoes too.
The bigger temples are pretty amazing to see and you can usually go inside them and walk through the halls and see the giant Buddha statues.
For me, the smaller/less popular temples were the most interesting to explore. We were quite often the only people around and you could still go inside and explore them. As there were so few people around they felt much more mysterious and enchanting.
There are plenty of guide books out there which will go into detail about the history of each temple, it’s design etc. I enjoyed learning about the general history of the area and the main temples but was quite happy just exploring the rest of the temples as we went along without worrying too much about their history etc. A day and a half of temples was plenty for me!
Watching the sunset from a temple…
One of my favourite memories from exploring the temples is climbing one to watch the sunset.
This used to be something that was widely done, however sadly the year before we visited an American tourist fell off a temple and died while taking a selfie so there are a lot more restrictions in place to prevent people climbing and also for conservation reasons. Many of the temples have their stairs to the terraces boarded up for example.
However, there are enterprising locals who know that tourists want to climb a temple and in exchange for a fee will take you to a temple that the authorities are yet to board up. We got taken to one by a very friendly Burmese guy and we bought some of his paintings in return.
The passage up to the top of the temple was hidden behind a wall so if you are exploring any temples it is worth having a look around for any secret staircases that could lead you up to the terrace.
We got to the temple pretty early and it did begin to get busy as the sun began to set so get there early!
Hot Air Balloon Ride…
This was by far the highlight of my whole trip. It was amazing and I would encourage anyone planning a trip to Bagan to include this on their to do list. It is expensive (£300 pp) but it is so worth it – its an unforgettable experience.
After doing some research we decided to go with the company Oriental Ballooning – the main reason was that they operate hot air balloon rides in other places in Myanmar so if the weather conditions weren’t right we would have the chance to do it somewhere else.
We definitely made the right decision as I couldn’t fault the experience we had with this company. They picked us up (very early!) from our hotel and we were driven to the take off site. For our trip we started on the banks of the river.
It is worth taking a jumper as it was cold that early in the morning and there were quite a lot of mozzies around!
We were split into several groups of about 10 and each assigned a pilot. They gave us a safety briefing while we drank tea and had some pastries.
We then were taken to our balloons and shown how to get in and out and what to do for landing.
It was an amazing sight watching the balloons take off all around us.
But the real show started when we were in the air. It was just breathtaking seeing the sunrise over the thousands of temples, surrounded by the silhouette of other balloons.
Our pilot knew the area very well and answered any questions we had about the temples below us and also about the hot air balloon itself.
He had piloted balloons all over the world and so I felt in very safe hands. He explained to us how you should always check that the pilots are certified (the UK certification is best) and explained that while Balloons over Bagan work with locals on the ground they will only work with correctly qualified pilots in the air. A lot of places that offer hot air balloon rides e.g Cappadocia don’t do this and he explained how dangerous it is to do a hot air balloon ride there.
The company gives jobs to many locals, including during the low season when there are less tourists and balloon rides don’t run. During this time they employ them on other projects and also offer them English lessons.
I thought I would be quite nervous up in the air but I forgot I was up there. It was a really smooth journey and landing too.
After we had landed we were given champagne and certificates! It was the perfect way to end our time in Bagan. If you are wondering whether it is worth the money I would 100% say yes!! We booked several months in advance as the trips get booked up fast, so don’t leave it too late!
Sunset River Cruise…
If you’ve had enough of temples or just want a relaxing evening then a fun activity we did was the sunset river cruise.
We organised this through our hotel and it cost 15 000 Kyat (10$). We took e-bikes to the river and met our driver there. We spent the evening on the boat and he gave us tea and sweets.
It was a very relaxing evening watching the other boats pass us and the sun set on the horizon. He stopped the boat at times so we could just take in the views and of course take lots of photos!
Trip to Nyaung U…
I covered our visit to Nyaung U in more detail in my post about where to stay in Bagan. We drove there from our hotel and spent half a day exploring the markets. It is worth a trip!
Hopefully this post has given you some ideas as to what to do in Bagan and provided some useful tips about how to get around! Let me know what you think or if you have any questions in the comments below.
You can also have a read of my post about where to stay in Bagan!