No matter how much time you’re spending in Myanmar plan on staying in Bagan for the full Archaeological Zone five-day pass. Rent an electric bike each morning and head out to explore the ancient capital city. The E-bikes have batteries that usually last around 8-hours so you may need to recharge or swap bikes around lunchtime. The archaeological area of Bagan is quite small and flat so it’s easy to navigate–it covers about 13 by 8 km. I was dazzled by each and every pagoda I saw and dragged myself out of bed every morning before sunrise and stayed out until sunset to explore as many of the 2,500 Buddhist stupas that are still standing in the Bagan valley. I wholeheartedly suggest that you do the same when you visit Bagan. Here’s where to explore, eat, and stay in Bagan.
WHERE TO EXPLORE IN BAGAN
Burmese officials have closed all of the temples in Bagan so they can no longer be climbed but you can still observe and witness their magnitude from the ground. Try to keep track of how many various shapes and sizes of temples you come across!
Many of the pagodas have been restored by Buddhist communities around the globe. There are often small brick placards outside the pagodas that have a brief overview of the history of the stupa in English and Burmese. Usually, there are about 3 paragraphs of information including the name of the donor, the amount spent to renovate the temple, and a sacred wish. Buddhists restore the temples in hopes that their good deed will get them closer to reaching nirvana. Through these signs, I learned that the reasoning why so many large pagodas are surrounded by clusters of smaller structures is that tradition used to call for Burmese queens and royal children to build their own pagodas near the sacred spot where their king had erected a massive structure in honor of Buddha.
As you explore Bagan you may also notice that the largest temples have walls surrounding them. These were most likely built by kings. Mid-sized temples were built by the wealthy and the tiniest of pagodas were built by civilians–all erected in honor of Buddha.
Almost every pagoda has a Buddha image inside. These vary from massive golden statutes to smaller ceramic Buddhas in white and red paint. Even the smallest of temples have Buddha images. My favorite of all the Buddha’s can be found at Thay Yapone Temple. Here there is a Buddha inside that has a small Buddha head coming out of the stomach of a larger Buddha. I have no idea what the meaning is so if you know please do tell in the comments!
It’s rarer to find temples that still have wall murals of antique Buddhist paintings. Most used to be adorned with the art but it’s rumored that termites ate through the paint as the plaster was made with honey when they were initially created sometime in the 12th century!
As you explore temples you’ll notice that the monks wear deep burgundy robes. This is the color typically worn in Myanmar, although it doesn’t have any special meaning. Burmese practice Theravada Buddhism which is a bit more conservative than Mahayana Buddhism. Theravada is also the type of Buddhism which is practiced in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos.
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The sunsets and sunrises in Bagan are unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Seriously, don’t miss one while you’re in the sacred valley of temples. You won’t regret waking up early or driving home at night in the dark in exchange for the memories of witnessing such a beautiful feat. The sky erupts in vibrant colors that reflect off the brick and white plaster of the pagodas as fog rolls through the valley in the morning. Splurge on the unforgettable experience of rising with the sun in a hot air balloon and float over the valley of temples one morning. It’s sure to feel like a moment out of a fairytale!
It’s dizzying trying to keep track of all of the temples you’ll visit in Bagan. Some will be famous but most will be hidden gems. I tried to keep track of the temples that amazed me as I cycled along narrow trails. Try to avoid overcrowded structures and visit lesser-known temples, I found those to be the most memorable. Try to ditch your map but if you’d like to know some of my favorite pagodas as per my Google Maps from Bagan were Thitsarwadi, Dhammayazaka, Sulamani, Htilominlo, Thakyapone, Shwe Leik Too, Alodawpyi, Khaymingha, Bulethi, Ywa Haung Gyi, Hsu Taung Pyi, Myat Taw Pyay, Gawdaw Palin, Shwegu Gyi Phaya, Thatbyinnyu, and Shwesandaw.
My favorite temple was the off-the-beaten-path Tha Beik Hmauk Gu Hpaya. It’s also known as the Singapore Golden Pagoda as it was restored by Singaporean Buddhist devotees in the 1950s. I found the structure to be stunning and the artwork inside otherworldly. I loved that the sign here stated a message for everyone who passes through, May Lord Buddha Bless You.
Another obscure temple to visit is the leaning tower of Bagan, which isn’t nearly as well known or visited as the leaning tower of Pisa. The Khaymingha pagoda complex has a few temples that are starting to lean in odd directions.
Did you know there’s also a Hindu temple in Bagan? You’ll have to find it yourself but if you find it odd that there would be a temple dedicated to Hindu Gods remember that Lord Buddha was born into a Hindu Brahmin family in India and carried over some of the cultural beliefs to the way of life he founded including reincarnation, meditation, and cremation.
After you’ve explored Buddhist temples to your heart’s content visit a lacquerware workshop then head out on a sunset cruise on the Irrawaddy River to get a glimpse at local life along the shoreline.
WHERE TO EAT IN BAGAN
Bagan has so many incredible restaurants to try that you’ll be challenged to dine at them all in as little as five days. Some of my favorite meals were the Burmese thali from Unforgettable which featured an array of vegetarian and fish dishes in customary preparations (picture above). I also loved all of the veggie dishes from the first vegetarian restaurant in Bagan, The Moon Vegetarian Restaurant, from their slogan be kind to animals and their delicious guacamole! Wetherspoons was my favorite local spot for lunch to get Burmese salads, fresh juice, and curries. For dinner, I headed to either You & Me, Black Bamboo, or Sanon Training Restaurant. My favorite place to eat in Bagan was the tea shop I was introduced to by my Grasshopper Adventures tour guide, Khiang Wah where they serve drool worthy shan noodles. Try your hand at making Burmese cuisine and take a cooking class in Bagan!
WHERE TO STAY IN BAGAN
Most travelers stay in the Nyaung U area of Old Bagan in locally operated guesthouses like Aung Su Pyae Hotel, which is where I stayed. Tharabar Gate is a luxurious and sustainable hotel option in Bagan–the property has low impact and green policies. Backpackers will enjoy staying in the upscale dorm rooms at Ostello Bello. Browse all Bagan hotels and hostels. For a really unique accommodation experience book the 4-day and 3-night Anawrahta River Cruise from Bagan to Mandalay!
To get to Bagan from Yangon book an overnight AC bus on Baolau–you can pay with a foreign credit card! Make sure you buy travel insurance plan from World Nomads to ensure you’re protected from any accidents that may occur in Bagan!
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