The sky was shrouded by pitch black darkness when our night bus arrived in Bagan (from Yangon) around 3am.

Day 1

Arrival in Bagan, Myanmar

I didn’t bother to book a hostel room beforehand. After arrival, my “game plan” was basically to get on a pick-up truck to New Bagan, supposedly the go-to place for cheap hostels, and wander aimlessly around town to check for cheap rooms.

There were no pick-up trucks in sight, only two or three horse carts parked near the bus. Walking around in the dark might not be a good idea, I thought. It seemed unlikely that I would easily find anything open in that dead sleepy little town anyways.

Hostel Search in Bagan

Fortunately, another solo traveler approached me and asked if I would like to join him on renting one of the horse carts and look for a hostel together. His name was Mr. P, from Thailand. We were also joined by a Ms. C, a British girl traveling with her cute baby.

Our horse cart driver said all the guest houses within Nyaung-U were already fully booked, so he took us around a few hostels on the road to Old Bagan.

All the cheap hostels we checked were already fully booked. The only accommodations vacant were budget hotels offering rooms for US$30 per night, not the best option since we were all planning to stay somewhere cheaper. We went back to Winner Guest House, one hostels we checked earlier, to reserve the cheap room they offered. We had to wait until their guests checked out (7 hours later) at 10am.

Finding cheap accommodations in most tourist areas I visited in Myanmar was always difficult. The cheaper hostels filled up pretty quickly because of the increasing popularity of this country among backpackers.  Myanmar is perhaps the only country I would advise booking accommodations in advance.

First Bagan Sunrise at Shwe Sandaw Pagoda

While waiting, we made use of our otherwise idle time by seeing Bagan’s famous the sunrise view from one of the temple tops. The same horse cart driver gladly agreed to take us to the Shwe Sandaw Pagoda for 5,000 kyats (whole cart; round trip).

A lot of tourists, mostly large Chinese groups, were already at Shwe Sandaw Pagoda when we arrived at around  5:30am. Fifteen minutes later, the sky started to light up with soft twilight colors, revealing silhouettes of countless temples. Some of them were evidently massive, while most were small but still visually stunning because there were a myriad of them spread across the wide  flat plains.

Sunrise at Shwe Sandaw PagodaGolden sunrise at Shwe Sandaw Pagoda

Bagan served as the capital of the ancient Kingdom of Pagan, the first kingdom to unify the regions that would later constitute modern Myanmar. Over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were constructed in the Bagan plains alone during the kingdom’s heyday.

“Only” 3,000 temples and pagodas remain in Bagan, still impressive! Its architectural grandeur and historical significance is comparable to the major temples complexes in South East Asia such as in Angkor, Borobodur, or Prambanan. Bagan is truly a must-visit for temple lovers.

Sunrise and sunsets atop temples and pagodas were definitely the highlight of my trip in Bagan. We spent the next three days trying to see overlooking views of Bagan from as many temple tops / vantage points. Every angle was always different. Some more beautiful than others, of course.

Sunrise at Shwe Sandaw PagodaOverlooking countless temples spread across the riverside Bagan plains

The room at Winner Guest House was still occupied when we got back. We decided to continue our tour of Bagan since we could just leave our bags there and have the hostel staff secure them in our reserved rooms when they are available.

Winner Guest House, located along the main road between Nyaung-U and Old Bagan, was an excellent base for our temple run since it was relatively near the major temples of Old Bagan and the bus station/restaurants in Nyaung-U.

Some temples, including a few that had offered beautiful sunrise/sunset views, were even a short walk away. A downside, though, was the extremely limited choices for places to eat around this area. We ate most of our meals at the restaurant next door, which served decent local Burmese food.

Bagan Temples Tour

Me and Mr. P hired a horse cart to take us around the temples in Bagan for whole the day (K15,000 whole day rental including the Burmese driver, who also served as our local guide).

We toured Bagan by horse cart on our first two days since we weren’t up for going by bicycle just yet, not with the intense tropical heat and having gone through the tiring 9-hour bus ride.

We decided to visit the far-off temples at Myinkaba Village and New Bagan first and work our way to the most bicycle-accessible temples around Old Bagan and Nyaung-U.

Myinkaba and New Bagan

P bought a picture book of Bagan Temple, which became our main temple guide.

I was lucky I traveled with P, who was fascinated with Buddhist paintings and other architectural details of the temples. Growing up in a Buddhist society, P also eventually became my guide, of sorts, because he fed my curiosity about Buddhism and was attentive about interesting details that I would have otherwise overlooked if I were exploring the temples on my own … especially with how the Burmese interpreted Buddhism differently compared to “Thai” Buddhism and other Buddhist societies P had already visited.

The intricate sculptural reliefs and wall paintings were most remarkable at the set of temples we visited on our first day. I didn’t get to take pictures of the best ones because photography was not allowed inside the temples, which had the best-preserved frescoes.

Outside Mya Zedi PagodaFlock of birds hovering above Mya Zedi Pagoda
121004-113520Intricate sculptural carvings of Hindu god Brahma inside Nanpaya Temple
Nagayon TempleWashed-out murals adorning the inner walls of Nagayon Temple 
Horse cart tourDhammayan Gyi, the largest temple in Bagan
Dhammayan Gyi TempleStrange big headed image of buddha along the hallway of Dhammayan Gyi Temple
Dhammayan Gyi TempleWalking past the twin Buddhas in Dhammayan Gyi Temple
Htilo Minlo TempleGolden statue of Buddha sitting in front of a large reclining buddha mural in Htilo Minlo Temple
Htilo Minlo TempleMural inside Htilo Minlo Temple. Reminded me of Yzma, the evil villain in Nickelodeon show: The Emperor’s New School.
Pink Unicorn TempleOdd big nosed horse-like creature. Looked like a pink unicorn :)


Day 2

Exploring Old Bagan’s Major Temples

C and her baby joined us the next day on our horse cart tour of the majors temples in Old Bagan. The temples we visited that day were among the biggest, most popular, and revered in all of Bagan.

Being on the horse cart reminded me of my temples run marathons at Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia. In terms of sheer WOW-moment-ability of the physical structures, Angkor Wat edged out Bagan in my opinion.

Taking a broader perspective, however, I am left undecided about picking one over the other. Both destinations offered very different experiences.

Temples of Angkor Wat were simply more grandiose and complex yet flocked with hundreds of tourists, which oftentimes ruined the “Indiana Jones” factor of wandering around the temples.

What the temples of Bagan lacked in physical size, they made up for in sheer number. The overlooking views during sunrise and sunsets were clear winners! I also loved wandering inside the temples as if discovering them myself especially when exploring the smaller temple groups, where there were absolutely no one else around. Even the major temples weren’t pestered with too many tourists.

Ananda TempleHorse carts in front of Ananda Temple, one of the holiest Buddhist sites in Bagan
Ananda TempleGiant standing Buddha statue, Gotama, facing west at Ananda Temple
Lunch Buffet Local Burmese FoodBuffet lunch in Burmese flair
Big Golden Bowl / Manuha Guphaya (Temple)?Temple vendors sitting under a big tree

There were a lot of vendors selling all sorts of souvenirs at popular temples. It could get a bit annoying when you’ve been sightseeing around temples all day and have to constantly to tell them that you’re either not interested in what they are selling or you’ve already bought something similar. I understand they were just trying to make a living.

Most of the locals, however, were very pleasant, unlike their counterparts I encountered in other touristy spots around Asia, trying every possible scam to get me to spend money on something. Most Burmese people were charming and seemed genuinely interested in actually having a conversation. Talking with foreign tourists, was a way for them to practice their English and learn about different cultures of the “outside world.”

One vendor at the Maha Bodhi temple offered to apply Thanaka on our faces. Thanaka is a sort of light colored sun protection cream made from tree bark and roots, which went well with the longyi, a traditions Burmese men’s bottoms I bought earlier, for a fun photo shoot at the western wall of the Maha Bodhi.

Mahabodhi TempleBurma-fied at Mahabodhi Temple
Shwegugyi TempleBasking under the perfect sunset light at Shwegugyi Temple
Shwegugyi TempleIntricate old door of Shwegugyi Temple
Sunset at Mahazedi PagodaTourist scaling random temple tops to get the perfect sunset shot
Shwegugyi TempleOverlooking view of temple tops from Shwegugyi Temple

Day 3

Side trip to Mount Popa Temple

We started our third day in Bagan by watching the sunrise from the top of Shwe Leik Too temple, which was only a 20-minute walk away from our hotel. It was really awesome be able to wander into ancient temples, search for hidden passageways that led to the upper terraces, and stay there chatting with fellow travelers while waiting for the sun to rise.

Thagya Pone TempleMisty sunrise view from Thagya Pone Temple
Thagya Pone TempleBagan temples illuminated by the dawn light

Afterwards, we met a couple who wanted to go to Mount Popa Temple, located 50km from Bagan. I was pleasantly surprised when the half-Filipina girl told me she had family roots in Leon, Iloilo (my hometown). Anyways, we’ve been thinking about going to Mount Popa also, so we offered to team up and split the van rental.

Built on top of an imposingly tall and steep rock outcrop, Mount Popa Temple was impressive seen from afar and the overlooking views at the summit were awesome. We did not find the temple itself worth the costly van rental, though.

The only remarkable thing that caught our attention was the unpleasant sight of monkey droppings littered all over the stairs on our way up. We jokingly renamed the place as Mount “Poopa”. In fairness to the locals, they did sweep all the monkey poop as we made our way back down.

Mount Popa TempleSteep imposing slopes of Mount Popa Temple
Mount Popa TempleGreen view from Mount Popa Temple

I rented a bike for the rest of the afternoon, after returning to Bagan, and cycled around the back roads of Nyaung-U on my own.

Road to Golf CourseTaking a break from cycling around Bagan

Day 4

Bagan Bicycle Tour: around Nyaung-oo and Old Bagan temples

I and P went around nearby temples by bicycle on our last day. Exploring Bagan by bicycle was definitely my favorite! I loved the freedom of going wherever we pleased, following unfamiliar roads, and conveniently stopping for a photo when we wanted.

We cycled along the road from Nyaung-U to Old Bagan to visit minor temples we missed. P also accompanied me back to Dhammayangyi Temple, since it was my favorite and I wanted to back, spend more time there, and explore every inch of it.

Farm animalsRampaged by a herd of goats and cattle
Ox cartBurmese local driving an ox cart through the rural roads of Bagan
Monk MonasterySelf-portrait on the wooden balcony of a newly restored monk monastery.
Monkey TempleElephant and monkey-like statues at one of the small roadside temples
Shwezigon PagodaStrange Burmese folklore depicted at the intricate wooden sculptural details of Shwezigon Pagoda complex
Shwezigon PagodaShwezigon Pagoda in New Bagan
Shwezigon PagodaFlying pigeons at Shwezigon Pagoda

Around 4pm, we went back to Winner Guest House because we planned to take the 5pm bus to Mandalay. This time, we requested the staff to phone a hostel in Mandalay and make room reservations for us.

Bagan Backpacking Summary

  • Expenses: US$120 approx for 4 days or US$30 per day
  • Date of Travel: October 2012

Getting in and out of Bagan

  • Yangon to Bagan aircon night bus (8-9 hours) – K15,000
  • Bagan to Mandalay aircon night bus (7 hours) – K15,000

Where I stayed in Bagan

  • Winner Guest House (Nyaung-U Rd, Wet Kyi-in village; midway between Nyaung-U and Old Bagan; +956 160 128)
    • Double aircon room with twin beds (private TB) – US$16 per night
      • US$8 per person since I shared the room

Getting around Bagan

  • Horse cart rental
    • Transfer from Nyaung-U Bus station to nearby hostels – K2,000 per person
    • Transfer from Winner Guest House to Shwe Sandaw Pagoda – K5,000 (whole cart; round trip)
    • Whole day tour around Bagan – K15,000 (whole cart)
  • Van transfers to Mount Popa – K30,000 (whole van; round trip)
  • Bike rental – K1,000 to K1,500 per day

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