What to do in Bagan, Myanmar – Temples, River Cruises and Hikes
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On his recent round-the-world trip, TPG Special Contributor Eric Rosen visited Myanmar for a week. He wrote about his tips for visiting Myanmar, his experiences in the country’s largest city, Yangon, how to book flights within Myanmar, and his experience booking and staying at the Hotel at Tharabar Gate in Bagan. Today he discusses what he did in Bagan as he explored its temples, sacred sites and cruised along the river.
It is relatively easy to explore Bagan, whether you have your own guide or you want to do a self-guided visit and use either taxis or rent a motorized scooter. Many of the landmark temples are within a mile or so of each other and of the river, but if you want to venture farther afield, or depending on where you are staying, you might need to consider a guide just to get around quickly and see a lot in a short time.
Lay of the Land
What seems to be a bit confusing for a lot of visitors is that there is Old Bagan – where many of the temples and stupas are, and which used to be the village here – New Bagan, where area residents were relocated a few miles away in 1990, and Nyaung U, where the airport is. I would suggest trying to stay in Old Bagan. There’s not much to do in the evening, but you are close to all the temples and sights as well as activities like river cruises, so it’s a good choice if you want to be in the center of the sightseeing action.
Bagan is in a hot, dry, dusty region, and temperatures in summer (including when I was there) can climb well over 100 degrees during the day, so be prepared. Bring sunblock, clothing that covers you and keeps you cool, lots of water, and plan your days with a break around lunchtime so that you can avoid the hottest times of day.
Also keep in mind that you will be visiting temples and will need appropriate attire, which includes sleeves that cover your upper arms (no tank tops), and shorts that reach to right around the knees. You don’t have to go crazy about covering up, but just make sure that your apparel is respectful and it does not look like you’re headed to spring break in Cancun.
One thing to note about the archaeological site of Bagan is that UNESCO donated $15 million and brought in experts to help preserve various landmarks, but pulled out due to the Myanmar government’s subpar preservation policies and shoddy rebuilding funded by sources both within the country and from other nations including China. You can see evidence of this rebuilding in many of the lesser stupas, and noting the differences between the ancient architecture and contemporary rebuilds is actually a fascinating study in and of itself, though it also makes the tragedy of such efforts all the more poignant.
I booked a two-day guided tour through a company I work closely with in the US called Ker & Downey. Their partner on the ground in Myanmar is Tour Mandalay, one of whose guides, named Mr. Han, met me at the airport upon arrival and took me for a morning of touring. Just note that you have to pay a $15 entrance fee to the archaeological area at the airport, and you must pay in cash.
Our plan was to check out a few temples before noon, then he would drop me off for lunch and a siesta during the heat of the day, and we would resume around 4:00pm.
Some of Bagan’s temples date to the 10th century, though the majority of building here took place between 1100-1400, making this site contemporaneous with Angkor Wat. However, the architecture here is very different thanks to different building materials and the fact that Bagan was Buddhist while Angkor was a Hindu kingdom.
Our first stop was a major temple near the airport called Shwezigon. Completed at the turn of the 12th century, its architecture is a precursor to many of the grander temples of Bagan, though its golden stupa was jaw-dropping.
Next we stopped at a little non-descript temple, which the caretaker opened up for us so we could climb up inside the stupa and out onto the roof for views of the entire plain of Bagan. It was a good way to see some of the more massive temples from afar and get my bearings for where everything was.
Next, we drove to the imposing Dhammayangyi temple, which sits like a huge monolith in the heart of the northern part of the Bagan plain. It was built in the 12th century by a tyrant named King Narathu (who supposedly assassinated both his father and his brother and had one of his wives killed as well). According to legend, he insisted that the mortar work be so precise that you could not squeeze a needle between the bricks, and if you could, he would have the workers who had assembled that section killed. After Narathu’s assassination (after only 3 years as king), the temple was filled with brick rubble. Though it has not undergone major restoration, it is still one of the most impressive (and spooky) of the temples I visited. One of the other interesting things to note there is the double Buddha sculpture at one of the entrances that signify both the past and future Buddha at once.
Nearby, we visited a much smaller and more graceful temple called Sulamani, which means “crown jewel” in the Pali language. It was built slightly later than Dhammayangui, and the architecture is much more sophisticated with a pyramid-shaped structure of receding terraces that represent the apogee of the Bagan style. Inside there are beautiful carvings and some of the largest frescoes in Bagan.
Before heading to my hotel, we made one more stop at a tiny off-the-beaten-path temple called Gubyaukgyi, which means “great painted cave temple” and has some of the best-preserved frescoes in the area, depicting both daily life and stories of the Buddha in colorful, intricate detail. Your guide will need a flashlight to show you the highlights.
After that, it was time for a break, so we went to my hotel and I had lunch next door (more on that later) and then a quick nap before my guide picked me up again at 4pm.
That afternoon, we stopped by a few more temples including one that was right next door to the Tharabar Gate, the Ananda temple. It was among my favorites and has a magnificent, distinctive corn-cob-shaped stupa covered in gold and was built right around the turn of the 12th century. It is widely regarded as one of the highest architectural accomplishments in Bagan, and as legend has it, once it was completed, the king ordered the architect killed so that its perfection could not be duplicated.
You can wander along the inner corridors of the ground floor and admire the gorgeous glazed tiles and enormous wooden Buddha sculptures (like the monk pictured below was doing during my visit). There is actually a trick to one of the other giant Buddha sculptures here where he looks quite sad if you are viewing him up close, but if you stand back a few yards, he looks like he is about to break into laughter.
We also hit Nan Paya, which was actually said to have been constructed as a prison for a warring king being held hostage in Bagan. The unique thing about this temple is that it was originally a Hindu shrine but was then converted to Buddhist worship. The sandstone bas-relief carvings alone are worth a visit.
After that, we took a quick horse and buggy ride – this used to be the best way to get around before the new roads were built – and ended up at Shwesandaw Paya, huge white, pyramid-style temple where you can climb to the top terraces for 360-degree sunset views.
It does get a bit crowded up there, but I actually went down one level from the top and had it all to myself so I could rove from side to side taking pictures as the sunset deepened.
The sun set at about 7:00pm, and tourists were quickly shooed off the pyramid by caretakers, so my guide and I went back to my hotel where he dropped me off and made a plan to pick me up the following morning for our excursion to Mount Popa.
Mt. Popa and a Sunset Cruise
Mount Popa is about 90 minutes away from Bagan and makes for a popular day trip. It is actually an extinct volcano that is called the Mt. Olympus of Myanmar because it is supposedly home to the 37 nat or nature spirits that the people here worshipped before Buddhism came to the country (and that many people still worship in this part of the country).
On the way, my guide and I stopped at a little palm farm where I got to try my hand at pressing palm oil using an old-fashioned press powered by a cow, try the liquor they distill from the sugar, and buy some palm sugar candies.
Then we drove half-way up Mount Popa (it’s just under a mile high) and my guide took me on a three-hour hike through some of the hill villages and towns. This was probably one of the highlights of my time in Myanmar. Along our way, we stopped at a farm and talked to three generations of ladies who worked the land and lived their whole lives on the mountain. They were nice enough to take a photo with me, which you can see below, and my guide translated so that they could tell me all about their way of life, which they were more than happy to do. They were also curious about how I lived, so we spent about half an hour chatting before continuing on our way.
We hiked along a stream where villagers were bathing and washing their clothes in communal areas, and then up through two of the townships. School was getting out as we passed through, so I snapped this photo of the kids, who were eager to practice their English with me.
Then we visited another family that makes its living weaving mats together, and had tea and candy with them before hiking back down the mountain.
It was around lunchtime by then, so my guide took me to the Mt. Popa Lodge, which is on the other side of the mountain and up high, and has spectacular views of the valley below as well as of the Mt. Popa Temple, which is perched on a volcanic plug. You can climb the 777 steps up there (if you want to brave the brazen monkeys that frolic here), but the temple is actually a recent construction, so I decided to skip it.
I had a nice simple lunch with stunning views, and then we made one final stop at the Mother Spirit of Popa Nat Shrine in the village at the base of the mountain and had a look at the fanciful nat sculptures people were praying to before making the drive back to Bagan.
When we got back, I had a couple hours to rest at the hotel in the heat, and then at around 5pm, my guide gathered me up again to take me to the river for a sunset cruise. We had a longboat to ourselves, so we sat on the front deck looking at the temples drift by and having tea and crackers. When we got up to the part of the river near Shwezigon, the driver killed the engine and we drifted back down the river for a couple hours, making it just about to the Old Bagan beach and docks just as the sun set.
I have to say, I really lucked out because we got one of the most spectacular sunsets I have ever seen, and it was even more amazing reflected on the river, with the mountains on the opposite bank creating a dramatic picture. But I’ll let my photo speak for itself.
I would highly, highly recommend doing one of these – and if you think the sunset on a particular day of your visit is going to be good, change your plans to take your cruise that day because it is totally worth it.
Bagan is not exactly a foodie destination given the high concentration of hotels and tourists that come here. Instead, many people end up eating at their hotels, which I did one evening, or at a close-by restaurant…if there is one. There are some good restaurants in New Bagan, but it was far enough from Tharabar Gate that I decided just to pop next door to the Sarabha I and Sarabha II restaurants.
For lunch my first day, I had pork curry, tomato-peanut salad and green lentil soup with a Mandalay Strong Beer at Sarabha II, which has traditional music and puppet shows in high season.
Then for dinner that night I had spicy noodles with chicken at Sarabha I, where the menu was pretty much identical. Each meal, I was the only person in the restaurant, and I did not stay long because of the heat.
For dinner my second night, I was tired from my day out, so I just popped into the restaurant at the Hotel at Tharabar Gate and had cashew curry chicken, lentil soup and rice for dinner.
The meals were decent but not remarkable. The good thing was, though, each cost me around $6 or $7 including water, beer, all the sides and everything, so I was able to stick to a nice, small budget.
Overall, I would say I had a really great visit to Bagan. Granted, it was hotter than at other times of year like November-February (high season), where the temperatures usually only get up into the 80’s and you can take the famous early-morning hot-air balloon rides to see the temples at sunrise, but despite the heat, I was able to get out a lot during the day and see a ton of things.
In fact, I thought my experience might even be better than going at more temperate times of year since there were not many tourists and we often had temples to ourselves while visiting, while the sunset river cruise was just us and two other boats (in high season, it apparently looks like a flotilla is on the river).
The other great thing was that, though there are mosquitoes, the dry climate means they are not much of a nuisance and malaria is not very prevalent here in particular, so it’s nice to have that be just a mild concern as opposed to other parts of the country or Southeast Asia as a whole.
All in all, this was one of the most intriguing places I have visited, and I would recommend it as a highlight not only in Myanmar but in Asia as a whole.
Have you been to Bagan? What did you do there, and what did you think?
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