The Allure of Bagan, Myanmar
There are some places in the world that captivate you beyond your control, luring you in with their scents, their tastes – even their sounds. Whether it’s the culture, the scenery or simply the way they make you feel, these places take hold and beg you to stay. When you’re forced to go, they send out their whispers in the wind telling you to return again soon. And like a faithful sailor, you always will. The allure is too strong to even slightly consider not going back for more.
It was photos of Bagan that first enticed me to visit Myanmar. Seeing those images of hot air balloons floating over a sprawling landscape dotted with ancient temples was all I needed. Too bad I visited in rainy season and didn't actually get to see them!
But holy hell, was it worth it all the same. I met someone at Burning Man that shared the sentiment that Black Rock City and Bagan were the coolest places we've ever seen. And I think you really have to see it to believe it.
Imagine cycling across 40 miles of land with over 2,000 temples built between 1000 and 1300 AD surrounding you from every angle. If you can picture that with ease, try going back to the 11th century when the Burmese kingdom of Pagan was at its height and more than 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas, and monasteries covered its plains.
Over the years, Pagan became Bagan and thousands of those temples were destroyed from earthquakes, invasions, and more. Today, around 2,200 remain and offer a glimpse into the kingdom that thrived there centuries ago.
With so much ground to cover, I highly recommend renting an e-bike to explore the area on your own. Regular bicycles are also available, and it's possible to explore by foot, but you won't get to see as much. Horse carriages and taxis are another option for those that want to sit back and enjoy the ride. Oh, and please go for a balloon ride if you're there during the right season (October - mid-April). I was severely devastated to find out they weren't up and running on my visit!
Keep in mind that Bagan gets extremely hot during the day, so most people recommend heading out before 6am for sunrise or after 3:30pm to take in the sunset. Anything I've ever read about Bagan advises you to stay out of the sun from 10:30am-2pm.
Forever the rule breaker, I decided to venture out by myself one afternoon and felt the pangs of dehydration. Please be smarter than me and bring a CamelBak or large water bottle and a few packets of gu to keep hydrated.
I should probably advise you to just stay in during that time, but there was something so magical about having the park all to myself - save for a sweet Burmese couple sneaking away to smooch in one of the temples or a few sleepy locals napping in the shade away from the heat of the day.
Like everything else in Myanmar, Bagan comes with a slew of ethical complications. While doing research for this article, I was extremely disheartened to find out that only 2% of the 25,000 kyat (roughly $20 USD) entrance fee goes towards preserving the ancient monuments. The rest goes straight to the national budget, supporting a government that hasn't done much to prove it's any better than the former military regime.
This may discourage you to visit at all, but I truly believe that change will come if responsible tourists keep visiting and speaking up about where they want their money to go.
You can also give back to the locals by eating in their restaurants, staying in their guesthouses, and purchasing goods directly from them. I bought the most beautiful lacquerware from this table full of smiling Burmese beauties between soccer games with a rambunctious group of boys.
It's entirely up to what you feel comfortable with in making a decision to visit Bagan or Myanmar as a whole, but I'm still in the camp that encourages everyone to go. It's in understanding a place that we can truly hope to inspire change, and nothing beats learning on the ground. In my eyes, there is no reason to a punish people for the actions of its government.
WHERE TO STAY
When booking accommodation in Bagan, the first question that always comes up is whether to stay northeast of the park in Nyaung U, in Old Bagan to the northwest, or in New Bagan to the southwest.
Nyaung U is a 20-minute drive from the temples and offers more of a real town feel than Old and New Bagan. You can find a wide variety of budget options, but you won't have the luxury of being within walking distance of the temples. Oasis Hotel is a top pick in the area.
Old Bagan is the closest to the temples, making it the most expensive of the three options. I'm not entirely convinced it's worth the splurge considering you'll be out most of the day, but then again, I definitely wouldn't complain about a villa stay at The Hotel @ Tharabar Gate.
I opted to stay in New Bagan, as I heard the dining and entertainment options were much more varied than Old Bagan. Traveling solo, it made sense to go the hostel route to make new friends to go exploring with. Ostello Bello Bagan proved to be the perfect jumping off point with tons of great people, super nice dorm rooms, and excellent location just a five-minute bike ride away from the temples. I've also heard rave reviews about the Ruby True Hotel.
Now that Bagan is on your bucket list, which area would you choose to stay?
This post contains affiliate links. If you make a booking through these links, you'll give me a little extra dough to support endeavors like this at no extra cost to you. I wouldn't recommend it if it wasn't 100% worth it!