How Best Visit The Temples in Bagan & Ride In A Bagan Hot Air Ballon
Myanmar (formally known as Burma) used to be one of the most difficult countries in Asia to access. A military dictatorship meant it was quite a scary country to travel in. But things have opened up in the last few years and tourism is back with a bang! The best thing to see in Myanmar is, without doubt, the Temples in Bagan. Rivalling Angkor Wat as the most impressive temple complex in the world, the temples in Bagan\ come without the tens of thousands of tourist each day, the relentless hawkers and overpriced fees. That, and of course the opportunity to take the amazing Bagan Hot Air Balloon. An absolute bucket list item.
Bagan has over 2000 Temples and Pagodas that, after you have your ticket, you’re free to explore to your heart’s content by foot or bicycle (or horse, but it’s cruel). This quick guide should show you guys the next way to visit the Temples in Bagan, and there’s a section about how to ride the Bagan Hot Air Balloon too, one of the coolest things I’ve ever done!
HOW TO RIDE IN A BAGAN HOT AIR BALLOON
THE FIRST RULE IS BOOK IN ADVANCE! The Bagan Hot Air Balloon is almost impossible to book once you’re here. It’s super popular, so make sure you book in advance. I booked with these guys (Golden Eagle), and all the operators are pretty much the same price point and the same experience. Just make sure you book online in advance. You can do that here.
There are 3 hot air ballon companies in Bagan:
- Balloons Over Bagan
- Golden Eagle – the company I used, and it was AMAZING!
- Oriental Ballooning
The companies operate from October till April, when they are almost completely sold out in advance, so book online first! The prices and standard are all the same.
With all companies, get picked up at 5am, have a quick brekkie, and watch the hot air balloon get filled. The flight lasts about 90 minutes, and then when you’re done you have a champagne toast, and back to the hotel around 10am
How Best To Visit The Temples in Bagan; A 2 Day Bagan Itinerary
First off, you need 2 days in Bagan ideally. One for a morning riding the famous Bagan hot air balloon, followed by a half-day of the temples. And the second day, an early start to watch the balloons from ground level, an amazing visual too, followed by a full day at the temples. So factor 2 days for your time in Bagan.
Bagan (the town) is separated into Old BagAN, New Bagan and Nyuang U. The temples are in Old Bagan. The main hotels, bars and restaurants are in Nyuang U. And the locals generally stay in New Bagan. I recommend you stay in Nyuang U.
NOTE 1: Remember, everyone entering Bagan must pay 25,000 Kyat (about $18) for access to the archaeological site. It’s not a scam, don’t worry. It gives you access for 3 days, but 2 is fine.
NOTE 2: You can no longer climb the Pagodas. When I first visited the temples in Bagan in 2009, you could climb all over them, and the views were majestic. However, for conservation, as more tourists began to come, they stopped that, so now there are just 3 that you can climb, and only in certain areas.
2 Day Bagan Itinerary DAY 1:
Day 1 of your 2 days in Bagan starts with THE main event, Bagan Hot Air Balloon! You should always book this for the first day, not the second day. This way if there are high winds, and the ballooning is cancelled (which can happy up to 25% of the time), then you have another day you can reschedule it to. And remember, you need to book the Bagan Hot Air Balloon in advance, it sells out weeks/months in advance. You can book it HERE.
5AM: For the Bagan hot air balloon, you’ll get picked up at your hotel around 5am, they’ll drive you to the ballon inflation spot where you’ll have breakfast with the other ballooners. Watching the balloons inflate is fun actually. After the sun rises and it’s light, you’ll be off, and expect 60-90 minutes in the air. This is one of the 3 best spots in the world to hot air balloon (along with Cappadoccia, and the Serengetti), so don’t miss your chance. After you land, often with a little bump. you have a champagne and snacks celebration, before being dropped back at your hotel around 9-10am.
10.30am: It’s hard to be specific with the time you get back from the hot-air balloon, but roughly speaking it’ll be 10 or 11am. From here, you start your Temple and Pagoda tour. Personally, the 3 times that I’ve been I’ve always hired a guide to take me on a guided tour. I think that’s the best way to do it, you get to make sure you visit all the main temples, you don’t miss anything, and you don’t waste your time getting lost! If you want to book a tour, use these guys, private tours are only $50, and you can tell them you’re ballooning in the morning and adjust as you need.
If you want to go yourself, by e-bike or push-bike, I’d recommend this order of temples and Pagodas below. Grab a map from your hotel, and plot your root. This is managabnle in the time you have left today.
- Shwezigon Pagoda (The most important temple in the complex). If you’re ballooning in the morning, you could save this Pagoda for sunrise views on Day 2 instead.
- Just East of Bulethi Stupa
- Ananda Temple (The most famous of the temples in Bagan)
- Shwegu Gyi Phaya
- Thatbyinnyu Temple (The 2nd most famous)
- Shwe San Daw Pagoda (SUNSET POINT!)
2 Day Bagan Itinerary DAY 2:
Day 2 of the Bagan Itinerary is another early start! Yesterday you rode the Bagan Hot Air Balloon, but today you’re going to be up for sunrise again, but this time watching the spread of hot air balloons from the Pagodas at ground level. It’s a completely different atmosphere from being in the balloon yourself, and also truly mesmerising.
Again, I’d recommend taking a guide for the 2nd day, especially to get the best temples of sunrise views. The rest of the day you have 2 choices. More temples and Pagodas. Most people choose this, and if you do, check out the 4 I’ve listed below. Personally, I get templed-out quickly, so I have a better option for Day 2.
- North Guni
- Dhammayangyi Temple
- Pathoda Temple
- Bupaya Pagoda (Sunset)
Mount Popa Day Trip – Taung Kalat Monastery on Day 2
For sure, do the morning sunrise view (Shwesandaw pagoda is probably the best for that), but after that I’d do a half-day trip to Mount Popa. It’s breathtaking. Mount Popa is a 90 minute drive from Bagan, so after sunrise, grab your breakfast, and then go there.
It’s a peak topped by beautiful gold stupas. You can climb the 777 stairs for epic views, that hike takes around 1-2 hours. Expect lots and lots of monkeys to keep you company. You can take a bus there, takes about 2 hours from Nuang U bus station, but a much better option is to book a tour with a guide and transport. Save yourself a lot of hassle. A taxi is possible too, but at $35 or so each way, it’s better value just to book a whole tour.
A common thing to do after the hike is to go to Popa Mountain Resort, a swanky resort where you can pay to use their pool, or just have a delicious meal with views of Mount Popa.
Book the Mount Popa Day Trip HERE – Taung Kalat Monastery
If you get up early and enter between by 6AM you’ll have the place to yourself (apart from the sunrise/sunset spots), also if you bring your own packed lunch, the pagodas are empty between 1pm to 3 pm because the tours groups are off for lunch
Around sunset (17-18 PM) most places will be free of tour groups, expect the popular sunset watching temples (in order most busy to medium busy: Pya Tha Da, one unknown very near the south-west side of Dhammayangyi, Shwe San Daw, Buledi and one unknown very close to this and also close to the road). Those places will be deserted between 15-16 PM, which is an excellent time to visit (no vendors, a cool breeze, and good light for photographs)
HOW TO GET AROUND BAGAN
You have a few choices:
- E-bike: Electronic bike which you can cycle, but also use the battery to power you. This is the best choice. Available to rent from every hotel. ($5 to $10 per day). They cover about 35km per charge, so towards the end of the day, it gets pretty sluggish. Pedal when you can to avoid running out of juice!
- Push-bike: For the fitness crew, same as above, but no battery to take a break! ($3 to $5)
- Horse and cart: Don’t do it. We need to end the abuse of animals for profit.
- Private tour: You can take air-con vans/taxis/cars around the temples. I’ve done this once, if you want a more comfortable experience, this is a good option. Less fun though!
WHEN IS BEST TIME TO VISIT BAGAN
Bagan is hot all year round, the best time is their ‘cold’ season (still around 30 degrees each day!), it’s between November and February. Try to avoid March until May, super hot (up to 43C/110F). And the rainy season isn’t ideal either, it’s most wet in June and October.
HOW LONG SHOULD YOU STAY IN BAGAN
You need 2 days to fully enjoy your time here, to experience the Temples in Bagan, AND the Bagan Hot Air Balloon. Strictly speaking, it’s all possible in one day, but with a 4am start for the ballooning, it would be a long, long day. And you’re on holiday, so take 2 days.
HOW TO GET TO BAGAN
Bagan is located roughly between Burma’s two main cities Yangon and Mandalay. Your transport doesn’t actually run to Bagan proper but rather to Nyaung U where the bus station, ferry dock and airport are found. Nyaung U offers the best backpacking options in terms of food and accommodation too, much cheaper than New Bagan.
Getting around Myanmar is pretty easy. Domestic flights are available daily, and overland trips can be booked online here.
FROM MANDALAY TO BAGAN:
- You can prebook a private transfer for $80 or so here.
- A 6-hour Mandalay Bagan bus, leaving at around 8 am from the local bus station ($13).
- If you’re lucky with the timing, you can take a daily ferry from Mandalay to Bagan down the Irrawaddy. It takes around one day and costs between $42. The daily private ferries only run in the dry season (September to March) but the twice-weekly (Sunday and Wednesday) Government ferries try to run year-round depending on the water levels.
- The Mandalay Bagan Train leaves Mandalay around 6 am and take approximately 9 hours (often late), it costs around $14.
- There are also daily flights from Mandalay to Bagan – costing around $70-$130. Easy to book with any travel agent across Burma.
FROM YANGON TO BAGAN:
- Yangon to Bagan by bus is a bit of a mission. It takes around 16 hours + and costs around $25-$30. Leaving from the Yangon bus station (Aung Mingalar Station – about 40 mins from the city centre) throughout the day, when you arrive you’ll be hassled by touts to take their bus – choose wisely, the quality can differ quite a lot.
- Flights from Yangon to Bagan run around $90 USD and run every day.
- This journey can be quite tedious, in all honesty, it’s better to head from Yangon, then to Lake Inle, and then on to Mandalay, and then to Bagan. Then fly from Bagan back to Yangon. it’s a much more logical choice.
THOUGHTS ON THE TEMPLES IN BAGAN, AND THE BAGAN HOT AIR BALLOON
When you finally arrive in Bagan, whether it’s New Bagan or Nyaung U, you can finally enjoy the amazing sights on offer. I would recommend two days of temple watching. On arrival you’ll get offered a lot of tour services and generally most people take a day trip with either a horse and cart (one day $16, good fun), an air-con taxi ($50+, older people with more cash) or go with a map and a rented bicycle (one day bike rental costs around $4).
I reckon the best bet is to jump on the horse and cart with 2/3 people on your first day, see all the most physically impressive ‘must-see’ temples with the help of someone who knows their way around. The day should end with a cracking sunset on one of the climable temples within the complex.
The next day can be more relaxed. Rent some bikes, grab a map from your hotel and off you go freestyling into the massive temple area. You’ll have the place virtually to yourself, not a person insight to ruin your amazing photographs. Just make sure to bring sunscreen and plenty of water – this place is hot! Head over to another famous sunset spot and your two days will be complete. Breathtaking.
The Bagan temples, for me, outstripped Cambodia’s Angkor Wat. It blew my expectations out of the water and now I’m going to be pushing Bagan hard to anyone in South East Asia so watch out! Get there before it gets ruined guys. Happy travels!
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