Cost: (20 USD entry fee)
Magical. That is the best word to describe the ancient cultural area of Bagan. It’s notably famous for over 2,200 ancient pagodas, temples and stupas scattered across the arid land, which used to number over 10,000 in ancient times, but colonialism, natural disasters and time brought many crumbling down.
Where to go:
The best thing to do is spend your days discovering and climbing up the different ancient structures and particularly to enjoy both sunset and sunrise from. The latter is especially worth it during hot air balloon season as plenty of them kiss the sky just as the sun comes up. Make sure to get a local Bagan map upon your arrival that has icons for the best sunrise/sunset spots and just feel free to wander at will! Some of our favourite days were when we didn’t even use the map and decided to get lost and discover unmapped pagodas, villages & get boxed in among cow and goat herds. Most of them will require you to take your shoes off either outside the main gate or at the base of the stairs/doorway. Some of our favourites include the following:
Thatbinnyu Temple: Meaning “omniscience,” thanks to its white-black colour and being the tallest structure in the area at a height of 61 meters, it is an easy to spot landmark from atop other pagodas.
Dhammayangyi Temple: It is the largest structure in Bagan and has massive halls on the inside that make for some amazing echoes and pictures. Definitely worth the time it takes to wander around the inside.
North Guni: Just next to Dhammayangyi, it has zero tourists and you can get an awesome shot through the entry doorway. Great for tripod photos.
Dhammayazika & surrounding pagodas: The Dhammayazika is a golden behemoth on its own and spectacular at night. There are several smaller pagodas surrounding it that have almost no tourists and are wonderfully private spots to catch sunset from.
Manuha Temple: Unassuming on the outside, it is one of the oldest temples in Bagan and home to both a massive seated golden Buddha and an even bigger reclining Buddha in the rear structure.
Shwe San Daw Pagoda: (Sunrise/Sunset) One of the most popular for tourists, it has external stairs to get to the top with multiple levels to set up for your photos.
Ananda Temple: Completed in 1091 CE, it is considered a masterpiece in early temple architecture. It houses several very tall golden Buddhas inside and crumbling walls. Note the giant doorways and how they use a non-traditional hinge system; there are absolutely no nails used in the construction of this whole temple.
Pyathada Pagoda: (Sunset) A huge structure, the roads to get to this one are very underdeveloped and it has tons of people perched on its edge for sunset. Be prepared to climb up narrow and dark stairways.
Gaw Daw Palin Pagoda: One of the giants, it slumbers in the middle of Old Bagan, with its multiple levels and top point reaching skywards. Definitely great for pictures from outside of the gate if you’re trying the capture the whole thing.
Shwezigon Pagoda: A striking gold leaf-gilded stupa atop a multi-level square base surrounded by several smaller temples and shrines. This was Jen’s favourite thanks to its majestic shimmer.
Bupaya Pagoda: A golden bulb, it is one of the few pagodas located at the river bank of the Ayeyarwady River. Good for a quick swing by, but the river behind it is a murky brown and not worth walking down to.
Bulethi Pagoda: (Sunrise/Sunset/Balloons) An excellent spot to climb up external stairs and watch the sunrise or sunset. Great spot to photograph the hot air balloons at sunrise.
Htilominlo Temple: A massive structure located between the Nyaung-U township and Old Bagan, it is surrounded by souvenir hawkers, some who are willing to offer discounts of over 50% if you can play the game right. Look for the hidden staircase inside to get some great elevated shots.
Where to stay:
•Ostello Bello: Super popular, clean, English service, well located, social. Rooms can be a little higher than average based on the day (our friend paid 22,000 ks. in person for Saturday), but seem to be worth it. Food & drink is pricey but plenty of good restaurants within a 1 to 5 minute walk.
•Kaday Aung Hotel: A resort-type hotel for guesthouse prices when sharing a room – we paid 31 USD for a superior room with amazing tikki hut style interior decor. The pool, buffet breakfast and surrounding grounds are gorgeous. Ask for a room on the first floor, though.
How to get around:
Bagan is quite expansive and dusty, and can get quite hot under the hot sun. Consider taking breaks someplace with shade around noon if you can. Many of the following can be rented from or near your accommodations, so consider price shopping. Private vendors outside of your lodging can also be negotiated with, with discounts or deals if renting for multiple days.
Bicycle: 1,500 to 3,000 ks for the day.
E-bike: Our favourite way to travel in Bagan. There are different models which we expect to change every year. Keep an eye on your battery and be sure not to be too far from home once you’re down to half-charge.
•Small, older models can max out at 28 kmph and cost 5,000 Ks. for the day or as low as 1,000 ks. for just the 2 hours of sunrise or sunset. Best for one person but doable for a shorter distance/time with two people.
•Bigger, newer bikes can push 65kmph and are ideal for two people. 8,000 ks. per day.
Horse-cart: Slow and bumpy but a more romantic way to travel and paired with a driver who knows the best spots and may even act as a guide if he knows English. 15,000 to 30,000 ks. for full days depending on if just the ride or fluent English speaking guide-driver.
Inle Lake (Nyaungshwe)
Cost: 10 USD entry fee, good for 1 week
Sometimes listed as Inlay Lake, this is a legendary highland lake located in eastern Shan State. It’s famous for the ethnic people who have been living on the lake in stilted houses and travel in wooden boats. Haunting images of the Intha fishermen who famously paddle with their legs while standing over still waters are ubiquitous in travel magazines. Unless you choose to stay in one of the resorts perched on the lake, Nyuangshwe is the township at the north end that most travelers bunker down at.
Where to stay:
Many of the guesthouses are not listed online, and since it’s such a small town, it’s easy to walk around and find place in person for a rate better than online offerings, if you’re looking to save some Kyat.
Inle Star: When I stayed here in 2013, I remember the waterfront 30 USD a night room being roomy and clean, and the hotel featuring a classy rooftop lounge to enjoy your included breakfast at and watch the boats pass by. BUT the boats start firing up at 530AM so it gets a little hard to sleep.
Gold Star Hotel: Affordably priced standard room, but we do not recommend it as the bathroom was quite moldy, unmaintained and had an ant infestation. Room was comfortable enough with fan only. Perhaps the rooms the next level up are better maintained. The included breakfast buffet was quite good with local Burmese food as well as Western food servings.
What to do:
Boat Tours: The main reason to visit Inle, a motorized longboat seating up to five will give you a day tour of the lake to get an inside look at the villages and the people who have lived there for thousands of years. The short trip can take 6 to 7 hours and can cost between 13,000 to 20,000 for the boat so find some friends to split it with! Popular stops include:
-Long Neck women with golden rings around their necks and lower legs
-blacksmith and silversmiths
-traditional weaving workshops
-Phaung Daw Oo pagoda
-natural burmese cigar workshop
-Nga Phe Kyaung Monastery, popularly known as the jumping cat monastery but the several friendly cats there no longer jump.
-Overpriced tourist restaurant for lunch
The long trip also goes beyond Inle Lake to the smaller, less touristy lake and its stops in south and can cost up to 45,000 to 50,000 ks. for the day.
Red Mountain Estate Vineyards & Winery (9AM to 6PM): A leisurely 35 to 45 minute bicycle ride (3,000 Ks. for the day) out of downtown Nyaungshwe will bring you to this hillside vineyard that overlooks Inle Lake to the west and is flanked by mountains to the north and south. Very picturesque, they provide a 4 wine sampler for 3,000 ks. or bottles start at 13,000 ks. and a menu offering food and delectable desserts is available starting at 3,000 ks.* We ordered a bottle of Rose and the brownie chocolate cake and loved it. Particularly gorgeous for sunset, but bring insect repellent as they get pretty bad once the sun goes down and a good flashlight/headlamp for your bicycle ride back to town, just in time to take advantage of the happy hour specials featured at several bars and eateries.
*FYI these prices are an increase from my 2013 visit, and based on how this place has become 5 times more popular since then, I expect the prices to jump again in the near future.
Where to eat:
Century Travel: Yes, this is a travel agency and yes that seems like a weird place to recommend food at. However, it was very likely the BEST cooked meal we’ve had. So good, in fact, that while we were still mid-chew during our first dinner there, we went ahead and made a reservation for dinner the following night. It was that good. It also felt like a private dinner, with their glowing paper lanterns, candlelight, and with the food coming out as a multi-course dinner that included an appetizer and dessert. The potato curry and the tofu curry were our favorites, but you can also get chicken, aubergine (eggplant) and a few others. We were quoted 2,500 ks. per person for a vegetarian course but found that the bill was 1,000 ks. ($1 USD) more per person, yet it’s so good you won’t even care. This is a very easy-to-miss place, located just a 2 to 3 minute walk on the main street coming into town from the pier on the left. Look for the “Century Travel” sign. Excellent English and she can also help you book buses, flights and rent bicycles.
Muslim Bakery (real name unknown): A quaint little chai shop and bakery owned by a lovely Muslim family is located at the southeast corner of Landamaw Road & Yone Gyi Street (bottom corner of the Mingalar Market). Grab an outdoor table to sip an authentic Indian-style chai (300 ks.) and people watch at one of the busiest intersections in this little town.
Mingalar Market: Stumble headfirst into Mingalar Market to find not only vendors galore but also local eateries selling good food on the cheap. Shan Noodles, tomato salad, chicken curry – all the local eats are there.