Few places in the world are as old and yet still in use, as Bagan in Myanmar. Just imagine 2000 Buddhist temples and pagodas scattered around lush green fields! People in Bagan live their daily lives and pray as they’ve been doing for centuries. However, things do change. Stubborn UNESCO finally ceded and included the temples in its list of World Heritage Sites. I can’t help but wonder, why did they take so long? After all, we are talking about thousands of outstanding architectural monuments almost ten centuries old. Anyhow, tourists are starting to come en masse, and the UNESCO list will raise their numbers more. So choose well where to stay in Bagan, and make the most out of your visit.
Brief History of Bagan
Bagan was founded in the 9th century as a small fortified city on the southern bank of the Irrawaddy River. From the mid 11th till the late 13th century Bagan was the capital of the so-called Pagan Empire that occupied most of present-day Myanmar. During said 250 years the empire built some 10000 religious sites in and around the area. Of those, more than 2000 stand today. The original temples of Bagan evolved from Indian temples. Through time local people developed their own techniques. The masonry of Bagan’s vaulted temples was so elaborate that many survived the 1975 earthquake only partially damaged.
The temples of Bagan are either pagodas (stupas) or hollow. Stupas are older and usually have a small chamber with a Buddha. The most important stupa in Bagan is the golden Shwezigon Pagoda, on the outskirts of Nyaung U. This typical Myanmar style cone stupa is perched on top of five square platforms. On the other hand, hollow temples usually come in two styles: one face and four faces. This means the number of doors to access the temple. The magnificent hollow Ananda Temple is Bagan’s holiest. Inside, four giant Buddha statues face north, east, south, and west. The tallest temple in Bagan is the Thatbyinnyu, while the Dhammayangyi is the largest.
Where to Stay in Bagan
The Bagan Archaeological Zone occupies an area of 13 x 8 km south and east of the Irrawaddy River. Most temples are inside a smaller area of 5 x 4 km, between the river and the road that connects New Bagan to Nyaung U through the airport. Nyaung U is the administrative center of the area. Old Bagan is some 4km to the southwest, where the river curves. New Bagan is 5km to the south of Old Bagan. Take note that the area south of Nyanug U, close to the airport and the train station, is packed with hotels.
Old Bagan is the epicenter of the Bagan Archaeological Zone. Most people lived here before being relocated to New Bagan in 1990. You will find some of the main temples in Old Bagan, like Bu Paya. Others like Ananda and Thatbyinnyu are a few steps away. There is a museum, a reconstructed palace, some shops, and restaurants. On its eastern end, there is even a small settlement called Taungbi. Ancient city walls surround the whole area. Most hotels in Old Bagan are either midrange or upper class. Generally speaking, it is quieter than New Bagan and Nyaung U. Thus, Old Bagan is the best choice to be in the middle of it all.
Hotels in Old Bagan
Some of the best hotels in Bagan are in Old Bagan. The lavish Hotel at Tharabar Gate has a couple of old temples in its large garden. The hotel has an outdoor pool, a spa, and a wellness center. The Ananda Temple is a few steps away. Another fabulous hotel in the area is the Aye Yar River View Resort. This modern resort offers some of the best river views. Actually, you can see some temples from the privacy of your own room. The Bagan Hotel River View also offers nice river views and a great location. It is right next to the Bagan Archaeological Museum and the Gawdawpalin Temple.
As mentioned above, New Bagan was established in 1990 to relocate people from Old Bagan. Unlike Old Bagan, there are no important temples in or around New Bagan. Nevertheless, most temples are relatively close. New Bagan is a real town with midrange accommodation and plenty of local shops and restaurants. Though some claim it lacks character, it is the best place to stay if you want to socialize and have enough time to spend in Bagan. Do have in mind that most tour groups stay in new Bagan.
Hotels in New Bagan
New Bagan has the largest number of hotels in the area. Most of the good ones are to the east. Probably the Myanmar Treasure Resorts Bagan is the best hotel in the area. This palace-style resort boasts a beautiful garden and a large swimming pool. If you are into views, choose Villa Bagan as your base. This charming villa offers direct views over a nearby temple. The Amata Garden Resort Bagan is another super comfortable resort in the eastern edge of New Bagan.
Nyaung U is the largest town in the area and its transportation hub. Both the airport and the train station are near, and most buses to other parts of Myanmar leave from here. While most temples are a bit away, the Shwezigon Pagoda is inside the town. Additionally, several small not so visited temples are right behind the town. Most hotels in Nyaung U are of a lower category. However, there is a wide selection of restaurants and shops. The atmosphere is Nyang U is great. You can see regular processions of people doing their rituals. If you are short of time, stay in Nyaung U.
Hotels in Nyaung U
Our favorite hotel in Nyaung U is the Ananta Bagan. Located at the edge of town, it features a stunning garden with a swimming pool. Of course, the staff is friendly and the rooms comfortable. Another interesting option is the Oasis Hotel, in the middle of the town close to shops and restaurants. Again, there is a beautiful garden and a swimming pool. The Hotel Umbra Bagan is a bit out of Nyaung U but offers something special: views over temples. In fact, you can walk to some of them.
Where to Stay in Bagan – Our Recommendation
The vast majority of hotels and guesthouses in Bagan are within the three abovementioned settlements. Nevertheless, a few hotels are practically in the middle of it all. Our top pick on where to stay in Bagan is the wonderful Amazing Bagan. We stayed there and loved everything about it. It’s a beautifully designed resort resembling the ancient temples of Bagan. Surrounded by lush green trees, it has a manicured garden and a large open-air swimming pool. The tastefully decorated rooms are spacious, comfortable, and offer nice views of the surrounding area. For instance, our room overlooked shiny Shwezigon Pagoda. The food was delicious, and they rent bikes and e-bikes.
What to Do in Bagan
Take note that there are endless temples to visit in a pretty big area. Hence, the best thing to do in Bagan is to visit the temples with a bike or an electric bike. People are polite, well mannered and friendly. Don’t be surprised if they invite you to sit with them to eat and chat (or at least smile together). Another popular thing to do in Bagan is to rent a hot air balloon. That way you’ll be able to enjoy even better views. Fortunately, you can’t climb any of the temples since 2018. Though reportedly no fines are being imposed, the police control that the temples close during sunset, which is when most tourists would climb them. Finally, you can rent a boat for a tour around the river. We did and had a great time.
The whole point of choosing well where to stay in Bagan is to visit the temples on your own, efficiently and comfortably. After all, who likes organized tours anyway? Additionally, cars and motorbikes damage the environment, especially the temples, so please refrain. If you stay in Old Bagan, you can walk to many important temples. From other locations, you can rent a regular or electric bike and explore the area fairly quickly. Though locals rent horses with carriages, we are not into torturing animals. Trust us, visiting the fantasy land of Bagan on your own will make your mind travel and your body relax with joy!
Day Trips and Excursions
Myanmar is a relatively large country so its main destinations are far from each other. That said, there are several interesting day trips from Bagan. Our favorite excursions are to Mount Popa and the monastery of Taung Kalat. This sacred place perched on top of a hill is the home of 37 nats (local spirits). To get there, take any of the organized tours or hire a private car with a driver, as we did. Our driver drove safely and gave us a glimpse of his everyday life. While Mount Popa is in the interior, Salay Town is along the Irrawaddy River. Take note that this is an active religious site, home to the lovely Yokesone Monastery developed in the 12th and 13th centuries as one of Bagan’s satellite towns. Another interesting place is the city of Monywa, a bit further away from Bagan. It is known for the Thanboddhay Pagoda and the Maha Bodhi Tahtaung monastery with its two large Buddha statues.
How to Get to Bagan
You can get to Bagan by train, bus or plane. The train from Yangon takes 18 hours and is a great way to reduce your ecological footprint. However, it may be too much for some of us, so we suggest flying. Several domestic companies fly from Yangon to Bagan daily. From Mandalay, you can take a bus or a train. Though we normally prefer trains, this time the journey can be much longer. While buses and minibusses take about 5 hours, trains take at least 7 hours. If you are into something more adventurous, you can take a boat from Mandalay. Eitan did on his first trip to Myanmar in 2005 and raves about the experience. Conversely, take a plane if you are in a hurry. There are also regular flights to Bagan from Kalaw. There are currently no international flights.
Why Should You Visit Bagan Now
Eitan visited Myanmar for the first time in 2005 and used to say it was the only place that rivals Angkor Wat. Plus he couldn’t stop praising the Burmese, according to him the nicest most polite people in the region. I have to agree. Though the temples are quite different, both places seem to come out of a movie. Thus, no trip to Myanmar is complete without Bagan. In fact, if you are traveling to Southeast Asia, we advise you to visit Bagan at least for a few days. Though not so crowded as Angkor Wat, Bagan will for sure get there. The place is that spectacular! What’s more, charming people use the temples in their everyday life. Fortunately, the area is not overcrowded, and the tourist infrastructure is decent. And remember, UNESCO just included Bagan in its prestigious world heritage list. So hurry up and visit before it’s too late.