Bagan is a small tourist town in central Myanmar. It is the must-visit spot in any Myanmar itinerary. Bagan was the ancient capital of the Pagan Empire which flourished between the 9th to 13th centuries. During its heydays, it saw a building spree by its monarchs and it used to host around 4500 Buddhist temples, pagodas, and monasteries. Today, still about 2000 structure exists and Bagan now thrives on tourism and handicrafts.
How to reach Bagan
Bagan sits on the banks of river Ayerawaddy in the center of the country. It is around 650 km north of Yangon and about 200 km southwest of Mandalay. There are several domestic flights to Nyaung U which is approximately 7 km from the center of Bagan. Flights are moderately expensive for budget travelers. The best option to reach Nyaung U from both Mandalay and Yangon is by bus. There are several bus companies that run services in this sector like JJ Express, Mandalar Minn, etc. We traveled via JJ Express and it is an airline class service. Buses mostly run overnight and reach Nyaung U in wee hours. Buses are Chinese made Higer AC units and they provide punctual and comfortable service. Blankets, Reclining Seats and small refreshments are provided en route. Buses depart from Aung Mingalar Bus Station which is in city outskirts beyond the airport. They provide a shuttle service from Sule Pagoda near the heart of the city to the bus station. Another option is to take the train from Yangon which is slow and bumpy. It is not advisable as it takes more time than the bus plus inordinate delay and expensive tickets. Another option is to arrive by boat from Mandalay.
Ayerawaddy Sunset Cruise
A boat ride or cruise is a must while visiting Bagan. There are several boating agencies that conduct several cruises. There are various types of cruises lasting from an hour to a few days and of different categories of a different budget.
We took the ride with ‘Bagan Boat Trips’ from Fantasia Garden Jetty. They have three wooden country boats. The trip lasts about an hour (6000 MMK as of Oct 2019) and provides deck chairs, snacks, soft drinks/beer on board. The Sunset behind the Arakan Mountains is a treat to eyes from the river. Though it was a cloudy day, so we could not watch the best of Sunset colors.
Sunrise in Bagan is a major tourist draw. Every person wishes to see the stunning pictures of temple silhouettes during Sunrise and hot air balloons but those are things of past. Those pictures were taken from terraces of the temples, but now climbing temples are prohibited. Instead, authorities have created artificial mounds to see Sunrise or Sunset, but those mounds lack the elevation and angle that the temple terraces can provide.
There are more than a thousand temples/monasteries in Bagan. So visiting all of them is impossible unless you are on a mission to stay there for the long term. One needs a detailed study of the location of the major 15 to 20 structures so that it can be covered in a day or two. Better to hire an auto or tuk-tuk for a 4 or 8-hour package and design your route with many online maps and blogs. There will be a detailed post on how I covered all major ones in 6 hours.
For sunset as well, now visitors need to depend on mounds. There are secret locations that can offer a better perspective but that needs to be found out by a professional guide or by yourself.