The Burmese Pagan Kingdom that ruled the ancient temple plain of Bagan in Myanmar was extraordinarily devout. Fervent believers in Theravada Buddhism, the Bagan kings and their subjects built thousands of stupas between the 9th and 13th centuries CE.
Modern tourists regard the remaining temples of Bagan as the equal of the Angkor Archaeological Park in Cambodia; in 2019, Bagan pulled alongside its Cambodian rival with its belated recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Bagan still has over 2,000 temples remaining, down from 10,000-plus in its glory days.
The stupas that litter the temple plain were built by Bagan residents as acts of merit; at the height of the Pagan Kingdom, even the middle classes built their own stupas, though none were to rival the ones commissioned by Bagan's kings.
The majority of Bagan's temples can be found within the Bagan Archaeological Zone; a ticket costing MMK 25,000 (US$15.67) must be purchased before entering the Zone. Luckily, you don't have to see all of the 2,000 temples to get the full Bagan experience. If pressed for time, you can visit these must-see temples in the space of two days.
Fly in a Hot-Air Balloon Over Bagan
Bagan's temples are best viewed from a high vantage-point, and there's no higher (or more jaw-droppingly gorgeous) perspective than the one you'll get from a hot air balloon gliding 2,000 feet in the air.
Unlike helicopter and ultralight flights, balloon flights are relatively silent and static, combining with the reddish angled light of the sunrise to create the best conditions for viewing Bagan's temple plain. If you've got the cash to spare (flight rates cost between $300 to $500 per person, read about money in Myanmar) and if you're visiting during the short ballooning season (from October to mid-April), put balloon flying over Bagan on your must-do list.
If balloon flights are beyond the reach of your budget, you can still climb on a dwindling number of multi-tiered temples to see Bagan's gorgeous sunsets reflecting off the Irrawaddy River in the distance.
Before tourism became a major Bagan concern, most temples permitted visitors to climb to their upper decks. But after increased tourist traffic and not a few accidents marred the temple-climbing experience, the government has cracked down: visitors may only climb five temples in Bagan, and additional closures can be announced without notice.
Two temples alongside the Irrawaddy River will never be affected by these closures, as they lack tiers to climb, thus making them excellent (and much safer) candidates for sunset viewing. If you're mobility-challenged, lacking travel insurance or just prefer riverside views, head off to the gourd-shaped Bupaya and the sacred Lawkananda temples for your sunset fix.
Explore a Local Market
You'll find two major town settlements outside the Bagan Archaeological Zone. To the Zone's west, you'll find “New Bagan”, the town created for former residents of the Zone who were forcibly moved out by the Government. To the north is the older town of Nyaung-U, site of the Bagan Airport and some of the area's most interesting local color.
You can't miss Mani Sithu Market in Nyaung-U — it's located next to the main road near a central roundabout. For a non-temple break to the stupa cycle in Bagan, Mani Sithu is top-notch: a working morning market full of locals buying and selling fresh meat and dry goods.
Forget about souvenir-hunting in Mani Sithu; come here to do more sightseeing than shopping. Stalls selling live animals, freshly-butchered meats, packages of areca nut and betel leaf, cooking oil, and dried fish — you'll see, hear, and smell them all, altogether an authentic Bagan people-watching experience worth making a detour for.
When the weather in Bagan is just right, hit the dirt trails around Bagan's temples on two wheels, and roam at your own pace.
Self-powered bicycles are cheap and available at almost every corner on New Bagan town. Unfortunately, their range is only as great as your stamina — as temples are spaced out widely in the Bagan Archaeological Zone, expect to visit only a handful of temples a day.
Battery powered “e-bikes” cost more to rent, but offer greater range and a more enjoyable experience overall. Dispensing with the need for pedals, e-bikes let you visit more temples and take your time at each stop — assuming you don't push the bikes past their eight-hour battery limit!
When traveling by bike, factor in distance between destinations, battery life (where applicable) and the daylight hours available to you. Toss in a GPS-capable phone and a Bagan temple guidebook, and you'll enjoy a Bagan temple experience far removed from the usual package tours roaming the local highways.
Shop for High-Quality Lacquerware
Lacquerware feels like it belongs to the past — non-microwave-safe, hand-carved, and crafted using traditional materials and centuries-old formulas. But like many ancient crafts, lacquer has a beauty that few modern equivalents can reproduce.
The town of Myinkaba near Bagan has been a center for lacquer production for centuries, having been introduced by Siamese and Lanna emigres in the 1500s. The present-day lacquer workshops use techniques little changed from their ancestors' time - from curing lacquerware in underground cellars to hand-carving designs into the lacquer with styluses.
Unlike other handicrafts, lacquerware improves with age: colors brighten as the years go on, making antique lacquerware particularly prized by collectors. Bagan lacquer craftsmen favor black, yellow, green and red colors in their products, seen all over the jewelry boxes, coasters, cups, and jars sold in shops all up and down Myinkaba's main drag.
Experience Burmese Food First-Hand
Thanks to a never-ending flow of foreign visitors, Bagan’s food scene has become more accommodating over the years. As you cross over from New Bagan to Nyaung-U, you can find restaurants catering to culinary traditions from all over the globe – not just Burmese and Chinese, but also Thai, Indian, even Tibetan and British food.
Most of the good (and good value-for-money) restaurants can be found at Nyaung-U, with a smattering of fine eats at New and Old Bagan. Some local favorites include:
Shwe Ou Food Garden: traditional Burmese food with a Bagan twist: try their Irrawaddy River prawns in a scrumptiously spicy curry. Located on Kayay Street, New Bagan’s most happening food avenue (Google Maps).
Seven Sisters: Constructed to look like a Buddhist adoration hall, this all-hours restaurant serves traditional Myanmar cuisine. Excellent value for money; located one street over from Kayay Street in New Bagan (Google Maps).
The Moon (Be Kind to Animals): Burmese vegetarian curries and salads at surprisingly low prices, eaten al fresco under colorful Burmese umbrellas. Two locations, one near Tharabar Gate in Old Bagan (Google Maps) and a newer one near New Bagan (Google Maps).
Sanon: a nonprofit enterprise that trains underprivileged kids to work in the hospitality industry. The Burmese food is quite good, and the thought that you’re helping the less privileged with your patronage makes your order taste twice as good (Google Maps).
The biggest festival in Bagan takes place in January, on a moveable feast day that coincides with the full moon of the Burmese Pyatho month and the end of the harvest season. In the weeks leading up to Ananda Festival, the locality around its namesake temple fills up with bullock carts bringing pilgrims and their offerings.
In a place of honor near the temple, locals set up a fairground hawking traditional Myanmar food and other diversions for visitors.
The festival gives Burmese Buddhists the chance to earn merit by providing donations of food and clothing to the local community of monks, who line up by the hundreds near the Ananda Temple to receive the offerings provided by grateful locals.