About 2,200 temples now stand amidst the dry plains of Bagan in Myanmar. You might fantasize about exploring all of them in a few days, but believe me, that's a pipe dream.
With over 26 square miles to cover, exploring Bagan on foot is completely impractical. To cross the partly paved, mostly dirt-road links between Bagan's mysterious temples, you'll need to hire one of the local transportation options we've listed below. Choose the transport that best fits your needs and your budget – and let your temple run begin.
Bicycle – Cheapest Choice
Bicycles are inexpensive and available in almost every hostel and hotel in Bagan. Sniff around New Bagan and Nyaung-U for a good bargain on hiring a bike, which should set you back around MMK 1,500-2,000 (about $1.20-2.00 – read about money in Myanmar).
Exploring by bike allows you a great amount of freedom: you can go off the beaten path completely, relying on a tourist map or your smartphone's GPS to navigate through the Bagan plain and explore as you wish.
It's not all perfect, though. You'll only be able to explore as many temples as you can physically bike to within a day. Factor in the risk of heatstroke and the dust you'll encounter as you pedal along and the idea of leisurely biking from temple to temple loses its charm somewhat.
If you insist on renting a bike, plan your trip ahead – limit your trip to temples you feel you can comfortably explore without exhausting yourself too much, and factor in the time it takes to be back in town before dark.
E-Bike – Middling Range
Tourists are not allowed to use motorcycles in Bagan, but e-bikes are all the rage: moped- or scooter-like thingamajigs that can zip around Bagan's dusty plains at about 15 mph. The eight-hour battery life limits your range somewhat, and that's if the battery doesn't fail suddenly somewhere in between!
Still, e-bikes offer all the advantages of exploring by bike with almost none of the limitations. You'll explore more temples without sapping your strength. E-bikes can better negotiate Bagan's dusty paths than any muscle-powered bike, and you can rent one almost anywhere in New Bagan and Nyaung-U.
E-bike rentals are most often charged in dollars, costing about $7-12 for the full eight hours depending on the size and power of the bike you end up renting. You might be charged about $5-7 if you're only renting for a sunrise or sunset tour. Prices are flexible, and you'll probably get a better deal if you can haggle your way to one.
Rented Car – Expensive, Extensive
Air-conditioned automobiles are a damn near perfect way of getting around Bagan, if not for the price: chauffeur service costs about $30-$50 per day. (You can split the fare if you're traveling with companions.)
Consider what you get for the price: you can explore up to eight major temples a day, more if you don't go with a guide; you're sealed off in cool comfort from the heat and dust outside, and you barely break a sweat as you go around. What's not to love?
This writer visited in July and got both the services of a guide and a chauffeured service for about $70 per day ($35 for each).
Horsecart – Charming but Short-Range
For years, the horse-cart was the only available option for Bagan temple explorers. It's still the prime option for visitors who want to see the temples in a culturally appropriate way, and for tourists who want to give back to the local community in the most direct way possible. (Read about ethical travel in Myanmar.)
Horse-cart drivers tend to speak good English and have a solid grasp of the background of the temples they cover. They might even suggest some hidden temples that the guidebooks don't talk about. Whole-day jaunts by horse-cart will set you back around MMK 15,000 to 25,000 (about $12-20), less for half-day tours, all depending on the time of year and the distance from the starting point to the temples. You can split the cost with companions.
The downsides: exposure to dust and slow progress from temple to temple. You won't actually get to visit as many temples as you like, as you won't be allowed to take the main roads and the horse doesn't travel very fast.
Hot-Air Balloon – All About the View
During peak-season mornings, the skies over Bagan are thick with hot-air balloons silently drifting overhead. Introduced in 1999 by pioneering provider Balloons over Bagan, the hot-air balloon experience has grown in popularity despite its high prices, with several providers now competing for business during tourist peak season.
The season for balloon flights runs only from October to March; the balloons are grounded throughout the rainy season between April and September.
To make the most out of the morning light, balloon tours begin very early, starting with a hotel pickup in the dark and culminating in takeoff just as the sun rises over the temples. The warm light of the rising sun works wonders on the brick and gold surfaces of the temples below you, as you drift silently at up to 2,000 feet above.