Bagan is Myanmar’s most visited tourist attraction, as well it should be, all those temples with mountains and river as a backdrop. Throw in a sleepy town, a far away feel, and Bagan really is a magical spot. While temple lovers could spend ages in Bagan Myanmar, even with a weekend, you can really get to see some of the best sights if you plan accordingly.
You may have arrived by air, taken the boat from Mandalay, or bounced in on the bus, but don’t waste any time, the temples are calling your name. If you can afford the splurge, check in to one of the riverside hotels in Old Bagan like the Thande Hotel, and then either rent a bicycle or hire a horse carriage to take you out to check out some of the temples. Probably the two best temples for viewing the sunset are Bulethi, which is right off the main road between Nyaung U and Old Bagan, or else Pyathada, which is out in the middle of nowhere, accessible only by sandy paths.
If going to Pyathada, it is probably best to take a driver, otherwise you’ll be coming out in the dark. Pyathada is a large temple with a huge flat rooftop, so it can hold a lot of guests. Additionally, it looks out to the Ayeyarwaddy River and the sun setting over the mountains on the other side of it. Bulethi offers a quieter experience, but it doesn’t have too much room up top, not to mention has no guardrails, so you need to get here early and not feel afraid of vertigo. Return to your hotel for dinner and prepare for an early wake up.
No matter what type of budget you are on, it is worth the splurge to fly in a hot air balloon over Bagan. Balloons Over Bagan send dozens of balloons into the sky over the temples each morning, weather permitting (best during the cool winter season, when there is little rain nor wind). The balloons, piloted by trained international pilots, sail over all the important temples as the sun rises, and then you come down to a champagne breakfast to celebrate it all. It is the finest view of Bagan you’ll find.
Most folks are pretty exhausted after the early rise, so it’s best to head back to the hotel for a nap, and then return to temple travel in the afternoon. Make sure you get to visit all the main temples here, including the massive Dhammayangyi and the majestic Sulamani, which dates from the 12th century, and features elaborate brick work. For sunset, pay a visit to the temple you didn’t go to the night before. If you are going to Pyathada, one extra bonus if you get there shortly before sunset is that local farmers return home with their herds of cattle just in front of the temple, with plenty of atmospheric dust kicked up to go with the changing sky colors over the temple-dotted landscape.
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Make another early wakeup to go out for sunrise over the temples, this time by land. You can rent an electric scooter or a bicycle and make your way to Shwesandaw Pagoda. It’s just off the main road in Old Bagan, and it gets the brunt of the tour buses, but there is a reason for this, as the temple is perfectly situated to see the sunrise, all the major temples right in front of it, as well as being in the perfect spot to photograph all the balloons which sail over the temples from east to west right in front of the pagoda. Shwesandaw can be climbed from all four sides and is very steep, although it is one of the only temples with handrails to make it easier to get up. You have to leave your shoes at the base of the temple, socks as well, and the best viewing point is from the upper terrace on the east side. If you arrive too late, it’s probably best to go to a lower terrace, where the views are still good, and not as filled with people.
After heading back for breakfast, make the most of your last day in Bagan by hiring a driver or taking a tour to Mount Popa. This majestic monastery, about 30 miles from Bagan, sits on top of a volcanic plug, with a looping staircase of 777 steps required to navigate to get to the top. It’s a very popular pilgrimage spot for Burmese, who believe that the animist nat spirits live up here and require homage paid to them. If you come on festival or special days there is a real mysterious aura to be found here, with visitors going into trances, incense smoke abounding, and plenty of priests and priestesses conducting worship ceremonies. Additionally, the temple and mountain on which it sits are home to thousands of monkeys, and be forewarned, any loose food or snacks being carried are prone to large group attacks!
After a visit to Mount Popa plus a sunrise morning, you will be well exhausted, and it’s time to head back to Bagan for your afternoon flight out. Stop off in Nyaung U town before you leave for a visit to Shwezigon Pagoda, another one of Myanmar’s most important temple complexes, and walk through the long columned corridors with the pilgrims to check out the gold stupas inside.