Ultimate Bagan Itinerary and Travel Guide
In this Bagan itinerary guide, I
I’m a history and archaeology nerd, and I’ve done tons of research on the history and archaeology of Bagan before, during, and after my month-long trip in Myanmar. I’ll share what I learned so you won’t have to go out and buy all the books I bought and scour the internet for the most up-to-date info!
You’ll learn which temples to see and which order to see them in, where to see the sunset and sunrises, where to eat and stay, how to get to Bagan, what to bring with you on your trip to Bagan, and much more. Besides all this practical information, you’ll also get something that you won’t find in most other blog posts on Bagan—a guide on the art and temple architecture of Bagan. You’ll not only learn about what temples to see but also why these amazing structures are so important and what they all mean.
So, grab your camera and a sense of adventure and let’s travel to Bagan!
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In this Post, You'll Find...
- A Brief History of Bagan
- Temple Art and Architecture
- How to See the Temples of Bagan
- Day 1 Itinerary
- Day 2 Itinerary – Hot Air Balloon Ride
- Where to Watch the Sunrise and Sunset
- Day 3 Itinerary
- What to Bring
- When to Visit Bagan
- How Long to Stay in Bagan
- How to Get to Bagan
- How to Get Around in Bagan
- How Much it Costs
- Where to Stay
- Where to Eat
A Brief History of Bagan
The story of the origins of Bagan
To make your Bagan itinerary more meaningful, you’ll first need to know a little bit about its history. Over 1,169 years ago, there was a kingdom called the Nanzhao Kingdom in southern China, located around the backpacker haven, Dali. This kingdom conquered lands all the way to Bagan. Like all kingdoms eventually do, it collapsed. However, some of the Nanzhao people decided to permanently stay in Myanmar. They settled in an area around a bend in the Irrawaddy River and called their home Bagan.
After about 200 years, a member of the royal family named Aniruddha really wanted to become king, so he killed his cousin and took over the throne. He immediately set out to conquer anyone he could get to. He was so successful that within 33 years he was able to conquer and unify all the peoples in an area almost the size of present-day Myanmar. Bagan was a major player in Southeast Asia at this time. Its only rival was another kingdom in Cambodia called Angkor.
At this time, Buddhism was having a renaissance in Asia. People went on a temple building spree. Angkor Wat was built around this time. Bagan though went all out on showing their love for Buddhism and built over 10,000 religious structures: temples, monasteries. libraries, pagodas, etc.
Eventually, like all good things, in the 13th century Bagan’s success came to an end. It’s a bit unclear what happened, but Bagan began to decline. At the same time, Buddhism’s position across Asia also started to decline. And then came Kublai Khan and the Mongols to finish off the Bagan Kingdom. And that was pretty much the end. Bagan was no longer a kingdom. It became another village along the Irrawaddy River. It did remain an important center for religious pilgrimages over the years. And now it’s a tourist attraction that in my opinion rivals Angkor Wat.
Myanmar history is really fascinating. If you’re interested in learning more about it, click on this link to a list of books on the history of Myanmar.
Temple Art and Architecture
A guide to the temple architecture of Bagan
I think you’ll find knowing the difference between stupas and temples will help you immensely during your Bagan itinerary. I know it helped make my travels more enjoyable. For one of them, you can go inside but for the other, you can’t.
(pagoda or paya) – Stupas are structures with bulb-like or onion-like tops like Shwedagon Paya in Yangon. You can’t go inside them. You can only walk around them. Religious relics or objects are usually stored inside and no one is allowed to see them. Shwezigon Paya is supposed to contain a tooth and a forehead bone of the Buddha.
On the other hand, you can go inside temples, also called pahto in Burmese. Usually, you’ll find images or sculptures of the Buddha inside. The temples of Bagan are active religious structures where you’ll sometimes see people praying and meditating. Temples are usually two floors, but only the first floor is open to visitors. There are far more temples than stupas in Bagan.
Temple and Stupa Decorations
My favorite temple decorations were the chinthes and makaras that you see at the corner of buildings.
Chinthes are these really cool-looking lion-like figures that you can find at the entrances and corners of temples and stupas. They’re based on the lions seen at temples in China. However, since the Chinese didn’t have any real lions to base their statues on, their lions aren’t very realistic looking. Thus, neither are the ones found in Bagan.
During your Bagan itinerary, you’ll notice a lot of Buddhist murals on the walls of the temples. To understand this art, it helped me know that there were two styles of paintings. The single Buddha figure on the left is in the decorative style, whose aim is to entertain and inspire people emotionally. The repeated images on the right are in the didactic style. Their purpose is to educate people about the teachings of Buddha.
UNESCO World Heritage Site
Along with 28 other sites, Bagan was added to the 2019 list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. In the past, the organization had rejected its petitions because of historical inaccuracies in its restoration efforts.
What this honor means is that Bagan will receive international expertise in preserving these religiously significant and archaeologically valuable monuments.
However, according to the Irrawaddy Times, Myanmar still has work to do to get Bagan up to international standards. Previously, the military government had allowed local hotels within the archaeological park. To maintain the preservation of the site, several hotels will need to be relocated.
If you’re interested to learn more about the history, art, and religion of Bagan, click here to check out my list of books on Myanmar.
How to See the Temples in Bagan
The Bagan Archaeological Park is 40 square miles or 104 square kilometers. It’s big and though you can get around by ebike, it’ll still take three days to see the best monuments. In addition, even in the winter, it gets hot on the plains during mid-day, so go slowly.
Get a map from your hotel or hostel. Using this Bagan itinerary guide, mark the temples you want to visit on your map. As you visit a temple or stupa, cross it off the map. There are so many religious structures, and it gets really hot on the Bagan plains, so it’s easy to overlook a major temple. This happened to me
The order that you see the ancient ruins on your Bagan itinerary depends on where you are staying.
Staying in Nyaung U
If you’re staying in Nyaung U, you can go in this order: Day 1 – Nyaung U, North Plain, and Old Bagan; Day 2 – Nyaung U, Central Plain, and South Plain; Day 3: Old Bagan, Myinkaba, and Central Plain.
Staying in New Bagan
If you’re staying in New Bagan (the hostel Ostello Bagan is here), go in this order: Day 1 – Old Bagan, North Plains, and Nyaung U. Day 2: Central Plains and Nyaung U; Day 3: Myinkaba, Old Bagan, and Central Plains.
Where are the best temples in Bagan?
The best religious structures are in North Plains and Central Plains. The least interesting structures are in the Myinkaba area, so do that area last.
The best places to view the sunset and sunrise are in the Central and South Plains.
Old Bagan; Day 2 – Nyaung U, Central Plain, and South Plain; Day 3: Old Bagan, Myinkaba, and Central Plain.
Bagan Itinerary – Day 1
Start by visiting the temples along the Bagan-Nyaung U Road. This is the only time when riding your e-bike is a little scary as there isn’t much space on this road for both your bike and the cars that are passing you. Just take it easy and don’t panic. This is the only day that you’ll need to ride on this road. The other roads are wider, and thus much safer.
1. Nyaung U Area – the structures in this area are the ones closest to Nyaung U. Unfortunately, I overlooked them, which was disappointing because one of them, Shwezigon Paya, is a must-see.
An asterisk indicates it’s a must-see monument.
- Shwezigon Paya * – stupa (1084-1103) – enshrines the tooth and collarbone of the Buddha
- Kyanzittha Umin
2. North Plain Area– along Bagan Nyaung-U Road
- Upali Thein
- Htilominlo Pahto – temple
- Ananda Pahto* – temple (1105) – most impressive temple in Bagan; great art, sculpture, and architecture
3. Old Bagan
- Tharabar Gate – remains of the old wall and gate
- Mahabodhi Paya* – temple
- Bupaya – stupa
- Gawdawapalin Pahto* – temple (1203)
- Mimalaung Kyaung
- Pahtothamya (late 1000s) – impressive frescoes
- Pitaka Taik
There are places to eat in Old Bagan and the North Plains area. Try Khaing Shwe Wha near Ananda Pahto.
Bagan Itinerary – Day 2
Day two of your Bagan itinerary begins with a hot air balloon ride. I went with Balloons Over Bagan. Pricey but definitely worth it. The highlight of my trip!
They picked me up at my hotel at around 4:30 on a rickety old bus, which you can see in one of the photos below.
We then drove to the balloon launching area where we were served tea or coffee and cookies and given instructions on what to do and not do when we’re in the balloon.
There were twelve of us in one balloon, and it did not feel too crowded.
There were around twenty balloons in the air. None of them went directly over the main temple area as the Bagan government restricts where balloons can fly.
Our balloon had trouble landing due to the wind, so we were in the air for 1.5 hours. This was 45 minutes longer than the ride was supposed to be.
Right after we landed in a field near a small village, the balloon company employees met us and served an outdoor picnic of champagne, pastries, and fruit.
A photo of the balloon ride cost an extra US$25. Now the photo is included in the price.
As of July 2019, the regular balloon ride with twelve people is US$350, and for a premium flight of eight people, it’s US$450.
I returned to my hotel at 9:30 am.
The one weird thing that happened was that a month before my trip, Balloons Over Bagan sent out a cryptic email saying that the government had forbidden hot air balloons from flying directly over the temples, so customers could ask for a full refund. This really concerned me at first, not knowing what they really meant. After some research, I discovered that this rule had been in effect for quite some time.
It was true that we didn’t fly directly over the more famous and larger temples. I’d say some of the other balloon company balloons got closer to those temples than we did, but I’m not sure how much of that was completely controlled by the pilot. The experience was still worth it.
Another great reason to take a balloon ride is that it allows you to get a good overview of all the temples, thus helping you decide which temples to see. The balloon ride was how I knew I had to see the large gilded stupa, Dhammayazika, located in the foreground of the photo below.
The temples on day two of this Bagan itinerary should be the highlight of your trip.
The good thing is that on this day you’ll be riding your bike on the safer Anawrahta Road.
Regardless of where you are staying (Nyaung U, New Bagan, or Old Bagan), start with the monuments near Nyaung U and finish with the Central and South Plains so that you can see the sunset from one of the viewing platforms in the Central Plain or South Plain areas. For sunrise/sunset viewing areas jump to this section of the page.
The bad thing about this day is that I didn’t see any restaurants in the Central and South Plain areas. Luckily, I had grabbed food after the balloon ride from the breakfast buffet at my hotel and brought it with me.
1. Nyaung U Area – The temples here are smaller, but there are some nice decorations inside that make it worth visiting. For those staying in Nyaung U, they’re easy to get to. Your chance of being the only one around is pretty high.
- Gubyaukgyi (1200s) – excellent paintings
2. Central Plains–This area has some great temples and countless smaller stupas scattered here and there. After seeing the temples below, wander around without a specific plan hopping off your bike whenever you spot something interesting. Try exploring the back roads and the small paths. You’ll be pleasantly surprised when a beautiful temple appears around a corner.
- Buledi – stupa
- Sulamani Pahto* – temple (1183) – interesting exterior decorations
- Thabeik Hmauk –
- Dhammayangyi Pahto* – temple (1163-1165);
- Pyathada Paya – stupa
3. South Plains Except for Dhammayazaki, the temples below get the fewest visitors possibly because of their distance from the main towns.
- Dhammayazaki Paya *– (1196) most impressive stupa in Bagan
- Leimyethna Pahto
- Tayok Pye Paya
- Payathonzu (late 1200s) – decorative style paintings
- Thambula Pahto (1255) – cool frescoes
- Nandamanya Pahto (1230-1250) – nice frescoes; it might be locked but you may be able to get a local to open it
Watching the Sunrise and Sunset
I visited Bagan before November 2017, which was right before the government started prohibiting people from climbing the temples, so I was able to watch the sunset from a small temple somewhere between the South and Central Plains.
As of June 2019, the government has made it even harder to climb the temples. Stairwells have been blocked and locals are now patrolling the common sunset viewing temples to prevent tourists from climbing them.
There are now two official locations where you can climb up for views of the Bagan plains are Bagan Tower (US$5) and sunset mound.
Bagan Itinerary – Day 3
On day three of your Bagan itinerary, start off by waking up early to catch the sunrise. For the rest of the day, focus on the ancient ruins in New Bagan. The temples and stupas here aren’t as impressive as the ones you’ve seen on days two and three. End your evening with a view of the sunset.
1. Old Bagan
- Thatbyinnyu* – temple (1144)
2. Myinkaba Area
- Mingalazedi Paya (1268) – built just before the city fell to the Mongols
- Gubyaukgyi – (1113) – bring a flashlight to look at the excellent paintings
- Manahu Paya
- Nan Paya (1070) – impressive sandstone relief on the outside
- Apeyadana Pahto (1100) – bring a flashlight to view the great paintings
- Somingyi Kyaung
- Nagayon (1084)
3. Central Plains
- Shwesandaw Paya * – stupa (1070) – can’t climb anymore
What to Bring
Just as important as knowing what to see, you need to know what to bring with you on your Bagan itinerary.
- Wear sandals or some kind of slip-on-shoe because you’re going to be needing to take off and put back on your shoes every time you enter a temple.
- Wear a hat to protect your head from getting burnt in the hot sun. But you need to take it off when entering a temple.
- Wear sunscreen or lotion to protect against the hot sun even in winter.
- Bring plenty of water with you as you bike around.
- Dress modestly. To enter a temple, women and men need to cover up to the knees and elbows. I saw male tourists having to wear the Burmese Longyi before entering a temple.
- Bring a headlamp in case you’re riding your bike after dark, which happens when you’re out viewing the sunrise and sunset. The lamp is also good for viewing some of the artwork in the darker temples.
When to Visit Bagan?
The best time to visit Bagan is during the dry season from November through February when the temperatures are comfortable (70º-80º Farhenheit or 25º – 27º degrees Celsius) and rainfall is low.
From March to May, temperatures are at their highest, reaching up to 99º Fahrenheit or 37º Celsius.
June to October is the rainy season, so there will be fewer tourists.
However, Bagan really doesn’t get the number of tourists that Angkor Wat or Thailand gets, so even in the high season, it’s not that crowded.
How Long to Stay
If you rush things, you can see most of the temples in two days.
However, you’ll be happier with three days, seeing more temples, taking it easy, resting at midday when it gets really hot, and adding a hot air balloon ride to your Bagan itinerary.
You could stay four days and take a side trip to Mount Popa, famous for the Nat spirits that Burmese people worship. I didn’t go there, but I wish I had after reading a bit more about the role Nats (spirits) have in Southeast Asian cultures. There are tours to Mt. Popa leaving from Bagan.
How to Get to Bagan
For your Bagan itinerary, you also have lots of choices on how to get to Bagan.
1. Bus – This is probably the best way to get to Bagan from Yangon. It’s affordable compared to the plane and quick and comfortable compared to the train. I paid K18,000 (US$12/£9.50). If you’re leaving from Yangon, most people take the night bus leaving at 9:00 pm and arriving at 7:00 am. You can buy your ticket online from 12Go.Asia. Tickets sell out fast so book in advance.
The bus station in Yangon is on the outskirts of the city, so it can take over an hour to get to it by taxi. When you get to Bagan, the bus arrives at a bus station inconveniently far from where the hotels and hostels are. There are taxis lining up to pick up travelers. Some have referred to them as the “taxi mafia.” They charge K10,000 (US$6.61/£5.27).
From Mandalay, it’s around five hours by bus.
2. Train – The train is not that cheap, and it’s slow and uncomfortable. If you want to get a good picture of this train, check out Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, episode one from season one, where he takes the train to Bagan. It takes sixteen hours to get from Yangon to Bagan and eight hours from Mandalay to Bagan. You can buy train tickets from 12Go.Asia.
3. Plane – There are flights from Yangon and Mandalay. From Yangon, it’s over US$100 and takes about 70 minutes.
4. Boat – You can also take a boat from Mandalay to Bagan. By slow boat, it costs $35- $40 and takes eight to eleven hours.
How to Get Around Bagan
Once you’ve figured out your Bagan itinerary, actually getting to them is a piece of cake.
1. E-bike – I used an e-bike, which is simply a bike with a motor on it. I loved it. It goes pretty fast but it’s easy to use and it’s not scary. I’ve never driven a motorcycle or scooter before, but I felt comfortable on the e-bike. I rented it from my hotel for K5,000 (US$3.30 / £2.64) per day. Make sure to check that your bike’s battery is fully charged. On one day, mine ran out of juice, and I had to pedal it back myself. It’s not fun trying to pedal a bike with a heavy motor attached to it.
2. Scooters –When I was there, scooters cost the same as e-bikes to rent. They’re also a good way to get around.
3. Walking – Don’t do it! It’s too hot and the temples are too far from each other.
4. Horse cart – This used to be the preferred way to see the temples, but I only saw one person using a horse cart. Horse carts also can’t go on all roads or paths like e-bikes can.
5. Taxi / Car– You can do this, but I think you miss the whole experience of just biking around and serendipitously coming across an unexpected temple. Some temples are found on roads or paths that are too narrow for cars to drive on.
How Much it Costs
When you get to Bagan, you’ll pass a checkpoint in your taxi on your way to your hotel. Here you’ll pay your fee or tax for the Bagan Archaeological Park. I paid K25,000 (US$16.50 / £13.18) and from my research, it looks to be the same in 2019. I was given the option to pay in U.S. dollars, but they were charging US$25, which is more than if you pay in kyat. When I was there, the ticket was good for one week, but I’ve heard it has changed to three days.
You won’t have to pay again to see the temples while you are in Bagan.
Your hotel will ask to see your ticket when you check-in. Keep it with you in case someone else asks. However, I was never asked for it while exploring the temples.
I think for how much you get to see, K25,000 is a good price.
Where to Stay
Figuring out where to stay can be trickier than figuring out your Bagan itinerary. You have three choices in Bagan: Nyaung U, New Bagan, and Old Bagan. All of them have their advantages and disadvantages. Regardless, though, of where you stay, you will still need transportation to get to all the temples.
1. Nyaung U – This was where most people originally stayed until New Bagan was built up. Nyaung U is farther from most of the temples. It used to have better restaurant choices, but this is starting to change. I stayed here at the Zfreeti Hotel and the distance from the temples was not a problem. The convenience of being close to restaurants and shops was helpful.
3. Old Bagan – There are some really high-end hotels here still, but basically most people and businesses have been moved out of Old Bagan and relocated to New Bagan. There aren’t as many restaurants as in the other two places.
Another option is to stay at a hotel outside of any of these three towns. I’d hesitate to recommend staying at one of these places as you’re really isolated and the temples are much further away than is convenient. When booking online, check the location of your accommodation carefully.
Expect to pay more for accommodations in Bagan than in other countries in Southeast Asia. On top of that, the quality and customer service are not up to par with those other countries either.
Where to Eat in Bagan
Like you have for accommodations, you have 3 options for restaurants: Nyaung U, New Bagan, and Old Bagan. In the past, most of the restaurants were in Nyaung U. Now that is changing and more and more restaurants are opening up in New Bagan.
I ate at BiBo restaurant in Nyaung U and had the best tea leaf salad in Burma. When I ate there, I remember there being only local food on the menu. However, now, I hear there’s both local and western food, which in my book is kind of disappointing.
Other travelers have recommended the following restaurants:
1. Khaing Shwe Wha – near Ananda Pagoda
2. Sanon – a bit pricey; in Nyaung U
3. Delicious – inexpensive; New Bagan near Ostella Bagan hostel
4. San Thi Dar – inexpensive; between Old and New Bagan
Now that you’ve learned how to see the temples in Bagan, do you have any further questions about Bagan or traveling in Myanmar in general?
If you’ve been to Bagan, what was your favorite temple in Bagan?
Please leave a comment or question in the comment box below. I’d love to hear from you! Thank you!
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