Bagan in Myanmar is truly one of the most unique and magical destinations in South East Asia we have ever visited. With so much history, culture, and architecture to explore, Bagan is a must see. There used to be over 10,000 pagodas in Bagan, but because of the earthquakes in 1975 and 2016 only 2229 pagodas are left nowadays.
The Bagan sunrise and sunset are magical! You can’t miss that when you visit Bagan. During the hot air balloon season (from half October to half April), many hot air balloons fill the sky above Bagan during sunrise. It creates magical moments in combination with the soft morning light.
In this complete guide about Bagan you will find a lot of information about the history of Bagan, the best time to visit, the best spots to eat and stay, and of course the best Bagan temples to visit. Be aware that it’s not possible anymore to climb the pagodas since Bagan is officially inscribed as Unesco World Heritage Site in July 2019. More information about that in this blog post!
How to get to Bagan
There are a few options to get to Bagan. Which option works the best for you depends on how much time you have to travel through Myanmar and the budget you have. You can travel to Bagan via land, water or airplane. Below a further explanation about these options.
Airplane: If time is more important than money, you can fly easily from Yangon International Airport to Nyaung U airport. From the airport you can get a taxi and arrive in Old Bagan in 20 minutes. But flying domestic in Myanmar is at least 6 times as expensive than by bus.
Bus: From every bigger town or city in Myanmar are buses going to Nyaung U. You can either choose for a night bus or day bus. It all depends from your departure place and the time it takes to get to Bagan. We travelled by day bus from Inle Lake (Nyaungschwe) to Nyaung U in about 7 hours time for a few euros. The buses are inexpensive, very reliable but not super comfortable. Except the buses from JJ which have big, comfortable reclined seats which makes a nap easier and more comfortable. JJ doesn’t do all the bus routes, but if you can book them, we highly recommend their company. Common bus routes to Bagan are going from Yangon, Mandalay, Nyaung Shwe, Taunggyi, Kalaw and Pyin Oo Lwin.
Boat: Because Bagan is located next to the Irrawaddy River, you also have the option to get to Bagan from Mandalay, (or the other way around) with a river cruise. There are a few companies offering these tours like Rainforest Cruises and The Strand Cruise.
Best time to visit Bagan
In Bagan the temperature is hot year round. But the best time to visit Bagan is between November and February, when temperatures are around 30C (86F) with minimal rainfall. Avoid March to May, when temperatures can reach 43C (110F). Rain season is on its peak in June and October.
How many days to spend in Bagan
If you want to take the time to explore all the different pagodas and really enjoy the sunrise and sunset in Bagan I would advice to set aside at least 2 to 3 days to explore Bagan. But photographers can enjoy themselves for at least 4 days in Bagan because it is just such a magical place to photograph. Bagan is not a place to rush through. It will leave you feeling exhausted and you may not appreciate it in the way it should.
Entrance fee for the Bagan pagodas
Not many people realise this, but everybody entering the Bagan Archaeological Zone needs to pay the entrance fee of 25,000 Kyat which is about €15 / $18. You will either stop at an official road stop or an office where you need to purchase the ticket on your arrival into Bagan. We asked where they use the proceeds for, assuming it is for the restoration and maintenance of the Bagan temples. Unfortunately they told us that only 5% of the ticket price goes to the restoration of the temples, the remainder goes to the government.
Tip: make sure to have enough cash for purchasing your Bagan temple pass.
How to get around in Bagan
The best way to get around in Bagan is with an environmentally friendly E-bike. For around 8000 Kyat we rented an electrical moped in Bagan. The battery lasts all day so you can easily explore the whole area without recharging. At least, that’s our experience with a ‘big’ electrical moped. If you don’t drive a scooter you can also let yourself be driven around by horse and cart. Exploring Bagan by foot is too exhausting because the pagodas are too far from each other located.
Where to stay in Bagan
The best area to stay in Bagan is Old Bagan. In Nyaung U are also hotels, but it’s not a charming place to stay. Old Bagan on the other hand is very close to all the Bagan temples and is where all the restaurants are located.
Best places to eat in Bagan
Because Bagan is mainly a tourist destination, there are some really nice restaurants around. Below some of our favorite Bagan restaurants.
- The Moon cafe, be kind to animals: A vegan restaurant right behind the Ananda temple. With a serene garden setting and varied menu, this was our go to restaurant for a healthy lunch.
- Kimchi restaurant: Mainly a Western focussed menu located in the hart of Old Bagan. A nice garden with varied choice on the menu.
- Sunset restaurant: located along the Irrawaddy river in Old Bagan you will find Sunset restaurant. You’ve probably guessed it right, watching the sunset from this restaurant is beautiful! With views on the river and the mountains in the backdrop, this must be one of the restaurants in Bagan with the best view! The food is fine but a bit average. Nevertheless a restaurant we recommend to go to because of the view!
The view of Sunset restaurant in Bagan
About Bagan; history & background of Bagan
Bagan was founded under King Anawrahta in the middle of the 11th century. In the 12th century, the kingdom developed even further when Theravada Buddhism was accepted by a wider population. Not only the king, but also ministers and officials actively participated in the construction of pagodas. As a result expanded Bagan gradually to the vast inland areas.
From the 9th century to the 13th century, Bagan was the capital of the Pangan Kingdom. During this time more than 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were constructed in the Bagan plains alone. But unfortunately due to the earthquakes in 1975 and 2016 many temples and pagodas were damaged leaving only 2229 temples and pagodas still survive to the present day.
The rising of Myanmar as tourist destination
Myanmar has been ruled by the military government (junta) from 1962 to 2011. In 1989 the military government changed the former name of the country from Burma to Myanmar after thousands of people were killed in an uprising. At the same time, a number of other place names were changed to conform more closely to their original pronunciation in the Burmese language. For example, Rangoon, at that time the country’s administrative capital, became Yangon.
It was only in 1996 that the junta officially opened the doors in Myanmar for tourists. But after the junta transferred its power to the civilian government, the tourism sector saw an increase in tourism arrivals in 2012. In the years that followed, much investments were made to boost the tourism industry. For example many temples and pagodas in Bagan were restored, also with the help of other countries like India. In 2016 Myanmar asks UNESCO officially to designate Bagan as a World Heritage Site. After three years, in July 2019, Bagan finally named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It looks like Myanmar is working hard to gain attention as one of the most cultural countries to visit in South East Asia. Bagan is definitely one of the main attractions in Myanmar and the designation as UNESCO World Heritage Site is absolutely helping as promotion for the country.
Important things to know about visiting Bagan
Climbing the Bagan pagodas and temples is FORBIDDEN
Unfortunately it’s not possible anymore to climb the pagodas. The government closed the stairs on all the Bagan pagodas and temples since it is officially inscribed as Unesco World Heritage Site in July 2019. So if you read somewhere that it is possible to climb the pagodas to watch the sunset or sunrise, be aware that this is not possible anymore. When you get caught, the punishment is a substantial amount of money. There are ‘security’ guys driving around to check on the pagodas and tourists. If you get caught, they bring you to an office to pay a fine. We even saw a local shouting at tourists that were standing on top of a pagoda. There are signs everywhere clearly saying “Do not climb the pagoda”. So why risking it. It’s not worth it to do it anyway and super disrespectful to the culture of Myanmar.
Bagan is super dusty
Be prepared to get your clothes and face dirty! Especially in the dry zone when there is no rainfall for a few weeks or months.
It almost seems like every local person you talk to in Bagan is a painter…
There is a chance that you will be approached by ‘so-called’ painters, driving around on their scooters. They want to show you their ‘secret pagodas to watch the sunset or sunrise from’. Because it is officially forbidden to climb the Bagan pagodas, we personally think this approach is a bit iffy. That became extra clear when we went to one of the ‘secret pagodas’ of this painter. Up front they say you don’t have to pay them. But after showing us the pagoda, the painter asked us if he could show us “his paintings” and asked $30 for a painting. We politely said no and thanked him for his time.
The first time we saw these paintings, we thought “okay this is nice”. But, after driving around for four days in Bagan, we realised that every painter shows almost the same kind of paintings. They all approach you to show you “their secret Bagan pagoda”, but eventually want you to buy a painting from them.
What to do in Bagan
The beautiful soft morning light, the impressive old Bagan pagodas and hot air balloons floating in the sky is something truly magical to experience. It’s really worth it to get up early to witness a Bagan sunrise. But where is the best spot to watch the sunrise and take pictures? And what else is there to do in Bagan? In this section you will find a collection of the best Bagan pagodas to visit, and other tips to do in Bagan.
The best Bagan pagodas
With over 2000 pagodas, temples and monasteries, you have to realize that it’s impossible to see all the pagodas during your visit. So don’t feel overwhelmed by the amount of pagodas, and just go with the flow.
Our first day in Bagan was about exploring the best spots for sunrise and sunset. Because it is strictly forbidden to climb the pagodas and temples, we had to be creative to find good spots. We had a few shots in mind which we really wanted to make. For example with sunrise when the balloons are floating up in the sky above the pagodas. But it depends on the position of the wind where the balloons exactly are. During our last sunrise mission we found the perfect spot. It was even a spot where we could legally stand on the ruins of a monastery to have a better perspective for the picture.
There are a few must see temples that we mention below, but the best moments in Bagan for us were the random turns and paths we took. So don’t be blinded to find the ‘best Bagan pagodas’ because frankly they are all amazing in their own way!
The Ananda temple is the most famous of all the Bagan temples. It was also one of the first ones built in Bagan, and is still well maintained. This temple is not built like many other Bagan pagodas with bricks, but from limestone. Inside you can see four towering gold Buddhas facing north, east, south and west. In 2010, the Myanmar and Indian governments signed an agreement to restore the Ananda temple for more than $3 million.
The Ananda temple seen from the ground and an aerial perspective as we’ve seen it during the hot air balloon flight
Dhammayan Gyi temple
This is the largest temple in Bagan which you can see from all around the area. Despite it’s the largest and widest temple of Bagan, it was also supposed to be the highest. But unfortunately the Dhammayan Gyi Temple has never been finished. You can notice that because the temple doesn’t look complete without all the details that other temples and pagodas do have.
The Dhammayan Gyi temple during sunrise seen from above with the balloons in the background
Le Put Kan pagoda
If you’d like to go more ‘off the beaten path’ and experience a Bagan pagoda with no other people around… Then the Le Put Kan pagoda is the answer! This pagoda has a wall around, so using the entrance as a frame for your pictures is beautiful.
With 61 meters height, the Thatbyinnyu Temple is the tallest temple in Bagan.
Wut Tha Na Daw Group
This was one of the spots where we went for sunrise. Especially because you can’t climb the pagodas anymore, this is a good option to go to for sunrise. You have the beautiful colors of the sunrise in the background of this pagoda complex with the silhouettes of the pagodas in the foreground creating a mysterious atmosphere
The Wut Tha Na Daw Group with sunrise
The Sulamani temple is another large but elegant Bagan temple built with brick and stone. Outside you can see the beautiful details of the temple, and inside you’ll find beautiful fresco’s. Don’t miss this one!
Constructed in 1211, this it is one of the oldest temples in Bagan. The architectural style has many similarities with that of the Sulamani temple and is absolutely worth a visit.
The structure of the Dhammayazika Pagoda is unique with its five-sided temples, each containing an image of Buddha. There are three receding terraces, ornamented with glazed Jataka plaques. The gold stupa of the Dhammayazika Pagoda certainly stands out, especially at sunrise and sunset.
Built in 1059, this is one of the oldest Bagan pagodas and considered as the first gold-plated pagoda in Myanmar! If you visit Bagan in October or November, there is also a festival held at this pagoda that’s worth checking out.
Probably the most famous Bagan pagoda, but unfortunately it is not climbable anymore. The pagoda contains a series of five terraces, topped with a cylindrical stupa. Many visitors don’t know there is an 18 metre long reclining Buddha in the brick structure alongside it. Worth it to have a look at!
Watch the sunrise from an hot air balloon
One of the best things to do in Bagan is watching the sunrise and pagodas from an hot air balloon. If the weather conditions are good, you will be able to see the sky of Bagan filled with hot air balloons from October until half April. There are a few companies offering Bagan air balloon rides. Balloons over Bagan is the biggest one and operates in Bagan since 1999.
It costs $350 for a 45 minute flight above Bagan which is expensive, but also a once in a lifetime experience.
Read everything about flying in a hot air balloon above Bagan in this blog post.
Meet the local herd of goats or cows
If you’re lucky you will see the local shepherd guiding his herd of goats or cows to another spot to graze. It brings beautiful photo opportunities, especially with sunset. Unfortunately we didn’t spot them around that time, so we couldn’t shoot the pictures we had in mind. But anyway, it is a fun sight to see the animals passing by the temples. It gives an extra authentic feeling of the history of Bagan.
Visit a Bagan pagoda inside
Besides exploring the Bagan pagodas on the plains, it is also very interesting to visit a temple and pagoda inside. The usual practice in most temples is to have four Buddha images facing the cardinal points. They typically have four entrances and exits located north, south, east and west with a Buddha at each entrance.
Another interesting thing to spot inside the pagodas are the mesmerising murals with mostly Buddhist themes. Not only as appropriate decoration but to spread the knowledge of the life story of Buddha and the Jataka Tales of his previous lives.
First picture is a golden Buddha inside a temple. Second picture is a mural inside a pagoda and the third picture a Buddha statue inside a Bagan pagoda
Another special thing to see inside the Bagan pagodas are the lightrays peeking through the windows, creating the most magical lightrays you have ever seen! It depends on the season and position of the sun at what time and what pagoda you can see the light rays.
Photographers tip: create some extra dust so the light rays will pop out even more!
Watch the sunrise or sunset from the viewing mounds
Despite it’s not possible anymore to climb the pagodas and temples, there are a few other options to watch the sunrise or sunset from. Man made viewing mounds but also some temple or monastery ruins that you can still climb legally!
Personally we did not find the viewing mounds spectacular as they are not high enough to overlook the pagodas. Also they are too far away from the pagodas and temples. So we did not watch a sunrise or sunset from one of these viewing mounds, but we did check them out when cruising around the Bagan plains. Below some of the viewing mounds in Bagan. You can check for yourself if you think it’s worth it to go here with sunrise or sunset!
Sulamani Sunset Hill
Coordinates: 21.162762, 94.880127
Ko Mouk Pond Viewing Mounds
Coordinates: 21.152368, 94.890297.
O Bo Gon Hill
Coordinates: 21.161965, 94.88862
Here you can watch the sunrise peek out behind the amazing Dhammayangyi temple.
Coordinates: 21.161795, 94.871384
Watch the Bagan sunrise & sunset from the plains or ruins
Another option to watch the sunrise or sunset in Bagan is from the plains or ruins. You can still get magical pictures with the sun setting or rising. You just have to be a little bit more creative to get the best out of it!
But, there are also some ruins which are legal to climb!
On our last morning in Bagan we’d found the perfect spot to watch the sunrise and capture the pagodas with the hot air balloons! The ruins are located along the road from Old Bagan to New Bagan. Here are the coordinates: 21.146318, 94.857675
Below the picture we shot during our last sunrise in Bagan.
One of the Bagan ruins which are legal to climb
More Myanmar travel inspiration
We hope you enjoyed this very comprehensive guide about the best Bagan pagodas and temples. Bagan has a special place in our memories because it’s such a beautiful, magical and unique experience. For more Myanmar travel inspiration, head over to these blog posts.