Coming to the end of a trip abroad and splashing out a little bit on a little extra travel, is a justifiable extravagance. It’s something I regret not doing properly when I visited Mongolia, especially with it being such a remote, exotic location that most people are lucky to visit just once in their lifetime. When it came to Myanmar, I wasn’t going to make the same mistake.
Most people say Inle Lake and Bagan were the must see sights in Myanmar, but due to time constraints due to having to position myself to travel to Australia for my next project, I was limited to only 2 days to enjoy Myanmar fully. Originally I had been keener to see the lake, with its people’s unique way of life upon the water, and having seen enough of Buddhist temples for my current incarnation. In the end, I opted for Bagan’s plain of temples instead – a VERY last minute decision, but one that I haven’t regretted.
After over 5 weeks working in Yangon, getting dirty, staying in the same hotel, eating the same breakfast, all I wanted to do was relax, have some time to myself and have easy access to some culture if I wanted to. Bagan offered that, and after much deliberation I booked some reasonably priced flights out to Nueng U (the airport serving the Bagan Archeological Zone) on the morning of my departure, raced back to my hotel, grabbed an awesome hotel deal on Agoda, and then headed off to the airport.
An overview of my expenditures for my 2 night trip to Bagan is tabled below:
|Flights||$204 (+ 5000Ky Airport Tax)||Booked through Air Mandalay, outward flight chartered with Air KBZ|
|Hotel (per night)||$75 (including 15% hotel tax)||Hotel: Amazing Bagan Resort. Booked via Agoda. Low season deal – original price £320/night (including 15% hotel tax)|
|Bagan Archaeological Zone foreigner entry fee||$16||Unavoidable. Lonely Planet (<1 year old) said $10, signage at airport and ticket said $15, price demanded by officials was $16.|
|Transport to/from airport||$5 + $5||Taxi only option. Paid in Kyat. No negotiation possible. Distance barely 2km.|
|Taxis||$5||Paid in Kyat. Covered return trip to Hueng U and back from hotel. Taxi driver was called back by restaurant for return journey.|
|Bike Hire||Free||Hotel offered free bike hire. Other hotels/hire shops offer for ~K2000-3000/day according to guide book, possibly more depending on location.|
|Meals||<$35||Didn’t eat frugally and was completely satisfied after every meal.|
|Drinks||$5||Water and other drinks very important due to the heat.|
|Souvenirs||$10||“Thank you” to “free” local guide at temple – family owned nearby shop. Bartered down a little.|
|Stamps (x10)||$5||Purchased at post office, postcard cards previously purchased in Yangon.|
Based on 1 US$ = 1000Ky
I raced to the Air Mandalay office hours before my flight hand over the $204 for flights to Bagan. These had to be paid in cash, meaning a quick jog down the street to the nearest ATM was in order. My taxi driver incorrectly assumed I was taking an international flight, inconveniently dropping me off at the international terminal, resulting in utter confusion and an awkward 5 minute walk down the road to the next terminal, complete with overly heavy bags. Check in was equally as chaotic – an old world affair with bags hand weighed and carted away by porters. A completely different world.
The Air KBZ flight stopped at Heho and Mandalay prior to arriving in Bagan, while returning was direct. My flight out was an Air KBZ charter, on return I flew with Air Mandalay. As I crammed myself into the cramped compartment of the tiny ATR-42, the first turboprop aircraft I’d flown in in 25 years, I read Air KBZ’s slogan: “Flying beyond expectations”. My expectation was that the plane wouldn’t leave the ground. Fortunately I was pleasantly surprised. The quality of service was also excellent, considering it was such a small flight.
Oily Yangon rain clouds passed by, exposing virgin farmland far below, unexposed to the precision and intensity of mechanised agriculture. As the plane came to land the brown landscape came into focus, revealing dusty green vegetation of and earth-coloured temples. The plane bounced onto the runway, and rolled up to the tiny terminal building. I gathered my things and emerged into the outside air, startled by the rain lashing horizontally against my face.
Entering the airport, I noticed the signs informing me that the Bagan Archaeological Zone entry fee for foreigners was now $15 (not $10 as my year old guidebook had told me), and when I went to pay the fee, it had inexplicably become $16. Part of this (surprisingly steep) fee is I expect to drive capital investment in the Zone, and perhaps also help control the impact of tourism – something I hear Angor Wat in Cambodia suffers from. The next shock fee was a $5 cab ride to my hotel, barely 2km down the road, walkable had I not had a heavy bag. There was no negotiation on the price: the driver posy was all in it together; no one would drop their price.
My slightly soured mood was forgotten instantly as I rolled up at my hotel, the Amazing Bagan Resort. Somewhere obscured by trees and temples was a gold course. Palms and cultivated foliage rustled in the hot breeze, while beyond the green screen there were the wet notes of ripples in the pool. The cool atrium oozed opulence as I checked in, and I had a complete meltdown when I saw my room. Facilities-wise the Amazing Bagan Resort was excellent, especially considering I was paying about $70 per night in a low-season deal. Housekeeping even popped around in the evenings with a bowl of home-made jellies and a note saying “sweet dreams”. My only complaint was having to pay out (a relatively large amount) for the large bottles of water in the fridge (you get 2 small bottles free) – in a place as hot and dry as Bagan, I’d expect with the price people usually pay for the hotel ($500 per night) that a significant amount of bottled water would be included.
As far as things to do in Bagan are concerned cycling around the temples is a popular choice – I did it because there was free bike hire from my hotel (just test drive the bikes beforehand to make sure they will survive the trip). The temptation is to cycle to and explore absolutely every temple, but really the heat, the distance, the sandy lanes and the sheer number of temples makes that a pipe dream. Instead what I recommend is asking a local before you set off which ones they recommend seeing/which route to take, then cycle around and investigate whichever takes your fancy. Sure there are some of the big ones that are probably must-sees, but I actually found the ones which were secluded were sometimes the most rewarding to visit.
Entry to the temples should be free (you already paid $16+ at the airport to enter the Zone so I think entry should rightly be free), and you can take photographs at most of them. Often a local will be there and quite happily show you around free of charge, the only polite obligation you have is to visit their stall and see what they have to sell – remember you don’t have to buy anything and I was never under any great pressure. The only place I bought anything was one stall owned by the guide’s aunt, after she did a really good job of showing me around one of the larger temples and smothered me with the traditional thanaka paste when she saw I was going red with sunburn – I think they earned it!
There are other possibilities for getting around – walking, horse and cart, taxi, etc. Whichever you pick is up to you, your budget and how you’d like to experience Bagan. Ultimately, I’m a firm believed once you’ve seen one temple, you’ve probably seen them all, and you’ll probably be sick of seeing Buddha’s for one lifetime by the end of a day sightseeing. Your remaining time could probably be better spent going to the archaeological museum, the market, sitting by the pool etc.
The ultimate Bagan experience is seeing the sunset from atop one of the temples. Before you do this, check the time for sunset online so you can get there in good time for the best perch. Take something to eat and drink while you wait for it to approach the horizon. Most tourists who will be joining you are pretty chatty too which helps pass the time if you arrive particularly early. I watched sunset from the Wuttanataw group of temples, just east of the road between Bagan and Nueng U, which was quite popular. For somewhere a little more secluded you could also try the Soolaygon group a little further up the road, away from old Bagan, which I had discovered earlier in the scorching heat of the day (an interactive map of the temple complex can be found here). Wherever you watch sunset from, I guarantee it will be one of the best sunsets you will ever see.
As far as eating was concerned, Bagan was noticeably cheaper than Yangon – although I was often eating at higher end places there. Still, as far as ambience is concerned the local restaurants in Nueng U are excellent, and food is of a good quality. The restaurants where I ate (all on the main street) and would recommend are:
- Aroma 2 – Officially the best Indian restaurant in Myanmar, with pleasant outdoor dining and authentic, delicious Indian food, the owner was a delightful man and was really good at giving advice on where to go and see in Bagan. I spent less than $10 on a feast of vegetable korma with all the trimmings, mint chapatti, a mango lassi and masala tea – a taste explosion of fascinating new flavours and mouth-watering nostalgia.
- The Black Bamboo – With an intimate private garden dining area, just off the main street in Nueng U, and satisfying, wholesome food on offer, this was the perfect place to regain my strength after a day’s cycling around Bagan (and not eating much/anything at lunchtime). Splashing out with a couple of glasses of house wine, a lime soda, chicken cordon bleu (it might not look like much but oh the melt in your mouth gooey cheesy chicken pleasure!), and a brownie and coconut ice cream to finish, I spent just under $20 – and definitely worth it. The other diners were also staring at me; either I looked really odd with sunburn, or they recognised me from my blog or YouTube.
- A Little Bit of Bagan – Taking refuge from the heat of the day, I guzzled down a coke and litre of water, and devoured a pumpkin curry and side of focaccia – all for a little under $5. It’s definitely worth a visit on hot afternoon while running some errands in town.
Weighing up my experience in Bagan as a whole, I’d say it definitely was the perfect way to close my time in Myanmar. The trip, while a little more extravagant than usual for me, was thoroughly worthwhile and really taught me that I can and should splash out on occasion, for the right opportunity. As far as Bagan itself is concerned, it is definitely worth the money, even with prices now starting to creep up as it becomes more popular and accessible for tourists. If money is of a little more concern to you, I would definitely recommend going off-season with fewer tourists to compete with for space and a lot of really good hotel deals available – the luxury and tranquillity I found were unsurpassed.