Temple run in Bagan, the land of a thousand temples

Bagan has been on my travel wish list since I started backpacking in early 2013. Why won’t it be? Next to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, Bagan is, perhaps, the most popular temple complex in Southeast Asia.

I’ve always dreamed of chasing that golden Burmese twilight, set in the background of hundreds of red-bricked stupas and pagodas in green and brown terrain. I imagined that I would cry when I feel that beautiful beam of Burmese light in my face – and I did.

Bagan is literally littered with temples, pagodas and stupas.
Bagan is literally littered with temples, pagodas and stupas.

I arrived in Bagan by bus from nearby Mandalay. It took the mini bus around 4 hours, navigating through Myanmar’s rough roads and rice fields, before it reached Bagan.

(NOTE: All foreigners are asked to pay a USD 20 fee for entering the Bagan Archeological Zone [BAZ]. Our bus stopped in front of the tourism office before we entered Bagan.)

After I got down from the mini-bus, I was immediately approached by a young horse cart driver who offered to tour me around Bagan for MMK 20,000. I didn’t have any hotel reservations for this leg of the trip so I told him to bring me to a nice guesthouse first.

The persistent 12-year-old brought me to Pann Cherry Guesthouse right in the middle of Nyaung-U. The guesthouse looked old but its location was strategic. Plus, it offered a way cheaper price for a single room – and since I already overspent in Mandalay – I chose to stay there. (READ: 5 must-see places in majestic Mandalay)

Horse cart or e-bike? Navigating Bagan

His name was Yeye and his persistence on getting me to be his passenger for the day paid off.

Meet Yeye, my horse cart driver and tour guide for half a day in Bagan.
Meet Yeye, my horse cart driver and tour guide for half a day in Bagan.

I didn’t do my research on the places to visit in Bagan mainly because I read that the temples there were everywhere. This is why I decided to get a local to tour me, at least for the first day.

It’s important to note that the BAZ is divided into 3 parts: Old Bagan (where all the temples are), New Bagan (where all new hotels are), and Nyaung-U (which is considered the town center).

Yeye was a good tour guide. He brought me to all the important temples in Old Bagan. He did, of course, try to make me buy souvenirs and trinkets from the local vendors who were his friends. But with the right attitude of saying no, I survived my first day with minimal spending.

Survived the rough roads of Bagan in this e-bike.
Survived the rough roads of Bagan in this e-bike.

For my second day, I rented an e-bike in a shop in front of my guesthouse. I paid MMK 10,000 for an entire day plus MMK 1,000 for a map of Bagan. I learned how to ride a motorbike when I backpacked in Vietnam in April 2013 and I haven’t been able to use that skill ever since. The e-bikes don’t need gasoline and they are rented out with an already full battery. You can ride it for an entire day without needing to recharge it.

Since Yeye already brought me to some of the important temples in Old Bagan during the first day, I used my e-bike to explore New Bagan and beyond. I missed New Bagan by a few kilometers – and I only realized it when there were no more foreigners in the road with me.

It takes some skills to navigate around the BAZ. Though most of the main roads are cemented, the narrow ones leading to some temples are still dusty. I almost fell over a couple of times with my e-bike!

Places to visit

I visited so many temples in Bagan that I had a hard time checking all their names. Here’s the list that I have but I don’t know if it’s accurate.

Shwezigon Pagoda – This can be found in Old Nyaung-U, constructed in 1102 AD. It’s one of the main temples in all BAZ, said to be housing a bone and a tooth of Buddha.

Shwezigon Pagoda
Shwezigon Pagoda

Shwe-leik-too – This is where I waited for that perfect Bagan sunset.

A minor temple but a good place to catch the sunset.
A minor temple but a good place to catch the sunset.

Htilominlo Pagoda – On the ground floor of this temple are 4 Buddha statues facing the North, East, West, and South.

Htilominlo Temple
Htilominlo Temple

Ananda Temple – It was built in 1105 AD and is one of the 4 surviving temples in Bagan. This Buddhist temple houses 4 standing Buddha statues, each facing to the cardinal direction. A lot of stone images and paintings can be found inside, too.

The most iconic temple in Bagan.
The most iconic temple in Bagan.

Mahabhodi Temple – This is one of the most unique temples in BAZ, since it’s the only one that follows a Hindu architecture. Inside if, of course, is a Buddhist image.

Mahabhodi Temple
Mahabhodi Temple

Thatbyinniyu Temple – This is adjacent to Ananda Temple, built in the mid-12th century.

Bagan 14
Thatbyinniyu Temple

Dhammayangyi Temple – This is the largest and widest temple in all of Bagan. It follows the plan of Ananda Temple.

Local vendors wait for tourists in almost every temple in Bagan.
Local vendors wait for tourists in almost every temple in Bagan.

Gubyaukgyi Temple – This contains a large array of well-preserved paintings in its walls, the oldest ones found in Bagan. Photography is not allowed inside.

Gyaubaukgyi Temple
Gyaubaukgyi Temple

Bagan Archaeological Museum – You need to pay MMK500 to enter the museum. There’s nothing much to see inside but the exterior is very scenic.

Bagan Archaeological Museum looks more like a palace.
Bagan Archaeological Museum looks more like a palace.

Bagan Golden Palace – The actual golden palace in Bagan was destroyed a long time ago. This is only a reconstruction of the original excavated site, which is located opposite this complex. The halls are very majestic but you need to pay MMK 5,000 to enter the complex.

This is what the king's residence looked like.
This is what the king’s residence looked like.

Shwesandaw Temple – This temple contains 5 terraces that you can climb barefoot. I went there at 3pm so I couldn’t take the hot tiles. This is also an ideal place to see the sunset.

The Shwenandaw or sunset temple.
The Shwesandaw or sunset temple.

Try the Thanaka

Before I went to Myanmar, the weather forecasts said it would be raining it Mandalay and Bagan. Luckily, weather forecasts are never accurate in most developing countries. I got sunburned while riding around BAZ because of the very humid temperature.

The lady who sold me thanaka cream.
The lady who sold me thanaka cream.

Bagan, the locals told me, is actually hot and humid all year round – despite what some online articles say.

One very important tip for travelers going to Bagan – try the Thanaka, the traditional Burmese sun block. You can find it in many shops along the road and inside the temples. Aside from keeping you from getting sunburned, it has a cooling effect on the skin.

I bought 1 pack with 12 Thanaka blocks for MMK3,000. Ask the vendor how to put it on and they’ll surely oblige to put some on your face.

Done with temple runs for now

I left Bagan via an overnight bus to Yangon. I highly recommend this means of transportation since it’s the cheapest and fastest option – unless you have some hundred USDs to spare for airfare. You can also save some kyats from paying a night in a hotel or guesthouse.

The trip takes around 10 hours and you’ll arrive in Yangon at daybreak. Most hotels in all cities I visited in Myanmar don’t mind early checkins so this is not a problem.

Bagan is as breathtaking and magnificent as every online blog or travel book described it to be. It’s one of few places in Southeast Asia, in my opinion, that can immediately transport you to hundreds of years of history by just riding through its temple-packed streets. You cannot visit Myanmar and not go to Bagan. Your trip will simple be incomplete!

Having been around the Angkor Archaeological Zone, Ayutthaya and BAZ though, I think I’ll lay off my temple run adventures for some time. I think I’ve explored my share of Buddhist temples and pagodas in Southeast Asia.

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