Bagan, located on the banks of the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River, is home to the largest and densest concentration of Buddhist temples, pagodas, stupas and ruins in the world with many dating from the 11th and 12th centuries. The shape and construction of each building is highly significant in Buddhism with each component part taking on spiritual meaning.
With regards to tour comparison between this immense archeological site and the other significant archeological gem of Southeast Asia, the Angkor sites, this analogy may be helpful:
Angkor ruins are like a Chinese Lauriat banquet where food is presented in spectacular servings with a suspenseful wait between items which are hidden beneath curtains of forests. On the other hand, Bagan is served in Spanish Tapas style, the ingredients exposed to the customer and shown in small bite-size servings, with the next attraction close and visible at hand, in shorter intervals.
Another analogy between Angkor and Bagan Sites when distinguishing temple structures is through their stupa and spire shapes.
Artichokes and corncobs = Angkor while gourds and durians (or pineapple) = Bagan.
An example is gourd for Shwezigon Pagoda and durian for Ananda, Thatbyinnyu, and Mahabodi Temples. In another way of imagining, Bagan temples are like topped with inverted ice cream cones.
What makes the temples look romantic is the process of graceful aging. For some reason, there are no windbreakers around as shown by the barren, desert-dry mountain range to the west past the river, spinning occasional micro twisters that spawn loose dust particles everywhere from the eroded earth to the structures. This phenomenon had peeled off so much the stucco coating of the temples to reveal the brick structural blocks with its rusty, reddish, and sometimes golden brown-like patina when hit by the sun's rays.
Erosion is a significant threat to this area, not only the wind chipping away the buildings' plastering but also water from the mighty Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River threatens the riverbanks. The strong river current has already washed away half of the area of Old Bagan. It used to be a rectangular-shaped piece of enclave protected by a perimeter wall. Now what remains is roughly the triangular eastern half part.
Other images of Bagan which make a lasting impression to tourists aside from the spire-fringed skyline; stupas sporting that tumbledown look yet crowned with glitter-studded golden miter-like sikaras; the ubiquitous pair of ferocious stone lions flanking a temple's door; the spiky and lacy eave fascia woodcarvings lining a monastery's ascending tiers of roofs; tall palmyras or toddy palms with willowy trunks, bougainvilleas, exotic cotton trees, and the likes bringing life to the arid landscape and abandoned ruins; squirrels playfully and acrobatically scampering on the walls and pediments of temples; horse drawn carriages lazily carrying drop-jawed tourists; sleepy moving grandfather's bullock carts grinding on a dust-choked trail; not to mention the garbage left around, stray dogs loitering, longyi clad men spitting betel chews in copious amounts everywhere, overgrown weeds and the pestering dust.
Bagan became a central powerbase in the mid 9th century under King Anawratha, who unified Burma under Theravada Buddhism. It is estimated that as many as 13,000 temples and stupas once stood on this 42 sq km plain in central Myanmar, and Marco Polo once described Bagan as a "gilded city alive with tinkling bells and the swishing sounds of monks' robes". Approximately 2,200 remain today, in various states of disrepair. Some are large and well maintained, such as the Ananda Pahto, others are small tumbledown relics in the middle of overgrown grass. All sites are considered sacred, so when visiting, be respectful including removing shoes as well as socks before entering or stepping onto them.
Bagan's golden age ended in 1287 when the Kingdom and its capital city was invaded and sacked by the Mongols. Its population was reduced to a village that remained amongst the ruins of the once larger city. In 1998, this village and its inhabitants were forcibly relocated a few kilometers to the south of Bagan, forming "New Bagan" where you will find accommodation in its handful of cheap, quaint, clean hotels and religious centers.
Despite the majesty and importance of Bagan, UNESCO did not include it on its World Heritage Site, because it says some temples were rebuilt in an un-historic way. Nonetheless, the site is arguably as impressive as the Pyramids of Egypt: a dry, vast open landscape dominated entirely by votive architecture.
With no exemptions when entering Bagan you pass through or your driver himself will deliver you to the ticket booth where you present your passport and purchase a US$10 ticket to the whole archeological site valid for your entire stay before dropping you to your hotel. This pass is also needed for accommodation as hotels and hostels record the ticket number when you check in.
Staff at the ticket booths sell pirated copies of George Orwell's Burmese Days for around US$5, though if you negotiate you can get them down to $2.
Maps are also sold at 1000 kyats. It is not necessary to buy as these are available free from big hotels, if you happen to pass by and ask even if you are not their guest.
You can fly to Bagan from Yangon on Air Mandalay, Air Bagan , Asian Wings  or Myanmar Airways ] for US$ 93. Air Mandalay and Air Bagan also fly from Mandalay. From the airport to New Bagan, it takes about 15-20 minutes by car, and usually this will cost around 7000-10000 kyat. Most midrange and luxury hotels will provide free pickup from the airport.
Overnight trains run daily from Yangon, departing at about 4:00 pm and arriving in Bagan at about 9:00 am the following day, at prices ranging from a few thousand Kyat (a few dollars) in second class, to US$50 for a "luxury" sleeper.
There is a direct train service running from Mandalay to Bagan with two departures daily. Tickets are available directly at the railway station and cost about US$6 one way. The journey takes about seven hours.
Most train routes in Myanmar are fairly nice, however when going on the Mandalay-Bagan route expect the train to be incredibly crowded. You will also have limited room to store your stuff, as well as cramped uncomfortable sitting conditions. The night train to Bagan has lots of room and feet space in the 1st class carriage US$10.
Comfortable bus links from Mandalay are available for 8000 kyat one way (6-7 hours). Night buses to Yangon leave in the afternoon and arrive early in the morning 15000 kyat. There is one day bus that departs Bagan at 9am. Prices can be as high as 18000 kyat but should be no more than 15000 kyat booked direct or through your hotel. There is one bus a day from Inle Lake to Bagan leaving the junction at 7am -at this time of the morning you have to get a private pickup to the junction (6000 kyat) because the public ones aren't running yet.
A daily "express" ferry service runs down the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) from Mandalay to Bagan taking about 9 hours (or something like 20 miles per hour). One-way ticket is US$40+US$3 commision (as of Oct.'12). It is more of a slow pleasure cruise than a rush express trip for the priceless river views and fresh air, a glimpse into the Myanmar country life with locals waving at you and acknowledging your presence non intrusively, and the overall soothing and relaxing atmosphere detached from misery and distant from poverty. (Disagree: the views are far from spectular from the middle of the very wide river. Frankly an overnight bus ride might cater to many more people at a fraction of the cost.)
A (very) slow ferry covers the same route frequently and costs US$10. Takes anything from 14 to 17 hours, but is a great opportunity to mix with the locals. Plastic chairs are available to rent on board. Otherwise, bring something to sit on and a cover for the early hours (leaves around 5am) and evening. Locals will be grateful to share theirs if you ask or if they see you shivering.
Pagodas of Bagan
For an unparalleled view of the Bagan plain, you can take a hot air balloon ride at sunrise through a company called Balloons Over Bagan, for US$ 295 per person. These balloons are British made and have a perfect safety record. They do not operate during the summer.
You can rent a horse cart with a driver for around 12000 - 15000 Kyats for a full day. The horse carts are slow, shaky, bumpy, and not exactly the most comfortable mode of transportation. Passengers are however sheltered from both sun and rain, so that's a huge plus in hot and wet Myanmar. Still, a half-day is best recommended.
The horse-cart driver is obviously a local, and will be able to bring you to little shops in small villages for a cold beverage as a respite from a hot afternoon of temple-hopping. Not a bad way to spend a day. One good option is to rent a horse cart for 1 day to see the major temples, and then visit the remaining sights on bicycle the next day. Horse carts are also available for transport to the airport at the same price as a minivan seat, but the journey is slow and long. You're much better off going by bicycle instead of horse cart.
Travelling around on a rented bicycle is quite easy (although you have to compete with much vehicular traffic on the almost one-lane roads) and economical (as little as US$1.5 per day).
In the morning, before it gets hot, is a particularly pleasant time at 7:00 am to 9:00 am to do this. People tend to rise late around Bagan, so touring early really emphasizes the sense of Bagan as "abandoned". Later in the day, particularly during the warm season, it may be uncomfortable beyond sanity to do this.
In the wet season, be aware that there shelter from the rain might be hard to come by, and you could be thoroughly drenched before you find a suitable shelter.
In the dry season, bicycling through the sandy paths connecting the more remote temples can be a harrowing exercise in self-inflicting torture, but this is still the best way to get to where you want to go cheaply and freely. The main roads are all very good, easily passable, and near impossible to get lost on; with enough water packed, it's actually quite pleasant though you do need to be sure to have sunblock with you.
Shared pickup leaves from the market in Nyaung Oo to Old Bagan (200K)and New Bagan (400K). They sometimes attempt to charge 1000k for tourists but it can be fought.
All temple signs are written in Burmese. Only a selected few are in English, and if there is, it's written at the back of the sign.
The three basic building blocks of typical Bagan temples are stupa, block base, and vestibule. Anywhere you go, you may undress down the structures to its basic shapes by the first one, or a combination of two, or all three of them.
The simplest structure starts with a stupa just like a chess pawn piece casing a sacred teeny weeny piece of anatomical remains or relics of the Buddha. Or it may just be a simple commemorative votive piece. Some stupas have a single pierced niche housing a Buddha icon, which can be viewed by the devotee from the outside. As complexity kicks in, the niche becomes bigger and no longer fits in the stupa so a cube block base is introduced to accomodate the enlarged niche which eventually becomes a cell. With the cube block casing the cell now fully defined, the stupa become its topping. Then, the cube's cell's entrance develops a vestibule, while the cell increases to two (back to back), eventually completing all the sides, one for each cardinal point (north-south-east-west), and eventually as it becomes bigger, a dark claustrophobic ambulatory connects all four cells. Becoming more articulate and intricate, the cube's top taper into two to three tiers and decorated with smaller corner spires on each while the vestibule protrude outer and outer, the doorways decorated with pediments, some with upturned, others with downturned haircomb teeth-like decor, etc. (some describe it as flame-like). In others, the tiers become prominent to evolve like a multiple stepped pyramid. Meanwhile the stupa becomes more elaborate as moldings multiply and another set of tiers and niches are introduced. From a simple gourd-shaped stupa, it has now evolved completely to a complex structure.
Both to the trained (as explained above) and the untrained and not so eager eyes, the temples may appear similar. For lovers of the beauty of Bagan, each structure has its own distinct personality. Just as what the French architect Pierre Pichard who inventoried the 2,834 structures in 8 thick volumes in 1996 described the whole menagerie, "a balance between uniformity and diversity", is achieved, contradicting the assumption of anarchy and monotony. Bagan architects mixed and matched prominent and subtle features but toed the line while nature enhanced it in over 1000 years of construction, depreciation, and renovation.
Nobody would be expected to visit more than 20 of these structures, let alone all 2,000 plus.
These are the important temples recommended by all tourist maps and agencies:
Ananda Temple - Bagan's holiest temple, built by the third king, Kyan-zit-tha in 1091. Ananda comes from the Pali word "anantapannya", which means "boundless wisdom". The temple houses four Buddhas facing the cardinal directions, which represent the four Buddhas who have attained Nirvana. The fifth, Maitreya, is yet to appear. This is the most important temple in all of Bagan. Location: Left side on the southern stretch of the Bagan-Nyaung Oo Rd. just before the road heads to Tharaba Gate of Old Bagan.
Shwesandaw Temple, . This is the "sunset temple", where foreign and Burmese tourists alike gather every evening to view the spectacular Bagan sunset. Get here early, as the top levels are small and space is scarce. There are many peddlers around the temple selling T-shirts, drinks and souvenirs. The climb up is a reasonably easy 5 minute walk up a flight of stairs, but the steps get narrower and steeper near the top. Not recommended for those with vertigo, but if you can make the climb, you will be rewarded with a breathtaking sunset as the the temples and landscape are set ablaze in golden sunrays. A good compromise is to climb to the 3rd or 2nd highest level, where the steps are much more manageable than the topmost level, is less crowded, and the view is just as good. It starts getting crowded here as early as 4:30pm, so consider taking a view from the Shwe-Gu-Gyi temple nearby instead (easily passable if on bike).
Shwe Zigon Temple - This gourd-stupaed golden pagoda is the first and prototype monument (including for the iconic Shwedagon Pagoda of Yangon) built in Myanmar style in 1087. Careful on the stall vendors, they are the pros employing hard sell psycho tactics. Location: Heading south, right side on the northern stretch of the Bagan-Nyaung Rd. after passing the bus station. A long covered walkway with souvenir stalls starts from the road to the compound.
Thatbyinnyu Temple - The tallest pagoda measuring 66 meters built in the 12th century. Location: Left side after entering the Tharaba Gate of Old Bagan, the second road.
Shwegugyi Temple - Commissioned by King Alaunsithu in 1131, one of the most intact temples in the site that needs a little less of imagination to appreciate Bagan's olden days. Nearby the Shwe-San-Daw pagoda, this temple is just as good for watching the sunset and far less crowded; a great alternative for an astounding view. Location: This temple sits closely in front of Thatbyinnyu Temple.
Manuhar Pagoda - This complex has some attached drama into it. It was built by King Manuhar from the nearby kingdom of Thaton, a POW of King Anawratha. He sold his jewelry and poured out his pent up sentiments by constructing this temple. Location: The last major Temple at the southern end of Myinkaba Village along Bagan-Chauk Rd. and marked by a towering free-standing column.
Dhamma Yangyi Temple - Another complex with an attached drama, this was commissioned by King Narathu to atone for his sins of assassinating his father, brother, and wife. The eccentricity of this king is reflected in the building's finely set brickwork (it was noted that he executed a bricklayer for his not too perfect masonry work - gaps are too wide) and its unfinished construction (work abandoned after he himself was assassinated). These generate so many riddles and mysteries that lead to be known as ghost haunted temple for some inhabitants. From estimates, there were roughly 6 million pieces of bricks used in the construction of this temple.
Su-la-ma-ni Pahto - Nearby Dhamma Yangyi, but even more impressive since of the same architectural style but even better preserved.
Additional: The decreasing six terraces and the main structure resemble the plan of a pyramidal shape. It was the copy of Ananda temple, and has two corridors inside constructed in a plan in perfect Greek cross. But the interior passage has been closed by bricks for unknown reason. The masonry job of this temple is so remarkable that even a needle can't penetrate between two bricks. Besides, the complicated architectural style of this temple creates the arguments on the number of floors and on the completion of the building. Location: A kilometer southeast off the southern stretch of Anawratha Rd.
Gubyaukgyi Temple @ Wetkyi-Inn Village - This durian-shaped stupaed temple was modeled after Bodh Gaya in India. It has also murals depicting scenes from the Jataka tales. But the best feature in this temple is the rooftop view of the surrounding area even if it's not as high and acrophobic as those in its category. Access is guided by the caretaker who will reveal his intention after such a wonderful tour by soliciting appreciation for his sand paintings. Remember, nothing is free in Myanmar. Location: Better accessed through Bagan-Nyaung Oo Rd. although Anawratha Rd. is nearer but remote, just north of the dry creek.
Gawdaw Palin Temple - A fusion of Myanmarese and Indian styles, this temple has a beautiful courtyard with a medium-sized stupa and interesting bell hangers. Location: Inside Old Bagan, just north of the Archeological Museum.
Bupaya Stupa - This lone golden gourd-shaped structure is sitting on a complex temple by the river. Location: Inside Old Bagan, a north bound road leading to it branches out from the main road as it turns south, the stupa is visible from the outside and not necessary to explore the temple complex.
Shwezigon Pagoda - on the North bank of Nyaung U, this is one of the most important pagodas in all of Myanmar that was built 11th century and served as the original model for the pagoda of the same name in Yangon.
Almost 3,000 other temples, monasteries, libraries, ordination halls, etc.
Expert guides recommend the tour of the archeological site in five parts:
Along the Bagan-Nyaung Oo Rd. (North of Old Bagan): Bulethi Pagoda, Shwezigon Pagoda, Gubuakgyi Temple @ Wetkyi-In Village, Thagyarhit Temple, Upalithein Ordination Hall, Htilominlo Temple, & Ananda Temple.
Inside Old Bagan: Tharaba Gate, Maha-Bodi Pagoda, Pitakattaik Library, Thantawkyar, Shwegugyi, Thatbyinnyu Temple, Gawdaw Palin Temple, Mimalaung Kyaung Group
Along Bagan-Chauk Rd (South of Old Bagan): Gubyaukgyi @ Myinkaba Village Temple, Manuhar Temple, Nonpayer Temple, Abeyadana Temple.
East Off Southern Anawratha Rd.: Dhamma Yangyi Temple, Sulamani Temple, Meenyeingone Temple, Lawkahteikpan Temple, Shinbinthalyaung Temple, Shwesandaw Pagoda.
North and Around Minan Thu Village: Nandamannya Temple, Phayathonezu Temple Group, Tayokepyay Temple, Dhamayazaka Temple, East & West Petleik Temple, Lawkananda Pagoda.
If you're staying in New Bagan, it's fully possible to hit all of the main highlights in a single very full (and tiring) day by bicycle:
1) Starting North, pass through the village where
2) proceed further North to Shwe San Daw, Mya Zedi, and Mingalar Zedi.
3) head East to see Dhamanyangyi & Sulamani.
4) Return back west to enter Old Bagan where you can see Shweguygyi, Gawdawpalin, Mahabodi, and Bu Phaya on the bank of the Ayeyarwaddy. Grab a snack in town and refill your water before as your next stretch will take you until Nyaung U.
5) Exit NE of Old Bagan on Anawrahta RD to Ananda temple.
6) Continue NE to see Alo-pyi then take your left to the road for Htilominlo. Where this road hits Bagan-Nyaung U RD, make a stop at Upali Thein.
7) Head back to Anawrahta RD, and return on your NE journey until you reach Gu-Byauk-Gyi.
8) As you enter Nyaung U, head left to go further north and make a stop at Shwezigon Pagoda.
9) Continue Eastwards through Nyaung U and stop for lunch and refill your water (plenty of great places to eat on the 3rd street parallel to the east of Shwezagon).
10) Take Nyaung U-Kyaukpadung RD South, a highway that passes the Bagan Golf Course towards the airport.
11) Turn Right at Myat Lay RD that leads back towards New Bagan.
12) Pass by the Bagan Tower, and traverse through Min-nan-thu village. At the entrance to Min-nan-thu village, you will see Lay-Htaung-Ken (the only fully white pagoda); stop in Min-nan-thu for more water/snacks after the long continuous ride from Nyaung U).
13) Continue westward to the Paya-Thone-Zu group of temples (some of the few which you can see the carvings inside since natural light permeates).
14) Head West and you're back to New Bagan.
A note on murals - some temples became elaborate and have murals but it's just a waste of time gazing at and appreciating them even if they survive, for majority have their interior maintained in pitch darkness and it's not worth taking off your shoes and socks to get in. The only ones that pass this scrutiny are the Phayathonezu Temples, the Gubyaukgyi Temple @ Wetkyi-Inn Village, and the Upalithein Ordination Hall where natural light can penetrate. One can just go to the Archeological Museum to see the scaled reproductions or buy the book specifically dedicated to it sold at all souvenir bookstores.
Bagan Archeological Museum - this very ugly museum building - a sad, nauseating result of the fusion of old and new architectural styles with the overemphasis on the profusion of lotus ornamentation - keeps all the salvageable and portable finds from all the temples in this region. A grand hall has a coffered ceiling of dizzying Myanmarese patterns and unusual color combinations.
Palace Site - consisting of purely excavations of the ancient royal palace, not a single post is left standing to attest any authenticity or to whet the tourist's curiosity. The entrance fee is US$5.
The mood of the village is laid back and, after a day biking around in the stone forest of stupas, the evening entertainment is entirely DIY.
Rent a bike : Most midrange-luxury hotels offer bike rentals from 2500 Kyats per day. Most of the area in and around Bagan is flat and very easy to bicycle your way around.
Rent a horse cart with driver : The classic way to visit interesting sites in Bagan. A day tour around the temples will cost about 10-15.000 kyat per cart (up to 4 people). You can either tell the driver where you want to go, or let them decide for you. Usually, they will try to take you to a cafe where they get a commission, but this is not always a bad option.
Rent a car with driver : This is the best for the marathon option of getting to the five-part tour mentioned above and attainable in two days. It is also dust and dirt (although you still have to take off your shoes and socks) but definitely sweat and sunburn free at a price of US$35 per day per car (fare can be split to a maximum of 4 passengers). Cars are private owned but they have to be government accredited as indicated by a big sticker approval on the door of the car. Of course, the government has a cut on this. The rental office is on the tourist information office (i) at New Bagan township.
Monks and Monkettes : If you haven't get your fill of the early morning monks alms begging and blessing when you were in Luang Prabang, get out to the street exactly 7:00 am and see the monks, this time wearing their vests in burgundy (not in orange). There is even a herd of little monks as young as 3 or 5 to 10-year olds parading bare foot with the tallest down to the smallest toeing the line and with the eldest and the shepherd of them all brotherly escorting the last and the youngest (a heartwarming sight to see). By the way, the first in the parade is the announcer carrying his little bell and beater. Other spectacles are the also bald-headed female monks or monkettes with their pink robes, orange skirts, and beige-ochre shoulder-to-armpit wrapped towels. Their way of begging is different. They use woven cane trays carried over their head and receive only one spoonful of uncook rice from each donor. These spectacles are best seen along the Nyaung Oo road from Thante Hotel to the Shwezigon Pagoda.
Novice monk initiation rites : During long school breaks, boys are inducted into monkhood with this ritual. This can be observed with the first signs of loud temple music blaring out a day before and on the day itself coming from a monastery around (in and out of the walls of) the northern side of Old Bagan. On the day itself, the boys are brought to the monastery by parents and relatives dressed in gowns, crowns, flowers, sequences & glitters, stockings, and make-up. A big audience is gathered. The place itself is colourfully festooned. A small show consists of songs by hired singers accompanied by ensemble music, a pep talk by a layman and some rituals. After some photos with their parents, the boys are brought again to another monastery (Myoe Daung Monastery) to be stripped, head shaved, and bathed. Finally they are assembled in the hall in front of the abbot for some prayer recitation, oath taking and robe-blessing ceremonies after which they are totally stripped and dressed in their new robe vestment by their parents. They will stay the rest of their school holiday in the monastery.
Night Market + Carnival. There is a small night market cum carnival in the middle of the small town. While there isn't much to buy or play compared to night markets in more developed countries, it is a good way to see first hand how the locals entertain themselves. There is an indoor stage where concerts are held (free), and an especially eye-popping Ferris Wheel, which is amazing for the fact that it runs not on electricity or gas, but on human strength. Young men clamber up and down the Ferris wheel with no protection or safety equipment of any sort, and use their own body weight to rotate the wheel. One wrong move and they could be fatally injured. This would be unthinkable in most countries, but it's just another night at the carnival for the Burmese. Quite an eye-opener.
As of May 2013 there is an ATM accepting VISA credit and +PLUS debit cards in Nyaung-U. Look for the KBZ bank located at the intersection between Anawrahta Rd and the road to the airport (Sapada Paya).
Bagan offers lacquer ware, cloth paintings, T-shirts and other handicrafts. As elsewhere in Asia, it is "friendly" to grant a client 10% off. It is common for initial prices to be double what you can get with bargaining. If you probe further, remember to always keep the bargaining friendly.
Hnin Hnin, Shwe Gu Gyi Pagoda, ☎ 09403714982. A friendly middle aged couple who sell the usual assortment of sand paintings and lacquer at the Shwe Gu Gyi Pagoda. They are putting their children through school, and are always up for a nice chat about their lives and their thoughts on the changing times. If you really spend some time with them, they might even invite you to lunch behind their shop.
There are many places to eat in Old Bagan serving the traditional Burmese dishes, especially good old noodle soup. Some of the buffets are excellent; for about USD 4 you can eat to your heart's content from dozens of different traditional dishes.
At the southern end of Bagan-Nyaung Oo Rd. where a dirtroad leads to Ananda Temple, there are al fresco restaurants lining this road serving complete budget meals. A meal priced at 3000 kyats or at US$4 at that time (Nov.'12) consists of rice with the main dish - two bite sizes of beef, pork, or two small chicken pieces, or about a dozen smelt pieces, plus clear broth and 4 small plates of appetizer-veggies - beans, salads, pickled veggies.
Black Rose Restaurant, New Bagan (on Khayaye Street between 3rd street and 4th Street.). Standard fare (curries, stir fried and soups. Good fried rice for less than 3,000 kyats. Very friendly staff. Free but slow wifi is available.
La Min Thit, (Near new Bagan market). Myanmar typical food ('can get healthy fresh Myanmar home food, tasty and reasonable price')
Mahar Bagan, Khayee Road, Khan Laung Quarter, New Bagan. One of the better restaurants in Bagan, with a cheerful and friendly owner who speaks good English and seems happy to indulge customers in stories about the area. The menu consists primarily of Chinese-style dishes. The restaurant serves an excellent array of traditional Burmese food, but you have to visit 4-5 hours in advance to let them know your order, as most Burmese dishes take a long time to prepare.
The Moon Vegetarian Restaurant, North of Ananda temple, Old Bagan, ☎ 061-60481. Not only the best veggie restaurant in Bagan, but overall just a great eating experience. All food on the extensive menu is freshly prepared, and there's always a special dish of the day. Seats around 15, so you won't have to sit with the big tourist groups. Costs around US$5 per person.
Weather Spoon's, No. 5 Main Road, Nyaung Oo (Opposite Pann Cherry Guest House on the main road heading to Old Bagan), ☎ 09-43092640. Restaurant & bar with European, Burmese, Chinese and hamburgers. Go for the burger - really impressive (coming from an American frequently disappointed by burgers abroad), fries are good too and beers competitively priced. Iced coffee is also quite good. Free WiFi, friendly service. GO. Absolutely go.
Star Beans, North of Ananda Temple, Old Bagan (next door to The Moon Vegetarian Restaurant). Run by a friendly man with over 15 years experience in Myanmar hotels, the restaurant offers beautifully presented Burmese food and a few western favorites. Best thing is his crunchy and fresh french baguettes!
La Min Thit Myanmar Typical Food, New Bagan (Near New Bagan Market), ☎ 061-65313, 09-43008221. Real Myanmar home food, fresh and healthy food, clean and away from dusty main road, family style, Newly open.K.3000 to K.5500.
San Carlo Restaurant, (Behind Thiri Malar Hotel). In New Bagan, a small, reasonably priced, family-run restaurant with tables on a quiet back street near some of the mid and high range hotels. Although not for the gourmet, good quality for money, and different cuisines on offer: Chinese, Burmese, Italian. Free Wi-Fi. They also rent bicycles (1500 Kt/full day, 1000 Kt/half day), have laundry service and in general can provide good advice and other tourist services on demand.
Bibo Bar & Bistro, Thi Ri Pyitsayar 4 St, Nyaung OO, Myanmar (on Restaurant Row about 1/3 down if moving east). A very cozy, small restaurant run by a very nice and soft-spoken young couple. Thant and his wife prepare all the food themselves, fresh on the spot. Thant waits on customers and mixes cocktails while his wife does the cooking. They will also do off-menu dishes. Just ask Thant and he'll make recommendations based on your likes and what he has bought from the market that day. Extremely friendly and personable service, and excellent food at very reasonable prices. The restaurant itself is small and cozy with soft warm lighting, and tables placed far apart enough to give diners some privacy. Two of the walls are removed to give the restaurant an open, airy feel, which will appeal to those with claustrophobic tendencies. Note: some reviews on the Internet place this restaurant in Nyuang U, but it's actually in Old Bagan. Previous review is spot on, just seconding it - ate there five times, always very pleased. The Burmese curries (esp pork, fish and pork, slightly less so the chicken) are the standouts. Buy one get one cocktails at happy hour 17:30-19:00.
Pwind Mar Lar, New Bagan (east of New Bagan Market: Follow the little road between the market and the Yadanar supermarket. The restaurant is a little hidden behind the supermarket.), ☎ 061-65325; 09-43132213. Very friendly family run restaurant. Do try the all you can eat set menu (3000 Kt per person). 12-16 different dishes for 4 people. When you have finished, the "I make" lady will offer home made sweets. Really good fruit juices too (ask for them, might not be on the menu).
Tibetan Restaurant, Nyang U (on the 3rd street parallel to the east of Shwezigon Pagoda.). On the same street as where Pocho Thai Restaurant and Dagon beer station are, this place offers delicious Nepali, Tibetan, Indian, and Thai in a place that started as an Italian restaurant, all very cheap. Great place to stop as you refuel before making the bike ride back to Old or New Bagan.
Yuzana Restaurant, New Bagan (on Khayaye Street between 3rd street and Sabae Street.). Standard fare (curries, stir fried and soups. Do try the delicious chicken meat ball soup for dinner for less than 3,000 kyats. Free but slow wifi is available.
As everywhere else in Myanmar, there's plenty of Myanmar Beer to go around.
Most accommodation nowadays are found in New Bagan or Nyaung Oo. In Old Bagan, only some government-involved, luxury hotels remain. The most visited temples (but not necessarily the best) are located along the northern stretch of Nyaung Oo Rd. or at Nyaung Oo township and downwards before you arrive in Old Bagan. Don't forget that Bagan area and its 3000+ temples streches over a 20km x 20 km perimeter; if you really want to see and appreciate Bagan you'll need to rent a bike or a taxi or a horse cart, you can't do it on foot. Nyaung Oo town has the most budget accommodations.
Guest-house guests sometimes have no control of switching TV channels in the bedrooms. To change channels, one must go down and ask at reception.
Floral Breeze Hotel, New Lawka Nandar Pagoda, Chauk-Nyaung Road, Anwratha Ward, New Bagan (South of New Bagan, walking distance from Law-kan-nanda Pagoda), ☎ +95 61 65309 (firstname.lastname@example.org), . checkout: 12. Newly rennovated with beautiful outdoor grounds, a great breakfast spread, and clean/comfortable rooms. Fast free wifi. A great place higher-end place to stay with cheap bike rental and helpful staff to arrange visits to Mt. Popa.$55/night.
Kumudara Hotel, Corner of 5th & Daw Na St., Pyu-Saw-Htee Qtr., New Bagan, Myanmar (Northernmost end of New Bagan), ☎ (+95-61) 65142, 65402, . checkout: 12. A bit of a dated hotel with nice pagoda-style rooms and a great pool to relax at after a long day biking. Internet is not included. Cheap bike rental and northern location make it a great spot for starting on a ride to Old Bagan and the Northern temples. Considering that New Bagan is so small (can traverse on bike from one side to the other in 5min), I recommend Floral Breeze ahead of here.$55/night + $20 for double occupancy.
Large Golden Pot Hotel, Ahnawyahta Road, Nyaung oo (Just past the intersection of the road to mount popa and the road to old bagan past oasis guesthouse towards mount popa), ☎ +95 (0) 61 60074 / +95 (0) 920 42028, . checkout: 12. This place was a little rundown, but not too much worse than anywhere else whilst being cheaper. Large double room with air con (when working the air con was ok) but the power was out often. No website for this place but photos and video available at the weblink$15 Double ensuite (Low Season), normally $20.
NK Betelnut Hotel, Kha Yay Pin Street, Anwratha Ward, New Bagan. Clean and comfortable bungalows located between the eight-face pagoda and the morning market. Free wifi that logically tends to be faster than at crowded restaurants nearby. Very helpful staff. Note that if you require a double bed, make it clear when making the reservation and insist when checking in. On the downside, the rooms are very dark and the breakfast is best avoided. Prices as of May 2013$40/night.
Pyinsa Rupa. Rooms on the roof are nice. The owner speaks very good English and is very informative and helpful. Located in Nyaung Oo, on the main road south-east of the market. Rooms are dated and in need of a thorough cleaning. WiFi doesn't work. Hot water is available. They are building new rooms in an adjacent addition.US$10 for a single room and US$17-20 for a double with shared bath including a standard breakfast.
Thante Hotel, Northern tip of Nyaung Oo-Nyaukpadaung Rd, . Clusters of rooms set in bungalows all located around a central pool. Close to the market. Excellent service. Dispenses free map.US$45 for a single room (low season).
New Heaven Hotel, Nyaung Oo. A run-down hotel once rated as Lonely Planet's "our pick", New Heaven has been coasting on its Lonely Planet review for years. Dirty, small rooms are smelly and expensive. Electricity is inconsistent. Staff are rude.
Inn Wa Hotel, Nyaung Oo. Near the rotunda at the north of the Nyaung Oo Road, this hotel is clearly past it's prime. English speaking but unhelpful and generally unfriendly staff; seems resentful about something. Not much service. Free Wifi that doesn't work and apathetic staff that won't try to fix it. The location is the furthest away from restaurants and temples. Not recommended to stay here and there are better deals closer to the bus station or in the other direction past it.$20(May 2013) for aircon, no TV, private bath with no hot water and breakfast 7-9 am sharp.
Thazin Hotel. Bungalows and rooms overlooking a (rebuilt) pagoda. There is also a salon, expensive internet access, a limited library, billiards, a scenic pool and a nice breakfast room. Summer may be more expensive of the year.$80-$120.
Kaday Aung Hotel, Hninn Pann St., Kyansitthar Quarter (Near Manuhar Temple, Myingabar village), . Garden and pool is ok but the cold environment from the shade of trees is priceless. The rooms are well decorated with woods and bamboo fixtures and arts, dinner and dance shows at outdoor restaurant, buffet breakfast with local and continental menus are so delicious. All staff smile all the time and manager is very helpful. Facilities are well suited for 3 stars level. Standard rooms at least are well below the quality their price should justify. Bathrooms are worse than in a guesthouse less than half the price: stinky, rotten and obviously never maintained. The management is far from friendly when reporting complaints of this nature, and fail to understand what to cater for tourists (charging Western prices in return) really should mean.$45-$90.
Amazing Bagan Resort, Adjacent to the Bagan Nyaung Oo Golf Club (About 10-15 min. from the airport with a taxi.), ☎ 95 61 60035, 53, 54, . checkout: 12:00. A luxury resort at a bargain price. It's located a bit outside "everything", so to get to the nearest town or even shop it's necessary to rent a bike or take a taxi. It's a very quiet, beautiful and tranquil place. They can arrange horse cart rides to see the temples with pick up from the hotel for 13 000 - 15 000 Kyats for a full day. Bikes can be borrowed free of charge. Nice and large swimming pool. Wi-Fi is free of charge as well in the lobby. The restaurant serves excellent food and isn't too expensive. Main dishes can be had for around 5-10 USD. The reception staff is very friendly, polite and helpful. The rooms are big, only problem with that is that the small air cons in the rooms have a hard time cooling the rooms. Owned by a local Chinese businessman.85-100 USD.
Thiri Marlar Hotel, Ingyin Street - New Bagan, ☎ +95 61 65050, +95 61 65229, . checkin: 14:00; checkout: 12:00. A mid-range hotel in New Bagan, well maintained, recently renovated, with friendly and knowledgeable staff that can help organize things efficiently. The premises are well kept, very neat and with a welcoming terrace on which the bar is situated. Breakfast/Meals are served in an upper terrace with nice views of the surroundings, including some pagodas nearby. Taxis, Poeny cart can be organized through the reception, bikes are for rent at 2500 Kyats per day. Superior Rooms are large, very clean, well lit, with wooden floors, well furnished with 2 large luggage racks and a very nice bathroom attached. Standard rooms are in a separate building but very clean too and with decent if somewhat basic furniture with bathroom attached also (water heater included). Free Wi-Fi in the reception and terrace, and in Superior rooms too; the signal may be received also in some of the Standard rooms. There is a computer with internet access also in the hall.US$30.
May Kha Lar, Main Road (Nyaung OO (location in Google Maps is accurate) about 10 mins walking north of Restaurant Row), ☎ +95-061-60304/60907. Friendly staff, clean with a range of rooms to fit different budgets. $20 rooms are pretty tiny but $25 got us a huge double room with AC, a hot (purportedly) shower. Breakfast is typical. Rent bicycles for the standard rate. Quiet. Nice mattresses. Really, a nice place to stay!20-30.
From Bagan, you can do a day trip to visit Mt. Popa. This attraction is a temple on a cliff. You walk the stairs up, about 100 metres), although barefoot as the place is considered holy. The stairs are not very clean because of the presence of large numbers of monkeys. The views from the top are good.
The bus service to Inle Lake is one of the worse in the all country. The bus is incredible small, with no space whatsoever for your legs, and the road is in really bad state all the way. The price is 10,000 kyats and leaves daily at 4am and takes 9 hours to Kalaw. Add a couple more to the junction town for Inle.
The morning bus to Kalaw leaves at 7:30am, costs 12,000 kyat and is not a bad journey. You arrive around 2pm. The bus to Mandalay leaves at 8:30am and costs 10,000 kyat.
As the Romans do, the best footwear to go about in this site is a pair of plastic slippers or crocs. It is so easy to slip on and take off as one hops from one temple to another. If you don't have a pair of slippers, your hotel might be able to lend you a pair. Wearing socks and tightly laced shoes are a hassle. At the end of the trip, your shoes and socks need a good washing.
Be extra careful when you climb the stairs of less visited temples, hidden beehives just above your head might make Bagan a painful experience!
Head gear is also important. A wide brimmed hat is recommended.
Bring lots of wipes, the best way of cooling off and getting rid of dust and sticky sweat in your face, arms, and feet. There are no air-conditioned buildings to take shelter during very hot noon breaks. Even banks are not air-conditioned.
Bring a bottle of water and once empty, refill it at your nearest travel agency or banks you happen to stop by. If not squeamish and tight on budget, refill it at the water stations (with local clay jars as water containers) ubiquitously and strategically placed all around the town.
Most of all, bring an ample sun lotion from the scorching sun.
Bagan is not for those with respiratory illnesses as the air is full of dust.
If you are using a bike for your personal tour, when you leave it by the gate, it is 100% assured that your bike will still be there when you get back. Pagan is a family-village setting and anyone who does harm to anybody will surely be known and humiliated, if not prosecuted. Being Asians, Myanmarese value face-saving as important.
As in anywhere, anytime in Myanmar, internet use is always a problem. Surfing is an exercise in futility - super turtle slow and excruciatingly being disconnected often. Ridiculous conspiracy theories such as the noontime heat on the main wiring causes overload during daytime, heavy traffic on Sundays when most people surf, nighttime as well, or because Yahoo has rubbed the government in a wrong way that's why it's favouring only G-mail and Facebook are expected from the shop owners.
Souvenir vendors - young and old, some as young as 6 years, are pros. They manipulate the heartstrings of the tourists using subtle and psychological techniques. They initially act as your bike minders, then guides, then tip providers eventually revealing their true intentions. They sometimes even offer to visit you at your hotel if you aren't decided or you have no available cash. Don't fall for their friendliness, and be firm in your refusal before they get too attached to you even if you insist that you are only a tourist on budget and had already coughed out $5 for each vendor at all temples you've visited. They are hard to shake off and will insist. But most Myanmarese are not crooks, and are fair dealers, as generally they are good Buddhist.