With the highest concentration of temples and pagodas in the world, Bagan is absolute bucket list material and hands down, one of the most epic places we’ve ever been. With so much to see and do, planning a Bagan itinerary was an overwhelming task that took us weeks of research, reading and recommendations.
Thankfully our research paid off and despite having only 3 days in Bagan, it was an unforgettable trip filled with breath-taking pagodas, epic sunrises, delicious food and the friendliest people we have ever met.
At one stage over 10,000 Buddhist monuments towered over Old Bagan’s desert-like plains, to which only 2000 still remain but are breathtakingly beautiful none the less.
It is thanks to these monuments that earn Bagan UNESCO World Heritage Status and a must-visit destination when backpacking Myanmar. However, there are so much things to do in Bagan that don’t even involve Pagodas so we will share our hidden gems and absolute favourite finds to ensure your time there is as amazing as our Bagan trip.
HOW TO GET TO BAGAN, MYANMAR
Travelling to Bagan by Plane
Before you can begin your epic Bagan itinerary, you will need to know how to get there. The nearest airport to Bagan is Nyaung U Airport however, it does not cater to international flights. You can take domestic flights to Nyaung U airport from the larger cities in Myanmar such as Mandalay, Heho and Yangon.
Using Skyscanner for the cheapest deals, from Mandalay to Bagan (Nyaung U Airport) is around £55 for a one way ticket (rising to nearly £150) so it is by no means the cheapest option but if your Myanmar itinerary is short on time, it is the quickest.
A flight from Mandalay to Bagan takes only 30 minutes, Heho to Bagan around 40 minutes and 1 hour and 20 minutes from Yangon to Bagan.
Travelling to Bagan by Bus
Instead, to save money we recommend taking the JJ Express, Mandalay to Bagan bus as not only is it far cheaper but it will take you from the centre of Mandalay to Bagan in only 3 hours. It also saves the faff of weight restrictions for luggage at the airport, unpacking for security queues and organising transfers to and from the airports.
Our Mandalay to Bagan bus tickets were 20,300 MMK which is a crazy £11.00 for BOTH of us. We booked a premium economy bus so it’s likely there are even cheaper options and we were treated to water, plenty leg room and comfortable seats (although there were no toilets onboard so remember to go before you leave!)
We used JJ Express throughout our time backpacking Myanmar and cannot recommend them enough. You check in at their ticket office within the bus station and are provided with a sticker and allocated seat number. Your luggage is either tagged or given a key ring which corresponds with your seat number so there is no risk of lost luggage.
We found drivers friendly and incredibly safe although be prepared for A LOT of horns beeping. Forget napping on the Mandalay to Bagan bus as there is constant beeping from traffic in Myanmar, although plenty to see to keep you awake.
WHERE TO STAY IN BAGAN
After our bus journey from Mandalay to Bagan, it cost 7000MMK (approx. £3.80) for a private car transfer from the bus station to our hotel. This was organised by our hotel which we cannot recommend enough as it saved haggling with local taxi drivers or attempting to squeeze our backpacks on a motorbike.
If you are wondering where to stay in Bagan, Bagan Beauty Land Hotel was perfect for so many reasons. We paid 139,000 MMK (around £75.00) for 3 nights – this also included breakfast.
Firstly, thanks to travelling out with peak season (we were there in April) we were upgraded for free to an even better room. Secondly, the hotel had a rooftop area where you could watch the famous Bagan sunrise and the balloons taking off.
The room was spacious and beautifully decorated with a huge En-Suite bathroom and very powerful shower. There was also air con, a fridge and kettle with tea & coffee in the room.
The main reason we recommend Bagan Beauty Land if you’re wondering where to stay in Bagan is because of the staff – they were so incredibly helpful in booking transfers and arranging tours for a fair price.
They gave us so many recommendations for things to do in Bagan and better yet, told us the prices to expect so we couldn’t be ripped off. They even allowed us to check out late FOR FREE on the last day of our Bagan itinerary which was ideal as we managed to squeeze in even more Bagan attractions and return to our hotel for a shower before our overnight bus to Inle Lake.
BAGAN ITINERARY: DAY ONE
Sunrise in Bagan
One of the most popular things to do in Bagan is get up for sunrise to witness the numerous balloons as they soar over the thousands of pagodas. Of all Bagan attractions, this has caused serious controversy in recent times due to the lack of respect from tourists who ignore signs and have climbed pagodas for a view of the Bagan sunrise.
The Bagan pagodas are thousands of years old and many are already damaged and dangerous due to earthquakes with the added erosion from careless tourists on top. Due to their cultural and historical significance please protect them (and you) by being a responsible traveller and obeying all signage and avoid climbing them.
Although we could see the balloons from the rooftop of our hotel (so there was no need to risk our life for a photo like some idiots) we didn’t realise the balloons over Bagan are seasonal. The balloon season ends around April 10th so we only witnessed around 6 balloons in the sky, although it was beautiful none the less.
If you fancy going in one of the balloons over Bagan, prices start from around £300.00 per person (this usually includes a light breakfast and champagne afterwards.) Not exactly budget friendly if you are backpacking Myanmar, but we completely understand it’s a once in a lifetime experience, so if it’s on your bucket list this Balloon tour had amazing reviews.
We are both a tad terrified of heights so enjoyed the sunrise from our hotel roof instead, but understand the appeal as it’s the only opportunity to view the Bagan pagodas from above.
Mount Popa – Day Trip from Bagan
After a photo or two of the balloons over Bagan we went back to bed for an hour before enjoying our delicious breakfast ready for our day trip to Mount Popa.
Despite our research of what to do in Bagan, Mount Popa was rarely mentioned in travel blogs so we’re so glad our hotel receptionist organised the day trip for us as it was such a unique experience that we realised not many tourists do.
In a nutshell, Mount Popa is home to a famous monastery that lies on top of an extinct volcano, guarded by monkeys. Yes it sounds like a scene from a movie and we cannot lie, the entire experience was a tad crazy, especially thanks to the 777 steps to the top that have to be done barefoot as it’s a religious site.
Our Mount Popa day trip from Bagan was only an hours drive, however we also stopped halfway to sample some traditional palm beer & sweets at a local farm. After our epic morning, we were back in Bagan by 2pm ready for an afternoon of exploring one of the most famous Bagan attractions – Shwezigon Pagoda.
An afternoon at Shwezigon Pagoda
You cannot miss the glimmering gold of Shwezigon Pagoda. Built around 1090 it is one of the oldest and most impressive pagodas in Bagan. Although in order to make it to the glimmering gold for a wander round, you first have to make it past two things:
- INCREDIBLY pushy vendors
- The ticket desk.
Firstly, a few tips for tackling the market vendors. The Shwezigon Pagoda is surrounded by a wall measuring 230 meters on each side, although there is an access gate in all of its four sides, we mistakenly chose the obvious tourist trap option which involved a long covered walkway full of vendors leading to the pagoda.
The vendors were incredibly pushy asking us to buy their fake lacquerware (more on that later) and one even picked up our removed shoes and hid them at her stall, knowing we’d return later looking for them. By all means we love purchasing a souvenir or two especially from local crafts people, but we were not going to get bullied into overpriced flip flops and plastic jewellery.
Instead we spent our money on something far more useful – the Bagan Archaeological zone pass. Although the 25,000 MMK (£13) fee may sound expensive, it entitles you access to the Bagan Archaeological Zone, which comprises of all temples and Bagan pagodas in the four main settlements – Nyaung U, Old Bagan, Myinkaba and New Bagan and you cannot enter the Shwezigon Pagoda without it.
The fees are also put towards restoration and repair works of the pagodas as well as the local community so DO NOT be disrespectful and try sneak past the ticket desk as it’s damaging to these incredible buildings and the local economy.
Once greeted by the white lion guard at the entrance (assuming you made it past the vendors) you will be treated to numerous religious buildings within the Shwezigon complex. We literally hopped from one to the next as the ground was so hot in our bare feet, so our visit was quite short (around 1 hour) but one of the most impressive Bagan attractions none the less.
Traditional Burmese Dinner at Myo Myo
Needless to say after a crazy busy day one of our Bagan itinerary you will be ready for food. A LOT of food. Words cannot describe how much we loved our visit to Myo Myo – a traditional Burmese restaurant where there is no menu, instead you are served several dishes and you pay for what you eat.
Similar to tapas, we were presented with a tray covered in several small plates. The smaller of the plates were 500 MMK (around 60p) and the larger around 1500 MMK. Do not be scared by the volume of plates, you will only be charged for the ones you eat as well as any drinks and the rice and soup which come as standard.
The food was delicious although in all honesty there was nearly 25 dishes so we cannot remember what half of it was. We do remember delicious chorizo style sausages, fried fish, sweet curry and banana fritters with honey. For our entire meal including the rice, soup, two beers and water we paid 8900 (although we rounded it up to 10000 as we loved our experience and were so full.) Better yet, we were the only tourists there so it’s an ideal local gem for a taste of an authentic restaurant in Bagan.
BAGAN ITINERARY: DAY TWO
After jam packed day one of our Bagan itinerary, we decided to take two a little slower. The joy with so many things to do in Bagan is that they are all within walking distance so you can squeeze in a lot into a day.
In Bagan it is illegal for tourists to ride a moped so the majority hire E-bikes. Due to our clumsy reputation and frequent travel fails, we decided to avoid the E-bikes and instead flagged a tuk tuk to take us into Old Bagan. We paid around 4000MK (£4.50) for our tuk tuk from our accommodation into Old Bagan which was expensive but we did not mind as it saved walking in the 40degree + heat.
Looking for a Bagan pagodas map? With over 2000 pagodas in Bagan we were overwhelmed with choice, thankfully our hotel recommended some a little of the beaten path as well as the main Bagan attractions. We have added a few quick notes on which ones we visited on day 2 of our Bagan itinerary however for more detail (and photos) we have an extensive guide to the Bagan pagodas including a map of where to find them all.
- Gawdawpalin: Second tallest pagoda in Bagan at 55metres. You will spot this immediately during your Bagan trip as it towers high above the trees.
- Maha Bodhi Phaya: Unique to all other pagodas in Bagan as it was built as a replica of an Indian temple of the same name, which is recognisable from it’s pyramidal tower – there’s no other like it in the region.
- Schwegu Gyi Phaya: Neighbours Thatbyinnyu (around 10 minute walk) beautiful wooden doors and intricate windows – an unmissable thing to do in Bagan.
- Mahazedi Pagoda: Half way between Schwegugyi and Thatbyinnyu. You cannot enter but a worthy Bagan attraction none the less.
- Thatbyinnyu Pagoda: One of the largest in Bagan but there are two hidden gems that many tourists don’t know about – the tally pagoda next door and the stone Buddha hidden in a neighbouring Pagoda. Our Bagan pagodas guide shares how to find them.
- Minochantha: Looks unassuming from outside, but you can still access the roof so it is a hidden gem for the famous Bagan sunrise (or sunset.)
- Ananda Temple: Our favourite of all Bagan attractions. There are information boards detailing the restoration of Ananda temple which are so interesting. They show how vital the Bagan Archaeological zone fee is and where the money has been spent.
Lunch – Where to eat in Bagan
During day 2 of our Bagan Itinerary we stopped at Sarabha Restaurant for lunch where I enjoyed soup and Darren enjoyed cashew chicken (a dish he became obsessed with in Pai, Thailand.) The restaurant is located nearby the Tharabar Gate which is the entrance to Old Bagan. It serves a range of traditional food as well as Thai, Chinese and Pizza.
The restaurant is open planned although shaded with the joy of being open to the elements, we witnessed a snake eat a lizard whilst dining here. Needless to say this provided some intense David Attenborough worthy viewing, and an unforgettable memory from our Bagan trip.
If you’re searching for the best restaurants in Bagan one which we were recommended over and over again was Sharky’s. Unfortunately we didn’t have time in our jam-packed Bagan itinerary to visit, although loved our visit in their sister restaurant in Yangon and even met the famous owner who welcomed us in for a chance to dry off during Thingyan water festival.
Famous for its farm to plate ethos, Sharky’s is located in an old theatre next to Shwezigon Pagoda, so is also an ideal place to stop on day 1 of your Bagan itinerary if you have time, or day two if you don’t fancy Sarabha restaurant.
Nanda – Puppet Show Restaurant
For dinner, we decided to go to one of the most famous restaurants in Bagan – Nanda. Made famous thanks to its puppet show which is a traditional Burmese past time. We arrived around 7pm and to our delight the only table left was at the very front of the stage and the show was just about to start. We believe there is a second show that starts at 8:30pm.
Although this meant we had best view in the house, we soon realised why it was free as it was right next to the live band which was very loud, however incredibly entertaining. It was our first time at a puppet show and we were mesmerised by the outfits, skilled puppeteers and live music.
Admittedly we didn’t have high hopes for the food as we understand most people only go for the novelty of the puppet show, however we were very pleasantly surprised. I had a red curry, you can already guess what Darren had although this time it had a cute carrot creature.
The cost for 2 mains, rice, beer and water (complimentary poppadum’s) was 23000MMK (£12.)
There are 2 puppet shows each evening with a short break in the middle where the puppeteers walk through the restaurant collecting tips – so be prepared with cash for this. There was even a table of local monks who had came to enjoy the show and we agree your Bagan trip would not be complete without a puppet show visit.
Next door to the restaurant was a puppet shop which it alone is worthy to be called a Bagan attraction – the puppets on display were amazing. Each one handmade and some were even taller than me. We were also surprised at the cost of a puppet, starting at only $10 which if we’d had more room in our backpacks we’d have definitely purchased as a wee reminder of our epic Bagan trip.
BAGAN ITINERARY: DAY THREE
As we had spent most of day 2 of our Bagan itinerary on foot (and sweating A LOT) there were a few temples and pagodas further afield which we were keen to see, so hired a driver for the day. Alternatively, you could also hire E-bikes if you’re a little braver than us or simply hire bicycles and do a cycling tour with a local guide.
The driver was actually the same one who had picked us up from the bus station, he’d given us his card and quoted a price of 35000MK (£18) for the day which our hotel said was very reasonable. He picked us up at 9am and we showed him on a map which temples in Bagan we’d managed the day before and which ones we hoped to see today.
Immediately we wished we’d hired a local guide sooner, having his local knowledge was so helpful as well as the joy of air con in a comfortable vehicle (as princessy as that sounds.) Following is the stops he took us to, some of which we were already aware of but others we were so grateful for his suggestion as they hadn’t featured in other guide books or blogs we’d read.
We began Day 3 of our Bagan itinerary with the grandest pagoda in Bagan – Dhammayangyi. At the entrance there are several vendors, one of which we got chatting to and he explained he was an art student. He played tour guide, sharing fascinating folk lore with us and patiently waiting as we were stopped by several locals (and even monks) for photos – making us feel like fake celebrities.
Turns out despite its stunning appearance, Dhammayangyi is stooped in a gruesome history, which we would’ve had no idea about had we not had a local guide. He explained Dhammayangyi temple is nicknamed “the unlucky temple” by locals, because it was built by King Narathu as a sign of remorse for killing his father for the throne. He also killed his wife and chopped of the hands of workers who did not get the mortar-less brickwork correct during the temple’s creation. You can still see the arm-sized grooves where this took place inside the temple.
If you’re wondering what to do in Bagan, you cannot miss Dhammayangyi. The exterior is incredible considering it was built in 1170. The interior is equally mind blowing – with walls adorned in paintings, stunning carved brickwork and towering wooden doors. The majority of which look decades old, not centuries. The photo opportunities are endless and we would’ve happily spend hours and hours here.
At the end, we offered to buy one of our “guide’s” paintings as a thank you because we’d learned so much but to our surprise, he said he didn’t want money he just wanted to practise his English. Although many blogs would advise you to beware of local scams on your Bagan trip, we have nothing but praise for the local people and this was just one of many examples during our time backpacking Myanmar where we felt genuinely welcomed there.
This was our second temple of the day and one of the most famous things to do in Bagan. Words cannot express how overwhelmingly huge this building is and the fact it was built in 1183 is mind blowing. The walkway leading to Sulamani was my favourite part – it was like stepping into a movie set with the most beautiful archway that makes the perfect frame.
However, it gets even more epic as you enter inside, with many towering Buddha statues and wall paintings which still look as if they were made a few years ago.
Although it’s arguably one of the most popular Bagan attractions, again we were the only tourists and locals stopped us for photographs. We can imagine in peak season it would get incredibly busy (and the ground very hot) later in the day, so recommend going early in the morning.
Quick Shopping Stop & Outfit Change
Our driver then took us to his sister’s market stall for a refreshing drink, we got chatting to some local children and Darren purchased trousers.
As a tip, the men of Myanmar wear a longyi which is similar to a sarong but despite being Scottish and partial to a kilt Darren could not get his to stay on. He was later taught by a group of 8 year olds at Hsibyume Pagoda how to tie it on properly but in the mean time, we made a quick stop for Darren to purchase trousers.
It is a requirement for men to have their knees covered when entering religious sites in Bagan so it was easiest for Darren to purchase light weight linen trousers – the seller even altered them as we drank our juice so they were the perfect fit in less than 5 minutes!
Continuing Our Tour of Bagan Attractions
Our driver took us to 3 more temples which were all insanely impressive yet, completely unique. We’d heard of being “templed out” in the way all cathedrals start blending into one when backpacking Europe, but in Bagan we couldn’t get enough. In fact, we regret not extending our Bagan itinerary as we could’ve squeezed in even more of these incredible buildings.
We learned so much from our driver about these temples and definitely recommend making them part of your Bagan trip – you can read about each one our pagodas in Bagan guide.
Visiting a Lacquer Workshop in Bagan
Lacquerware is a huge industry in Myanmar and visiting a workshop is one of the most interesting things to do in Bagan. Fitting a visit to a lacquerware workshop into your Bagan trip is super easy as there are so many to choose from and tours are usually free (in the hope you’ll make a purchase.)
The Burmese word for lacquerware is Yun-de and the art is called Pan yun. It is created from the sap of a “varnish tree” such as Melanorrhoea usitata or Thitsee which are very common in Myanmar. We received a short talk in the workshop before a wander round to admire each part of the extensive process from painting to carving. We learned it takes 6 whole months to complete a lacquer cup and up to 1 year for an item of furniture.
I nearly had to leave Darren behind in the showroom as he was obsessed with the furniture and wanted to buy it all. The pricing of all lacquerware was in American dollars which is quite common in Myanmar. We paid $10.00 for a small bowl, but more as a thank you for such a fascinating insight into this traditional art.
We also learned the way to tell real lacquer from fake, because the fake will be smooth and not engrained/carved. It is usually fake lacquer made from plastic, which is sold outside temples, so do not pay a premium for the wrong thing.
Quick Stop at Mani Sithu Market
Our souvenir shopping didn’t end there as our driver then brought us to Mani Sithu Market (where conveniently his wife had a stall.) We had a giggle that the only stall he brought us to was hers and being typically British we couldn’t refuse a few more souvenirs, one of which included a bracelet that I still wear everyday and it only cost me £1.00!
We love markets as they’re the perfect insight into local life alongside finding handmade treats and trying unusual foods. Again, we were the only tourists so if you’re wondering what to do in Bagan without the crowds and also in the shade – a wander round the market is a perfect activity.
Late Lunch at Black Rose
By this stage it was nearing 2pm so we stopped for lunch at a Bagan restaurant named Black Rose. You guessed it, Darren opted for chicken cashew noodles and I had cashew rice. It was a very quick stop as we had a few more Bagan attractions we still wanted to see.
Manuha temple was unlike any of the other temples we’d seen so far and a definite inclusion to your Bagan itinerary. Situated in Myinkaba village, between Old Bagan and New Bagan, Manuha temple was built in 1067.
The highlight of this temple is the 3 large gold painted Buddhas and an enormous (90ft.) reclining Buddha. It is believed the statues were built first by Manuha who then built the temple around them (hence the temple’s name) however he had spent most of his life held in captivity, so chose to build the rooms around the Buddhas purposely a little small to represent his frustration of being held in captivity.
There was also a large alms bowl – so huge in fact there was a ladder to reach it with nearby piles of rice and money as donations to the temple. Manuha temple was particularly busy with locals and donations as it was a public holiday with Thingyan festival just days away, which is the Burmese New Year.
Again, we were asked for photos from locals which seemed to be a recurring theme on our Bagan trip but we didn’t mind as they were so friendly recommending yet more Bagan attractions.
Ending the Day at a Traditional Tea Shop
Our driver took us to the final stop of the day which was one of his favourite things to do in Bagan – a traditional tea shop. Our driver explained at the end of the working day instead of heading to the pub (like we would in Scotland) they go to tea shops to socialise with friends and talk about their day.
We sampled two teas one which was incredibly sweet made with condensed milk (similar to how they make coffee in Hanoi) and one which came in a large flask for the table to share and tasted more like green tea. It was a great experience to be the only tourists and simply people watch – a definite must of things to do in Bagan.
We returned to our hotel around 4pm and had a few hours to relax (thanks to our FREE late checkout.)
A Thai Dinner in Bagan
If you’re still wondering where to stay in Bagan, reason 13794 why we loved our hotel is because of the fabulous Thai restaurant next door. Do not be put off by the large modern building which to be honest reminded us of a car showroom – inside the attentive and friendly staff serve homemade style Thai food which we LOVED!
Shocker, Daz ordered cashew chicken and we also had a delicious (complimentary) desert that looked like bubblebath but tasted like coconut. We learned this is a common dessert in Myanmar called Sago (similar to tapioca) and is often served with palm sugar and coconut milk. The restaurant also had live music despite us being the only customers (we were visiting out of season.)
Overnight Bus from Bagan to Inle Lake
It was soon time to get our overnight bus from Bagan to Inle Lake. Thankfully, our hotel informed us of a transfer bus which picks up tourists from all nearby hotels to take them to the bus station – this was a free service provided by JJ Express which saved paying for a taxi.
We were given a small pack lunch on the bus as well as blankets, pillows and water ready for the long journey to Inle Lake. We left Bagan at 10pm and arrived in Inle Lake at 6am. Our bus tickets cost us 47,000 MMK (approx. £25.00) for both of us.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON 3 DAYS IN BAGAN
After an epic 3 days in Bagan, we were sad to be leaving but we genuinely do not think we could’ve squeezed in any more Bagan attractions. It is unlike any other place we’ve ever been before so hope our Bagan itinerary will allow you to make the most of your time here.
The only thing we wished we could change about our Bagan trip was the weather – it was so incredibly hot (40++) that we found ourselves rushing round the pagodas as it was so hot on our bare feet and hunting down shade constantly. We understand to many people the heat is part of the adventure, but for us Scots we struggle.
Although on the other hand, we wouldn’t have had the joy of crowd-free temples or hotel upgrades had we travelled in peak season, so it’s worth bearing that in mind when planning your own Myanmar itinerary– the pros and cons of when to visit to make the most of your trip.