Bagan, the center of the ancient Pagan Kingdom, is best known for the numerous temples that dot the vast city. During Bagan’s hey day, 10,000 temples and pagodas were built between the 11th and 13th century. Today, only upwards of 2,000 remain, but that doesn’t stop tourists from flocking to this historic former capital. Ever since Myanmar re-opened its borders to the world less than 10 years ago, visitors have raced to Bagan to see the temples first hand before the country becomes overrun with western influences and the untouched charm of this extraordinary city are lost forever. Here’s our guide for seeing some of the great sights of this fascinating place.
Know Before You Go
- Currency: The local currency is the Burmese Kyat (MMK). Note: If exchanging US Dollars in Myanmar, it is important to know that the currency exchange or bank will only accept brand new, unfolded bills – preferably in $50 or $100 denominations.
- Airport: The airport in Bagan is Nyaung-U Airport. If Bagan is the first city you plan to visit in Myanmar, know you’ll have to enter the country through a major airport (like Yangon International Airport) and switch to a domestic carrier, as only Burmese airlines service these smaller airports.
- Language: The official language is Burmese
- To/From the Airport:
- Taxi: Depending on where you’ll be staying in Bagan, (Old/New Bagan are further away from the airport than the Nyaung-U area), expect to pay less than $10 USD for a taxi from the airport.
- Uber: Ubers are not available in Bagan.
- Getting Around:
- E-Bikes – A popular method for adventurous tourists to get around. Be sure to inquire about the maintenance of the bike – some have been reported to die out mid-rental
- Private Car – Expect to pay approximately $30 USD/day for a private air-conditioned vehicle for 3-4 people.
- Tour Guide: If you’d like a guide to show you around, expect to pay around $35/day. If hiring a guide through a hotel, expect the rate to be upwards of $50/day, as the hotel will take a cut of the cost.
- Tipping: Though not required, tips for good service are very much appreciated
- Credit Cards vs Cash: While some restaurants may accept credit cards (Visa or Mastercard), it’s generally safer to assume that cash would be the expected method of payment. Larger hotels will likely accept credit cards, and some may have ATMs on site.
- Must-Try Food: Tea leaf salad
- Temple Attire: Expect to have your shoulders and knees covered while visiting the temples. Shoes are not worn on temple grounds (sometimes including the land around it), so wearing flip flops or slippers that you don’t mind getting dirty is recommended as you’ll be taking them off frequently.
- Temple Fees: Upon landing in Bagan, visitors will have to pay a 25,000 kyat (just less than $20 USD) fee, which covers the cost to enter the temples. Keep these handy as you’ll have to show them if asked.
- Areas to Stay: There are three main areas to stay in Bagan.
- Old Bagan is home to many of the most visited temples, and have many in close proximity to one another, making it easy for the adventurous to head out solo on electronic bikes. Hotels in this area tend to command the highest price, and if you’re looking to splurge, we recommend one with a view of the Ayeyarwady River.
- New Bagan hotels tend to be cheaper, and there is a solid selection of restaurants in the area.
- Nyaung-U hotels tend to be the most reasonable, but are also the furthest away from the temples. However, Nyaung-U boasts the best restaurant/bar scene among the three neighborhoods (albeit, aimed entirely at tourists).
See & Do
Hot Air Ballooning – There are three main companies that offer hot air balloon rides at sunrise, for breathtaking views of the temples – Balloons Over Bagan, Oriental Ballooning, and Golden Eagle Ballooning. All of these companies charge upwards of $300 USD per ride, and the price difference between the three won’t be much. Hot air balloon season is typically between October – March (which is dry season in Bagan), though this may vary slightly by operator. If you’re interested in doing this, book early – while this excursion is pricy, it is very popular.
Boat Ride – Many will opt to catch the sunset on a boat on the Ayeyarwady river. Most will charge upwards of $15-20 USD per boat for an hour long trip on the river.
Temple Hopping – The thing most people come to Bagan to do. For the adventurous types, electric bikes are a popular way to get around, but you can also hire a private car to drive you around for the day – worth it if you plan on visiting more than just a few temples in the same area. Fun fact: while most use the term “temple” and “pagoda” interchangeably, a temple is a shrine you can walk through, while a pagoda has no walkways within it and can only be admired from the outside. See below for our breakdown of some popular temples to visit.
- Ananda Phaya – One of the most distinctive temples – with its gold hti (ornate piece that sits atop pagodas in Burma) – the Ananda Pahto is not one to miss. Completed in 1105 during the reign of King Kyanzittha of the Pagan Dynasty, this is one of the best preserved temples, and thought to be the most revered in Bagan. The temple is home to the four standing Buddhas, covered in gold leaf, each facing one of the four cardinal directions. Unlike many of the other temples, this one has more finished interiors, and the upkeep is evident.
L-R: Ananda Phaya exterior, Interior hallway of Ananda Phaya, Image of Buddha – north side of temple, Detail of Ananda Phaya door
- Tharabar Gate – The only remaining gate of the historic ancient city then known as Pagan (modern-day Bagan), located in the east side of Old Bagan.
- Thatbyinnyu – Built in 1144 by Alaungsithu, it’s Bagan’s tallest temple is known as the “Omniscience”. Notable for its white boxy exterior, this is one of the first two-storeyed temples built in Bagan. On the second floor, you’ll find a gold seated image of Buddha on a throne. Head upstairs and you’ll find yourself at the highest terrace (there are three levels), where you can take in some great views of Bagan. On your way out, you might notice the small gayocho – for every 10,000 bricks used to build the temple, one was set aside to keep count of how many were used.
- Bagan Golden Palace – Unlike many of the centuries-old temples you’ll come to Bagan to see, the relatively newly (and uncharacteristically) constructed palace is located just next to the archaeological site of the original. Entrance fee is 5000 kyat, though we’d suggest skipping this for… anything else in the area.
- Bulethi Temple – Located between Nyaung-U and Old Bagan, this temple offers fantastic views of the better known temples, including Ananda Paya, Dhammayangyi Temple, That Byin Nyu and Htilominlo.
L-R: Tharabar Gate, Remains of walls around Tharabar Gate, Thatbyinnyu Temple, Panoramic view from Bulethi Temple
- Bupaya Pagoda – Located on the banks of the Ayeyarwady river, this unique-looking pagoda with a bulbous shaped-stupa is said to be one of the oldest in Bagan. What stands today, however, is restored – the original edifice was demolished in the 1975 earthquake.
- Dhammayangyi Temple – The largest temple in Bagan, this massive structure is hard to miss. Built during the reign of King Narathu, it’s said to have been built out of guilt for killing his predecessor and father, Alaungsithu, and his older brother and heir-apparent, Min Shin Saw. Legend says that he personally supervise the building of the temple, and required blocks be laid so tightly that one could not push a needle between two bricks. Masons who failed were said to have had their arms cut off in the west entrance. Work on the temple stopped when Narathu was killed, and it is said the inner ambulatories were filled with brick by workers out of spite for the harsh rule of the late king. Three of the four Buddha sanctums were also filled with brick – the western shrine that remains features two side by side images of Buddha. Though popular with visitors, it’s worth noting this temple has never been restored – and the mystery around its origins may have something to do with it.
- Gawdawpalin Temple – One of the largest in Bagan, this temple was built by King Narapatisithu in the 11th century – but the temple wasn’t completed. It was eventually completed by his son Htilominlo. The tale goes that the proud king proclaimed that his powers were more glorious than that of his ancestors – and not long after, found himself blind. Wander through the ground floor of this two storeyed temple to find gold images of Buddha at each of the four sides of the building.
- Htilominlo Temple – Known for being the last temple built in Myanmar style, the temple was built by King Nantaungmya to mark the spot where he was selected to be the crown prince, among his five brothers. The intricate detailing on the temple is reminiscent of Sulumani, though you’ll find far more vendors lined up on the compound.
L-R: Htilominlo Temple exterior, Front entrance detail of Htilominlo Temple, Dhammayangyi Temple exterior, Small side entrance to Dhammayangyi Temple.
- Shwezigon Pagoda – One of the oldest temples in Bagan, the beautiful bell shape was the guide for many similar temples built afterward. The pagoda is known as one of four shrines that enshrines a replica of Buddha’s teeth. The site is also known to be where the 37 nats (spirits) were officially recognized by King Anawrahta as spirits of worship in an attempt to contain the practice of animism.
L-R: Shwezigon Pagoda, Pagoda exterior detail, Archway detail, Bells around Shwezigon Pagoda
- Dhammayazika Pagoda – While most temples in Bagan have a traditional square base, this pagoda is unique in that its foundation in pentagon shaped. The four corners typically represents four Budddhas of the present world who had already attained Enlightenment. The fifth corner here represents the future Buddha. The pagoda’s base, built from brick, has a rich red coloring, while its gold dome on top makes this shrine recognizable for miles.
- Leimyethna Temple – This white temple, built on a raised platform, was erected under the direction of Anandathura, a minister in the court of King Htilominlo. Completed in 1223, the temple consists of terraces with small stupas at each corner, topped by a large stupa similar to what you’ll see at Ananda Pahto.
- Payathonzu Temple – Unlike most temples you’ll visit, Payathonzu is unique in that it’s a row of three connected temples. Built in the 13th century, the temple was abandoned prior to completion (the third shrine appearing the most incomplete), due likely to the Mongol invasion. The two more completed temples are adorned with artwork on the walls – including some Tibetan or Chinese-looking murals.
- Sulumani Temple – Built in 1181 by King Narapatisithu, this two storied temple is one of the most intricately designed in Bagan, and is as a result, uniquely elegant looking (and ps – it’s my favorite!). Keep an eye out for the ornate hand-carved archways, pillars, and terraces. The temple’s namesake, King Sulumani, rests in a building on the north side of the compound.
L-R: Dhammayazika Pagoda, Leimyethna Temple, Payathonzu Temple, Sulumani Temple
- Manuha Temple – The first thing you’ll notice about this temple is that it looks visually different from the others – a rectangular shaped base with a smaller rectangular top. The story goes that the pagoda was constructed by the Mon king from Thaton, Manuha, who was held captive in Bagan. Inside, you’ll be greeted by three seated images of buddha, but wander further in to the back to find a large reclining buddha. If the statues seem almost too big for the building, it is said to represent how the King felt trapped in captivity.
- Nanpaya Temple – The story goes that this is where Manuha was kept captive, though there is little evidence to support the fable. Supposedly, this was once a Hindu shrine that was Manuha’s captors thought would make a suitable prison, and was much easier to use as one rather than converting to a Buddhist temple. Other tales say this was built by Manuha’s grand newphew. A visit inside the temple will reveal intricate sandstone carvings inside the temple. Built in the 11th century, this temple is known to be one of the first gu (or “cave”) style temples.
- Nagayon Temple – This temple was built under the reign of King Kyanzittha in the 12th A must-see when visiting is the large Buddha statue, sheltered under the hood of a serpent or naga. This is a reference to the old tale that the pagoda is built on the spot where Kyanzittha sought shelter while in hiding from his brother. For great views of the surrounding area, the roof of temple can be accessed via a narrow set of stairs.
L-R: Nagayon Temple, Manuha Temple, One of the over-sized images on Buddha in Manuha Temple, Nanpaya Temple
If you have the time to drive 1.5 hours outside of Bagan (a private car is recommended!), head to Mount Popa, Bagan’s own “Mount Olympus”. Known as the home to the worshipped 37 nat, this extinct volcano has become a pilgrimage site, with a 777 step climb (about 20 minutes up) to the top of the mountain. At the base you’ll find the Mother Spirit of Popa Nat Shrine, where a display that represents the 37 nat adorns the hallway. Make your way up the steps to the top of Mount Popa (and watch out for Monkeys – who can be viscious! Be mindful of your belongings, especially food), and you’ll be greeted with a serene view of the surroundings and the Popa Taung Kalet Temple. If you’re more adventurous, Mount Popa sits within Mount Popa National Park, known for its hiking trails through plush vegetation and waterfalls. If you’re looking for the extinct volcano’s crater, we suggest procuring a guide, as it’s easy to get lost through the trails.
Eat & Drink
Myanmar’s tourism industry is much younger than other Asian cities – after all, Myanmar only re-opened their borders to visitors within the last ten years, so in comparison to similar places like Siem Reap, many restaurants may feel less established. You’ll find most restaurants offer many kinds of cuisine – think Myanmar+Thai+Chinese+Western food – in an attempt to please all visitors that may come by. We recommend having the local dishes of course – after all, when in Rome…
- Black Bamboo – A popular stop for visitors thanks to a number of travel guides, this spot, located in Nyaung-U, offers a range of Asian and western food at a very reasonable price (think: sandwiches for about $5 USD). The restaurant’s open-air layout makes it a great spot to enjoy a couple beers at on a cool night in Bagan. While this wasn’t the best meal I’d had in Bagan, Black Bamboo’s charming appearance and laid back atmosphere, coupled with the array of offerings will surely appeal to everyone. Plus – a bonus – a selection of homemade ice cream is available daily!
L-R: Green curry at Black Bamboo, Vegetable fried rice, Homemade chocolate ice cream, Black Bamboo garden area
- Bagan Zay – Also located in Nyaung-U’s downtown area, this tiny bar and restaurant might not seem like much, but they serve up some tasty offerings. Start your meal with some hummus, which was more chunky and paste-like, rather than a the smoother consistency most will be used to. Nonetheless it pairs well with a cold glass of Myanmar beer. First-time visitors to Bagan should try the Salad Trio, which includes a selection of local salads, including a tea leaf salad and a green mango salad. The pork loin in bean paste (served with fries) may not look particularly appetizing, but don’t let its plain looks deceive you, it was notable tasty. Service can be a little slow and laid-back, but Bagan Zay offers free wifi (a treat to most visitors without a local sim card!), so the web browsing will keep you busy as the servers leisurely take their time bringing you the bill.
L-R: Bagan Zay hummus and pita, Myanmar beer, Salad trio, Pork loin in bean paste
- The Moon – Be Kind to Animals – A vegetarian restaurant might not sound particularly enticing off the bat, but don’t overlook this restaurant just because the menu doesn’t appeal to your inner carnivore. It might feel a little touristy, given the location, but the food absolutely hits the spot, especially after a few hours of pagoda-hopping. We recommend spring rolls to start, followed by a cold green mango salad to beat Myanmar heat. A meal isn’t complete without some complimentary fresh fruit before the incredibly attentive staff get you the bill. The Old Bagan location is most centrally located to the more frequented temples, so the location is busy most of the time. The New Bagan location is newer, though serves up the same appetizing dishes. (No wifi, unfortunately.)
L-R: Vegetarian spring rolls, Green mango salad, Vegetable fried rice, The Moon – Be Kind to Animals interior
- Queen – This restaurant had to have the most extensive menu we while we were visiting – every dish they offered came in every variation of meat or vegetable. A must-try on the menu is the traditional Myanmar platter, which comes with your choice of protein (or vegetable) and rice, a traditional tomato salad, steamed vegetables, and an omelet served on locally-made lacquer ware. This dish takes 25 minutes to prepare, so if you’re thinking of having this, order early! Great spot for groups, given the varied offerings.
L-R: Traditional Myanmar platter with pork loin in bean paste, Vegetable stir fry dish, Mandalay beer at Queen restaurant
- Aureum Palace Bagan – This large resort is nothing short of fantastic – excellent service, good food, large rooms, and great temple views. Located in Nyaung-U, the property is located further away from many of the key temples you’ll want to visit, but is a great hotel to stay at if you don’t mind the drive to the sights. Read our review here. Room rates range from $200-400 USD.
Near Bagan Village Tower, Min Nanthu Village, Nyaung Oo, Old Bagan 11111, Myanmar
- Bluebird Hotel – This boutique hotel, located in New Bagan, is popular among visitors (thanks to a prime TripAdvisor rating, and reasonable room rates). Smaller in comparison to some other hotels in the area, this property fills up quickly, so if you’re considering it, book sooner than later. Room rates range from $150-250 USD
C101 Myatlay St, New Bagan, Myanmar
- Hotel at Tharabar Gate – Popular thanks to its location (its website boasts that it is a quick 8 minute walk away from Ananda Temple), this property is a great choice for those who don’t have much time to spend in Bagan. Room rates range from $200-300 USD
Near Tharabar Gate, Old Bagan, Nyaung Oo Township, Old Bagan, Myanmar