Bagan, Burma Travel Tips
Travel Advice for Burmese Touring - Yangoon to Bagan
Like most people, I love a good bargain. Living in Asia, I am constantly addicted to the Air Asia website and enjoy searching for the best flight deals to new and interesting locations. Sometime last year, I came across a ‘free seats’ promotion on their site. After some reviewing, I found flights to Yangon, Burma for next to nothing. Next, I had to convince my husband that he did really want to go there. Magic wand...magic wand... and the next thing I knew we had booked!
10 Days in Burma - Essential Tips
We spent an epic 10 days in Burma. Along with Yangon, we travelled to Bagan and Inle Lake. Looking back, there were many, many hi-lights but in all honesty there is no doubt that Bagan trumped them all. Funnily enough, I had actually decided to give Bagan a miss initially when planning my itinerary. Living in Asia and having been to Siem Reap in Cambodia not so long ago, I considered myself to be ‘temple fatigued’. Luckily a friend convinced me otherwise and so Bagan found itself back on my list.
Perhaps the easiest way to get to Bagan from Yangon is to fly on one of the domestic airlines. Whilst air travel is quick and efficient, I prefer to travel overland where possible. Not only is it cheaper, but I believe that it offers a chance to see more of a country. Our first choice was to take the bus, however due to it being the water festival we discovered all buses were cancelled for the duration of our trip. The repercussion being that I spent a frantic few weeks before our trip searching for alternative transport, whilst ensuring we stuck to budget! We finally agreed on the train.
Riding the Train to Bagan
I had many reservations about taking the train in Burma. Firstly, the train is owned by the government. We did not want to support such a harsh dictatorship by limiting the money that they would receive from us. In order to counteract this, a friend suggested that we give something directly back to the local community who need support the most. We bought some stationery and through a contact donated it to a local orphanage, thus restoring our karmic equilibrium. Secondly, I had read horror stories about how dirty and crowded the trains were. I was pleasantly surprised.
The carriage was split into half. Each half contained two upper bunks and the seats were easily pulled down to make the lower bunks. The cabin was very spacious for four people. I was quite shocked to discover that each section also had its own luggage room and toilet. Never in my life have I had the luxury of sharing a toilet between just four people on a train! Bedding was supplied, although we opted to use our own. Even towels and soap were provided. Best of all, we had our own individual air con unit with remote control, although this did stop working about midnight but it was cool enough with the windows open. Make sure that you bring enough water and food though, as you cannot walk along the train to the buffet cart. Once you are in your section, there is no way to reach other parts of the train. On the other hand, the train did stop early evening and someone knocked on our compartment selling us fried rice but I wouldn’t guarantee on that happening! The train was perhaps the most rickety one I have ever been on. At times it felt like we were on a see-saw, but the rocking motion helped me sleep! The train arrived two hours late but it was definitely a surprisingly enjoyable experience.
Bagan Travel Story and Advice
On arrival in Bagan, we negotiated our own pick-up to Nyaung U where our hotel was. The pick-up stopped on the way so that we could buy a permit for the Bagan Archaeological Zone. This cost us 10 USD and unfortunately goes straight to the government. There is no way to bypass this.
There are a few different options on where to stay. Firstly, Old Bagan is closest to the big temples. Its riverside location makes it quite scenic, however Old Bagan isn’t actually inhabited so there is not much else there apart from the hotels and temples. New Bagan is another option, although we didn’t make it this far. It’s rumoured to be good for mid-range hotels and riverside dining options. New Bagan only came into existence in 1990 when the government forced people to move there from Old Bagan. We chose to stay in Nyaung U due to its amenities. Although, I must say that the main tourist strip, locally called ‘restaurant row’, consists of a sandy, dirt road with a handful of restaurants and travel agents. For a few days, there is ample choice and variety.
Days in Bagan are spent getting in as much temple action as possible. There are a number of different ways to do temples tours ranging from hot air balloon, horse cart, bicycle and taxi. My husband persuaded me that cycling in 40 degree heat was the best option for us, especially as the hotel offered complimentary bikes. We found it easy to follow a map and direct ourselves to the major temples. Road conditions between the temples vary and being on a bike was incredibly frustrating at times when we kept getting stuck in the sand on the dirt paths. We spent two days in Bagan which in my opinion was just the right amount of time to see this incredible place.
The two mile bike ride from Nyaung U to Old Bagan is stunning. We rode along a main road and suddenly temples just starting appearing on the landscape, almost mythical. We spent our first day mostly in Old Bagan, particularly enjoying our visit to the well-known Ananda Pahto and Thatbyinnyu Pahto, as well as many other less visited sites.
Just before reaching the Tharabar Gate (entrance to the original palace site) in Old Bagan are a handful of small restaurants where we stopped each day, a welcome escape from the extreme heat. Vendors selling drinks and local souvenirs are also present outside the main sites. Most are friendly and keen to practise their English and the hassle is a lot less intense than the ferocious aggravation outside the temples of Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Our second day commenced in a way similar to day one with us heading towards Old Bagan. We had been going for a about 1.5 miles when my husband’s pedal fell off, resulting in us having to go all the way back to the hotel to change it! I wasn’t impressed. Apparently it is not unusual for the bikes to be in varying states of disrepair!
A few hours later than planned we cycled through Old Bagan onto the village of Myinkaba. Myinkaba not only has temples, but is also famous for its lacquerware shops where browsing makes a refreshing change from temple viewing.
The hi-light of my morning involved a visit to the ‘Shwesandaw Paya’. Traditionally people flock here to see the sunset; however in the midday heat we had the place to ourselves. It’s possible to climb up several very hot steps to reach the summit where you will be rewarded with magnificent views and a skyline dotted with temple after temple – truly breathtaking.
We completed our temple tour in the afternoon by visiting the famous ‘bad luck temple’ (Dhammayangyi) and Sulamani Pahto. Most people end their day watching the sunset over the temples. We didn’t make it to a sunset. After cycling around all day the hotel pool needed our undivided attention.
Evenings are low-key in Nyaung U with most people being exhausted after an action packed day of temple spotting. Unfortunately, our hotel was not near to the restaurants. The hotel kindly offered us an exuberantly priced taxi which we politely declined. This meant we had to jump back on our bikes to cycle a mile or so back into town. We found ourselves ravenous after riding around all day and enjoyed sampling both local and Indian cuisine. A much deserved beer also helped to wash down our dinner and ensured a solid night’s slumber.
Perhaps what shocked me the most about Bagan was the lack of tourists. The most famous temples had a constant, steady supply of visitors but it was remarkably easy to find almost deserted and isolated temples, creating a true sense of discovery.
By Joanna Nelson.