What to do in Bagan: 7 activities to discover in Bagan, Myanmar

The Burmese pagan kingdom that ruled the former plain of the Bagan Temple in Myanmar was extraordinarily pious. Devoted believers in Theravada Buddhism, the Bagan kings and their subjects built more than 10,000 stupas in their metropolis between the 9th and 13th centuries A.D. This could not last: the kingdom collapsed under Mongolian attack in the 13th century. The remaining temples – only a fifth of the original number – only evoke the richness and grandeur of Bagan’s heyday. Modern tourists consider the remaining temples of Bagan to be the equivalent of the Angkor Archaeological Park in Cambodia; Bagan is certainly part of any itinerary in Myanmar worth mentioning, and many travellers make sure to visit Bagan when exploring the great Southeast Asia. So what to do in Bagan?

What to do in Bagan: Explore the Bagan Plain

Bagan still has more than 2,000 temples, compared to more than 10,000 at the time of its glory. The stupas that littered the plain were built by the inhabitants of Bagan as acts of merit; at the height of the pagan kingdom, even the middle classes built their own stupas, but none were to compete with those commanded by the kings of Bagan. The majority of Bagan temples are located in the Bagan Archaeological Zone; a $20 ticket must be purchased before entering the zone. Fortunately, you don’t need to visit every 2,000 temples to fully enjoy the Bagan experience. If time is of the essence, you can visit these essential temples in the space of two days. As temples are active Buddhist places of worship, visitors must show respect before entering – shoes must be removed (without exception!), modest clothing worn, and appropriate behaviour followed. Read about temple Buddhist backs and not for a clearer look at the rules.

What to do in Bagan: Fly over Bagan in a hot air balloon

The temples of Bagan are best seen from a high point of view, and there is no higher perspective (or more magnificent than what you will get from a hot air balloon flying at 2,000 feet in the air.

Unlike helicopter and ULM flights, hot air balloon flights are relatively quiet and static, combined with the reddish light of sunrise to create the best conditions for observing the plain of the Bagan Temple. If you have money to spend (flights cost between $300 and $500 per person, read about money in Myanmar) and if you are visiting during the short balloon season (October to mid-April), include the Bagan balloon flight on your to-do list. Some companies offer hot air balloon services over Bagan such as Golden Eagle Ballooning, Oriental Ballooning, and the company that started it all, Balloons Over Bagan. Flights can last between 45 minutes and an hour, not to mention pickup at dawn at your hotel.

What to do in Bagan: Watch the sun set on the Irrawaddy River

If hot air balloon flights are out of reach of your budget, you can still climb a decreasing number of multi-storey temples to see Bagan’s magnificent sunsets reflected in the distance on the Irrawaddy River. Before tourism became a major concern in Bagan, most temples allowed visitors to climb on the upper bridges. But after the increase in tourist traffic and the many accidents that have ruined the temple climbing experience, the government has taken action: visitors can only climb five temples in Bagan, and additional closures can be announced without notice. Two temples along the Irrawaddy River will never be affected by these closures, as they have no steps to climb, making them excellent (and much safer) candidates for sunset observation. If you have difficulty getting around, if you don’t have travel insurance or if you simply prefer a view of the river, head for the gourd-shaped Bupaya and the sacred temples of Lawkananda for your fixed sunset.

What to do in Bagan: Explore a local market

You will find two large towns outside the archaeological area of Bagan. To the west of the area, you will find “New Bagan”, the city created for former residents of the area who have been forcibly displaced by the government. To the north is the old town of Nyaung-U, site of Bagan Airport and one of the most interesting local colours in the region. You can’t miss the Mani Sithu Market in Nyaung-U – it is located near the main road, near a central roundabout. For a non-temple break from the stupa cycle in Bagan, Mani Sithu is of the first order: a morning market full of people who buy and sell fresh meat and dry products. Forget the souvenir hunt in Mani Sithu; come here to do more sightseeing than shopping. Stalls selling live animals, freshly cooked meats, packages of areca nuts and betel leaves, cooking oil and dried fish – you will see, hear and smell them all, an authentic experience of observing the Bagan people that is worth a visit.

What to do in Bagan: Visit the temples of Bagan by bike

When the weather is fine in Bagan, wander the dirt trails around the temples of Bagan, on two wheels, and wander at your own pace. Self-propelled bicycles are cheap and available in almost every corner of New Bagan City. Unfortunately, their range is only proportional to your endurance – as the temples are very far apart in the Bagan archaeological area, expect to visit only a handful of temples per day. Battery-powered “e-bikes” are more expensive to rent, but offer a longer range and a more enjoyable experience overall. Without pedals, electric bicycles allow you to visit more temples and take your time at each stop – assuming you don’t push the bikes beyond their eight-hour battery limit!

When travelling by bike, consider the distance between destinations, battery life (if applicable) and available daylight hours. Add a GPS phone and a guide to the Bagan Temple, and you’ll enjoy the experience of a Bagan Temple, far from the usual tourist routes that run along the local highways. You can also participate to this this bike tour with a guide.

Shop for high quality lacquers

Lacquer seems to be a thing of the past – it is not microwave-resistant, it is hand-carved and manufactured using traditional materials and formulas that are centuries old. But like many ancient crafts, lacquer has a beauty that few modern equivalents can reproduce. The city of Myinkaba near Bagan is a centre of lacquer production for centuries, having been introduced by Siamese and Lankan emigrants in the 1500s. Today’s lacquering workshops use techniques that have changed little since their ancestors’ time – from drying lacquer in underground cellars to hand carving it in lacquer in style. Unlike other handicrafts, lacquer improves with age: the colours fade over the years, making it an old lacquer particularly popular with collectors. Bagan’s lacquer craftsmen prefer black, yellow, green and red in their products, seen everywhere in jewelry boxes, coasters, cups and pots sold in stores throughout Myinkaba’s main drag.

What to do in Bagan: Attend the biggest Bagan festival

Burmese Pyatho and the end of the harvest season. In the weeks before the Ananda festival, the area around its homonymous temple fills up with bull carts that bring pilgrims and their offerings. In a place of honour near the temple, the locals set up a fairground selling traditional Myanmar food and other entertainment for visitors. The festival gives Burmese Buddhists the chance to earn credit by donating food and clothing to the local community of monks, who line up by the hundreds near Ananda Temple to receive offerings from grateful locals.

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