If I had to pick my top 5 must-see places in Southeast Asia, the Bagan temples in Myanmar would make the list without a doubt.
My impression is that Bagan may be now, in terms of tourism development, at the stage Angkor and Siem Reap were maybe fifteen years ago. As elsewhere in Myanmar, infrastructures and accommodation are still not there in quality and quantity, but this is certain to change at a similar pace as it did in Angkor.
The reason for that? It is a truly astounding place to visit, and as soon as the country picks up its development pace and opens up even more to foreign visitors, Bagan will be overrun by them. So if you’ve been meaning to visit, my advice would be to go while you can enjoy it in relative calm and comfort.
This old capital of an ancient Burmese kingdom reached its peak somewhere between the 12th and 13th centuries. Today, the remains comprise over 2,000 thousand temples, monasteries and pagodas, although the larger and more interesting ones are about a couple dozen.
Bagan is one of those places where I definitely hope to come back one day. Not just because it’s well worth a second visit on its own merit, but also because my first and only visit was far too short (3 days) and poorly planned for me to make the most of it.
Rather than tell you in length about my impressions of Bagan, I’ll show you some photos and give you some tips for your visit.
Tips for visiting and photographing the Temples of Bagan
The images in this post were taken a couple of years ago, at a time when photography was not the main focus of my travels. As I think I’ve mentioned recently, this is going to change starting January next year, so hopefully I won’t be making some of the mistakes I made back then.
1. Get up early, stay out late!
My main mistake in Bagan was not getting up early enough. This is actually one of the basic tips for improving your travel photography, and I knew back then, but I guess I was not dedicated enough to put it into practice.
In terms of photography, in addition to the general benefits of getting up early and staying out through sunset (richer, nicer quality of light and less people), in Bagan you’ll avoid the intense heat of the central hours of the day. It’s not exactly unbearable or much worse than in many other places in SE Asia, but it’s also not very comfortable, so try to organize your visit around early morning and late afternoon.
2. Bring a long zoom lens
You know that tele zoom lens you rarely bring on your trips, or leave back at the hotel most of the time because its large and heavy? Well, Bagan is a great place to use it. If you look at all the images in this post carefully, you’ll notice many were taken with a long zoom.
Contrary to what many people think, long zoom lenses are great for landscape photography too. In Bagan, I found my 55-200mm particularly useful to compress perspective and isolate temples and pagodas in the vast Bagan plain. Because there are so many monuments of all sizes scattered over such a large area, the narrow angle of view provided by long zoom lenses becomes a very powerful tool to create interesting compositions.
3. Try to go on a balloon ride over the Bagan plain
I feel a little bit self-conscious about recommending this because I couldn’t go on that ride myself, much to my regret. I hesitated about it far too long, because it’s not exactly cheap, but according to everyone who has done it, the sights make for a unique experience. Unfortunately, by the time I made up my mind and tried to book (about 3 weeks in advance), there were no spots available for the duration of my stay in Bagan.
If you can’t afford it or do it for whatever reason, it’s still worth catching the sights of the balloons drifting over the Bagan plain in the golden light of sunrise. How do I know it? Well, I’ve seen photos… It’s not that I slept in during my 3 days in Bagan (I was usually out and about at 8); it’s just that by that time the balloon rides were long over, so I missed them all three mornings. Embarrassing, I know.
4. Rent an e-bike and take your time
The temples are scattered over a rather large plain, and many of the smaller ones in side paths are as interesting as the bigger and more famous ones.
Given the long distances you’ll cover, the dust and the intense heat, I’d say a push bike is out of the question,even if it is cheap to rent (3-4,000 kyat a day –that’s $3 or €2.85). On my first day I skimped and went for a push bike. It wasn’t hell, but it wasn’t pleasant either, especially when I was being overtaken all the time by people looking kind of smug and well-rested on their e-bikes…
Lesson learnt. On the second and third day I rented an e-bike for 8,000 kyat. You can maybe pay a little less if you go directly to a shop rather than renting it through your guesthouse as I did, but it’s probably not a huge difference.
It made a huge difference for my visit, though. I covered a lot more ground than on the push bike, and didn’t break a sweat, so it was money well spent, definitely.
If you only have push bike experience, you’ll probably find it tricky to negotiate some of the many sandy patches on the dirt roads at the higher speed and power provided by the e-bike, but it’s certainly not a major problem.
Make sure you get the phone number from the rental shop in case your battery runs out (mine did on the second day), so they can come and assist you.
5. Don’t skip the smaller temples
As mentioned in the previous point, there are thousands of temples of all sizes in Bagan. It is true that many of them are very similar to each other, but they offer two things you won’t likely find in the bigger temples.
On the one hand, you’ll be alone in many of these smaller temples and, frankly, that is how you’ll best experience the spellbinding atmosphere of the place. This is particularly important at sunset, when hundreds of people gather at places like the Shwesandaw Pagoda, which does offer a nice view at a convenient height, but to me that kind of ruins the whole experience. The smaller temples are not as high, but it’s a good trade-off for watching sunset in complete silence, or at least not surrounded by two hundred noisy strangers.
If you’re feeling slightly decadent and willing to pay $5, or simply run out of time to find a suitable spot as I did in my last evening, you could do worse than going up to the rooftop bar at the Bagan Viewing Tower. The 360 view from there is quite stunning, it’s not crowded at all (at least it wasn’t that day) and you can relax while sipping a mojito or a cold beer, so what’s not to like? You can see a sunset photo that I took from this viewpoint here.
In addition, some of these small temples have really interesting carvings and paintings on walls and ceiling. I’m no expert to know if they have been tampered with or made to look old and derelict, but they look like the real, unrestored thing.
These temples are often locked and there’s a guardian who will let you in for a small amount of money. In my experience, it’s a bit hit-and-miss. One of the three small temples I paid to visit was kind of dull, but the other two were interesting enough.
6. Make sure to try tamarind!
Tamarind seemed to me much more common in Myanmar than in, say, Thailand. I’d heard of tamarind before, but never tasted it as main ingredient (apparently it’s widely used in Indian recipes). This fruit turned out to be one of my great discoveries in Myanmar, and I couldn’t have enough of its complex, zingy-sour taste.
A few of the restaurants I ate in offered a bunch of complimentary tamarind sweets with the bill (see them in this post from last year), often with a few dices of watermelon.
I also had the most delicious tamarind chutney as part of a delicious dinner at a restaurant called Aroma 2 that I can absolutely recommend if you are into curries and Indian food in general. There is a lovely terrace which was packed when I was there, and while it wasn’t cheap for Myanmar standards, it was great value for money and hands down the best meal I had in Bagan. The restaurant is actually in Nyaung U, the town next to Bagan; in retrospect, I’d rather have stayed in Nyaung U than in New Bagan, which was nice but a little bit uninspiring.
All in all, there is so much to see and photograph in Bagan that this post doesn’t even begin to cover such a wonderful place. If you have any questions or have been there, leave a comment!