Bagan in central Burma is one of the world’s greatest archeological sites, a sight to rival Machu Picchu or Angkor Wat but – for the time being at least – without the visitors. The setting is sublime – a verdant 26 square-mile plain, part-covered in stands of palm and tamarind caught in a bend of the lazy-flowing Irrawaddy (Ayeyarwady) river and framed by the hazy silver-grey of distant mountains.
Rising from the plain’s canopy of green are temples, dozens of them, hundreds of them, beautiful, other-worldly silhouettes that were built by the kings of Bagan between 1057 and 1287, when their kingdom was swept away by earthquakes and Kublai Khan and his invading Mongols. Some 2,230 of an original 4,450 temples survive, a legacy of the Buddhist belief that to build a temple was to earn merit.
Most are superbly preserved or have been restored by Unesco, among others, and many contain frescoes and carvings and statues of Buddha, big and small. Only a handful are regularly visited, and though tourist numbers are increasing and the hawkers are beginning to appear, this is still, by the standards of sites of a similar beauty and stature, a gloriously unsullied destination.
When to travel
Bagan is hot most of the year. The best time to visit is between November and February, when temperatures hit 30C (86F). Avoid March to May, when temperatures can reach 43C (110F). Rainfall is highest in June and October. If you can, visit during a full moon, a popular time for local festivals.
How to travel
Burma is a difficult place in which to travel, especially independently. Now that Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD party have sanctioned responsible tourism, the recent surge of visitors has created its own problems, notably the inability of the nascent tourist industry to cope. Even reputable outside tour companies with many years’ experience in the country are struggling to guarantee rooms and services.
Old problems remain, namely the poor infrastructure; sudden travel restrictions; the almost total lack of ATMs and mobile phone and internet coverage; and the inability, in all but a handful of hotels and other businesses, to make payments by credit card.
Bagan is one of the areas in the country that has known visitors for some time, and in appreciable numbers, so the problems here are slightly less acute. At the same time, it’s the obvious target for the majority of new visitors.
All this means you should think carefully about travelling independently and that if you take a package (the recommended course), you book early with a company that has long experience of working in Burma.
Most tour operators offer Bagan as part of a longer Burmese itinerary, usually approaching Bagan by air, by river from Mandalay (recommended), or overland from Inle Lake. A minimum of one full day (two nights) is required. Alternatively, combine tours elsewhere with a shorter, self-contained river cruise between Bagan and Mandalay (or vice versa). Check to see if your package includes a balloon flight over the temple site, a superb, if expensive way to see the temples.
For a list of some tours in Bagan, check here!
Abercrombie & Kent ( abercrombiekent.co.uk) has a long association with Burma, an office in Yangon and excellent guides and on-the-ground services. It can tailor-make car-and-driver itineraries that include Bagan, as well as packaging river-cruise and other options. A nine-day tour, including Bagan (with Yangon, Mandalay and Inle Lake) costs from £2,440 per person, including b & b, guides, flights and transfers. Audley Travel ( audleytravel.com) is another long-established operator that has been organising trips to Burma since 1995. It too can tailor-make a variety of itineraries that take in Bagan. Another company with a long presence in the country is Orient-Express ( orient-express.com), which offers three, four or seven-day “The Road to Mandalay” cruises on its own 80-berth boat between Bagan and Mandalay, or vice versa, with accommodation overnight on the boat for sightseeing in Bagan and Mandalay (plus nights in its own Governor’s Residence hotel in Yangon, as required). Three-day cruises start at £1,640 per person, including full board, internal flights and guided sightseeing. For longer, more far-reaching river cruises with a Bagan component, contact Pandaw ( pandaw.com).
You can reach Bagan (Nyaung-U) by air with Asian Wings (asianwingsair.com), Air Mandalay (air-mandalay.com), Air Bagan (airbagan.com) and Yangon Airways (yangonair.com). Tickets from Yangon cost around £50 one-way and journey time is 1 hour 20 minutes, though many flights have stopovers en route.
Book online, but always email or ask your hotel to call a couple of days before flying to reconfirm. Payment in the past had to be made directly to an airline’s office in Yangon, but this may change as credit card usage becomes more widespread.
You can travel from Yangon or Mandalay by ferry on the state Inland Water Transport (iwt.gov.mm), but restrictions on foreigners can apply, schedules can be haphazard and a change of boat is usually required in Pyay from Yangon.
Train travel can be fascinating, but slow and hard work, though the main Yangon-Mandalay line is better than most, currently with one overnight direct train daily from Yangon to Bagan. Tickets cost $35 (£23) for an upper-class seat, $40 (£26) for a sleeper, around four times the price of a coach ticket. Visit maninseat61.com/Burma for detailed information on train travel in Burma.
The main centre for the site, with the most hotel, eating and transport options, is Nyaung-U. Just over two miles west is tiny Old Bagan, a sleepy village whose inhabitants were forcibly moved in 1990 to the workaday New Bagan, about two miles to its south. Old Bagan is closest to the temples, and contains sights of its own, but if you are on a package the chances are that transfers will be provided wherever you stay.
A handful of the more popular temples see some coach tours and can become relatively busy, and will have vendors and children trying to sell you their drawings: this is especially true of Ananda Pahto, the single biggest draw, and Shwesandaw, the “sunset” pagoda, so-called because it is the one (with Buledi) most visitors climb to watch the sunset.
However, it is easy to take a bike, taxi or horse and cart to quiet areas of the site, especially the central plain, where you won’t see another soul and where there are dozens of other temples, such as Pyathada Paya, full of murals and statues of Buddha, or which you can climb undisturbed to watch the sunrise or sunset.
The best initial way to see the temples is from a hot-air balloon. The roughly 45-minute flights leave at dawn and drift over much of the site, with glorious views of the river and distant mountains, hazed by mist, as well as a bird’s-eye view of the temples and rural village life. Sunset flights are also available.
Balloons Over Bagan ( easternsafaris.com) is a privately owned Burmese (but British-run) company, and its balloons are state-of-the art and operated by highly experienced UK crew, along with ground and other staff recruited from the area.
Prices are $330 (£217) per person and flights can sell out many months in advance. Flights run roughly mid-October to mid-March, not year-round, and are weather dependent and cannot be guaranteed to operate. Bookings will be refunded. Visitors taking package or tailor-made tours should ensure bookings are made for them. Stand-by tickets are available if you arrive without a booking.
By bike or cart
The temple site is too big to explore on foot, but is well suited to being seen by bike, being criss-crossed by gravel roads and paths. Most hotels in all three centres rent out bicycles. Hire a guide if you are worried about becoming lost, or want to see some of the best out-of-the-way temples. Guides will know where to find the key-holders for locked temples, though many temples are always open and access to most, for the time being at least, is simple.
You can explore at a more sedate pace from one of the area’s 250-odd horse carts that congregate at the larger or more central temples. Most drivers speak a little English and, again, can act as guides to less-visited parts of the site. Ask at your hotel for the latest going rate and fix the price and duration of the trip beforehand.
Before you go
A visa is required for Burma. There is talk of a visa-on-arrival scheme, but in practice you should apply for a visa before travelling in consultation with your tour operator or a visa agent, which can arrange visas, usually in five working days. Contact it before downloading or submitting any forms.
Visit the embassy website for requirements and to download the application form. Postal processing can take up to four weeks; or you can apply in person at the country’s Mayfair embassy. Beware the plethora of websites, some purporting to be official “embassy” sites, offering visa services.
Heed the latest Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice (gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/burma). At the time of writing, it advises against all but essential travel, among other places, to the towns of Meiktila, Tharzi, Wundin and Mahlaing, which are all in the vicinity of Mandalay and Bagan.
Burma has specific health concerns: polio, typhoid, diphtheria, hepatitis A and B, Japanese encephalitis (mosquito-borne), dengue fever (ditto), among others, are all present. Malaria is a risk outside main cities and below around 900m (3,000ft) so antimalarial tablets are essential. Visit nathnac.org for a detailed assessment of health risks and how to reduce them.
Take plenty of cash. US dollars can always be used and exchanged but as the local currency (kyat) has appreciated so it has become more attractive to local businesses.
Dollar notes should be as near pristine as possible, larger denomination notes are preferred, and you should exchange money in shops and hotels only.
Tipping is not widespread, but keep small denomination (K50, K100 or K200) notes for donations in larger temples.
Dress conservatively. You may see a few locals wearing shorts in cities, but generally T-shirts and shorts are considered underwear and wearing them is seen as disrespectful.
Shoes and socks must be removed before entering temples and Burmese homes. You will not be admitted to temples with bare shoulders or knees.
Women are not admitted to some temples.
Steps to the upper terraces of most temples are incredibly steep, with no handrails, and can be a challenge for even the fittest and most agile visitors.
There are only a handful of tiny (but charming) ramshackle cafés among the temples for refreshment, so take food and water.
Do not shake hands with, or touch monks and nuns. A small bow is the most appropriate greeting.
Tap water is not safe to drink.
Local trips if you are spending longer in Bagan include Mount Popa, a sacred mountain; Salay, 22 miles from Bagan, an active religious centre from the 12th century that also has numerous colonial-era buildings; and — unless you are already on a river cruise — one of the sunset or other short boat trips offered from the jetty at Nyaung-U.