Making the decision to visit Myanmar was pretty last minute. When I realized I only had about a week to plan and research the “must visit” places in this beautiful country, I immediately went into panic mode. However, shortly into my search, Bagan was one of the first cities to pop up and after about two seconds of reading, I knew we had to pay this magical city a visit.
Traveling to Bagan from Mandalay, we opted to take the bus. While there are also options to fly or take a cruise down the Irrawaddy River, our budget was best suited with the bus option (about $7 each). Although we were both initially happy to “splurge” on the all day cruise (regularly $42 each), we discovered that during the dry season there is a possibility of the boat running aground and then needing to take a bus anyways. Already somewhat short on time, we didn't want to risk the extra inconvenience. While most of the bus journeys in Myanmar are on the longer side due to the bumpy, ill-maintained roads, our 6 hour ride was comfortable and enjoyable enough.
Upon arrival at the bus stop in Bagan we were met with a bombardment of taxi drivers offering us rides to our hostel. For anyone who has traveled in Asia particularly, I’m sure you can visualize the dozens of drivers that continuously hound you until you finally accept a ride. To be fair, Myanmar overall is one of the lesser perpetrators when comparing it to Bali, Thailand or other South East Asian countries, but in the bigger “touristy” locations, like Bagan, it’s just as bad. Typically I let Justin handle the drivers as I tend to get a bit overwhelmed when there’s so many of them, plus he’s particularly good at dealing with them and negotiating.
Prior to arrival, we looked at the directions posted online from Baobabed Hostel, which let us know that a tuk-tuk should be about 5,000 Ks and a Taxi about 7,000 Ks from the bus stop to the accommodation. Now, usually we take Grab (Asian version of Uber) for security reasons and because the price is always reasonable. At the very least, we'll check it to have a point of reference. So when we stepped off the bus and were quoted double the price (15,000 Ks) our first thought was to check the app. Much to our disappointment we found that Grab doesn’t exist in Bagan. We walked away to consider our options and found the only choice was to call the hostel to have them send us a driver. However, once the drivers at the station realized what we were doing, they were suddenly happy to take us for the 7,000 Ks we told them we were paying the driver coming to collect us (we didn’t actually have anyone on their way to get us at that point). At the end of the day, it wasn’t so much about the price, as even the initial double quoted price only amounted to about $10. Other travelers on the bus chose to just pay the 15,000 Ks as they didn’t want the extra hassle, but for us it was about the principal and having an issue with people purposefully taking advantage of tourists with limited options. So, just be aware if you are travelling to Bagan and need a taxi, they will most likely try to over charge you. But if you do some research beforehand and stick to your guns, usually you can get at least closer to a fair deal.
After finally getting a ride to our hostel (although we probably left the bus station only 10 minutes after everyone else), we were able to check in right away and go to our room. We selected a private room for our stay, which was super clean, comfortable and affordable. We had about 30 mins to get ready in order to catch the sunset. Initially we decided to do a sunset tour with the hostel as they do two tours each day - sunrise and sunset. Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to get ready in time. (Anyone who knows me doesn't find this surprising.) By the time I came down, the group had already left. Justin had already rented an e-bike (like a motorbike but electric) so we ventured out to find our own place to watch the sunset. Not five minutes later, a local guy drove up beside us on his bike and started chatting with us asking if we wanted to see some sunset spots. We looked at each other, both with reservations, but decided we'd see where this led, literally.
All in all, we got lucky as this local was actually very kind, knew many great picture spots and took a lot of great pictures of us. He was up front from the beginning saying he would show us around if we would look at his paintings afterward. After the picture adventure with him, he showed us "his" paintings and wanted between 35,000 to 50,000 Ks ($25-$35 USD) for one. I was actually pretty interested as they did seem like nice paintings, but ultimately we said we would think about it and get back to him (we took his phone number and gave him our local one). Instead, we gave him a nice tip as he had shown us some great locations and probably taken about 50 nice pictures of us. Unfortunately, we saw paintings VERY similar to his at many of the other vendors around town so we don't think he was being honest. In addition, another local that we became friends with confirmed that many of these "guides" do not actually paint the paintings, they just sell them at inflated prices. Other travelers have confirmed they experienced similar situations and we even saw this with another couple while we were on our tour with the local. Unfortunately, some of these locals can get more aggressive and since you're likely in an unfamiliar spot with them, it can get pretty uncomfortable pretty quickly. As long as you're aware of the potential outcomes (trust your gut!), we don't completely discourage you from letting someone show you around and taking pictures for you. Having said that, we also have a list of amazing picture sites (post coming soon) in Bagan so you can enjoy without potential hassle!
While we originally intended on staying only one night, after our first e-bike ride and sunset, we quickly decided to extend for a few nights. Our days were mostly spent enjoying Amazing Local Food and adventuring around the “land of a thousand pagodas” trying to discover our own "secret spots" for sunrise or sunset while also getting lost on the dirt roads that eventually turned into not roads and little sand tracks. We wanted to discover unique places to appreciate the views instead of laboring through the top 20 pagodas in town with all the other tourists. That's not to say we didn't check a few of those out and enjoy them, we just found the roads (or lack thereof) less traveled more our cup of tea.
Finally, while you used to be able to climb the steps of the pagodas and discover the magnificent views at the top, unfortunately most of them have been locked to prevent tourists from climbing up. Apparently this was originally for safety reasons after an accident or two with intentions of reopening them, but when it was discovered that more tourists would pay the high price for a hot air balloon ride if the temple tops were closed, it doesn't look like there are any intentions of them reopening. Nevertheless, we were actually able to find one that was unlocked! We took a few pictures up there one afternoon and returned for sunrise one morning. Sadly, a Bagan tourist official came by that morning and asked us to come down before most of the balloons had launched. It wasn't all bad though as we actually discovered the viewing field to the right after we had been run off.
After spending three days scouting all across the city, we have complied a list of what we think are the best sunset and sunrise locations in Bagan. In addition, we also found the absolute best food in Bagan and possibly all of Myanmar. So if you find yourself on this side of the world, you should definitely pay a visit to the picturesque city of Bagan.