Chasing sunrises in Bagan

When most people think of Bagan they probably only think of the hot air balloons soaring gracefully over the ancient pagodas as the sun rises,  but the reality (for us photographers anyway) was being in a near-constant state of anxiety as we raced around the ruins trying to figure out the best spots that would give us a high enough viewpoint where we could see the balloons with some pagodas not too far away, possibly with one that we could climb that hadn’t been closed off to tourists, and that wasn’t too crowded with them. It was still my favourite place in Myanmar though!

Getting to Bagan

While it is possible to get around Myanmar by train, or even by boat in some places, it wasn’t recommended, so we did what every other tourist did and booked a seat on a tourist bus. A one-way ticket cost 22,000 kyat (£12) which seemed pricey after Sri Lanka. There are a couple of different options depending on how comfortable you want to be, I would recommend going for the fancier tourist buses over the local buses (even though they cost more) because you’ll have more space, the seats are bigger and recline further, and it’ll be a lot quieter.

We arrived at 6am, tired, cold and grumpy, and of course the first thing we experienced was a horde of taxi drivers yelling at us. Buses don’t drop you off in Bagan, they leave you at the Bagan Highway Bus Terminal which is a few miles outside of town, so you have no choice but to barter for an overpriced taxi. It’s supposed to cost 8000 kyat (£4.50) for the whole car but the drivers will deny this until the ends of the earth, so you’ll probably end up paying that much each. If you’re there early enough, your driver will try and persuade you to pay even more money to be taken to a ‘special sunrise spot’, we skipped this but it might be worth it.

On your way into town, the taxi driver will take you to pay the mandatory 25,000 kyat (£15) ‘archaeological’ fee, which gives you a three-day pass. There are ways of getting in without it, our driver told us to pay him extra to sneak us in but we politely declined, I’m glad we did because we had to show our tickets a few times to guards patrolling the popular sunrise and sunset spots. It’s up to you if you want to take the risk! Keep it on you at all times, but make sure you take a photo in case you lose it.

Where to stay

There are three areas of Bagan that you can choose from when booking your hostel or hotel. New Bagan is a popular place for backpackers and tourists alike, with some good hostels and boutique hotels available and it’s the area I would recommend! The two most popular hostels are Ostello Bello and Baobabed, pricey but great for meeting people. I chose to stay in the slightly cheaper (and much nicer) Bagan Empress Hotel, comfy 4-bed dorm rooms with an incredible buffet breakfast included.

If you’re on a slightly bigger budget you can choose to stay in Old Bagan which means you’re right in the middle of the pagodas, giving you a little more time to explore because you won’t have to drive as far. The third choice is Nyaung-U, the busier end of town with a lot of choices but it’s a bit further away from the main pagodas and I didn’t fancy that long ride in the dark on my way to a good sunrise spot.

Where to eat

There are a ton of options in Bagan, from fruit stalls to upmarket restaurants and everything in between. Your cheapest option is always the local places where you can get decent food for a really good price. We also tried a few popular spots around New Bagan, our favourites were Black Rose and Delicious, and a place called Perfect up in Nyaung-U which was pretty good.

Getting around

Before I arrived I had no idea how massive Bagan was, I thought I could easily walk around and see most of the pagodas in a couple of days. Turns out that’s not possible so you’re going to need a set of wheels. Tourists aren’t allowed to rent scooters, I think it’s an environmental thing which is good, but you do have two other options.

You can rent a bicycle but honestly, I wouldn’t recommend this unless you actually enjoy riding them for fun because it’s hot, dusty, and everything is so far away from everything else. You should rent an e-bike instead! It’s like a mini scooter with an electric motor so it’s silent, good for the environment, and adorable. It costs between 4000 and 8000 kyat (£2.25 – £4.50) per day to rent one (depending on your bargaining skills) and you don’t need to wear a helmet because they go pretty slowly. You can rent them from your hotel or one of the many rental stores around town. If you’re renting it for more than one day just make sure it gets charged overnight.

Where to go for sunrise

This is the reason you come to Bagan, to see the hot air balloons drifting over the pagodas, so of course you’ll want to find the best spot to see them. It used to be easy, I’m sure you’ve seen the countless photos of Insta-models with their flowing dresses clinging onto the side of a temple as they gaze wistfully above them. Now almost every single pagoda is off-limits, no climbing allowed, so getting that Insta-worthy shot is a struggle and it doesn’t help that these girls won’t share the location.

I was worried about missing the whole ‘Bagan experience’ but we found a place that ended up being perfect. It’s on the roof of an old temple with a staircase and a wall, so no safety issues. It’s pretty far away from the balloons but you have a great view of them drifting above three large pagodas. Try and get there early enough to get a good spot at the wall in case it gets crowded, it’s a popular place. Find the ‘Bagan Archaeological Museum’ on Maps.Me and to the east of that, across the road, is a place marked ‘Sunrise spot‘, that’s the one!

For the next morning, we wanted to get a little closer to balloons and we ended up finding another perfect place with a few very small pagodas that you’re still allowed to climb. The downside was a group of tourists who were selfish enough to climb the biggest one right in the middle so they were in every single photo, but the highlight was being so close to the area where the balloons took off that we could talk to the passengers inside as they floated above us! The photos from this morning weren’t great, but it was a cool experience to see them up close. Find the ‘Soo-lay-gon Group Sunset temples‘ on Maps.Me, southwest of ‘Amazing Bagan Resort’.

Where to go for sunset

This is really a personal preference as you don’t have to worry about hot air balloons, you can just find a beautiful spot to enjoy that peaceful moment. On our first evening, we went to ‘Sunset Hill‘ (just above ‘Temple No. 801’ on Maps.Me), it was nice enough but I wanted to get closer to the pagodas so I jumped back on my e-bike and went to climb the walls around ‘Thitsarwadi temple‘ instead. Another nice sunset spot we found is just north of New Bagan, the ‘Beautiful sunset‘ spot on Maps.Me. Here you can climb an old wall to get a little bit higher and see a lot of pagodas around you! Unfortunately, the bigger wall next to you blocks most of the view, and you can’t climb that one.

Although I loved watching the balloons in the morning, I think sunset during our second night was the best experience. We drove waaaaay out of town because I wanted to check out the ‘cave monastery‘, which was an underground tunnel that actually led to a bank high above the river where we sat and chilled for a while, but as we were leaving an old monk led us up the stairs to ‘Kon Taw Kyi‘, unlocked the gates and let us climb up to the roof! The view was the best we had, and without the stress of photographing balloons we could just sit there and enjoy the moment.

Where else to go

Sunrise and sunset are the two most important times in Bagan, but you’ve got a lot of time to kill in between, luckily there are like, a billion pagodas you can explore. The biggest and most popular temples are Ananda (the white and gold one), Dhammayan Gyi, Htilominlo and Sulamani (the massive brick ones), Thatbyinnyu and Gawdawpalin (the white ones), Shwesandaw (the brick and white one), and Shwezigon (the gold one).

There are also INNUMERABLE clusters of pagodas of different sizes and styles, some you can climb, some you can enter, some are just for looking at, but all of them are pretty neat. Top tip: mark the ones you’ve already visited on your map so you don’t end up at the same ones more than once because it’s easy to get lost out there once you leave the main road, everything starts to look the same! Two of my favourites were around ‘Khayminga temple‘ and ‘Utreacht Temple‘.

Taung Kalat Monastery

Another option is a day trip to Taung Kalat monastery, two hours southeast of Bagan at the base of Mount Popa. We booked a return trip in a tourist minivan through my hotel which cost 8000 kyat (£4.50) each, leaving at 10am and arriving back at 4pm, giving us plenty of time to watch sunrise and sunset that day too. We were dropped off in a carpark and had two hours to explore which was enough time to walk up to a great point of view before climbing a billion stairs to the temple itself. Thanks to this amazing drone shot by Toby Harriman for the inspiration!

Riding in a hot air balloon

I’m pretty sure that this would absolutely be the most amazing way to experience Bagan. I thought long and hard about doing it, but after seeing the cost ($400) and realising that I’d be so terrified of falling out and plummeting to my death that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy myself or take any photos, I decided to see it all from the ground instead. For those of you with the balls and the budget to do it, check out Balloons Over Bagan, the most popular and highly rated company in town.

If you’ve been to Bagan and found some amazing locations that you don’t mind sharing then leave a comment below!

You can view the full album here.

You can also follow the adventure on Facebook and Instagram!

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