Bagan is a magical place, with over 2,000 ancient temples in the archaeological zone.
The best time for taking photos is at soft light during the hours of sunrise and sunset, so give yourself at least three nights in Bagan. Personally, I would recommend five nights, as with the recent temple closures, it takes more time than it did before to find temples that are open.
Here’s a few things to know when planning a trip to Bagan:
Bagan Archaeological Zone Ticket
There is a fee of $20 USD (25,000 Kyat) per person entering the archaeological zone of Bagan. You will be required to pay this upon entering the borders of Bagan. Your taxi driver from the bus station / airport should pull in along the way so you can acquire this permit. We didn’t even need to leave the taxi. You will be given a paper ticket for you to have on you at all times and it covers a 5 day period. Make sure you bring it with you every single day as we were asked several times for ours, and even had to vacate our perfect sunrise spot at 5.30am one morning because we had left it back at the hotel.
When to Visit
The best time to visit Bagan is when the hot air balloons are flying, which is roughly six months of the year, from mid-October to mid-April. The dates are announced every year, so make sure you check this before you book your flight. Best to avoid travelling at the very start or end of the balloon season as less stable weather can cause balloon cancellations.
How to get to Bagan
By Air: We flew to Mandalay direct from Chiang Mai with Bangkok Airways. Bangkok Airways is one of our favourite airlines and we arrived rested and relaxed after a smooth flight over the mountains. There are several direct flights from Bangkok to Mandalay every day so you should consider combining a trip to Myanmar into your Thailand travel plans. Once you get to Mandalay Airport, you can either take a bus direct to Bagan or a flight.
Bus from Mandalay to Bagan: We got a 4.5 hour bus from Mandalay city, tickets which we bought at the airport for $8 each. The bus picked us up from our hotel at 12pm to bring us to the bus station for our 12:30pm bus.
Organise a bus back to Mandalay through your hotel. We advise you do this soon as you can because buses tend to fill up quickly, which is not convenient if you have a flight to catch in Mandalay on the day you intend to leave Bagan.
How to Get Around Bagan
Rent an e-bike. You honestly will need one if you want to visit temples. They cost around 4,000-6,000 to rent a day. One between a couple is fine, but I would recommend you both get one each as it offers great freedom to be able to ride around wherever you want.
What to Bring
We wish we had read this list before we left for Bagan, as we were pretty ill equipped for the climate. Bagan at night, and in the morning before sunrise is pretty cold. It’ll say 20 degrees on your weather app, but I promise you that it feels much colder, especially while driving on the ebike to catch sunrise. I could see my breath. Along with some other observations, this is what you’ll need for Bagan.
Bring warm long sleeved tops and cardigans. Depending where you are staying and what temple you’re visiting, you can easily spend 20 – 30 minutes driving in the cold before you hit your selected sunrise spot.
To show respect, and to be allowed entry to many of the more popular temples, you’ll need to wear appropriate attire. That consists of clothing that covers your shoulders and knees. Also suggest that you just bring flipflops to wear for temple hopping, as taking your shoes off at each temple and the dusty ground, your shoes will be ruined after the trip.
For those sunrise and sunset spots, you’ll be either arriving, or leaving temples in pitch darkness, so you’ll need a proper torch to get from A to B. Climbing the stairs inside the temple, is completely dark, so you’ll struggle without something to light the way. You could make do with flashlight on your phone, but it’s not ideal. It’s better to have something a bit stronger and more reliable. We used our camera’s LED light!
To protect your eyes from the sandy roads while riding the ebike, and to make you feel seriously cool, tomb raider style driving by ancient temples, bring your sunnies.
It gets very hot during the day, and the sun is really strong. Bring sunscreen to avoid getting burnt on the top of our head. Happened to us, twice. Not ideal.
Where to Stay
We recommend that you stay in the areas of Nyaung U or Old Bagan.
Old Bagan is more of an upmarket area. This is typified by The Hotel @ Tharabar Gate, a luxurious hotel where you can completely relax and be pampered after your temple hopping excursions. You can even take a short 5 minute walk across the road to the impressive Ananda Temple, it’s that close.
What’s not close though is food. Nearby restaurants are scarce and e-bikes are double the price in Old Began with a 7:30pm (we negotiated to 8:30pm) curfew. So you’ll have to use taxi to get around after you hand your bikes in, so it’s a lot more restrictive, however, you will spend less time in the early mornings travelling to the nearby temples.
Nyaung U is just 10 – 15 minutes’ drive from Old Bagan and is in close proximity to the nice restaurants and lively area. There’s plenty of hostels, guest houses and great value hotels in the area, including the vibrant Nyaung Market. However, this area is not as close to the main temples so you’ll have to decide how you want to spend your days.
Tips for Finding the Best Temples for Photos
It’s quite exhilarating going around Bagan’s dusty roads with the wind whipping through your hair as you ride around on your electricity powered two wheels searching for temples like a modern day Insta-Tomb Raider. However, following gut instinct alone won’t get you that far, so you can either visit the best open temples in Bagan that we found, or you can follow these tips to discover your own.
The secret to finding great temples for photos is to rely on the community, fellow travellers who have been before. Maps.me is a very popular and well known app to find good temples for photos. Use search words like “open”, “sunrise”, “sunset” and suggestions for temples will pop up.
Explore during the day, to choose temples for the next morning. Doing a recce is a must because previously open temples close all the time and information becomes outdated very quickly. Best not to rely on a temple being open for sunrise without checking first.
Trust a Local
With temple closures, tourism has dropped significantly. As such, the locals have had to get creative, and you’ll most definitely be approached every sunrise, and sunset by a tourist asking if you want to be taken to an open temple. Expect to donate about 3,000 kyat (€1.66) for the privilege. Bear in mind, they will take you to an open temple, but it’ll be busy. You could ask for a quiet one, further away and try your luck with that.
Go off the Tourist Trail
Avoid the popular routes of Old Bagan and get off the main roads to spread out. There are over 2,000 temples in Bagan. Some that are meant to closed are actually secretly open and there are those mistakenly closed when they’re marked as open. Catch the balloons at sunrise, then spend the morning exploring dirt paths before taking the afternoon to recuperate when it’s much too hot to drive around.
Ask the Community
Look through the GEOtag of Bagan on Instagram, and scroll through recently posted pictures from there. Ask if the owners of those pictures would mind to share their location with you. Temples you can climb can be difficult to find, especially if they are not well known, so someone might not necessarily want to hand over the pin to you after probably hours of sweaty searching, so you can get the same shot. Ask nicely, and credit them for the location if they give it to you. It’ll be good karma for your next content gathering mission. I’m sure they’d appreciate it.