FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Three days in Bagan

Posted in Bagan, Myanmar by folkestonejack on November 8, 2017

On the eastern bank of the Irrawaddy river, spread across a 40 square mile site in the plains of Bagan, the astonishing remains of over 2,500 temples can be found. It is hard to comprehend that this dusty and largely rural spot was once the cosmopolitan capital of an empire or that at its peak, around the 11-13th centuries, you would have found around 14,000 stupas, temples and monasteries here.

A forest of temples

The reputation of Bagan as a city of learning attracted scholars from across Asia and its population grew to somewhere between 50,000 and 200,000. Marco Polo considered it to be ‘a very great and noble city’, marveling at gold and silver towers that shone most brilliantly when lit up by the sun. Not so long after Marco Polo’s visit the city was abandoned, around 1287, in the wake of the Mongol invasion of the Pagan empire. Over time the city was reduced to a modest village among the ruins, surviving until the demands of the tourist industry prompted the re-location of the population to New Bagan.

The infrastructure might not immediately suggest it but twenty first century Bagan is once again thriving with good hotels, restaurants and plenty of transport options to support a steady influx of tourists. More change is undoubtedly coming, with new international flight connections mooted to link Bagan to Siem Reap and work on a long-stalled new hotel zone underway again. Bagan was the most tourist-friendly place I have seen in Myanmar by a long chalk.

At the moment it is still relatively easy to get lost among the temples and find yourself alone but that will change if the visitors continue to grow at their incredible rates. In 2010 Myanmar was visited by just under 800,000 tourists but by 2015 that had grown to nearly 5 million. It’s not hard to see the appeal – my breath was taken away by my first sight of the forest of temples. I wondered why I had ever worried that the reality might prove a disappointment!

Myauk Guni Temple

Our three day stay in Bagan began with a mid-evening flight into Nyaung-U, arriving around 9pm. It wasn’t meant to start that way, but the flight we booked with Mann Yadanarpon was re-timed by three hours just one week before our trip. I think it is pretty safe to say that it was the last flight of the day as they switched off the lights and locked the doors behind us as we stepped out to the taxi rank!

We spent one night in Nyaung U (at the Hotel Zfreeti) and then transferred to Old Bagan for three nights (at the Bagan Thande Hotel). The location of the Bagan Thande proved hard to beat with the river on one side and the temples of Old Bagan just a few minutes walk away. In the evenings it was a delight to sit for a meal under the acacia trees of the Bagan Thande as the light faded, occasionally catching sight of an owl or two (let’s not dwell on the bugs that occasionally dropped onto the table or into our food!).

The location of our hotel made it easy to head out to the sights of Old Bagan on foot but for the sights further afield I eventually settled on cheap one way taxi rides. I would find a good starting point, such as Nagayon Temple, then slowly make my way back towards the hotel visiting pagodas along the way. I know that I could have opted for an e-bike but I preferred to take things at a slower pace and absolutely loved the freedom to wander unencumbered.

Typically, I would sit out the hottest hours in our air conditioned hotel room or take a dip in the pool. The break also really helped avoid temple overload!

Practical information

I spent quite a while researching the options before we made our trip and really appreciated the wealth of information shared by other visitors. I thought I would share our experiences in case it helps anyone else ruminating over the same questions that bogged us down for a while!

Stupas in Bagan

1. Which domestic airline? I thought it would be simple to book a domestic flight but it turned out that tickets aren’t usually sold as far in advance as international flights and even when they were theoretically available many of the websites didn’t work. I had intended to book with an airline with a good safety record and the largest fleet size (admittedly none of the airlines seemed to have huge fleets) but in the end the choice came down to the first airline flying the right route that I could actually book!

We flew to/from Bagan with Mann Yadanarpon, a small airline that began operations three years ago and which currently operates with a fleet of two ATR 72-600 aircraft. The whole operation seemed to be very efficient but far from the automated process we are most familiar with, starting with the wheeling away of our baggage from the check-in counters at Mandalay with handwritten tags attached! Everyone we encountered from the airline seemed friendly and helpful, which is not always a given.

Mann Yadanarpon ATR 72-600 at Mandalay

At check-in domestic passengers are given stickers showing their destination – a terrific visual cue that allows staff to easily spot passengers queuing for the wrong flight or not getting off at the right airport (some flights make a number of hops before reaching their final destination).

Ultimately, I was happy with my choice or airline. The landings were a tad bumpy but we didn’t see anything that gave us particular cause for concern.

2. How reliable are flight times? The flight time between Mandalay and Nyaung-U is just half an hour, if it is a direct flight, so you are barely up before you are on your way back down. Our direct flights were roughly 15-20 minutes late departing in each direction.

I had booked my flights direct with the airline rather than through an agent. This worked out fine, but I would caution that our flights were re-timed in both directions and we only got notification of one set of changes. Our return flight was moved forward by half an hour without us knowing which could have been a tad problematic. Thankfully I’m super cautious. Although we were at the airport way too early for the expected departure time it turned out to be spot-on for our re-timed flight!

The view from Taung Guni

3. What cafes/shops are available at Nyaung U airport? The terminal building at Nyaung U is fairly basic but includes a cafe and a few gift shops. An enterprising stall holder at the entrance was selling postage stamps for a modest mark up. A counter here sells the obligatory Bagan Archaeological Zone passes (25,000 kyat per person for five days) and we were steered there as soon as we arrived. I was relieved to see that there was a small queue of taxis on the night we arrived.

Some things you take for granted elsewhere, like departure boards, were not in evidence here. Everything at the airport seems to follow a manual process – even entry to the airside waiting hall for our return flight involved finding our names on a list and crossing them off. This thoroughness is quite re-assuring too – in each direction handwritten baggage tags stapled to our ticket were checked against those attached to the cases.

4. Can you walk around Bagan? Getting around Bagan proved simple enough, on foot and by car. I arranged taxis through my hotel without difficulty and none of the drivers seemed phased to be asked to drop tourists off in the middle of nowhere before the sun had risen! I took a copy of the downloadable map from Design Printing Services with me for a rough approximation of where to find the temples on my list and some satellite images to help fill in the detail. It’s never too hard to navigate when you have giant temples on the horizon…

I have to say that most people I encountered in Bagan were riding around on eBikes, in larger coach parties or taking taxis. However, I liked the slower pace of a nice long walk and it definitely is possible. I wouldn’t have liked to be walking around for long in fading light though – the traffic coming off the plain is pretty relentless in the immediate aftermath of sunset. They even have traffic police directing the steady queue of bikes, cars and coaches off the dirt tracks back onto the main road.

5. Where’s best to stay? I was torn between the options of Nyaung U, Old Bagan and New Bagan. Each had its appeal but ultimately the ease of walking to/from Old Bagan and onto the plain swung the decision in favour of Old Bagan. There are a few good restaurant options within easy reach of Old Bagan but many more at Nyaung U.

None of the hotels are particularly cheap. Our stay at the Zfreeti cost us $85 for one night whilst a room with a river view at the Bagan Thande set us back $200 a night. I would have to say that it was worth stumping up for a hotel amongst the sights of Old Bagan – it made all the sightseeing so much easier. Having said that, boats chug up and down the river at all hours and not at all quietly (a sort of super-charged tractor sound). It might not have been the quiet haven that we imagined but we did get used to it quite quickly. The river is also a good deal further away, and lower, than in the promotional shots.

In the longer term the option of staying in Old Bagan is likely to disappear if the government commits to removing the Bagan Thande and some of the other hotel resorts from the Bagan Archaeological zone following the UNESCO recommendation.

6. Do you need anti-malarials? I found so much conflicting advice about whether anti-malarials were needed in Bagan. At the time we travelled the British National Health Service fit for travel website suggested that Bagan would be low risk for most travellers (with some exceptions relating to medical conditions etc) but highlighted the recent peak in dengue cases in Myanmar. Travelling in the dry season should have significantly reduced the level of risk, but to give ourselves the best chance of avoiding such perils we covered ourselves in insect repellent and wore clothing sprayed with permethrin. Ultimately, it’a decision that only you can make so don’t take my word for it. It’s much better to seek advice from the health professionals who know their stuff rather than rely on advice from travellers!

7. What essentials do you need for Bagan? The absolute essential for a trip to Bagan is a powerful torch. The interiors of some of the pagodas are pretty gloomy and it would have been quite impossible to see any of the murals without a decent torch (with the exception of Gubyaukgyi temple, where it looked as though you might have been able to hire a rather unwieldy lamp for a wander round). I also found it immensely helpful for navigating round the temples before sunrise. As there is no street lighting in Old Bagan a torch was also a necessity for even the shortest walk beyond the hotel grounds at night – as much to alert traffic to your presence as to see your way. I took a LED torch rated at 280 lumens with a reach of 220 metres and that was just perfect.

Sunrise in Bagan

8. Can you still climb the temples? I had read that climbing the temples was to be banned this season so didn’t really know what to expect, but it turned out that there were at least a handful that were open to climb and there were also some perfectly decent viewing mounds that offered quite lovely views in their own right.

My favourite temple was Taung Guni, which proved a good spot for sunrise and sunset with a viewing platform that could be reached by interior staircase (good torch required). I also tried Bulethi and its near neighbour at sunrise, with narrow terraces accessed from steep steps on the exterior, but these were a little too crowded for my liking. Officials checked the Bagan Archaeological Zone pass at both locations.

I kept an eye on the local press for developments, real time updates from Twitter and comments on Tripadvisor forums/reviews to see what was happening. It was still pretty confusing but it gave me a clearer idea of what was definitely closed and some ideas of what could be open.

9. Is it still worth taking a balloon flight over Bagan? I wasn’t sure whether the expense of a balloon flight would be worthwhile as many accounts suggested that the experience doesn’t compare to what used to be on offer. I don’t know about that, but I can say that a flight over the temples in a balloon was the undisputed highlight of the trip.

I was also really impressed by the safety standards in place at Balloons over Bagan and thought that it was as safe a balloon ride as you could hope for, accepting that there is always a degree of risk. I suffer terribly from a fear of heights but this didn’t kick in at all. It was a lovely experience from start to finish and the views are extraordinary – I’m guessing that they have been more spectacular still in the past, but I was perfectly happy with what I got to see.

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