Bagan is at its most stunning during sunrise, when hot air balloons hover over the horizon and amber rains on its Buddhist ruins like a glitter bomb. Hundreds of these old temples litter the landscape — monuments to the extravagance of an ancient kingdom that evaporated with the Mongol conquests of the 13th century. To the locals, these serve as sacred fixtures, sites of daily prayer and other religious rites. Tourists, on the other hand, are more prone to scaling atop them for Facebook cover photos. The views, in either case, make morning in Bagan a sight unlike any other.
Equally as charming as Bagan’s landscapes are its people. Across Myanmar one will find that the locals are friendly, upbeat, and profoundly good at making coffee, but this all rings especially true in Bagan. Along the city’s dusted streets and daytime markets are modest stalls whose owners have somehow perfected the alchemy between cocoa and condensed milk (a must-try for any caffeine hounds visiting from abroad).
Drivers are eager to win the business of Westerners, waiting dutifully in the region’s central bus stop as travelers pull in from Yangon. For your first day in Bagan, this is a great and affordable way to get a lay of the land; a party of six can rent a van from sunrise to sunset at $20 USD. Once you’ve familiarized yourself with the terrain, rent an e-bike for $5 USD a day to rummage through its new and old quarters at your own pace. Stop in between temples for local cuisine: an eclectic cross between Chinese, Indian, and Thai. $3 USD buffets are standard fare and will net you an unending stream of Burmese curries, allowing even the most frugal of Bagan’s visitors to dine like kings.
Tourists, generally only seen in small pockets across Bagan, seem to congregate en masse at Shwesandaw Temple around sunset. Arrive early to avoid the scuffle for the perfect seat. Otherwise, an underrated alternative is to head to the Irrawaddy River and haggle your way onto a cheap junk boat ride. Whether on your own or with a large party, the display at sundown is unlikely to disappoint.
Having only opened its borders in 2011, Myanmar as a whole has yet to settle into its newly burgeoning tourism industry. But at the center of this change is Bagan. Locals are readily abandoning agriculture and other traditional trades to sit outside stupas selling soft drinks, water bottles, and ragged copies of Orwell’s Burmese Days. Economic migration abounds from the surrounding provinces, and even small family businesses will accept USD as readily as they do the kyat.
Yet it remains the case that Bagan is no Bali, Bangkok. It stands as a distinctly beautiful and unsullied portion of the Southeast Asian circuit; should you ever want to see it as such, there is no time like the present.
Stone & Fern is a travel and lifestyle blog started by friends who have a passion for exploring cities, capturing moments, and trying new food.