Myanmar: The Ancient Kingdom of Bagan

I'll say it here right off the bat - Bagan may be my all-time favorite destination I've ever traveled to. This place was an absolute gem to visit and I'm still overwhelmed by the entire experience I had there. Bagan is one of those places that when you're there sitting atop a 900-year old temple with no one else on it at sunset, you can't help but think, "Wow. How do places like this even exist on Earth?" It was a magical experience and I hope everyone will one day be able to see this unbelievable destination.

View point for one of the larger temples

 We arrived (once again) bright and early to Bagan after our night bus from Inle Lake pulled into the bus station around 3:30am. Of the limited number of things I could complain about regarding Myanmar, the early night buses getting in in the middle of the morning is quite frustrating. Part of the point of a night bus is that you avoid having to pay for a night at a hostel or guesthouse as you spend it on the bus, but when they continually get in at 3 or 4 in the morning, you are forced to then pay for both a guesthouse AND a night bus...I digress.

Bagan has been one of the places on my list of things to do and see in Myanmar since I first heard about it way back in November while traveling through Laos. A friend of mine from New Zealand had just come from Myanmar and said that Bagan was quite possibly one of the most incredible places he'd ever been. After seeing a few pictures, I knew I had to stop by. 

We found a guesthouse quite quickly after hopping a taxi and paying the park entrance fee in the middle of the night. Thankfully, the guesthouse we ended up at graciously let us check in for the night at 4am and didn't make us pay for that night, so our usual pain points of the Myanamar night buses were voided at least once. We were all still half asleep and passed out almost immediately upon checking into the room. We slept sound until the next morning and once waking up knew we had a few days ahead of us that were going to be jam packed with activity. 

Bagan, the old capital of the Kingdom of Bagan, dates back to the 9th century and reigned supreme in present-day Myanmar for 400 years. Bagan was the first kingdom of the region to bring together the area that is now known as Myanmar, and during its time built more than 10,000 temples in the region. Today, just over 2,000 stand due to deterioration and an earthquake that destroyed many some time ago. Though only a fifth of the original temples remain, the site of over 2,000 is an awe-inspiring feeling and something that words nor pictures could every accurately portray. 

Bagan at sunset

On our first day in Bagan we decided to rent e-bikes, Myanmar's alternative to standard motor bikes like the rest of Southeast Asia. The e-bikes ran us about $4/day and we planned to be in Bagan for at least two or three. These little bikes worked amazing as Bagan is a massive territory of sandy and dirt, and they gave us the freedom to explore significantly more of the park than we would have by walking or taking tuk-tuks everywhere. Throughout the day we biked around many of the major temples and some of the smaller ones as well. What's great about Bagan is that because Myanmar is so new to the whole tourism industry (borders only opened five years ago) they haven't really put too many rules and regulations in place for many of their cultural sights.  Bagan has been likened to Angkor Wat, and I imagine that as tourism continues to explode in the country, it will surpass Angkor as being the most visited destination in all of SE Asia. 

Something like Bagan in the United States or anywhere else in the West would be highly restricted, and the way you would be able to explore the temples would be extremely limiting. You may only be able to visit two or three unless you have a journalist pass, but not in Myanmar! Myanmar hasn't a care in the world for any of this restriction nonsense, and most temples are free reign to explore as you wish. This was an incredible experience and aspect to Bagan as we were able to go hours away from the main temple areas and climb up and into some of the medium-sized temples where no one was at. 

As I mentioned there are a few main temples and these, like any other tourism destination, tend to be filled with tourists especially at sunset and sunrise. Bagan is known for its sunrises and sunsets, and a sunrise over the temples is likely one of the most photographed sights in all of Southeast Asia. During our three days in Bagan we enjoyed three sunsets and two sunrises (one from the balloons), and each one was as incredible as the one before it. 

Bagan from above

My most memorable experience from Bagan came on the second day in the temple region on a hot air balloon ride over the park at sunrise. My birthday happens to fall near Christmas so this year my family, rather than buying me gifts and shipping them overseas, decided to chip in money for me to do something I wouldn't otherwise get to experience given my backpacker budget. With funds from my grandma, aunts, uncles, and parents, I decided to use this gift toward what became one of the best and most memorable 90-minutes of my life.

We got picked up early from our hotel and driven to the balloon site where at around 5:30am we had a safety briefing and learned a little bit about our balloons and the ride we were about to take. Our driver, Nigel (who was the spitting image of what you'd expect a British hot-air ballon pilot named Nigel to look like) gave us a run over the balloon basket, landing positions, and other information deemed essential before taking off in this flying contraption. Now, I've never ridden in a hot air balloon, but once we took off roughly 20-minutes before sunrise, I found that I somehow forgot that I was floating a couple hundred feet in the air and just enjoyed the ride and the stunning views. We had 17 people in our balloon including the pilot, and at roughly 6:07am the sun peeked over the horizon just as we were entering the park zone where the temples were located. We had an amazing view point as we danced over top the temples, all 2,200 of them glistening in the rising sunlight. There was a bit of haze/dust over the park which gave way to a magnificently orange/red sky making it look like the entire park was somehow on fire for the first 30 minutes of sunlight. As we bobbed across the temples, adjusting our height and floating in the whichever direction the wind took us, I snapped a load of photos and tried to take in as much as I could along the way. 

Our ride lasted just 90-minutes, and as we made our way through the other twenty or so balloons flying high over the temples and waving to the spectators below who'd risen early to catch the scene from atop the temples, we touched down in a local field some 3km or so from the park. Thankfully we had a soft landing and enjoyed a glass of champagne and biscuits after touching down. I'm not skilled enough with my words to describe exactly the feeling of flying over the temples, but it was a magical and jaw-dropping experience that I still can't believe I was fortunate enough to do and see. 

Sunrise from the temples over Bagan

Our following days were filled with more sunrises, sunsets, and exploring of the thousands of temples in the area. We spent a total of three days in Bagan before heading out on the morning of day 4 to Mandalay. Bagan will likely go down as one of my top 3 travel locations/moments throughout my entire trip, and I hope to come back again someday and see just how much this region has changed. Bagan was busy, but it was a type of busyness that I felt was very much deserved (unlike Inle Lake).  There were tons of people in the area, but because the park is so massive we rarely came across other people while exploring during the day. As I said before, Bagan is a place where you really have to see it to fully believe it actually exists, and as I sat atop the temples night after night, morning after morning, I continually asked myself how it was that I found myself in such a special place, able to experience something so extraordinary. 


For more from Bagan and the rest of Myanmar check out my video from my entire three weeks there below!

Far and away one of my favorite countries I've ever visited. Traveling Myanmar will above all be a cultural experience. It is the most raw and authentic country I've ever been to, and it was absolutely beautiful. The people, food, landscape, and history are friendly, rich, and fascinating.