View of Shwedagon Pagaoda from Vista Bar, 2014
Back in 2014, when my friend and I visited Yangon we only had the chance to travel up to Bago to see the Golden Rock. We told ourselves that some day, we had to revisit to conquer Bagan and a hot air balloon ride had to be checked off the list as well. Nearly 4 years later, we got a chance to revisit this Golden Land again this January.
Shwedagon Pagoda, 2016
We booked our flights on Jetstar for SGD 135 return during a sale last August. True backpacker style, we didn’t purchase check in luggage. Arriving into Yangon just before noon, we had about 7-8 hours to kill before our overnight bus to Bagan. Having seen the highlights of Yangon before, we fuelled up with some Thai at Green Gallery for lunch and chilled at Zephyr Coffee and Restaurant overlooking Inya Lake. Across the lake, you can see the house in which Burmese politician Aung San Suu Kyi stayed when she was under house arrest.
There are many ways to get to Bagan from Yangon but the most economical would be an overnight bus. We booked our seats via JJ Express in advance and were pleasantly surprised at how comfortable the ride was. The 9 hour ride costed each of us SGD 31. Comfortable seats, option to recline even, blankets provided, enough leg room, mineral water bottles. #manywins
Arriving in Bagan, just before 7am, be prepared to have a group of drivers approach you the minute you step down. These “hardworking people” greet your sleepy faces rather persistently to bring you to a secret spot to see sunrise. We were among the many who got scammed but lucky for us, we partnered another couple to save some costs in transport and it allowed to enjoy a comfortable car ride instead of a cheaper option of a horse cart. If you are pretty knackered from the overnight travel, I’d suggest skipping the sunrise as you’d be able to catch many more amazing sights over the next few days you are staying in town.
Travel Tip: To enter Bagan, a 25,000 Myanmar Kyat archaeological entrance fee is to be paid. It is usually collected when you cross into Bagan at the border. But, if you are not charged at that point, do purchase the ticket at your hotel otherwise the bigger temples in Bagan will sell it. The ticket also acts as your entrance ticket when visiting these temples.
Temples in Bagan
Shwe Leik Too
Nicknamed as one of the sunset pagodas, we caught the sunset on the first day in Bagan from this temple.
Ananda Temple – One of Bagan’s best known and most beautiful temples. The name ‘Ananda’ derives from ‘anantapannya‘ the Pali word for ‘boundless wisdom‘.
2 out of the 4 Buddhas in Ananda Temple
Thatbyinnyu – Tallest temple in Bagan, one of the four temples that survives in Old Bagan
Mimalaung Kyaung – A nice set of chinthe (half-lion/half-dragon deities) guards the stairway leading up to this small, square monastery platform
Dhammayangyi – Largest temple in Bagan and was built similar to that of Ananda Temple
Oak Kyaung Gyi Monastery
Sunset from Oak Kyaung Gyi
To earn the beautiful sunrise view that you have been searching for, you have to climb up the small and dark staircases inside the square monastery. So prepare a torch or headlamp and watch your step.
Happy 3 friends
Travel Tip: You need a map, sometimes even more than one, to navigate around the temples as more often then not, reception is really poor even if you are travelling with a data sim.
To cover the plethora of temples within Bagan we got ourselves a guide from a travel store just across our hotel, Zfreeti hotel (SGD 110/night). We paid the guide SGD 35 each to take us around for about 5 hours. We found getting a guide to be helpful as it allowed us to have more insight into details of the temple as well as the myths and legends behind each temple. Would recommend exploring a bit of Bagan on your own with a e-bike as well as spending half day with a guide to get more in-depth knowledge about beautiful Bagan.
Hot Air Balloon Experience
Prior to our arrival in Bagan, we booked ourselves with Golden Eagle Balloon Company about 2 months in advance. As the balloon season in Bagan is from October to April every year, slots get booked up pretty quickly as there are only 3 companies that operate. Balloons over Bagan and Oriental Ballooning are the 2 other companies.
All 3 companies would offer pretty much the same experience as the take off area is the same spot. Depending on the weather conditions and the pilot, your landing spot may differ as such your air time. But apart from that, it is usually 12 people in the basket at one go. For Balloons over Bagan, I gathered it could be up to 16 people. Price wise, when I did my homework, all costed between 290 USD to 300 USD.
Compared to other popular ballooning spots like Cappadocia and Jordan, Bagan is indeed among one of the most expensive ones. However, the tranquility of the one hour ride is quite unparalleled that is was worth every dollar (for me at least). Hopefully, the photos do some justice to my out of the world experience.
Eats in Bagan
Frankly, Burmese food isn’t the first thing that comes to my mind when I think of Myanmar. Especially, given the many other Asian options that are available to us in the region. Given our accomodation was at Zfreeti, the restaurant street was less than a 5 minute walk away. Do recommend staying somewhere around there if you are looking to reside in New Bagan.
Our first meal at Black Bamboo Restaurant
Usual items in the menu that are pretty safe bets are Burmese local curry with fish/chicken, served with rice and seafood fried rice.
Our favourite place in the few restaurants we sampled over the 2 days in Bagan was Weather Spoon’s Restaurant. Serving Thai, local as well as American cuisine, you would quite easily find something that catches your eye when you are browsing their menu. If you are looking to try a local dish, I’d recommend tea leaves salad. It is a mix of flavors and textures that includes soft, pickled tea leaves, crisp, roasted peanuts and other crunchy beans, toasted sesame seeds, fried garlic and, if you like, dried shrimp and chopped tomato.
DIY tea leaves salad at a local shop with homemade palm sugar on the drive to Mt Popa
Wonderful Tasty, Rain restaurant and Novel restaurant are some of the other eateries we had meals in while at Bagan. As a general rule of thumb, any restaurant with people dining in, are average places you can consider dining at.
For the 3rd day in Bagan, we checked out of Zfreeti Hotel and headed to Mt Popa for a night. Most people visit Mount Popa as a day trip from Bagan as it’s only about 50km away. However, we decided to spend a night at Popa Mountain Resort (SGD 200/night) to enjoy the view in its fully glory over different times of the day.
Sunset from the pool with Mt Popa at the background
Our amazing breakfast spread which we kind of starved ourselves for 😂
If you are planning a night at this mountain resort, please bear in mind, it’s literally away from civilisation. So do pack supplies if you are not planning to have all your meals in the restaurant. The resort has transport options to get to the bottom of the hill but it’s fairly expensive so please be well prepared if you do choose to stay. Wifi only works in the resort’s lobby, not even in the pool. So the 1 night stay for us was a break away from people and technology and fully immerse ourselves with each other’s company.
With regards to visiting the Popa Taungkalat monastery itself, you have to tackle the 777 steps to the summit. The monastery is entirely surrounded by sheer cliff faces and offers stunning views of the surrounding plains and Mount Popa itself. But beware the monkeys! These fellows may look curious and friendly from a distance, but given half a chance they will steal anything they can get their hands on: food, purse or camera! They are highly aggressive so please be careful to take extra precaution.
For us, we skipped our visit to the monastery based on the reviews we read online. When we got to the hotel, it was also too comfortable to leave and venture out. I checked with fellow guests in the hotel who shared similar sentiments as the netizens who posted, that the monastery itself isn’t as beautiful as it appears to be from far. Especially after the tens of temples you have surrounding you in Bagan this monastery pales in comparison when you step foot in it.
All in all, our 1 night at Mt Popa was a good break for our tired feet from the numerous temples we visited in Bagan. Next up, we headed back to Bagan and off we went to Mrauk U.