Imagine a vast open landscape with a dazzling amount of temples small and large, made from reddish brown bricks and white sandstone. Wind bells tingle in the wind and golden stupas and pagodas shine bright in the sunlight from across the plain. Inside, mural paintings and buddha statues await your admiration. The full, round sound of a gong fills up the air as you bare-footedly enter the votive premises.
It feels like we have entered another world from the moment we drove off on two wheels in a place where no matter what sandy dirt track one chooses to take, an ancient temple is waiting to be explored. Bagan counts over 2,200 temples that date back from the 11th and 12th centuries. Time has not stood still as market stalls with souvenirs are set up around the most famous temples, but in some parts of the vast plain it does seem like it. While we drive a small sandy track to an unknown destination, we see golden stupas glisten in the distance. We stop to observe a rural scene taking place right in front of us. A herd of cows crosses the barren land, guided by Burmese men wearing rattan hats to protect their heads against the midday heat. We watch them walk off into the distance from under the welcome shade of acacia trees.
Exploring the temples of Bagan by yourself is a true adventure. We find ourselves wandering around alone in many places, and are asked to pose for a photograph with big Burmese families in others. Some temples look sober with simple sandstone Buddha statues placed in all four sides of the centre while others are lavishly decorated with golden buddhas that only just fit in the space they’re placed in. Most temples have only a piece of stucco still left on the walls while others house hidden gems such as a ceiling painting or coloured frescos on which even the colours from a thousand years ago are still visible. In the most famous temples chatting tourists sound the bell and pose for a picture while in more remote places we find tranquillity. Monks sit barefooted facing a Buddha statue, dedicating all their devotion to Buddha while chanting religious texts. It is an enthralling experience that gives me goose bumps even though the temperature inside the temple can hardly be perceived as chilly. In fact, walking around the premises on bare feet requires some perseverance since the tiles gladly absorb the sunrays and become scorching hot.
As the burning heat of the sun changes to a more comfortable temperature, the sun shines a golden glow over the plains and colours the brick temples a vibrant orange. We watch the sunset from a hill that provides a stunning panorama view. Tour buses are parked nearby, but it is a traditional horse cart that comes into view and perfectly blends with the landscape of countless ancient temples. The sun disappears from view behind the clouds lingering on the horizon. When darkness falls, the golden pagodas are ignited and shine bright in the night skies.
In the early hours of the morning, we wait in anticipation for the sun to show itself again in the midst of century old temples. Their silhouettes are visible against the dark skies and features of intricate architecture become visible as the skies brighten. In the distance the shape of a hot air balloon appears in the light blue skies. Within moments, the skies are speckled with colourful balloons. The sun, the temples and the balloons make for a magical combination and the perfect romantic sunrise. It’s heavenly pretty to see the balloons fly over from off the ground, but I do feel a longing to be floating up in the air as well. And so I start day dreaming while looking up. Imagine if I would actually be up there in a basket..
Imagination is about to become reality the next morning as we leave for a bumpy ride to Bagan airport. The terrain is as much as a sandy patch outside of the archaeological zone, sprawled with busses, tourists and hardworking locals. We are definitely not the only ones making a balloon flight today, and that is precisely what will be part of the magic. Strangely enough while you most often want to be with as few people as possible and have all views to yourself, in Bagan the other tourists up in the air are part of the charm.
A flash of fire stands out against the dark morning skies. It is the first test blaze in preparation for our journey to the clouds. Excited, I wander around to witness the various stages of preparation of other hot air balloons. The size of the balloon and the number of people currently at work on the take-off site is impressive, and although since our hot air balloon flight in New Zealand I am well aware of all the steps that need to be taken in order to get a balloon in the air, I am amazed once again. While ‘our’ balloon is being filled up with the use of a diesel drive ventilator, the balloon behind us is already being filled with heat and slowly rises to standing position, while three men strongly pull the rope to provide counterweight.
“All passengers ready to board”. I climb in one of the four passenger compartments of the wicker basket and cannot wait to take off. I have to though, since it requires quite some patience to start floating, especially when being surrounded by some twenty-five other balloons. One by one the big round parachutes climb up to the skies and then finally it is our turn. The houses of the village below us soon look thumb-sized and the number of temples in our view grows spectacularly. Sunrays fan out through the morning skies and shine a yellow light on the landscape that stretches out for miles until it disappears from view in the early morning mist. Seeing the temples from a bird’s eye perspective brings a whole new dimension to our Bagan visit. Recognizing the biggest religious structures from the skies is a wonderful up-in-the-air activity. Counting the number of temples in sight is an impossible task but it is definitely not hard to imagine that 2,200 temples are spread out on the land below us.
Say yes to exploring this magical place yourself – a quick guide to Bagan
What is the best time to visit Bagan?
Hot air balloon flights over Bagan take off between October and mid-April as these are the only months in the year in which weather permits to fly safely. Even during flying season, it is still a possibility that a flight is cancelled due to bad weather conditions. To avoid this as much as you can, the best option is to travel between November and early March. November and December will have you enjoying crisp skies and green scenery, January to early March will have hazy mornings that prevent you from looking for miles into the distance but do give the landscape that mysterious look.
Overall, early December seems to be the best time to visit, since there’s less tourists and temperatures are lower.
Should I book my hot air balloon flight in advance? / What is the price of a hot air balloon flight?
Hot air balloon flights are not cheap, and Myanmar is no different than other countries in that respect. Balloons over Bagan have been flying in the area for over 20 years now, and flights used to take off and land right in between the temples. Nowadays, there’s an ‘airport’ where four companies take off in the early morning for stunning views of the temples. Prices for the flights are more or less the same in all four companies (around $350 per person for a spot on a 16 pax flight, $450 pp for a 8pax flight) and include transport and a light breakfast with a glass of sparkling wine after a safe landing. We chose the Balloons over Bagan 16 pax flight, and were lucky enough to share our 4 person compartment with just three people. Flight time is usually 45 minutes, although the wind has a say in that too (which for us meant that we were up in the air for 1:20 hrs and landed on the river bank to enjoy a sparkling wine instead of on the more often used landing site across the archeological zone).
Regardless of the price, flying a hot air balloon over Bagan is bucket list material for many travellers and flights do sell out. If this is a must-do activity for you, I would recommend to book in advance. If you are still in doubt or not yet sure if your budget allows to splurge, you can also let circumstances decide for you and drop by one of the offices to see if spots are still available. We were actually able to book just one day in advance.
Where can I rent a bicycle or e-bike in Bagan?
You can rent a bicycle or e-bike (which I would consider a scooter as it can go as fast as 40 – 60 km/hr) throughout the complex itself and the surrounding villages Nyaung U and New Bagan. Most probably your hostel or hotel offers a rental service as well. Prices for e-bikes are really low (at the time of writing e-bike rental was between 4000 and 6000 kyat for a day) and the bikes are comfortable and nicely quiet. Bicycles are even cheaper, but as is usually the case with rental cycles in Asia, you should not expect more than the absolute basics. Bring your own headlight in case you want to cycle in the dark before sunrise or after sunset.
What is a good spot to watch sunrise and sunset in Bagan?
Unfortunately it is no longer allowed to climb pagodas to watch the sunrise and sunset from elevated levels – also not the terraces of the most famous sunset-viewing spot Shwesandaw Paya. The million dollar view (literally and figuratively speaking) is from up in the air, but unforgettable views can also still be found on the grounds. Near the Sulamani temple, a hill has been created from which the views are marvellous. We watched the sunset here and chose a different spot to see the sunrise without the crowds and watch the balloons fly over our heads. Where exactly the balloons fly over depends on the weather, so the best thing you can do is to spot where they’re heading and drive there.
Which temples are not to be missed in Bagan?
The best way to discover Bagan is definitely by driving around, taking sand tracks that snake through the plains, and visiting the temples you encounter on your way. Of course there are the famous (and biggest and tallest) ones in Old Bagan that you do not want to miss out on such as Ananda Pahto, Gawdawpalin Pahto and Thatbyinnyu Pahto, and the Manuha Paya temple with the crammed in sitting and reclining buddha’s.
My favourite was Nanda-ma-nya Hpaya for its well-preserved paintings. The little temples a bit further down the sand track are also worth a visit as the paintings are equally pretty and it will most probably be just you there.
Where to stop for lunch?
Eateries can be found near Ananda temple and the vegetarian restaurant Full Moon that is recommend in Lonely Planet lives up to its expectations. A hidden gem we came across by coincidence and that is worth a visit already for the views of the Ayeyarwaddy River and a lemonade alone, is Fantasia Garden (check their website for the exact location).
Want to read more about..
- Myanmar? Join Evelien on a boat journey from Mandalay to Bagan
- Hot air balloon flights? Read on about a tranquil flight experience in Canterbury, New Zealand
- Adventures in the air? Check out our stories on paragliding in Nepal and helicopter flights in the Grand Canyon, USA and around Mount Cook, New Zealand