Bagan seemed like it had visitors from another planet that specialized in making drip castles. From the top of one temple you can see hundreds of temples pulled up from the ground into points all along the horizon. This city is touristy for a reason and it’s definitely worth visiting for at least a night or two.
The best budget lodging is Ostello Bello, a buzzing backpacker hive in New Bagan. It’s easy to drop your bag and make a plan in a few minutes – they have tons of tips and run free sunrise and sunset bike tours. And the ebike (electric motor bike) stand is right across the street, where you can also book bus tickets and get your laundry done. It’s one of those hostels that makes travel easy. Since many are in transit, they let you kill time and use showers while you wait for the night bus or if you’re fresh off the morning bus.
There are a ton of restaurants on the main street in New Bagan. All the food we had was very good, though some spots charged more for the same dishes. Most restaurants have menus outside you can look at before heading in. On a 109 degree day we were not embarrassed to eat ice cream twice at Shwe Ou (they have avocado ice cream). Their curry coconut veggie dish was also ahmazing.
It’s very hot, especially in May when we visited, so start at sunrise and plan to chill out (but really just melt) midday. Some people take taxis or ride bicycles, but the best way to get around to the temples, which are really spread out, is by ebike. We rented for about 4000 kyat per day and in one morning visited four temples before the heat scared us home. A few of the temples, one of which we went to for sunrise, can be climbed, which reveals an epic above the trees view of Bagan. All the temples have unique spaces to explore, worn paintings, intricately carved stone, grand entrances, but after seeing four of them we were satisfied with our sightseeing for the day.
There are tons of buses in and out of Bagan – multiple day and night buses daily headed for other tourist spots like Inle Lake, Mandalay, and Yangon. We took the day bus there from Inle Lake and it was about 8 hours with frequent pee stops. It was a super winding, bumpy ride – after two people started throwing up we got why they hand out plastic bags in the beginning. It was not the most comfortable ride, but certainly not as alarming as I’ve read in other reviews. After seeing the steep drops and minimal guard rails though I would be wary of taking the bus at night. On the way out, we took the night bus from Bagan to Yangon and that was a breeze. We took Elite VIP and for $12 got a blanket, a snack, reclining partially chair and movies. Entering Bagan you will hit a gate where you have to pay 25,000 kyat.
Once you pay the entrance fee Bagan is yours to explore. With a wobbly start, we rented ebikes the afternoon we arrived and jetted off at top speed – realistically 10mph – toward the river for a sunset cruise. We were told to get to the river by 5pm, but when we finally arrived at 5:20 we asked if there was still a boat available. A little shuffling of conversation revealed a man with youthful skin and a wiry thin beard. We padded over to his boat which had a roaring engine on deck far larger than the captain. We took in an epic deep pink sunset on the river, as did a bunch of other tourists floating around us. Before it got too dark we used the rest of our battery life to roll back to the hostel. In the morning we set out at 4:40am with a group from the hostel, led by a young German guy, and 20 minutes later we were climbing the tight corridors of a temple, reaching the top just in time for sunrise. As the light spread, we could see the points of hundreds more temples along the horizon. If we only had this experience it would have been worth the trip to Bagan. There’s also a hot air balloon – available only certain months – for something like $300 each. That might actually be worth it. We were satisfied with 1.5 days to explore, but we met others that were returning for a second time to scope out more of the temples.