This post is a continuation of the previous Myanmar in the hot season (part 1) post recently published. It primarily covers Bagan.
You don’t have to read that one first, but if you skip it then it would be like watching Taken 2 without having seen Taken 1. Doing that is probably fine since we still don’t know if they’re actually two different movies.
I’m trying to put more effort into thinking about how I’m going to structure these posts. I’m thinking that this one will cover transport and getting around in Myanmar.
I have an incredible ability to allow almost anything to distract me and I am often found completely side-tracked. It will be interesting to see if I get to the end of this article having covered anything I intended to.
Why Bagan and how do you get there?
One of the biggest reasons for my interest in Myanmar has to be the temples of Bagan. There’s no international flights directly to the airport that’s near to Bagan though so when flying into Myanmar you’ll either come in Yangon or Mandalay.
For me, that meant I was in Yangon and needed to find a way to get to Bagan. There’s a few different ways to do that. The first is by domestic flight. That’s definitely the quickest way because road travel in Myanmar, like most of the countries in that part of the world, is pretty slow going.
There’s also the option of travelling by train. You probably know someone who insists that travelling by rail is just the best way to move around a country. Those people are wrong. Travelling by rail is the slowest and least comfortable way to get to Bagan.
It was looking like travelling by air would be the best option but then I read somewhere on the internet that domestic flights in Myanmar are quite expensive and airline safety isn’t a thing. it’s not unusual for plane crashes a couple of times a year. Time to check out the bus situation.
The bus trip was arranged through the staff at the hotel and they also organised a taxi to the bus stop.
The bus station is actually a fair distance outside of Yangon so expect it to take about 45 minutes to get there. When you do get to the bus station, you’ll see hundreds of buses and hopefully someone will be able to help you find the one you need to.
The buses leave right on time and the trip will take around 8 hours or so. If you spring for a VIP bus expect it to cost you between 15,000 to 25,000 kyat depending on which company you choose. The VIP buses are coaches so expect comfortable seats.
To travel on the bus and remain sane you’ll need a few things:
A blanket (though one will probably be supplied) because there only seems to be one setting for the air conditioning – stiff nipple mode.
Noise cancelling headphones because they play Burmese meditation droning (I don’t know what it’s actually called, just what it sounds like) until around midnight. If your bus departs at 7pm that is a solid 5 hours of that stuff.
Snacks. You can pick these up from the bus station. The bus will also stop at a large rest-stop along the way where you can freshen up and grab some more snacks. Be warned that there’s only one additional toilet stop along the way so do try and control yourself with the bottled water.
You’ll pull into the bus station at sometime between 3 and 4am. This is where you will undoubtedly be ripped off by the conglomerate taxi staff so if you can somehow arrange to be picked up by your hotel you’ll be better off for it.
Like Yangon, taxi prices are regulated and from places like stations and airports the prices are fixed. Unlike Yangon, the taxi drivers here have a racket going on and they ignore those fixed prices. You can try pointing to the price board all you like and they’ll just ignore you. Unless you feel like waiting around for hours until morning you’re better off just accepting it and getting on with your life.
On your way from the bus station into the Bagan area you’ll likely be stopped and asked to pay a $10USD tourist fee. That will get you a little ticket thing that you may or may not be asked to show at some of the bigger temples. It’s a legit state imposed fee but it would be nicer if more of the money collected went to the preservation and restoration of the temples. Only 2 percent of the proceeds currently do.
Because you’ll be arriving at your hotel really early you should definitely let them know as part of your booking. Otherwise, drop off your bags and go and catch the sunrise at one of the temples.
Bagan is pretty much a gazillion temples and 3 towns. There’s Nyaung-U, Old Bagan and the creatively named, New Bagan. The three towns are connected by an uncomplicated road system where, if you basically keep going, you’ll eventually circle around through all three.
Your budget might influence where you decide to stay. If you’re backpacking then you’ll probably want to check out Nyaung-U. All of the newer hotels are in New Bagan and their prices are pretty competitive. Old Bagan is more centrally located and within walking distance to a lot of the temples but you’ll pay more.
Moving between the towns and temples is made easy (and fun) if you hire a scooter (ebike). You can also rent bicycles but in the middle of the hot season you’re looking at 43º daily and everyone I passed by on my scooter looked like they had nothing but regret in their eyes.
The scooters max out at about 50kph so you’re probably not going to become the next Valentino Rossi, but it’s still fun to scoot past others when presented with the chance. If you do find yourself overtaking other people, do it with as smug a look on your face as you can muster.
The prices vary but the hot season is pretty quiet so you can definitely negotiate. Most of the rental places will make it easy for you to get your scooter before sunrise so you can check out the temples or you can hire them for multiple days and just keep them parked at your hotel overnight.
It’s generally a fifteen-twenty minute trek on the scooter between towns – long enough to appreciate the ride and short enough to not get bored of it. The freedom having the scooter provides is excellent because it means that if you want to head to one of the other towns for breakfast/dinner then it’s easy.
Another advantage of the scooters is that there’s narrow dirt tracks and soft sand near a lot of the temples. That makes getting there on a bicycle really hard work and getting there by bus or car is impossible. At peak times like sunrise and sunset it’s often much better to head to one of the scooter accessible temples – there’ll be much less people to ruin the serenity.
There’s good food options in all three of the towns. There’s also terrible food options in all three of the towns. Honestly, google maps is pretty good around here and the reviews are fairly accurate so if you want to play it safe just stick to whatever google (and TripAdvisor) recommend.
Otherwise, ask some of the friendly locals and they’ll point you in the right direction.
There’s three places that, even now that it’s been 6 months, I still find myself thinking about in Bagan. They are:
Both Be Kind to Animals – The Moon 2 and Seven Sisters are located in New Bagan. The original Be Kind to Animals – The Moon is in Old Bagan and Sanon is located in Nyuang-U.
One thing you’ll find with the three restaurants above, and pretty much everywhere else in Myanmar, is the service is exceptional. Everyone is genuinely incredible hospitable and welcoming.
Sanon is a great restaurant. It’s a training restaurant for marginalised Myanmar youth so your money is going to a great cause. It helps that their meals are delicious too.
Why do people go to Bagan? The temples. So why is it I nearly forgot to write anything about them? Because I like food.
It’s really hard to write about the temples as there’s so many of them and they’re in so many different states. Some of them are ruins and some of them are actively in use today.
If you’ve scored yourself a scooter you can go and check out any of them you like.
The hot season is hot and you’ll be on the road for quite a while moving your way between the temples so it’s definitely better to suck it up and get up before sunrise, make your way to one of the temples and just take in the beautiful views.
You’ll undoubtedly encounter a bunch of early twenties hippy Dutch tourists. Try not to let them get in the way of the view. Easier said than done since they’ll likely be close to 7ft tall.
After sunrise you should go grab breakfast and get out and see a couple more temples before it gets too hot. Once the sun is up consider doing something more relaxing like going back to your hotel and lazing by the pool or getting a Burmese massage.
Head back out an hour or two before sunset and start making your way to one of the temples for sunset. I used this blog post as a guide for where to go.
There will come a point where you’ve had enough of temples. Or more specifically, where you’ve had enough of children hanging around at temples trying to sell you their artwork. At that point it will be time to go.
For me, that time came on day 4 and it was time to head to Inle Lake in the Shan State. As per part 1 of this post the best meal I’d had so far were these ridiculously good Shan noodles so when I realised that Inle Lake was in Shan territory I was super keen to get there.
The bus situation from Bagan to Inle Lake is even worse than the bus from Yangon to Bagan. It’s a little mini van and because of the state of the roads they don’t go very fast. They go so slow and the roads are so bumpy my watch thought I was climbing stairs and it set my record at doing over 100 flights of stairs before I finally figured out how to turn it off. I still can’t come close to that record.
Definitely have cash on you. Either USD or Kyat because the places they’ll stop for rest breaks are cash only and you won’t find any ATMs out here in the sticks.
It looks as though there’ll be a part three of this post that will focus on Lake Inle. Or Inle Lake. I don’t really know which way around it goes and neither, it seems, do the locals.