Where to eat and drink: Bagan

Bagan: Where to eat and drink

As is often the norm in Burma’s tourism hotspots, Bagan restaurants offer plenty of great food from just about any country in the world apart from Burma. Between New and Old Bagan and Nyaung U you’ll find French, Italian, Thai, Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Tibetan, English pub grub and various fusion efforts. Nyaung U’s fabulous Wonderful Tasty with its Indian/Burmese curries and fine local dining at Sanon and Bagan Zay fortunately break the rule though.

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Nyaung U has the widest choice of restaurants, New Bagan has fewer, and Old Bagan with its upscale resorts the least. Here’s a location-by-location guide to where to head for a good meal.

The caramelised pork at Sanon. Mmmmmm. Photo by: Mark Ord.
The caramelised pork at Sanon. Mmmmmm. Photo: Mark Ord

Nyaung U
For breakfasts, if you’re not quite ready for noodle soup in the market, then smart Cafe Bagan on the market roundabout is a great spot to start your day. It’s actually one of the rare air-con eateries in town, so it’s good at any time of the day, but for breakfast they offer freshly brewed coffees and squeezed juices plus a good array of bakery items. For lunch or dinner they have – even for Bagan – an astonishing variety of international classics including Malaysian laksa, chicken tikka, fish and chips, sandwich and burgers as well as rice and noodle dishes. Sandwiches are a reasonable 2,500-3,000 kyat and their fish and chips were a tasty bargain at 3,000 kyat. This is a good spot and on a hot day, a godsend.

In a town where most restaurant menus include a bit of everything, Shwe Moe was our favourite jack-of-all-trades spot. Their food isn’t necessarily better than anywhere else’s but the family owners are super friendly; it’s a good spot to sit and watch Nyaung U go by and their awesome aubergine tempura goes down great with a cold beer at the end of a hot day’s temple-hopping. They’re on Main Road, so away from Restaurant Row, but close to several guesthouses and small hotels. Thai and Burmese mains go for 2,500 to 4,000 kyat and inexpensive cocktails are 1,500 to 2,000 kyat.

Shwe Moe is our favourite jack-of-all-trades spot. Photo by: Mark Ord.
Shwe Moe is our favourite jack-of-all-trades spot. Photo: Mark Ord

A short distance up Main Road from the market you’ll find San Kabar, rumoured to have been the first Bagan restaurant to add pizzas to their menu. Luckily things have moved on since then. At 6,000 to 7,000 kyat they’re not too bad and nor are their pasta dishes at 3,000 to 4,000 kyat. Their Chinese/Burmese dishes though look to be their best options, going for 2,000 to 3,500 kyat.

A short hop further along brings us to Restaurant Row. Don’t think Siem Reap’s Pub Street; Nyaung U’s main tourist drag is still only partially sealed and lined with more greenery than concrete. Running several rustic blocks between Anawyahta and Main Roads, it does live up to its name though and is lined by a variety of restaurants, cafes, a beer station or two and even a rudimentary pub.

Our clear favourite is the aptly named Wonderful Tasty. This very basic, straw-roofed shack with a few outdoor tables is located down the Main Road end of the row. Food is authentic Burmese/Indian but service is a compromise, so you won’t get all the miscellaneous free side dishes while portions are much larger than usual. Our beef curry – one of the best we’d had anywhere, let alone in Bagan – came with chapattis, dhal and rice for 4,000 kyat. Other options included Nepalese thali sets and Tibetan mo-mos at 3,000 to 4,000 kyat. Their beers, at 1,800 kyat for a large bottle, are the cheapest we saw on the street.

Wonderful Tasty might be a mere shack but they serve a mean beef curry.  Photo by: Mark Ord.
Wonderful Tasty might be a mere shack but they serve a mean beef curry. Photo: Mark Ord

Next up, on the same side, is Weather Spoons. No, the cheap and nasty UK pub chain hasn’t moved in to Bagan yet, but a Burmese lad’s amusingly copied the name and it’s fast becoming a Nyaung U backpacker institution. Decor is basic with a packed seating area under an open-sided wooden roof and a graffiti-scratched wall. Food is a bit of everything but expats and regulars swear they serve the best burger in Bagan, at 4,900 kyat. Otherwise all the backpacker classics are here such as Thai green curry or pad Thai. It’s hugely successful, so get there early if you hope to get a table.

Further down and across the road is interesting Bagan Zay, a cosy, bistro-style spot under Swiss management that opened in early 2016. Decor is fun and imaginative, which is what they’re aiming at with the menu, too. The boss was at pains to point out their food is ‘modern Burmese, not fusion’. The idea is to offer updated, interesting versions of classic local food but with attention to detail and using the best quality ingredients available. For a change the menu is short. Try the grilled butterfish fillet on creamed potato with bean-shoot chips and tomato chutney, a steal at 6,000 kyat and an ideal refute to doubters who claim Burmese food is a load of greasy curries. Friendly staff, a genial host, bar games and a cool setting makes this a great spot for a drink too.

In this central stretch, you’ll also find the spacious terrace of the Swiss/Italian-run La Terraza. A wood-fired oven and thin base pizzas for 7,000 to 10,000 kyat makes this a great option if you don’t fancy the worthy but not-quite-there local efforts. Pasta dishes in a similar price range are generously served, with an emphasis on authentic, family-style cooking. Local wine is served so you can wash your real Italian gnocchi down with a Red Mountain Shiraz.

It's modern Burmese, but not fusion at Bagan Zay. Photo by: Mark Ord.
It's modern Burmese, but not fusion at Bagan Zay. Photo: Mark Ord

French-run, garden-set Black Bamboo lies just down a side lane off Restaurant Row. They have tables on a lawn or in an open-sided but roofed bamboo area, with friendly service and an eclectic menu including Burmese and Thai mains as well as European dishes. Prices are reasonable, with Asian dishes around 5,000 kyat and European dishes, including pizzas, from 6,000 to 9,000. Incidentally their espresso is the best we’ve had anywhere in town.

Back on the main drag is popular Rain. The large, terrace cafe probably started life as local beer garden but has now expanded to include almost anything you can imagine, though their draught beer still seems a big draw for both locals and foreigners. Food options include local-style barbecue, Italian, Chinese, Indian, Thai and Burmese. Dishes are from around 4,000 kyat, with the most expensive option being the pizzas at 6,000 kyat. It’s cheap, cheerful and friendly, with a wide drinks menu including cocktails at a bargain 1,500 kyat.

To round up Restaurant Row, and also with plenty of cocktails and an extensive drinks list, is nearby Hti. A spectacular high bamboo roof covers an open-sided seating area with more tables in a garden. They aim as much at pub style as restaurant and seem popular among residents as well as tourists. They offer Asian, mainly Chinese, dishes plus a few classic Western options and burgers, all around 4,500 to 5,000 kyat. Cocktails start around 3,000 and there’s an extensive drinks and wine list plus shishas at 10,000. It’s quiet on an early, low season evening but can get lively late nights during high season.

Red Pepper Restaurant on Anawrahta Road was closed for renovation at the time of our visit but will be offering its popular but dubious quality and not cheap Thai faves from October 2016 onwards. Another popular spot that was closed for rainy season is the Beach Bagan Bar down on the Nyaung U waterfront. Reports tell of great sunset views and food and drinks in a pleasantly designed locale.

An Irrawaddy giant prawn, in case you were wondering. Photo by: Mark Ord.
An Irrawaddy giant prawn, in case you were wondering. Photo: Mark Ord

Last, but definitely not least, is the very good Sanon at the far end of Anawrahta next to Thante Hotel. Sanon was opened in early 2016 by the Australian-based Myanmar Youth Development Institute in collaboration with Friends International. The latter run a series of restaurants across Southeast Asia aiding and training underprivileged kids including Phnom Penh’s famous Friends and Romdeng. All are non-profit so takings are ploughed back to into training and day to day running costs. The setting’s pleasant, service enthusiastic and food very good indeed. The idea is to use high-quality ingredients and traditional flavours combined in imaginative and innovative ways. So it’s Burmese, but more authentic than the average tourist eatery and better prepared than the average local curry house. Their crunchy bean and ginger salad is a wonder or try the unusual giant Irrawaddy prawn curry with acacia leaves and aubergine. Prices are very reasonable for what you get with salads around 4,000 kyat and the prawn curry at 8,700. Recommended!

Bagan Zay: Restaurant Row; T: (092) 6335 0126; open low 14:00-22:00, high 11:00-23:00.
Beach Bagan Bar: Youne Tan Yat St; open high season only.
Cafe Bagan: By the roundabout opposite the market; T: (061) 60241, (092) 5901 1112; open 08:00-21:00.
Hti: Restaurant Row; T: (094) 0263 0869; open low 09:00-23:00, high 09:00-01:00. La Terraza: Restaurant Row; T: (094) 0263 0878.
Rain Restaurant: Restaurant Row; T: (061) 246 2004, (094) 317 3711; open daily 09:00-22:00. Red Pepper: Anawrahta Rd, corner of Thiri Pyitsaya 4 St; T: (094) 926 0229.
San Kabar: Main St; T: (061) 60653, (094) 305 8979; open low 08:00-22:00, high 08:00-00:00.
Sanon: Pyu Saw Hit St, next door to Thante Hotel; T: (094) 302 4952; open 11:00-22:00 (kitchen closes at 21:30).
Shwe Moe: Opposite Aya Bank on Main St.
The Black Bamboo: Off Restaurant Row; T: (061) 69782, (096) 501 444; open 10:00-22:00.
Weather Spoons: Restaurant Row; T: (061) 246 2048, (094) 409 2640; open 07:30-22:30, later in high season.
Wonderful Tasty: Restaurant Row; T: (092) 5641 3811; open daily 09:00-22:00.

Be kind to animals by dining at Moon. Photo by: Mark Ord.
Be kind to animals by dining at Moon. Photo: Mark Ord

Old Bagan
Since the residents were shifted down the road there’s not much local action in Old Bagan. Aside from the fancy resort eateries – some of which do admittedly have fantastic riverside locations – you’re pretty much limited to the bunch of cafes set around the large dirt yard east of Tharabar Gate. Fortunately, some of these are pretty good even if many of them follow a similar formula. Longstanding The Moon, ‘Be Kind to Animals’, is a successful vegetarian cafe so not surprisingly there’s now a clump of two or three identikit cafes, even in one instance complete with a ‘Be Kind to Animals’ sign. Yar Pyi directly opposite is possibly as good as Moon but since the latter is the original then they’re the one on our list.

Moon’s formula is simple: They offer a wide range of well-prepared vegetarian dishes at cheap prices. There are various salads and curries of local and international inspiration with prices around 2,000 to 2,500 kyat. Your selection’s taken in a shady outdoor seating area or at tables in a cool, bamboo-built, roofed section. The only disappointment is that despite them having a fancy-looking coffee machine, their brews are undrinkable.

Head to the old acacia tree in the dirt yard for excellent local curries. Photo by: Mark Ord.
Head to the old acacia tree in the dirt yard for excellent local curries. Photo: Mark Ord

Starbeam Bistro is slightly fancier, but with higher prices and more Western choices. Their mainly outdoor seating area with plenty of plants forms a delightful green oasis in the dirt yard and comes with an extensive menu covering, surprise, surprise, a bit of everything. There’s a whole page of salads, both local and foreign, including pennyworth, avocado, tomato, tea-leaf or mozzarella ones, as well as a wide range of filled baguettes. Prices start around 2,500 kyat and run to 7,000 for pizza.

For a good curry we’d recommend walking across the yard to the stately old acacia tree in the centre around which are set a few tables belonging to an outdoor rustic curry shop. They seem to cater to drivers, guides and nearby shop or hotel staff and served us a very good curry with a mere six side dishes and soup for 1,500 kyat. So: Burmese-style fried pizza for 7,000 or a local curry plus vegetable sides and dhal for 1,500 kyat -- your choice.

The Burmese tomato salad at Starbeam. Photo by: Mark Ord.
The Burmese tomato salad at Starbeam. Photo: Mark Ord

A final spot worth a mention, and where you will find a fantastic riverside terrace without needing to go to an upmarket resort, is little Fantasia Cafe. Follow signs on the right hand side of the road as you’re coming from Nyaung U, just before arriving at Tharabar Gate, and a dusty lane will lead you down to a small and simple garden cafe. A few tables and bamboo chairs overlook the Ayeyarwaddy. They only serve drinks and close at 19:00. Other than admiring the view, the cafe’s main purpose is boat hire for short river trips.

Fantasia: Riverside, off the Nyaung U Main Rd, to the north of the old city; T: (097) 7891 5291; open 07:00-19:00.
curry and noodle shop: Under the large tree in the carpark; open daily 07:00 until food runs out.
The Moon; Near Ananda; T: (094) 301 2411, (094) 2070 9847; open daily 08:30-21:00.
Starbeam Bistro: Near Ananda; T: (094) 0250 2614; open daily 10:00-22:00.
Yar Pyi: Near Ananda, opposite The Moon; open daily 08:00-21:00.

Head to Fantasia for simple drinks by the river. Photo by: Mark Ord.
Head to Fantasia for simple drinks by the river. Photo: Mark Ord

New Bagan
Being too far to cycle down to Nyaung U for dinner, and with a large accommodation selection, New Bagan has a decent choice of restaurants of its own. The town’s lower-key version of Restaurant Row is main Khayea Pin Street, along which you’ll find most of the options, while there are also a few large riverside places catering mostly to tour groups. We couldn’t find anything to compete with Nyaung U’s better addresses, but there’s enough to keep you happy for a couple of evenings. For a longer stay, you could maybe eat local two nights and, especially if you could share it with a few people, grab a taxi down to Nyaung U for a third evening somewhere a bit different.

Along this main street, first up at the Eight Faces Pagoda roundabout you’ll find popular Black Rose. A traditional looking, local-style cafe, they have invested in a decent coffee machine which is excellent news plus they serve Burmese curries for 3,000 kyat or Thai and Chinese versions for up to 3,500. There are plenty of vegetarian options too, and all can be washed down with beers or fresh juices.

Continuing down the street in the river direction, next up on the left is Shwe Ou Food Garden, which serves the usual Bagan mix but specialises in no fewer than 14 flavours of house-made ice cream. They also have good coffee, juices and sandwiches, as well as a bakery selection including delicious baked cheesecake. Thai, Chinese or Thai main courses are around 3,500 kyat. A good initiative is offering set menus with a choice of salads, soups, main (including vegetarian) courses and a dessert for a total of 3,500.

Golden Bamboo or Shwe Pauk Kan is idea for a bee with free tofu crackers and tamarind sauce thrown in. Photo by: Mark Ord.
Golden Bamboo or Shwe Pauk Kan is idea for a bee with free tofu crackers and tamarind sauce thrown in. Photo: Mark Ord

Crossing back over the road you’ll see the rustic Silver House Restaurant, run by a friendly old couple and concentrating on well prepared local specialities such as chicken curry and tomato or tea-leaf salads. A choice of curry and free side dishes will set you back 3,500 or 4,000 kyat and there’s pleasant outdoor seating under the trees. The interior decor may leave a bit to be desired but the food’s great.

Next up and roughly opposite Bagan Central Hotel is another fine spot, Ma Mae Naing or Unforgettable, also specialising in classic local dishes. Soups, salads and of course curries were very good and priced around 3,000 to 4,500 kyat, including a couple of side dishes. A bit further on, and our final entry in New Bagan’s food strip, is the very good Golden Bamboo or Shwe Pauk Kan, located next door to Bagan Beauty Hotel. They offer -- you guessed it -- a bit of everything, but have some interesting Burmese and Bagan specialities for around 3,000 kyat, with their aubergine curry being particularly good. It’s also fine for breakfasts (handy since Bagan Beauty next door doesn’t include them), with a wide range of inexpensive Western or local options from 1,000 kyat. There’s an enticing range of fresh juices and shakes and this is a solid pick for an end of day alfresco beer in the yard. Free tofu crackers and tamarind sauce seem to appear regardless of what you order.

Snack stalls near Lawkananda Paya. Cheap, cheerful and fun! Photo by: Mark Ord.
Snack stalls near Lawkananda Paya. Cheap, cheerful and fun! Photo: Mark Ord

New Bagan’s second popular eating area is a small group of riverside restaurants of which Sunset Garden and Green Elephant are the most prominent. Both aim principally at tour groups, with Green Elephant being one of a chain of tourist restaurants with outlets in Mandalay and Yangon. (Red Pepper in Nyaung U is also owned by them.) They’re both great spots to sit but food tends to be bland, prices high and service erratic as they’re often busy with large groups. Sunset for instance has mediocre a la carte Sino-Burmese mains at a minimum of around 6,000 kyat per dish. Recommended for a sundowner and nibbles, but that’s it.

Alternatively, wander down the sealed road to Lawkananda Paya. It’s the temple on the riverside with the large gold-painted chedi, outside of which are a couple of snack stalls selling cold cans and with a few plastic chairs on the pavement overlooking the Ayeyarwaddy. It’s cheap, fun and you’ll meet people.

The food's not fab at Sunset Garden, but you can't really beat the views for a drink. Photo by: Mark Ord.
The food's not fab at Sunset Garden, but you can't really beat the views for a drink. Photo: Mark Ord

Finally, tucked away but well worth finding, is perhaps New Bagan’s best eatery, Naratheinkha. Walk down Khayae Street from the Eight Faces Pagoda roundabout and take the first left. The restaurant should be on the left but if in doubt ask, since most locals know it. The basic seating area – tables on a dirt floor under a straw roof – belies some very fine food indeed. The chef/owner apparently learnt his trade at Le Planteur Restaurant in Yangon and serves Asian food with a French touch and vice versa, plus various in-between options. The house speciality is said to be fried butterfish but we had the excellent grilled pork loin with honey and coriander at 6,000 kyat. Asian mains were cheaper at around 4,000. This is a small restaurant but popular and service can be slow so get there early.

Black Rose: Main Rd (Khayae St); T: (061) 65081, (093) 342 1694; open daily 09:00-22:30.
Golden Bamboo (Shwe Pauk Kan): Main Rd, next door to Bagan Beauty; open daily 08:00-22:00. Green Elephant: Off Main Rd; T: (061) 65422, (092) 043 463; www.greenelephant-restaurants.com.
Ma Mae Naing (Unforgettable): Main Rd. T: (094) 0273 0712, (097) 7787 5371; open daily 07:30-22:00.
Naratheinkha: Sabae St; T: (095) 242 420; open daily 17:00-21:30.
Shwe Ou Food Garden: 13 Khayae St; T: (094) 2004 8181, (094) 0258 5348; open daily 08:00-21:30.
Silver House Restaurant: Main Rd (Khayae St); T: (061) 65304, (094) 0158 0144; open daily 07:00-22:00.
Sunset Garden; Riverside; T: (061) 65073, (097) 8971 0910.

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