Being home to some 2,000 to 3,000 separate temple sites, Bagan is the largest concentration of Buddhist religious monuments on the planet. If you have an aversion to Buddha statues and pagodas stop now. Otherwise, what to do and how best to do it?
We see no point visiting on a day visit, though some do. Conversely it would take weeks, and be a pointless exercise, to attempt to see every temple. Bagan is a bit out of the way to visit, and you'll be paying for a compulsory 25,000 kyat entrance pass, which is valid officially for three days. We'd suggest a minimum of three days for Bagan but ideally four. This should allow you to see the big temples and some lesser known ones, but at a relativity relaxed pace, to reduce your chance of coming down with temple fatigue. An extra day would allow a side trip to Mount Popa. Do remember that sometimes it's the smaller sites that make for the most rewarding visits anyway: a stop at that forgotten, unrestored chedi, the unassuming brick stupa offering stupendous views, or the average looking temple hiding spectacular interior murals, could be your favourite stop.
For conservation reasons, travellers are only permitted to climb up a few stupas. As of mid 2016, a total of five: Shwe San Daw Pagoda, North and South Guni or Taung Guni and Myauk Guni, Pyathet-gyi and Thitsar Wadi Paya.
Here's how we'd suggest spending your three or four days.
Check-in, get your bearings, see if your reception has a map handy -- you'll need one -- grab some lunch and take an afternoon stroll around the surrounding area. If you're staying in New Bagan, a few temples on the edge of town - north and south - can be visited, and you could check out Lawkananda as an introduction. If you're in Nyuang U, then fabulous Shwezigon is a convenient start. A relaxing sunset boat trip could be a good way to spend a first day, as you'll see some good views of riverside temple sites.
Now you're ready for a big day. It is worth starting early even if you aren't planning on a dawn visit. We do strongly recommend making the effort to get up for sunrise on at least one of your mornings, though. Try using pedal power today to visit the closer sites; if you don't manage to get to all the ones you want to see, you can include them on a follow up day by e-bike. If you can get two or three people together then car hire -- especially during the baking hot season -- may be worth it. You can also ask your hotel reception to get you a guide. A half-day, guided introduction or orientation tour may well be worth the investment before exploring on your own.We saw travel agents offering guided day tours by minibus for as little as 25,000 kyat. Get an overall view from someone who knows the place and can explain what you're actually looking it. Essential equipment for a bike day would be a hat, waterproof (May to October), map and torch. You'll never be very far from a drink vendor so water's useful but not essential.
Get the 'biggies' out of the way, after which you're in a better, more informed, position to wander around on your own and peek into Bagan's nooks and crannies. Leisurely exploring back lanes, stopping at villages to check out everyday life and discovering a picturesque, rarely visited temple is all part of the fun.
Our roll-your-own Bagan tours can be slotted together in any order depending largely on where you're staying. They describe the key sites but there are of course myriad minor ones. Any two of our Old Bagan to New Bagan, Old Bagan to Nyaung U or Old Bagan programmes can be easily done in a day by bicycle. With some energy and an early start you could conceivably do all three. Try sussing out good sunset and sunrise spots for the following day while you're going around.
This leaves the remoter sites of the Central Plains and a third of our programmes, if you've done two on day two. Have a try of an e-bike, handy for reaching one of the quieter sunset spots. Do check what time you're supposed to bring the bike back and it's worth checking battery life as well
If you can stretch to another day, then sign up for a trip to Mount Popa. The join-in minibus tours are very good value and it'll be an interesting change of scenery. They are advertised as half-day trips, but most won't get you back before 14:00ish. You've probably seen enough temples by now so a boat trip, if you haven't done one yet, or a stroll down to the riverbank for sunset could be the go.
For join-in guided day tours try Bagan Sightseeing Tours: T: (092) 6333 3180, (092) 6333 3190; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.bagandailytours.com.
Comparisons of Bagan with visiting Angkor are inevitable thanks to the sheer size of the site, but at Angkor individual temples are frequently larger and less numerous. Unless you're waiting round for dawn or dusk, or are a fanatic for religious architecture, there are very few individual Bagan sites that will keep your attention for more than 30 minutes or so.
Among Bagan's monasteries, pagodas, temples, chedis and stupas, certain stand out due to their unique architectural style or by virtue of their size alone. To the uninitiated, however, we confess that a lot of them really do look very similar. Possibly the most impressive feature at Bagan will be the overall views of the temples, with hundreds of stupa spires emerging from the acacias and palms dotting the plain as far as the horizon. This is something you'll never get at Angkor as there are too many tall trees.
By Mark Ord.
Last updated on 23rd September, 2016.
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.