A trip to Myanmar is a life-changing experience and there are certain places you shouldn’t miss, even if you’re short on time.
One of those places is Bagan, famed for its thousands of gleaming pagodas and skies forever dotted by hot air balloons. Since there’s a lot to see and do in this amazing city, you need to make the most of your time there!
So to help you out, here’s a three-day itinerary for what to do and see while visiting this magical place on your way through Myanmar.
Some quick basics about Bagan to get you started.
Located in the Mandalay region, Bagan is considered to be Myanmar’s ancient city. It has the largest number of Buddhist temples, pagodas and stupas. Most of them date back to the 11th and 12th centuries!
More specifically, Bagan is divided into three distinct towns: Nyaung-U, Old Bagan and New Bagan. In Old Bagan, you’ll find most of the ancient, crumbling buildings and structures, while most people reside in New Bagan. Nyaung-U is where many transit stations are located, as well as tons of hostels suited to the budget traveler.
Editor’s Note: Not sure where to stay in while in Bagan? Check out our guide to the best places to stay in bagan!
When traveling to Bagan, it’s easiest to fly into Nyaung-U Airport which is a gateway to the rest of the ancient city.
If you’re already in Myanmar, Bagan is about 9 hours from Yangon by car and a bit longer by bus. If you’re traveling from Mandalay, Bagan is a 4-hour drive away but it’s also accessible by boat cruise down the Irrawaddy River (8-12 hours).
Finally, if you’re traveling to Bagan from the area around Inle Lake, you can expect about a 7-hour drive, with different bus options available.
Bagan Day 1: Get to Know the City
Because there’s so much to do and see in Bagan, it’s easy to become overwhelmed quickly. That’s exactly why you should spend your first day getting to know the beautiful city.
Your day should start with the sun, as Bagan is famous for some stellar sunrises (and sunsets!). So set your alarm and wake up for a beautiful pink, orange and yellow sky before the rest of the city rises. While you can see the sunrise from anywhere, LoukaOushang Temple is one of the best places to take in all of the colors and enjoy a stunning view.
When you’re all set to start your day, head to the Lawka Nanda Pagoda for some culture. This well-known temple is situated right on the river and draws in locals for worship. It’s a nice place to spend the morning before it gets too hot, and have some chill time while admiring the beauty of the temple. While this is only one of the thousands of temples in the city, it’s a great one to get started with.
When you’ve finished at the pagoda, make your way to a local market for a mid-morning snack. There’s a great market located right in the heart of Nyaung U near the roundabout that’s perfect for strolling. You’re likely to be the only foreigner there but you’ll enjoy it that much more as all the locals will be trying to grab your attention for a quick chat and a smile.
After the market, you’ve probably worked up an appetite for a great local meal. Grab some lunch at the Sanon Training Restaurant, which is a non-profit that helps train local students to work in the hospitality industry. You can fill your belly and do some good at the same time — what a way to give back to the local community!
Now it’s time to head to the Bagan Archaeological Museum. Here, you’ll find exhibits on the history of Bagan, religion, languages, people, culture and more. It’s a great way to provide you with some context for where you are!
So, now you’re all full and probably a little bit sleep but more pagodas are calling your name so it’s time to get exploring! I won’t tell you exactly where to go, but if you’re hunting for some awesome pagodas to spend the rest of the day wandering, consider places like Ananda Temple, Shwesandaw Pagoda, Shwegu Gyi Phaya or Bu Paya Pagoda.
If you want some history and context to what you’re seeing, try a bike tour of the temples with a local guide.
Read More: Bagan Temples Travel Guide
Finally, settle in for dinner and a show at Nanda Restaurant which has colorful puppet shows while you dine. It’s a great way to enjoy Burmese specialties while watching handmade wooden puppets depict local life.
Ready for bed yet? I’d say that’s more than enough for your first day.
Bagan Day 2: Ride a Hot Air Balloon
After spending your entire first day walking around, you should spend your second one seeing Bagan in style. More specifically, hop in a hot air balloon and see the entire city from above!
The hot air balloon season in Bagan starts in October and ends in mid-April before monsoon season begins. During these months, the sky is constantly dotted with balloons carrying passengers high above the ground for some unbelievable views.
Since Bagan is famous around the world for their abundance of hot air balloons, it’s an absolute must-do while visiting the city. There are tons of different ways to go about it, but the easiest is to schedule a hot air balloon ride here and simply sit back and enjoy!
Staff from the company will pick you up from your hotel or hostel and bring you to the site of the launch. Everyone working will be able to speak English, you’ll have snacks and drinks before and after the flight, and there’s a full safety briefing as well. It should be a pleasant and memorable experience through and through!
While the ride only lasts an hour, the entire experience (including transportation) should take up about half a day. When you return to the city afterwards, you’ll have some time left to enjoy the city some more.
Read More: Bagan Hot Air Balloon Review
Once you’re back in the city, head to the riverside to soak in local life. There are tons of food stalls so it’s a great place to grab a quick Burmese snack or some curry while watching the boats roll in and out.
You can also use this time to visit one of the famed lacquer manufacturers in the city. This art form dates back to the 12th century in Bagan. It is truly beautiful both as a work in progress and as a finished product.
There are plenty of manufacturers throughout Bagan such as Jasmine Family Lacquerware Workshop or Golden Cuckoo Lacquerware, but you can also find them in the Nyaung U Market! Pick up some souvenirs or simply spend some time admiring before having another delicious Burmese dinner and heading to bed.
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Bagan Day 3: Hike to the Top of Mount Popa
To start, let me explain. Mount Popa is a giant dormant volcano located 50 kilometers south of Bagan, and it has a giant, golden monastery sitting on top. It’s an insanely cool place to visit not only for the outstanding views of the surroundings, but for the gorgeous glimpse into the cultural life of many Burmese people.
While the volcano itself looms over the land below, it’s a relatively easy way up — only 700 steps! The one catch here is that you have to do it barefoot. On your walk up, you’ll pass locals selling clothing and souvenirs along the stairs and more monkeys than you could imagine.
At the top, you’ll be greeted by glorious statues, worshipers, and golden altars with devotees giving offerings. It’s a bit of a circus with all that’s going on but it’s truly worth making the trip for all that the place has to offer.
To get there, you can hire a car for around $30 USD round-trip that will come with a driver to take you there and back. The driver will pick you up wherever you’d like and it’s totally according to your own timetable, so there’s really no more convenient way to get to Mount Popa!
Plus, you won’t have to worry about navigating Myanmar’s notoriously reckless roads on your own.
After returning to Bagan from Mount Popa, you’re sure to be completely beat, but don’t forget to spring for one final dinner at Sunset Garden Restaurant located in New Bagan. You’ll not only enjoy a delicious dinner but also get to take in some final sights of the Irrawaddy River and the mountains that surround it.
Pretty nice way to end your trip, wouldn’t you say?
Tips for Visiting Bagan, Myanmar
Here are a few tips that may come in handy during your time in Bagan.
Take a Bike!
Bagan is best traveled by bike, especially the ancient part of the city These days, there are even e-bikes (electric bikes) available for rent and they’re rapidly gaining in popularity as they’re incredibly efficient for getting around.
There’s a debate about whether e-bikes are appropriate or not, especially in the ancient part of Bagan, but the choice is yours whether you’d like to stick to the traditional ones or get a little boost for your ride.
There are bike rental places pretty much everywhere, and you’ll be able to secure one for an entire day for about $5 USD!
Learn Basic Phrases
There’s no better way to get in good with the locals than to throw around a few choice Burmese phrases.
You should learn how to say things like hello (Ming-Lah-Bah), thank you (Chey-Zoo-Bah) and always greet locals with a smile! You’ll blend right in in no time.
Read More: Basic Burmese Phrases
Respect Local Customs
While visiting Bagan, it’s important to be on top of your respect game to show the locals that you care about the land and their customs. When visiting pagodas and temples, follow all instructions and signs, take off your shoes, and never climb on the structures. You should also remember to walk left around pagodas as this is a sign of respect.
When interacting with local Burmese people, keep in mind that it’s considered disrespectful to touch someone else’s head. It’s also rude to point the bottom of your feet at someone. It’s a good idea to be aware of your actions while traveling in Bagan (and the rest of Myanmar) to show that you care about local customs.
Finally, step out of your comfort zone while in Bagan, Myanmar!
Try new foods, push yourself to see more, and be comfortable with being uncomfortable. This is the best way to spend time in Myanmar and really soak in the complete local experience. For such a special place, one of the most important parts of visiting is being open to pretty much anything!
After all of this, you’re sure to have felt like you’ve conquered Bagan. With culture, experience, history, and of course tons of local delicacies, you’ve really hit the jackpot by spending even a short three days here.
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