Things to Do in Bagan, Myanmar
My 2 days in Bagan started out badly. Right before I left for Myanmar, I went shopping on London’s Oxford Street for last minute essentials. I fell into a pothole and ripped my left knee up. I came home and cleaned and bandaged it but apparently not enough because a few days later, I was in Burma and my knee was still “weepy.” The morning I flew from Yangon to Bagan, I sent a picture of my knee to my cousin in New Jersey who is a nurse practitioner and her response was immediate and clear: “You need some meds. ASAP.”
So now I needed to find a doctor in Bagan. Great.
Finding a Doctor In Bagan
Luckily, the internet is your friend and I quickly found the travelers’ clinic. It’s called the Global Care Clinic and it’s in New Bagan. Only problem? There was an American kid in there already and he had HEMORRHOIDS and was totally freaked out. I sat there for an hour listening to him ask the doctor question after question. (The clinic walls were quite thin.) After a long discussion about whether or not he could go horseback riding with hemorrhoids — I kid you not — I had to pipe up and demand to be seen. $50 USD and some antibiotics later, I was on my way to The Hotel Tharabar Gate to start my weekend. (The doctor advised he should steer clear of horseback riding, just fyi.)
I got very lucky when planning my things to do in Bagan and found the Hotel at Tharabar Gate. It’s in a GREAT location in Old Bagan and so many of Bagan’s temples are within easy reach by car or e-bike. It’s an excellent place for a weekend trip. The hotel is trying to be 4 star but was probably more a 3.5 star for me. It could definitely be 4 or 5 star with a bit of updating to the rooms.
There’s a (very cold) pool, a spa (I had a good manicure and very good facial), and a lovely poolside restaurant and bar area with happy hour specials.
Getting around Bagan
I asked the hotel to hook me up with a driver to see the temples of Bagan and they gave me the very efficient “Mr. Knee.” Mr. Knee seriously took me to all the main sites in Bagan in ONE DAY and never made me wait more than 1 minute for a pick-up after visiting a temple. (Honestly, it was like he was psychic.) I had a pretty good time with Mr. Knee — he’s a happy guy and we managed to communicate without speaking each other’s languages — and if you stay at the Tharabar Gate and need someone to drive you around for the weekend, ask for him. (He is also a porter at the hotel.) That being said, I’d consider him more of a driver than a tour guide. If you want to know the history and the details, see if you can get a combined driver and guide for the day.
Renting an e-Bike in Bagan
One fun way to get around all the temples in Bagan is to rent an e-bike. These are basically mopeds that you can use to get around the temples. You do not need a license to rent an e-bike. Note that a lot of the temple areas are very sandy which can make riding hard. Ask the motorbike rental place which bikes might be better on sand. Also, please don’t forget a helmet! Your hotel might be able to help you rent an e-bike but there are also motorbike rental places dotted around town.
Explore the Temples of Bagan
OK — now for the reason you came to Bagan! TEMPLES! Bagan is one of those places where you think to yourself, “Man, people back in ancient times were AMAZING.” It’s really crazy to me that they built SO MANY of these temples. (There are over 2,000 still standing. This is 11th century stuff!) I mean, I’ve been to Angkor Wat but this was crazy. I decided to skip the hot air balloon ride — I have this fear that I will die in a hot air balloon accident — but it was lovely to watch them all floating over Bagan’s temples. Getting up early to experience this should go to the top of your list of things to do in Bagan.
There weren’t many tourists in Bagan the weekend I visited (besides for these two in the photo above), and at times it felt like I had the entire place to myself which was quite eerie. Later in the afternoon, we ran into a big school group and then we spent the rest of the afternoon avoiding them. It wasn’t hard.
Explore the Temples on a Bicycle Tour
OK, so I mentioned renting an e-bike if you need a little oomph but you can also tour the temples by regular bike as well — with a guide! This is one of the best things to do in Bagan because you’ll get to explore the temples and local backroads, meeting locals and stopping for snacks and drinks along the way. It’s six hours of bike riding BUT Bagan is pretty flat and this is not a race! This is a very well-organized adventure.
Take a Hot Air Balloon Ride
I’ll admit it…I’m kinda chicken to do this but everyone I met in Bagan did it so I am an outlier. I loved looking at the hot air balloons floating over Bagan but I just couldn’t muster up the courage to climb into a balloon basket. (Also, to be fair, it’s a bit pricey.) BUT…if you are heading to Bagan and you are not afraid of heights, this is one of those classic things to do in Bagan that everyone (except me) does.
Have Dinner & See A Show in Bagan
When I wasn’t visiting temples, I hung out poolside at Tharabar Gate and read. On my second evening, looking for more things to do in Bagan, I went to a dinner show down the road from Tharabar Gate (about an 8 minute walk) and while the dinner was totally dreadful and the service was strangely comical (they were fascinated by a Westerner, eating), the show was entertaining (teenagers dancing in traditional costumes) and took me through the history of Myanmar. (Another reason why I am glad I read Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace before visiting Myanmar. I could totally follow parts of the story!)
To be honest, I’m not entirely convinced I would do the dinner again, but the show was sweet, and it was one of those nice things to do in Bagan at night given that I had no plans and the hotel wifi was painfully, unusably slow. It’s called the Dandaree Show, by the way. Tip: If you do the dinner and show, it will be dark when it is time to go back to the hotel. While I could have walked it, the show has a golf cart! I flashed some cash and asked if they would drive me back to the hotel and they did, which was quite the adventure. The hotel laughed when they saw me rock up.
Take a Sunset Cruise in Bagan
If the river is high enough — it was too low when I was there — you can take a sunset cruise along the Ayeyarwady River in Bagan! These traditional teak boats are available for shared or private cruises. Typically, you will be met with a welcome drink and then you will sail to Stone Cave Pagoda at at Kyauk Kuu Phaya. I think this must be one of the most beautiful things to do in Bagan. You know I am a sucker for a boat cruise, so I was sad this didn’t work out. (It’s how I ended up at the dinner and the show above.) Book a sunset cruise in Bagan.
Visit Mount Popa and Salay from Bagan
If you’re the sporty type and like stairs, one of the more active things to do in Bagan is take a day trip to Mount Papa and Salay, where you’ll visit ancient monasteries. Specifically, you can =limb the 777 stairs to the sacred monastery at the top of Mount Popa, an extinct volcano. It’s a long day but a beautiful one!
Summary of Fun Things to Do in Bagan
I wish I had spent more than just two days in Bagan! And while I loved Mr. Knee, it would have been cool to have a real guide for a few hours so I had more context for everything I was looking at.
Myanmar is changing rapidly so go now while you can still drive right up to the front of each temple!! That was pretty awesome.