Key information: Bagan
- Bagan is justly described as one of the architectural wonders of the world, over 4,000 Buddhist monuments spread over 16 square miles by the Irrawaddy river.
- Wander among the temples, stupas and other monuments that dot this at times dusty plain. Sit on the upper levels and survey the towers and pinnacles rising above the treetops.
- There are no set routes, rather visitors can either explore by themselves or walk with a local guide. Note, though, that walking is only one way to get about Bagan, and not unreasonably a minority sport.
- Walkopedia rating84.5
- Natural interest8
- Human interest18
- Negative points4
- Total rating84.5
- Note: Negs: the hateful regime and its effects.
- Length: Variable
- Maximum Altitude: N/A
- Level of Difficulty: Straightforward
Bagan (formerly Pagan) was one of the glories of Asia, described by Marco Polo as "one of the finest sights in the world", created in a 230-year-long bout of fervor for Thervada Buddhism, but it fell into steep decline at the end of the thirteenth century around the time of the arrival of the Mongols, and little happened for hundreds of years after.
More than 4,000 religious buildings, temples, pagodas, stupas, monasteries and halls, have survived the centuries and earthquakes, scattered over 40 sq km of plain by the Ayeyarwadi (Irrawaddy) river, and they form what has been justly described as one of the architectural wonders of the world. They range from Ananda and Thatbyinnyu, vast tower-temples yet intricate and beautiful, to the massive "evil temple" Dhammayangyi, to an endless array of distinctive, decaying stupas of all sizes.
Wandering around the area and discovering these buildings for yourself is exceptionally rewarding. You can soak up the history and the beauty of the area, contemplating that golden age, as you watch the colour changing on surrounding ruins from the upper storeys of a pagoda while the sun sets behind the hills over the Irrawaddy.
Everyone has their favourites, and Walkopedia went for the perfect forms of the stupas such as Mingalazedi and Smingyi, developed over the years to achieve sublime, apparently simple, beauty of form. We railed in Ruskinian manner against the debasing of the style with the growth of Bagan baroque, only to find that our darlings were actually some of the last stupas built.
Some important practicalities:
- with a huge site to cover, and at times overwhelming heat, walking is only one (and probably not the most practical) means of getting about: many hire bikes and some take a pony and trap, which frees you to view the passing marvels without the distraction of watching your way, and enables you to go a long way off piste with confidence. (And, as Mrs Walkopedia says, this must be one of the only places in the world where a visitor doesn't look a prat in such a vehicle (well, in 2013, at least).) To be honest, Walkopedia was a bit disappointed with the walking, as we came expecting to 'bag' a Top 100 walk, but it was not to be. That said, do spend some hours wandering on foot, as the slower pace (and inclination to sit about) does produce a different form of contemplation.
- Generally, especially during the hottest months, you are well advised to start early, take a break in the mid-day heat, and pick up again at (say) 4pm and explore until after sunset.
- you won't be able to get everywhere, unless you are here a long time. Be a bit selective, and go for quality of experience over temple-ticking. Do get off the roads, though, and even get a bit lost.
There are no set routes around these fabulous buildings, although there are various sites you certainly shouldn't miss.
Walkopedia only had a day and a half in Bagan, and did the following:
- first afternoon: walked in the area of Old Bagan, which has a heavier concentration of buildings great and intimate than elsewhere. Took in the Ananda outside the walks, sat on a lovely, large but unheralded, brick stupa for sundown (an anticlimax as we were there in early March, so the sun disappeared quietly into a dry-season haze without the colouring pyrotechnics we hoped for). The Lonely Planet has a good suggestion for a walking route, although we strayed off onto our own creation. (Be warned: this was dusty and hot, but magnificent.)
- next morning, early (for us, anyway): took at pony and trap southward, swinging back via the great temples/stupas of the central plain: Sulamani, Dhammayangi aad Shwesanadaw.
- that afternoon, the northern plain, including Htilominlo and sunset at lovely Budeli pagoda. (We went on the Shwesandaw for a second sundown, but were so appalled by the buses and throngs that we slid away)
To go or not: until recently, there were major issues with visiting Myanmar, as a result of the money and affirmation that the regime receives from visitors - with counter-arguments to the effect that money to the desperately poor locals and foreign contact is more important. These were well put in the 2009 Lonely Planet. But, with the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, the debate has for the time being changed; she cautiously welcomes visitors coming to Myanmar.
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Other accounts: share your experiences
Your comments on this walk, your experiences and suggestions, and your photos are very welcome. Where appropriate, you will be credited for your contribution.
Myanmar (Burma) - Lonely Planet: overall pretty good, from practicalities to building descriptions (the latter could be fuller, but this is a country guide…)
Myanmar, Burma in Style – Odyssey. More poetic that the LP, but short on practicalities. It does no harm to bring both.
The Glass Palace – Amitav Ghost – a great novel in all senses. And it leaves you with much deeper understanding of the country and its history.
The River of Lost Footsteps – Thant Myin-U – a brilliantly readable history
The Making of Modern Burma– Thant Myin-U
From the Land of the Green Ghosts – Pascal Khoo Thwe: fine autobiography
Burmese Days - George Orwell. trenchant, observant, opinionated, as always. Makes uncomfortable reading for sensitive Brits.
The Laquer Lady - F. Tennyson Jesse: a wonderful novel (according to Mrs Walko) about a woman teaching in the Burmese court.
Golden Earth: Travels in Burma – Norman Lewis (can be hard to get)
The Piano Tuner – Daniel Mason – a truly badly written book, but somehow gripping (Mrs Walko won’t even grant it this) and a success (they made a film of it, so someone thinks it must be good!).
Maps can be bought easily on site, although they all have some imperfections of placings, so treat them with an element of caution.
Best times to walk/weather
Best times to walk
November through to early March, when the temperatures and rainfall are low. April and May are boiling hot and roughly mid-May to September wet. Oct- Nov will see things greener, albeit possibly with the odd shower, and not as many tourists as in Dec-Feb.
Very hot and dry through March to May. Appx mid-May to Mid October are wet season.
International flights arrive only at Yangon, the capital. From Yangon, it is possible to travel by plane, train, car or bus, although the train station still leaves a three hour drive.
Flying is the fastest method of transport, with bus second, taking around ten hours. (2013)
The drive to/from Lake Inle takes about 8 hours (2013) and is rewarding and informative, although many fly on to Heho, Inle’s airport.
Arranging flights and hotels from overseas can be difficult. Walkopedia used Myanmar Good News Travel (myanmargoodnewstravel.com), and were delighted, except we had problems with getting an initial response to our becoming-desperate emails.
There are no set routes around these fabulous buildings. See Walk Summary above for thoughts.
Possible problems, health, other warnings
- Heat and strong sun. Carry enough water and protect yourself.
- Health risks: this is a relatively undeveloped country, and you will not get prompt medical help of a standard available elsewhere if you become ill. Come prepared, including getting all appropriate inoculations/medications. Drink only bottled or boiled water and eat carefully.
- Snakes, mosquitos and other harmful animals. Walk alertly.
- Although it is normally possible to take photographs, be aware that in some places you may be charged for carrying a camera.
- Wear sensible clothes – suited to the weather and so cool and dry, however they must also be suitable for entering religious buildings, so not revealing or unsuitable.
See also the websites in our useful links page for more detailed, and up-to-date, information.
Safety and problems: All walks have inherent risks and potential problems, and many of the walks featured on this website involve significant risks, dangers and problems. Problems of any sort can arise on any walk. This website does not purport to identify any (or all) actual or potential risks, dangers and problems that may relate to any particular walk. Any person who is considering undertaking this walk should do careful research and make their own assessment of the risks, dangers and possible problems involved. They should also go to “Important information” for further important information.
Guided or independent?
To get the best personal feel for the place, walking independently is ideal, however, make sure you have a map.
It is easy to get guides (in fact, you will be pestered outside your hotel), and they can get access to the more remote temples which are kept locked to protect valuables; however, ask around for a someone known and respected, or at least talk to a prospective guide first (make sure you agree terms in advance!). Given the current poverty in the area, using a guide is a benevolent act. Don’t negotiate too hard, though!
Expedition organisers include:
- Classic Journeys (www.classicjourneys.co.uk) include Bagan walking in a good-looking Myanmar expedition, which includes other walking.
- Butterfield & Robinson (www.butterfield.com) have an expedition which includes Bagan walking.
- KuduTravel (www.kudutravel.com) do a Myanmar expedition which includes day walking at Bagan and Kalaw.
- Backroads (www.backroads.com) do a Myanmar expedition with walking at Bagan.
Both modern and comfortable hotels and more backpackery hostels are available in Bagan.
Always see what the commentary on Tripadvisor is on possible places to stay – although do take their reviews with a pinch of salt, as they can be “interested”.
Hostelbookersusually has a good selection of cheaper-end accommodation.
Other information and tips
Useful websites and information
There are various websites with information on Bagan, although none are, frankly, as useful or comprehensive as the guidebooks. Here are some that we think are useful or have been recommended to us.
Other things to do in the area
Mt.Popa – a weird volcanic plug which is crowded with nat shrines and an extinct volcano which is now a national park.
Further afield, a huge range of fascinating hill tribe treks.
All right, ballooning over Bagan and a cruise on the Ayeyarwadi (the latter is a bit dull in reality).
Shopping, if you must
Most main temples/pagodas have stalls selling souvenirs, and it is possible to find good quality laquerware at ridiculous prices. You can see factories where the laquerware, which the area is famous for, is made.
We are not normally a shoppers’ website, but anything bought from local people must be of some help to this desperately poor area. So, wallets out, but don’t bargain too ruthlessly!
share your experiences
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Anyone planning an expedition to this place should see further important information about this walk.
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