The bus station for Bagan is a way outside of the towns, probably a 15 minute drive from Nyaung U which is where I would recommend staying, around the same to New Bagan and probably 20 minutes to Old Bagan. I wouldn’t recommend attempting to walking it, the pavements aren’t in a great condition. I took a taxi with three other girls and we paid around 4,000MMK each to get to Nyaung U. We had to buy the 25,000MMK archaeological zone entry ticket on our way in, this lasts for 5 days and gives you unrestricted access to the temples of Bagan.
Royal Bagan is the backpackers paradise offered by Nyanung U, apperances are deceiving however, when I pulled up at 4AM I made the taxi driver wait around whilst I checked my booking; I couldn’t believe such a grand looking hotel offered dorms at all, let alone for 19,000MMKa night. They strictly don’t allow you to check in until 1PM but keep a very watchful eye over your bags if you leave them in reception and have showers available by their murky but useable pool. I cannot comment on their dorm rooms due to a mix up with my booking leaving me in a shared family room, but this room was clean, very comfortable and verging on luxurious. The hotels buffet breakfast is also a leap and a bound ahead the toast and omelette breakfasts provided to me so far in most of Asia with a (small) selection of Western and Asian style breakfast foods. The hotels wifi is slow but useable, at one point I did manage to hold a Skype conversation. However they provide two computers hooked up to wired internet in the lobby which were fast enough for me to upload the photos from my DSL camera onto Google drive.
I had stayed in The Royal Bagan based on the recommendation of many of the backpackers I’d met up until this point. No-one having a bad word for it. Ostello Bello in New Bagan was also incredibly highly praised if a little more expensive (25,000MMK), I have heard that this hotel is set up more socially than the hotel style of Royal Bagan which doesn’t offer a social area for people to meet other than the lounger area by the pool.
The significant benefit of Nyaung U over New or Old Bagan however is Restaurant Street; a long potholed road lined with restaurants ranging from a quick bowl of rice to a high end night out interspersed with travel agents and souvenir shops. This is the ‘social hive’ of Bagan, the closest you will get to a night out and the easiest place I found to meet people even if the lack of bars and table set up makes starting up conversation slightly challenging. From around 7PM, once people have returned from watching the sunset, this street is packed with people eating or drinking in the restaurants, beer is fairly expensive compared to other Asian countries (around 2,000MMK) and it’s flow stops when the restaurants all close between 10PM and 11PM.
My two favourite restaurants here were Rain and Weatherspoons (Far flung from it’s UK namesake!). Rain sits close to the top of Restaurant street and is good for some quick, cheep food; a plate of fried rice is around 3,000MMK and could feed two people (they are more than happy to give you a box to take half away in), good if you want to take lunch out with you to the temples. For something a little nicer try Weatherspoons – particularly their burgers which are delicious! Weatherspoons is popular at any time of the day, tables can be difficult to come by in the evening. In general the food of Myanmar I found to be fairly bland and sloppy, especially in a lot of the local restaurants the rice was verging on a gruel-like texture, however their tea leaf salad is generally incredible; tangy lemon cutting through the bitterness of the salad leaves and some sort of bean shaped thing with a crispy, crunchy texture – surprisingly filling.
As a pit stop for lunch whilst exploring the temples I’d recommend pulling off the dusty track between Old and New Bagan to try a restaurant called San Thi Dar. The staff could not be more friendly but most importantly the food is delicious and cheap; I got a potato curry and a fresh fruit shake for less than 5000MMK, the cheapest shakes I found in all of Myanmar! To top it off my friend and I were offered a complimentary fried sweet for dessert which was utterly delicious if incredibly unhealthy tasting. I don’t know the name of this sweet but it’s some sort of sweet batter fried until crispy around the edges and soft in the middle. Two roads run parallel from Nyaung U to Old Bagan, if you take the road closer to the river you can find a woman who fries these up fresh somewhere around the turning off for Htilominlo Temples, I can’t recommend them more!
The easiest way to get around the vast complex of temples is on an E-bike which you can rent daily from most hostels or from one of the various roadside stands which tend to be cheaper, around 4000K as opposed to 5000MMK in The Royal Bagan. From The Royal Bagan if you turn right and walk a few minutes up the road there is a very trust worthy lady who has a stand in front of a small convenience store which I rented from all three days. You can usually have them from just before sunrise to just past sunset. I visited Bagan in early August and was lucky in the lack of rain I experienced. This meant that the dirt tracks were very dusty however and the churning of the bikes tyres got a lot of this dust in my eyes, especially when following a fellow biker, so make sure you take sunglasses with you!
Most of the more popular temples have families who stake out an area to sell their wares and they will follow you round the temples often offering it’s history and anecdotes about the country and area in the hope of some sort of tip. The families apply for a permit to sell at the temple which is free but restricts them to the boundaries of just one of the buildings. Most will have the whole family there with them all day, the young children scampering about after you on the roofs, and although primary school is free and I believe compulsory in Myanmar, this doesn’t prevent parents bringing their children along to increase sales. These families also care for the dogs of the temples, each of which has one or two dogs which prowl their grounds and call it their home. Although they are strays, only fed by the families and left to the wild nights of the planes when the locals vacate the area after dark, they are a lot more friendly than they dogs I met in the more urbanised areas of Myanmar; not that I would recommend petting them.
You’re better off exploring the temples for yourself than trying to find ones based on recommendations, especially as the dirt tracks are so easy to loose your way on. Most will have hidden stairways to reach the heights of their roofs, some of the bigger temples have closed these off; if you see a roof with flat areas there will normally be one, so keep searching, they aren’t all so easy to find! I would make one recommendation however, that North Guni, just behind Dhammayangyi Temple is a brilliant alternative to any of the popular temples for both sunrises and sunsets. With two levels of roofs you’re high enough to have a stretching view over the vast plane of temples, but out of the way enough that you aren’t bothered by the swathes of tourists who swamp the larger temples. The time to visit these beautiful temples is definitely now, in the three days I spent delving into their mysteries I saw very few other tourists, but the number is definitely on the rise and I doubt it will be long before the hidden stairways are barred and the freedom to roam around them is restricted.