Bagan, Myanmar, which was closed off to outsiders for over 50 years, recently opened up, luring unassuming visitors from all corners of the earth into its mystical and raw atmosphere. I was lucky to be one of them.
If you’re looking for a peaceful place to do a little self-reflection, savor surprisingly piquant flavors, and bask in entrancing views of a stupa-speckled land, then this is certainly the place to do it.
What to Know Before Going to Bagan
(AKA what I wish I knew before going to Myanmar)
1. Mingalabar (ming-ah-lah-bah) is “hello” and Cezubar (jez-yu-bah) is “thank you”
I apologize for the butchered Romanization, but these two words and a big smile will undeniably come in handy!
2. Locals chew betel nut
Don’t get spooked out when you see blood-like splotches on the ground. That’s just betel nut, a bright red natural CNS stimulant that has similar effects as caffeine or tobacco.
3. Men wear comfy-looking long skirts, called longyi or paso
And they look darn good doing it! I can imagine it minimizes fuss in the morning and maximizes breeze during the sweltering daytime.
4. Women wear a thick white paste on their faces
Thanaka, a paste made from ground bark, has been used for over 2000 years. Aside from aesthetic purposes, thanaka protects from sunburn and removes blemishes.
5. Diners make kissing sounds to get wait staff’s attention
Subtle looks and “excuse me’s” supposedly won’t get you too far when eating at the more local joints. I got by, however, with a polite wave and didn’t try my hand at the lip-smacking noises.
6. Be prepared to go barefoot in the temples/pagodas
Wear sturdy sandals that you can easily slip off before entering each stupa or temple.
7. Dress conservatively
Locals are still fairly conservative in their sartorial preferences. In order to avoid stares and be respectful in temples, I’d recommend steering clear of anything sleeveless or above the knee.
Bagan by Bike
Rent an e-bike or a bicycle to tackle all there is to see. Stop whenever anything – whether an oddly shaped stupa, a looming silhouette, a beckoning set of stairs, or a colorful convergence of hot air balloons in the sky – catches your eye.
We rode north from our hotel in New Bagan all the way to Old Bagan, then about halfway to Nyaung Oo [Nyaung U]. I love a good climb so whenever we passed a climbable stupa, I monkeyed up.
What surprised me most was that the lack of urgency doesn’t undercut the sense of adventure when exploring Bagan. I took my sweet time at each spot, peering through dark openings and admiring intricate designs, but still felt like I got to see so much.
Ask your hotel for a map (we stayed at Yun Myo Thu Hotel) and bring a headlamp with you to be safe! Once the sun goes down, unlit roads can make it a little tricky to find your way back home. Plus, the headlamps help navigate inside dark and cramped stupa corridors.
Chase the Sun
Catch sunset at Oak-gyung-ji near Old Bagan. Just be warned that you’ll have to hunker down and crawl up a few narrow sets of stairs to get to the top of the stupa.
Be sure to get there 30 minutes before sunset to snag a good spot and stay for 30 minutes or so after the sun sets. There’s nothing quite like ending the day with a ruddy, lustrous sun bidding you adieu through the haze.
We found that the most striking moments of sunset occurred after the sun sunk below the horizon (after everyone had already left). Imagine: outstretched clouds resting against kaleidoscopic layers of color; sharp contours of stupas piercing the sky. The stupas in the distance also begin to light up as the sky deepens into purplish glow.
Specific stupas can be tricky to find: maps are not scaled accurately and all stupas start to blend together. Just ask anyone on the road for directions!
Eat at Be Kind to Animals the Moon
This is rated #1 on TripAdvisor for a reason, but be careful: the map on TripAdvisor was wrong when we went. The Old Bagan outdoor restaurant serves up delicious local vegetarian fare reminiscent of Thai, Indian, and Chinese cuisine.
The waiters were all young men, who were quick to initiate banter when they saw that my boyfriend was wearing a Drogba soccer jersey. Our new friend explained that they prohibit photographs because there have been quite a few local spies trying to copy their concept. And I can understand why… the food was top notch:
The strawberry lassi is creamy and refreshing after a long and dusty day of biking. The tea leaf salad is peppery and fresh with just the right amount of crunch. The curries are fragrant and filling.
Ride a Hot Air Balloon During Sunrise
A hot air balloon ride over Bagan may be expensive (around $300 USD), but if you’re willing to splurge, it’ll be an unforgettable experience. The stupas were quite a sight from ground-level, but there’s something so ethereal about floating over the dappled city at the crack of dawn.
We rode with Oriental Ballooning, catching enchanting glimpses of Bagan from every angle as the city below shuffled into consciousness.
We glided with the wind for over an hour until we – along with the stupas below us – were thrust into broad golden daylight, signaling the end of our ride, but a start to another glorious day in Bagan.