While two days in Bagan is not ideal, it is doable. In two days, without prior planning, we manage to cover not only the better of the archaeological zone but even push further to rural attractions and Mount Popa. In many ways, how long you need in Bagan, will depend on your enthusiasm for temples where in Bagan there are seemingly endless numbers to be found. After two days however our excitement for temples wanes, and we leave Bagan with no regrets or feeling of missed opportunity. Given more than two days in Bagan I’d likely do little more than sit back and admire the temples from afar. The scenes are undoubtedly beautiful. With limited time to explore, the hotel location made little difference to us. We opt for New Bagan, where resorts are cheaper, and we still have impressive views over Bagan’s unforgettable landscapes (Manisanda Hotel). From here we organise day tours and make the most of our two days in Bagan.
We arrive close to midday in Bagan with little (no) preparation. Within minutes a half day tour of Bagan is booked. You will find tours and excursions easy to find through hotels, local taxis and random touts. While the popular option for the Bagan Tour is horse and cart we had already covered this not-so-comfy experience previously in Inwa (near Mandalay). Instead we travel by air-conditioned minivan to speed up our journey, making the most of our two days in Bagan. The half-day tour covers most of the major temples in Bagan’s Archaeological Zone and if you plan your own itinerary, the driver will happily go along with it.
Ending the half day tour we have the option of hotel drop off or anywhere we fancy in the area. We opt for a riverside restaurant nearby in New Bagan (Sunset Garden Restaurant) with views over the passing Irrawaddy River. We stuff faces with Chinese food and Mandalay beer then have the restaurant pull a cheap, local taxi for our trip back to the hotel. We spend the night with panoramic views of the Bagan temples from our hotel’s rooftop veranda, snacking on local food and sampling the local beers, rums, whiskys….
Each morning at roughly 5.30am the ‘Balloons over Bagan’ tour begins (weather permitting). While we did plan to jump on board the hassles were too much and prices a rip-off. We tried to book on the day we arrive, for travel the following morning. First they don’t take bookings over phone, then only one premium place is available ($380) and to reach their booking office we’d have to trek the city. If planning to join this tour book in advance. We chose the next best option and relax at the hotel rooftop to watch the balloons lift off around us.
Recommended by the hotel Mount Popa is the first half of a full-day tour. Well recommended. The road to Mount Popa is, in itself, an attraction with arid countryside, scattered rural villages, passing locals, farms and buffalo. The first stop en route is at a palm tree farm where palm wine distillation and jaggery (palm sugar) is produced (check here for full palm wine distillation). Interesting stop-off with free breakfast boozing. Arriving to Mount Popa we stop for a photo op (as below) then forward to the base of the mountain for the trek to the top. Being somewhat lazy we stay at the lower tiers surrounded by Buddhist shrines and monkeys. We watch pilgrims and the rare slow moving Yeti monks begin their trek to the top (check here for full blog on Mount Popa). On the return journey we stop for a quick feed before drop off at the hotel for a siesta.
The 2nd half of the day tour starts around 4pm and again visits the Bagan Archaeological Zone. By now we had flicked through maps and pamphlets and put together a quick to-do list for the driver to filling in the gaps from the previous day. After three temple visits we finish the tour at Shwe San Daw Pagoda where we find the temple rooftop already crammed with tourists waiting for sunset over Bagan. We climb to the top and join them, snap a few photos, then call it a night.
If next plans are to Mandalay I would recommend the boat journey following the Irrawaddy River. While the journey does take a good 11 hours the experience and authentic rural local life en route is in no doubt worth it. Boats leave early morning 05.30am and arrive to Mandalay a roughly 16:00pm. Here for full details on our Bagan to Mandalay boat journey.