Experience Bagan’s Culture and Beauty

Myanmar, for me, wasn’t a place that was on my radar. In 2016, it was just gaining popularity as a travel destination. But, the images my friend, and co-founder of RAKLife, shared with me from her recent visit to Bagan hung in my mind.

So, when RAKLife organized a trip to Myanmar I knew I had to go and experience Bagan’s culture and beauty in person. While I have written several posts on my time in Myanmar, Bagan was the most magical. From temples to tasty treats and everything in between, try these wonderfully unique and cultural things to do in Bagan.

Getting To Bagan

There are multiple ways to get between cities in Myanmar.

By bus is definitely the most affordable option. On major routes like the one from Yangon to Bagan, you can find luxury/ more comfortable options available. However, the ride takes close to 12 hours.

For my itinerary, I didn’t have the time to take a bus, so I opted for an internal flight on Air KBZ and made the trip in about an hour. I was shocked that on such a short flight we were served a full meal so don’t bother buying a meal before you board.

Read all about my unexpected adventure in Yangon here!

There are 1000's of temples and pagodas to explore while visiting Bagan in Myanmar.

Where to Stay in Bagan

There are loads of places to stay in Bagan! I recommend staying close to Old Bagan as that’s where the majority of temples can be found.

If you’re on a tight budget, try the Winner Guest House for around $20USD/ day for a double room with private bathroom including a decent hot breakfast. The upstairs rooms are more recently renovated than the downstairs and dorm so keep that in mind. It’s located next to a scooter rental, a few restaurants and has easy access to the major sights.

Cultural Things to Do in Bagan | Temples & Pagodas

Schwezigon Pagoda is just one of the many things to do in Bagan Myanmar.

One of the most popular ways to experience Bagan’s culture is to visit the temples. All of the temples are beautiful in their own way and there’s over 2000 of them. So, you can’t go wrong, but here’s a few that you should consider.

Schwezigon Pagoda

This beautiful pagoda is a Buddhist temple covered in gold-leaf. It was built in the 11th century and is one of the more lavish temples in the area. It is said that the pagoda houses the footprints of Buddha.

Shwesandaw Pagoda

Head here to catch the sunset. Get there early to avoid the crowds and snag one of the coveted upper level spots. The steps are pretty steep so if that bothers you, you may want to pass on this or watch from the ground.

I’ll never forget walking around before sunset, observing some of the monks and just thinking about their lives. Unexpectedly, the two monks I was watching turned and looked at me. I smiled, feeling embarrassed that I’d been caught watching them! But then THEY walked up to ME and asked if they could have a picture with me! I was incredibly humbled but of course said yes!

Just me and my friends at Shwesandaw Pagoda in Bagan enjoying the sunset!

Sulamani Temple

As you approach Sulamani Temple, you’ll pass through a beautiful archway. This is a great spot for silhouette photos with the temple in the background.

Inside the temple, the walls and ceiling are covered in paintings depicting scenes from the life of Buddha. Each of the four sides of the temple features a large statue of Buddha.

Pro Tip: Shoulders and knees should be covered and shoes removed when visiting temples and pagodas in Bagan. Buy a longyi (wrap skirt) for ~$3USD at the market when you arrive and carry it with you to cover your knees. Wear short sleeve shirts or carry a scarf to cover your shoulders when wearing a tank top.

Cultural Things to Do in Bagan | Buddhist Ceremonies and Village Life

If you don’t scooter in Bagan, have you really been there?

One day, our group rented scooters (from next door to Winner Guest House) to go exploring. Our guide was really excited and asked us to follow him but wouldn’t tell us where he was taking us.

We weaved through one of the only paved roads and pulled over near a small market in front of a temple. There was a crowd of people starting to gather, including several women dressed in colorful dresses with beautiful umbrellas. We parked our scooters and waited to see what was going to happen.

Shinbyu Ceremony & Parade

One of the things to do in Bagan is to explore by electric scooter. I happened upon a Shinbyu Ceremony in one of the villages!

The distant boom of a large drum was faint but getting closer. A procession of young women and men dressed in elegant clothing came down from the village. It was clear that this was a very special occasion.

I asked the guide what was going on. He very excitedly smiled and put one finger to his lips and pointed. I looked up and saw a young boy that looked like royalty riding on the back of a horse while a man held an umbrella over him.

Image of a young boy dressed in opulent clothing in a Shinbyu Parade near Bagan Myanmar. After the parade he will leave his family to become a novice monk.

There was a never-ending parade of these young boys parading through town. Some were resting on golden chairs atop the horses and others were in opulent carriages behind the animals. The parade ended with a carriage blaring music through large speakers with a man singing to music.

A golden carriage for the Shinbyu celebration carries a young boy through the village in Bagan.

About Shinbyu

One of the things to do in Bagan is to explore by electric scooter. I happened upon this little girl at her village's Shinbyu celebration!

I looked to the guide to see if now he would explain. He smiled and explained that we had just seen the Shinbyu ceremony for this village, which is a special coming of age ceremony for young boys as part of the Theravada Buddhist tradition. This tradition is considered one of the most important for parents as they send their son off to become a novice monk and a hallmark of Bagan’s culture.

Because this ceremony and the time spent as a novice monk is believed to bring good fortune on a family by the Buddha, families without male children have gotten creative. These families seek out male orphans or “borrow” another family’s son to go through Shinbyu and the subsequent time as a novice monk on their behalf.

Joining the Shinbyu Celebration

The members of the village insisted we join in their Shinbyu celebration meal after the parade.

Following the parade, the village hosts a celebration at a special shelter they build called a “pandal”. The family hosting this year’s celebration saw us visiting and invited us into the pandal and asked us to share their village’s food.

Each member of the village donates a dish for this meal so we got to taste several local dishes. The most interesting was a bowl of very tiny salted fish. It really was such an honor to be welcomed into this intimate and special Buddhist celebration.

RELATED: Myanmar: A Day at School in a Remote Village 

Explore Village Life in Bagan 

For those who read my blog often, you know that I love to get a glimpse of the everyday lives of the locals. This is where you see the culture of a place in action. While exploring on my e-bike, I stopped in several different villages in and around Bagan to do just that.

This woman was selling bags and other goods by the side of the road. She explained to our guide that she smokes cheroot all day. Cheroot is basically a cigar that is cut on both ends, filled with tobacco. This woman was good at hustling because several of us walked away with our own cheroot to try!

This woman was smoking cheroot and hustling her goods while I explored Bagan by scooter. Scootering around is one of the unique things to do in Bagan!

Late in the afternoon, while riding down one of the many dusty roads among the temples, I happened upon this woman working hard in the sun. I’m not sure exactly what she was working with but she was showing us how she could separate the grain/ bean from the other material using this basket.

Image of woman sorting beans or grain in the afternoon sun in Bagan Myanmar.

Lacquer is central to Bagan’s culture and is found for sale in most markets. But before you buy some, I recommend you seek out an opportunity to see the lacquer being made. It’s a fascinating process!

I happened upon this family making lacquer and they invited me to sit and watch them. The bowls are made by taking thin strips of bamboo and wrapping it in circles forming the sides of the bowl. Then they carefully paint the lacquer onto the inside and outside of the bowl. Once the lacquer sets in an underground room they have built, they etch designs into each item by hand.

One of the things to do in Bagan is to see how lacquer is made from bamboo.

Things to Do in Bagan | Ananda Temple Festival

The Ananda Pagoda symbolizes the limitless wisdom of Buddha and is easy to identify because it’s one of the only white temples in the area. I recommend exploring the exterior of the temple after visiting the interior.

I was fortunate enough to experience the Ananda Temple Festival, which typically falls in January (check this calendar). During the festival, there’s a large temporary market set up with vendors selling anything from home wares to fried delicacies.

The peak day of the festival falls on the full-moon day of the lunar month. Be prepared for a large crowd both at the temple and in the festival market. It’s easy to get lost! Plan several hours to wander around.

Cultural Things to Do in Bagan | Bagan Traditional Market

Visit the Bagan Traditional Market to buy local good and foods like these puppets.

To get to the Bagan Traditional Market, you have to pass through the Tharabha Gate. I drove there on an electric scooter, and wandered through the aisles of the market bartering for treats and trinkets, such as these puppets. If you visit Bagan and it’s not during the Ananda Temple Festival, I definitely recommend visiting this market for shopping and to experience the local culture.

Cultural Things to Do in Bagan | Taste the Local Dishes

This woman was cooking sweet rice cakes on the side of the road in Bagan.

I have no idea what exactly most of my meals were made of in Myanmar, so I can’t describe many dishes. However the meals generally consist of small shared plates of sauces and dishes that you help yourself to with a bowl of rice.

One of the more memorable meals was at Golden Myanmar Restaurant. We ordered the ‘traditional meal’ and were provided with a seemingly unending number of small plates.

If I had to describe Burmese food, it would be a mix of Indian spices and flavors with many Thai and Chinese ingredients. One of the more popular dishes I saw in many restaurants was the Tea Leaf Salad (or Lahpet Thoke), which is made of pickled tea leaves, peanuts and beans. I personally didn’t care for the flavor of it, but you will see it on most menus. 

Along the side of the road in the late afternoon, you can also find women cooking sweet rice cakes in many of the villages. You can get several for a $1USD.

Other Things to Do in Bagan | Explore By Electric Scooter

One of my favorite days in Bagan was just exploring aimlessly with another girl from our group. We discovered so many off the beaten path temples further out of town!

Pro Tip: For safety reasons, the only scooters for rent in Bagan are electric. So, managing the battery level is important to avoid being stranded. If you go out early and plan to stay out for sunset you may not have enough battery! Ask when you rent it if they will allow you to bring it back to re-charge or if they will come out and help you if your battery runs low.

Sitanagyi Hpaya Temple

While in Bagan, ride your scooter out of town to exploring the lesser known temples.

We had this temple all to ourselves except for the family who lived on the property and maintained the temple! The man saw us wandering around and asked if we wanted to go down inside of the temple.

Against my better judgement, we agreed to go in. He helped us climb partway up the temple to a small hole. As we each made our way through the hole, we were surrounded by darkness.

He turned on his flashlight and started walking us towards the Buddha that was kept underneath the temple. Partway there was a pile of rubble that we had to crawl over.

On the other side, he grabbed my arm and made a strange motion with his arms. He threw a pebble over the rubble and shined the flashlight in there. It was absolutely filled with bats that took off flying when he threw the rock.

I may have screamed, but avoided peeing my pants and appreciated him warning us! We gave the tunnel a hard nope and turned around but I am glad we got the chance to see what it was like inside of the pagoda.

Irrawaddy River

While in Bagan make sure to visit the Irrawaddy River while exploring on scooter.

The Irrawaddy River runs along Bagan on a North-South route through most of Myanmar. Because we hadn’t seen the river yet, we rode our e-bikes to the bank of the river and walked around a bit. We discovered several women doing laundry in the water, laughing and talking together. There are a few small restaurants there if you need to re-charge before hopping back on your bike.

Adventurous Things to Do in Bagan | Ride in a Hot Air Balloon

One of the most memorable things to do in Bagan is to experience the sunrise over the temples from a hot air balloon!

I don’t often splurge when I travel, but I decided to do a hot air balloon ride at sunrise with Balloons Over Bagan. It’s expensive, but an incredible experience to see the more than 1000 temples from above. On the morning of my balloon ride, there was a low fog that made for a pretty dreamy view.

One of the more notable temples you’ll see from the balloon is Dhammayazika Pagoda with its large golden spire.

Watch the hot air balloon prepare for takeoff at sunrise in Bagan Myanmar.

Experience the Best of Bagan

Whether it’s grabbing a snack at the side of the road, taking in the views of the centuries old temples, or walking through the nearby villages to gain a glimpse at daily life, there are so many unique things to do in Bagan.

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Bagan is known for it's beautiful temples, but there's so much more see! Experience the culture of this beautiful Bagan in Myanmar through the markets of Bagan, village life in Bagan, festivals in Bagan, exploring Bagan by scooter, where to stay in Bagan, food in Bagan and more. | cultural travel | hot air balloon | ethical travel
Bagan can only be described as magical. Get off the beaten path with these wonderfully unique things to do in Bagan in Myanmar, including temples in Bagan, scootering in Bagan, cultural experiences in Bagan, taking a hot air balloon over Bagan and more! #myanmar #travel #asia

12 Comments

  1. Wow honestly why is Myanmar NOT on my list? Those temples are so stunning! And I’ve always wanted to ride in a hot air balloon! Guess I’m adding it to my list!

    • This Big Wild World Reply

      Oh my gosh, yes! Definitely add Myanmar to your list!!

    • This Big Wild World Reply

      Thanks so much! It’s truly a stunning country 🙂 Hope you get to experience Myanmar someday!

  2. I think Myanmar is a fascinating country when I was travelling through the region the borders were still closed to the outside world. It’s a place I’d like to go back to one day. Love the idea of e-bikes more places in the world should hire those out. I’ve never heard of RAKlife before will be checking them out a bit more, thanks for sharing.

    • This Big Wild World Reply

      I hope that you’re able to go back and explore! It really is such a special place. I did write a post sharing an interview with the founder of RAKLife if you’d like to read his perspective on the organization’s mission and future. Happy travels!
      http://www.thisbigwildworld.com/travelinspo-raklife/

  3. Tanya Korteling Reply

    Great post; I was in Myanmar and Bagan last October and loved it. E-bikes are definitely the best way to see the temples (except by balloon of course – which was a bit outside my budget unfortunately). We didn’t really get chance to explore the villages much but sounds as if it was really interesting.

    • This Big Wild World Reply

      Thank you! Glad you had a great experience too! The e-bikes are so fun- as long as you keep track of how much battery you have left ? Yes, the balloon ride was certainly a rare splurge for me. Luckily the city is beautiful from every angle!

  4. Hi! I was attracted to this post because I was in Myanmar last March and had spent over a week in Bagan. I absolutely loved it there! And it looks like we did some similar things. Thanks for sharing! I had a joy going down memory lane with your post!

    • This Big Wild World Reply

      It’s such a special place! Glad my post could bring back some good memories ☺️

  5. Nice post. I have been to Myanmar twice and was originally born there. Magical place but always leaves me with mixed feelings…

    • This Big Wild World Reply

      Thank you! I can understand why you might have mixed feelings. I’d love to hear more about your thoughts on this – either via comment or email at [email protected]. It’s important to me to hear the perspectives of those who have been truly immersed in a place or culture!

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