What to Do in Bagan Burma – A Hot Air Balloon and a Boat Ride!

Bagan, Myanmar. Bagan is like a dream land. Some people might call it Disneyland, but we’re not going to be that cynical. Lizzie and I loved Bagan, so the naysayers can move along. What to do in Bagan? Well, Bagan is an ancient city that is in process of being lovingly restored, and since there are literally thousands of temples, monasteries, pagodas and structures for which I could never name correctly, all built a thousand years ago, it’s taking a while.

We were lucky enough to get to tour the huge expanse of temples for 3 days in Bagan, enjoying rental bicycles, a boat ride on the Irrawaddy River, and most amazingly with the best hot air ballon ride in Myanmar, maybe the world! 

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Things to do in Bagan Myanmar

We arrived in Bagan and decided we would stay in a nice place. And we did. Our room had a tv with CNN and Star Movies!!! This is a big deal for me, having not seen English television in 9 months. I watched Blood Diamond like I had never seen it, or anything else, ever before! We also decided to eat a lot in Bagan as there are some great restaurants. First up, burger. Second, Indian food. Beer throughout, obviously.

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Where to Stay in Bagan

Bagan has several different parts to stay in: New Bagan, Old Bagan, and Nyuang U. We stayed in the last, while the temples are more or less in the first two. With about a 3 km bicycle ride in between. Which doesn’t sound bad at all. Except at 5:45 in the morning and you’re on a bike for the first time in…a while, and you’re trying to catch sunrise from the top of a temple.

Sunrise in Bagan

Any temple would do really, just one that gets you off the ground a little bit. So to start our day of temple hopping in Bagan, off we rode, on bikes that were built about the same year as the temples, and tried to beat sunrise. We ended up at a random temple that we saw some people at the top of and it turned out being a great view. No idea which temple it was.  But really, the top activity in Bagan is to wander around pseudo lost and create one heck of a photo essay from Burma!  If you are looking to improve your travel photography, Bagan is definitely the place to practice. 

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This sunrise viewing was our first glimpse of Bagan in the daylight, when we realized where we had come. Acres and acres of paths going in every direction to temples of all shapes and sizes, which from the height of this temple looked endless and spectacular. And then the hot air balloons came. Yes, hot air balloons in Bagan is a huge deal, and this very first morning in Bagan, those balloons took off relatively near to us, and cruised right past our lovely sunrise perch. Waving good morning to a bunch of people in a hot air balloon 20 metres from you is rather surreal and firmly cemented in Lizzie and my minds that yep, we had to get into one of those balloons. But for that morning, we were on the ground, well on two wheels, but those wheels were on the ground, so floating like Phineas Fogg was going to have to wait.

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Bagan – Travel Blog Fodder!

And for that day we did what you do in Bagan, we cruised the temples, climbing them when we could, taking millions of pictures, almost falling off our bikes, and generally being tomb raiders. Both Indiana Jones and Angelina Jolie jokes were made. It was crazy hot, so Lizzie stole a hand fan from where we ate lunch, it appeared to be someone’s wedding favour. But we were amongst thousands of Buddhist temples and Buddha statues at that, so I’m sure her karma is intact.

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I shan’t go into details about the temples, mainly because this ain’t no Burma guidebook yo, but I will say a few highlights.

Temples – How to Tour Bagan by Bike

Definitely catching sunrise at one of the lesser popular temples was a good thing. We heard later that sometimes the popular sunrise/sunset spots get so busy that people have fallen off of them. Yes, fallen off the top of an ancient temple. Sounds like something that would happen to both Lizzie and/or I individually, much less collectively.  Fewer people, fewer broken backs. The big temples are heavily visited for a reason, they’re big and cool so seeing them is a must, but biking in random directions and going to smaller, out of the way spots was pretty cool.

The deeper you go, the rougher the roads get, insert falling off bike event here. You also don’t always know what you’re looking at, good thing I don’t get caught up with details in this Bagan travel blog, or in my life. The temples are mainly Buddhist, but then there are random Hindu influences too. Many Buddhas lurk in and around Bagan, as are wonderful frescos depicting the Buddha story and events in history. Luckily, most depictions are violence free, unlike depictions at the Mawlawmyine Buddha

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I did take a video from the top of one of the temples, so here’s that, if picture just are not quite enough! Click here!!!

Bagan is super hot. So we templed on bikes for a few hours and then rode back to the hotel, had a break, ate some lunch, and just chilled, watching CNN, until before sunset. Sunset, like sunrise, is a big deal in Bagan. A setting sun amid ancient temples is just so romantic. But we didn’t want to fall off any temples, so we opted for a sunset boat ride. Just the two of us platonic female friends, because actually nothing is more romantic than being amid temples at sunset but then on a Boat being amid temples at sunset!

Irrawaddy River Boat Ride, Bagan

We found our boat guy at one of the many jetties in Bagan, and went off, just the two of us and the driver, on a long boat, out onto the mighty Irrawaddy River. Mighty indeed. We took a couple of beers and our sense of ridicule, which led to taking Top Model style photos on the bow of the boat. Come sunset, we were actually lulled into pseudo quietness, so that’s impressive, as we had a brilliant red sunset, cresting behind a far off hill and in the shadow of a pagoda. Way to be a show off Bagan.

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Hot Air Balloon in Bagan Myanmar

The next morning, we woke up, again, very early. But this time instead of torturing ourselves on bikes, we were going ballooning!!! That’s right, we both decided not doing the ballooning experience in Bagan would be a crime, despite the hefty (very hefty) price tag (How much does hot air ballooning cost in Bagan? Over $300USD). We had been debating in the weeks preceding the trip whether to do the hot air balloons or not, and we decided to leave it up to fate. If we arrived in Bagan and there were still spots open, we would do them. Well our first day in town the balloons were full, but the second day… We were in a basket!

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We got picked up in an old Chevrolet Van and were taken to a big field outside of Nyuang U, where about 20 hot air balloons were lying on the ground, half inflated. We met our pilot, Andy, got some safety schpeals, and when the time was right and the balloon was almost all the way inflated, we climbed into the basket.

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hot air balloon Bagan

And it is really a basket, made of wicker and everything! Of course there are benches and handles in case you get scared, but the basket came up to my chest, so no chance of falling out.

The basket could hold 16 people, 4 people in each of the 4 compartments and then Andy, the pilot, in the middle, with a bunch of propane tanks. I asked how the whole thing works, and Andy explained that basically it was a big gas cooker. That the propane that he shoots up into the balloon heats up the air, causing us all to lift off.

Now, directionality is not a thing, the balloon goes wherever the wind takes it, so the company has several different lift off locations and then many landing spots, to be used depending on the direction and speed of the wind. Flights in Bagan can be between 30 minutes and an hour and half, depending on the wind. When the balloon is ready to land, the pilot pulls some ropes and opens the top of the ballooning, thus letting the hot air out the top and sending the balloon downward. You’re welcome for this physics lesson.

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Upon lift off, we were greeted with the rising sun. Literally, right there, because we were in the sky too! Gorgeous sunrise, and we floated over and past temples just like we had been passed the day before. Ballooning was a tremendous thing to do. And in a place like Bagan, completely incomparable. Lizzie said several times she was very moved by it, I think she was crying. It is moving. You really get to see how huge and how many temples are actually in Bagan, it’s an incredible place. Especially seeing as most of them are a thousand years old!

You also see the river from the air, and you get a commentary from a very well informed on Bagan English bloke! And despite being pushed by the wind, it’s not that windy. I know, it’s weird, I don’t understand it either. Nor is it scary. Ballooning may be my new favourite mode of transportation. Which is too bad, because it’s kind of obscure and very expensive! I can pretty safely say the hot air balloon in Bagan Myanmar is in my Top Ten Travel Experiences of All Time. Phenomenal.

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Upon landing, which was a bit bumpy, we were treated to a champagne breakfast celebrating a successful flight, and then we were driven back to the hotel, where Lizzie and I had second breakfast, later came elevensies…

Lizzie had to fly, in a boring old airplane, back to Yangon that afternoon, so I rented an electric bike and went out to the temples solo for the rest of the day. E-bikes are great because you don’t actually pedal them, they are basically scooters, but without a motor, so I was not breaking my no motorcycle riding in the Peace Corps rule. Plus I get places faster and much easier than if I was relying on my still aching from the day before legs.

What to do in Bagan? Bagan is full of temples, stupas, and buddhas. Seeing it by bike, hot air balloon, and boat is a must for every traveller to Myanmar.

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Things to do in Bagan?

What is there not to do in Bagan! We really saw Bagan: from a bike, from a boat and even from the air! Loved it, loved it all! And there are more things to do, like legitimate tours, cultural shows, and more.

That evening I caught my second of three night buses, leaving from Bagan to Lake Inle. The bus was definitely NOT VIP, but the air con still was pumping. I woke up at one point to me having burrowed under the arm of the guy sitting beside me trying to keep that half of my body warm. Always a class act…

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Information from Bagan Burma!

There is a great Indian restaurant in Bagan, the avocado salad makes life worth living. We ordered more food than the table could hold. Gluttons.

Last year at about this time Lizzie and I were together in Pokhara, Nepal and we went paragliding. This year, ballooning in Bagan. Anybody have any tips for airborne activities for us for next year?

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Bagan was a splurge town. We splurged on food, accommodation, and the hot air balloon of course. No regrets! What else are we going to spend our savings on? Real estate? Weddings?  Ha!

You have to pay a $20 entrance fee to get into the town of Bagan. Which sucks, because it’s $20 that is said to go to restoration, but in reality goes straight to the government. Burma is much easier to travel ethically these days, but even still, you can’t get around everything.

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In Bagan, we realized something, the are a ton of old people traveling in Burma. Like, a ton. And a lot of French people too. Sometimes old people from France.

For completing our balloon flight, we all received certificates. I wrote the notes for this blog on the back of mine, I expect it to be worth big money some day.

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Update on my Burma Travel Blog

My velvet sandals are in decent shape, and actually were a blessing in temple land as you have to take your shoes off to go into every temple. Phew, so glad that dog stole my Asics!!

Currently in Kyrgyzstan, some of the girls are having a challenge, called the PitStop, wherein we are not shaving our arm pits for the winter duration, this is all well and good in cold Kyrgyzstan, but in Southeast Asia I am proudly and very visibly sporting a solid crop while wearing sleeveless tops. No apologies, feels great. Lizzie disapproves.

Speaking of being in a place where people see my arm pits, I’m loving the heat. Love it.

I have not gotten sunburned or sick. Touch wood.

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One of the movies we watched in the hotel was Jurassic Park 2. That movie has a ton of famous people in it! Who knew! We greatly enjoyed it.

While we were watching sunrise at the temple, there was a Dutch couple there with their 5 month old baby. I love seeing people travelling with little ones, they’re normally really cool people. These two were very casual, as the baby was quickly taken in by the random family of Burmese kids who live at that temple. They were cooing and oohing over this baby, despite the fact that they have their own baby sibling. This one is white!

Next up for the Myanmar travel blog is from [intlink id=”867″ type=”post”]Lake Inle[/intlink], home of men who paddle boats with their legs and where I wallowed in a hot springs with an ex Peace Corps volunteer, such a small world!

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Where to stay in Bagan?

Hotel Blazing, double with private bath, aircon, breakfast, tv and fridge for $45. Great location in Nyuang Y, staff really awesome, helped a ton with booking the hot air ballooning.

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Have you explored Myanmar? What was your experience? Are you going travelling to Bagan Burma? Let me know your thoughts!

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7 thoughts on “What to Do in Bagan Burma – A Hot Air Balloon and a Boat Ride!

  1. Hey Emily,

    great post about Bagan! I plan to visit Burma soon myself and I was very surprised to hear that there were so many tourists around? Is that only in Bagan or in the whole country? I believed it to be kind of ‘off the beaten path’ 🙂

    Kind regards
    Korinna

    1. Hey Korinna, Thanks for the comment, I loved my time in Bagan and think my trip in the hot air balloon is definitely in my top experiences EVER! I would say that tourism in Burma is increasing. Bagan is touristy, it has ben host to tour groups for a very long time and as independent travel increases, this will of course grow as well. For the rest of the country, I would say Lake Inle has tourists, but isn’t overwhelming touristy, and Yangon has many hostels, but it’s not like tourists have overtaken! And then, it’s super easy to get off any kind of beaten path once you leave those three places! The southern beaches are deserted, and going North of Mandalay will get you in small villages and away from it all.

    1. Hi Stephanie, I loved my time in Myanmar and Bagan in particular. Very glad we splurged and did the hot air balloon ride. It was expensive, but a once in a lifetime experience! If you make it to Burma, leave time to just wander, it is truly compelling.

      Cheers,
      Emily

    1. Thanks so much! I loved my few days in Bagan, we explored on bikes and on foot, took the boat ride, and soared above on a magical hot air balloon! Such a perfect place!
      Cheers,
      Emily

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