So you’ve reached this article since you’re either in Bagan or planning your trip there, and you want the lowdown on which temples are the best to visit but, probably, which of these astounding pagodas can still be climbed? We’ll definitely be delivering on the former but, although it pains us, the latter just doesn’t exist. Well, legally that is. Either way, we’ll be giving you a guide to the best Bagan temples on the map, and a few tricks on how to find your sunrise (or sunset) experience.
Since he was turned away at the border over 18 years ago, James has been desperate to get into Myanmar. Now that the country is more geared towards tourism we just HAD to visit, with his heart set on Bagan, the town known for its thousands of temples and for Instagram-worthy content of sunrise (and sunset) punctuated by hot air balloons. We went out of balloon season (which runs from October to April) but it was no less atmospheric; we’d still count it as one of our favourite places in the world.
Each morning we got up long before the sun, swung our sleepy selves onto our trusty e-bike, Betty, and raced around the dusty streets, pulling over to find the perfect dawn-breaking view. And, after a midday nap and a green mango salad, we’d head out again in the cool evenings to catch the rays fading into twilight.
Bagan used to be home to over 10,000 temples but, due to earthquakes and lack of adequate maintenance, estimates are at about 2,000 left. They cover only a few kilometres of ground which make the area ideal for temple-hopping. Generally everyone rents an e-bike (think electronic moped not bicycle), since foreigners are unable to rent fuel-powered bikes in Myanmar due to local restrictions.
The short answer? Yes. The longer one? Depending on how much you’re willing to spend and your stomach for illegal pursuits…
You might know that the government has closed down the stairs on all the temples, meaning they are no longer ‘climbable’. The reasons for these seem to be unknown: corruption, previous injuries, their bid to make Bagan a heritage site are all bandied about as options but no-one truly knows why they’ve taken this decision.
Instead, they’ve constructed viewing mounds at strategic points. The mounds are okay but not only are they heaving with tourists, they just don’t offer the same experience as watching a sunrise from atop a temple. More so, many of the temples and pagodas are BUILT for climbing so it seems like a huge shame.
Closing the temples also hasn’t stopped people climbing them. Now, though, instead of a moderately safe and controlled environment, the back streets are full of gung-ho travellers, all armed with secret maps and frantically dodging police to find a temple with a view. We met travellers who had scaled locked gates, who were slipping off the side of unsafe pagodas and ruins in their attempt to summit them, and the whole thing just felt like an accident waiting to happen.
So, the golden question: can you still climb them?
Legally, you are not allowed to scale the temples any longer and most gates are closed and local police roam the more popular spots. There are one or two exceptions, like the viewing mounds or a few temple ruins, but on the whole, you need to view sunrise or sunset from the ground.
However, if you are willing to take a chance, there are of course ways to do so. We wouldn’t advocate doing anything unlawful but, if we’re honest, there are two ways for you to ascend one.
Self-guided: Many people will attempt to evade police by surreptitiously waiting for just before sunrise or sunset and then clambering up the side. They find the temples using maps.me (more on that below) and swapping war stories and tips with other travellers over dinner at their hostels each night.
We would NOT recommend this approach. We saw travellers pulled up by local police and forced to come off the temples (whether they paid a fine or paid off the police we’re unsure) but more so, these people spent most of their days in Bagan just chasing an unattainable experience. They often seemed to leave disappointed after spending all morning planning and driving, yet left in the proverbial dust.
Local support: The pagoda closure has given rise to it’s own illicit industry, with enterprising locals waiting on their mopeds to turn travel guide for you. They’re on most corners so you can’t miss them. Give them a small cash incentive (about 5 GBP), and follow them to a temple where police aren’t in the area. Often times these locals are also in partnership with police and seem to use some of your fee to pay them off. This seems the safer of the two pagoda climbing options but still be warned: This is still illegal and you might hurt yourself scaling a temple not built for it. We saw a girl almost fall off the side while navigating a tricky turn in her billowing dress and bare feet.
If you still want to climb temples, pay a local but also be ready to pay a fine.
Really the best (and only) way to truly have a great temple-hopping experience in Bagan is to use maps.me. It is far better than Google Maps who don’t have a great Bagan map of the temple locations. Download the app to your mobile and you’ll have an offline way to scoot around and find the best viewpoints. Other travellers are always updating the locations with advice on whether police loiter, the quality of the view and how busy it is at certain points, particularly since the larger viewing points are increasingly heaving with tourists, brought in large tour coaches for the day.
Because the temple situation changes so often, maps.me is the most up to date way to traverse the Bagan plains; even more so than our map below!
What if I can’t ride a scooter?
If you can’t ride a scooter (moped), we’d suggest that you look for a tour guide as there really isn’t another way to do it… we’d recommend this one.
What’s the best way to see the temples?
Well other than hiring your own scooter and visiting the temples, if you’re in Bagan during the right months (October to April) then seeing the temples from the air has to be the BEST way to see how massive Bagan really is!
Hot air ballooning over Bagan really is a once in a lifetime experience. Go on – treat yourself!
We spent a week in Bagan and spent nearly every morning and evening searching for the best spots in town. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but here are some of our favourites, from our Bagan temples map.
Viewing points (that are still legal)
There are a few viewing mounds and temple ruins that you can still visit perfectly legally! We’ve included their details below and in our Bagan temples map for you.
Co-ordinates 21.140082, 94.868238
Great for sunset although overlooking a small batch of houses, this ruin is climbable. We really enjoyed this one, especially since some kids were playing sepak trawak the entire time we were there!
Co-ordinates 21.152368, 94.890297
A man-made viewing mound, good for sunset
O Bo Gon Hill
Co-ordinates 21.161965, 94.88862
Another sunset viewing point on a manmade mound
Our favourite sunrise spot, you watch the sunrise peek out behind the amazing Dhammayangyi temple. This is a ruin turned into a mound.
If you’re looking for an alternative way to view the sunset, you could also try the Erawati Raft. It’s a boat turned floating restaurant which has surprisingly delicious food (think curry and fried rice) and passable cocktails at reasonable prices, with an incredible sunset view over the Irrawaddy River.
Other temples we loved
Dhammayan Gyi Temple – Our favourite in Bagan, this ‘unfinished temple’ is right out of a movie
Shwesandaw Pagoda – Arguably the most famous in Bagan, unfortunately because it’s not climbable, you might find this a bit underwhelming. However, many don’t know there is an 18 metre long reclining Buddha in the brick structure alongside it – don’t miss it!
Ananda Temple – A beautiful temple with less traditional cream-coloured walls, this is a cool place to come in the morning after your sunrise jaunts
Sulamani Temple – under renovation when we were there, but known to be an impressive
Unnamed secret temple – our spot for sunrise where you need the help of a local (enough said 😊)
Co-ordinates 21.149851, 94.870982
The town is really split into three areas: Old Bagan which houses some of the older, most traditional hotels, New Bagan which includes hostels and some newer villa options and Nyaung-U which boasts a good mix of accommodation but is a bit further away from the temples themselves.
Personally we enjoyed staying in New Bagan at Villa Bagan, a mid-priced boutique hotel with a lovely pool (ideal to cool off on the scorching hot days). And not to mention the view from the hotel roof was fantastic. Many travellers we met stayed at the infamous Ostello Bello hostel, also set in New Bagan, which is a very sociable hostel, complete with trivia nights, a great happy hour and a nearby swimming pool complex. They also have a sister hostel in Mandalay which we also enjoyed.
Also, if you’re looking for a detailed look at the town, we like this 3 day Bagan itinerary.
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