I remember the first time I saw a picture of Bagan. It was at sunrise. The sky was dusky rose and tiny peaks of exotic temples dotted the landscape. Oh and the balloons. Small orbs of color floating lightly above it all adding that extra bit of fairy dust to an already surreal scene. Where exactly is this magical place, I thought. When I planned my three-month journey to Southeast Asia, I knew this had to be one of my stops. Now I will share all I have learned about where to best see sunrise and sunset in Bagan.
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It wasn’t the easiest place to reach. After a ten-hour long night bus, I arrived, with a cold, and after haggling with taxi drivers and letting myself get ripped off out of exhaustion. I arrived at my hotel, haggard and grouchy, and even more so after the hotel refused to take my less than perfect US dollars (there was a slight crease in one of my Benjamins…seriously).
As I was walking to my room, I happened to see this and my spirits lifted right along with the balloons.
I decided I should take it easy, since I had a cold and hadn’t slept well the previous night. I rented an ebike (an electric scooter) from my hotel and after a quick lesson from a young man at the hotel who was 12 years old, I was off. First I had to find an ATM, get Kyats and pay the hotel. Then I was really off. The plan was to scope out the temples to find the one I would watch sunrise from. The morning would be dark and I didn’t want to scooter around clueless and lost!
I was so pleased with my little scheme until I realized I had scootered myself down the wrong road for at least twenty minutes. Eventually I made it to the Archaeological Zone where all the pagodas are. I saw signs everywhere saying that tourists had to pay 25,000 kyats. I didn’t see a place to pay anywhere. In retrospect I probably could have gone without a ticket, but I didn’t want to get in trouble. Furthermore, I want my money to go to preserving these types of historic and cultural treasures.
I’ll skip the drama, but after another hour spent scootering around, sweating to death, and getting a sexy sunburn, I had paid and had a ticket; Which nobody ever asked for. Oh well. Call me crazy, but doing the right thing feels good. Even though I read that until recently the government kept all that money and only recently began to appropriate it to the ministry of whoever takes care of ancient temples. Shame on you Myanmar government!
I finally scootered up to one of the most well-known pagodas, Shwesandaw. I had heard this is THE most crowded temple and had no desire to go there at sunrise or sunset but just wanted to check it out. At that moment a random German guy scootered up next to me and the next thing I know, I’m following him around looking at temples. He also convinced me to abandon my sunset- on -the- river plans for an even better place to view the sunset…some mysterious tower that nobody knows about.
Vacation Cherene says yes to just about anything, so there I go. I seriously could have killed this guy for the crazy route he took me on. It could have been easy (you know, by using roads), but we went the wrong way through some dirt paths and ended up taking scooters through terrain full of sand and shrubbery that clearly was not meant to be driven through. We almost wiped out many times, got scratched by sharp leaves and sticks and had to drag the scooter when the tires got stuck. Did you know scooters are freaking heavy?
Finally the tower showed itself. It is a not an ancient temple but a modern viewing tower. It cost 25,000 Kyat to go up (roughly $5USD). They give you a free juice (it’s kind of weird, but I was hot and needed it). Best part…they had happy hour drink specials on the roof. YAAASSS! There were amazing 360 views and it is the highest point in the area.
There were only about twenty people there and it didn’t feel crowded at all; no jostling and pushing that I hear goes on at other places. Everybody had a great view. My hair was literally soaked from sweat at this point and my body ached from dragging the scooter, but the beer and the view certainly helped. “Aren’t you glad you met me?” says German guy. Queue eye roll.
BTW this tower is called Nann Myint Tower. I think you can find it on the Maps.me app.
German guy left Bagan and I decided to revisit my original plan from the previous evening to see the sunset from a river boat. I had a very hard time finding the jetty and I ended up scootering through a village with cows everywhere. Don’t worry I didn’t stop to play with them (no time). Finally I arrived at the jetty and I saw many large river cruise boats taking busloads of western tourists and I inquired how I might get a ticket. I couldn’t for whatever mysterious Myanmar reason.
Some random Myanmarese man approached me and offered a boat ride for 3000 Kyat ($2). I was sketched out about being alone on the boat with random man so he said he would find more people. Ok dude, I thought, as I mentally made plans to find some fancy hotel on the river and have a drink. A few minutes later he excitedly approached me with a group of Spanish girls, two Chileans and an American guy.
It ended up being a ton of fun and I spent some time with the group afterwards. And oh yeah, the sunset was really beautiful. It was quiet, peaceful and I really enjoyed the beer I bought at a store by the jetty. Moral of story…just show up and find a man with a boat!
This is where I feel that I screwed up a bit. I had read a few blogs on where the best temples are but I wasn’t sure how up to date that info was. I had originally planned on Sulamani for sunrise based on another blog, but it seemed that it had become well-known. It also is very close to one of the most popular viewing spots, Dhammayan.
I met a couple at the Sunrise Tower who told me about Bulethi, a temple that had a great view and wasn’t crowded. I decided I would go there. German guy (from the first sunset place) asked if he could tag along. I let him do the navigating, you know, because he is German. We arrived at the temple at 5:30 AM, and I immediately zipped up the scary steps. I was just about to the highest level when he yells that we were at the wrong temple.
Ugh. I was not prepared for this crap and I had a good spot. Therefore, I stayed. No matter what pagoda you are on, you must orient yourself to east or west (obvy…maybe?). I figured out east and plopped down for the show. It was fantastic to see the sky change from black to deep blue, then orange and pink with a little purple. Of course, covered with that lovely haze (that my lungs don’t really like).
The famous balloons don’t arrive until around 7:00 am and sadly, they were behind us, more to the west. Many people from our pagoda scampered down and zipped up to one nearby…Bulethi (the one I thought I was on). This one was perfect for the balloons, however, it did seem far from them. I imagine the pagodas more west of us had a better balloon view.
Sigh. I wanted perfection dammit! Luckily, I had one more chance for a perfect sunrise. I had hot air balloon plans for my last day!
To see part two of my quest for the perfect sunrise…
Read More: Is a Hot Air Balloon Ride in Bagan Worth it?