01. Tharabar Gate
The Tharabar, the main gate of the eastern wall of Old Bagan, is the only one left of the twelve gates of the walled city which King Pyinbya established in 849. The Gate is interesting because it is the only major piece of non-religious architecture left in Bagan.
In front of the Gate are two shrines containing images of the Mahagiri nats, the brother Maung Tinde and sister Thonbanhla. Superstitious locals still make an offering to the nat by leaving a banana or coconut to ensure protection against traffic accidents.
02. Bagan Archaeological Museum
This rather ugly government-run museum building keeps all the salvageable and portable finds from all the temples in this region. It is situated to the south of the Gawdaw Palin Pagoda within Old Bagan and is open daily between 9 am and 4:30 pm except on Mondays and public holidays. Entrance for foreigners is $5.
Unfortunately, the lighting is poor, there is no air conditioning, the signage is only in the local language and most items are displayed poorly. Despite that, it is worth seeing the bronze statues of four famous Kings of Bagan and the large three dimension mural painting depicted the Bagan Archaeological Site. There is a large hall where many bulky objects are exhibited and there are other rooms and two other floors where items of lesser interest are exhibited.
03. Palace Site
There are very little remains of any royal palace in Bagan. What you see at present consists of excavations of foundations with not a single post left standing. There are early literary references to the Bagan Palace site. It is believed that King Kyansittha built a palace on this site in 1101 and it is assumed that the remains are from this.
There is, however, some evidence of another, maybe older, palace on a site across the present road adjacent to where a new building was constructed in 2008. While all this is intriguing, the site really isn’t worth the $5 entrance fee.
04. Bagan Golden Palace
This concrete and steel edifice is opposite the palace site and maybe adjacent to another palace site near the Tharabar Gate. It is supposed to be a recreation of an earlier palace. On first appearances this looks quite impressive then you learn that it is boycotted by most tour groups and many visitors and it is unlikely to bear much resemblance to the original because it has been built as a tourist attraction rather than anything else.
In my mind, it is out of place in this wonderful historic zone. If the lure of sparkling gold is too much, there is a $5 entrance fee which goes to the government.
05. Nann Myin
The Bagan Tower was opened in 2005 and is another attempt by the government to benefit from tourism. The tower is located in the eastern part of the Bagan archaeological site and has a height of 60 meters. The structure contains a souvenir shop, meeting rooms, offices, viewing rooms and restaurants.
The view from the top is impressive (but you can get a similar view by climbing some of the ancient temples) and the tower itself seems completely out of place here.
It becomes worse when a guide told us that it is owned by “a crony who is supposedly involved with the arms trade, land grabs, and drug trafficking.” He certainly is a rich person because he has built a huge 5 star over the top resort just adjacent to the tower.
06. Visit Nyaung U market
This market is different from most other markets in Myanmar because it combines a traditional market with an area popular with tourists who are attracted by souvenirs and antiques shops. You can get bronze statues, old lacquer ware, paintings copied from the original frescoes in the Bagan temples and many other things of interest.
But frankly, it is the traditional market which has most appeal to me. It is primitive, quite extensive, a riot of color, and absolutely genuine. You can see novice nuns from a monastery nearby do their alms-collection round. Be fascinated by the yellow face powder worn by almost everybody. See stacks of freshly caught butterfish from the nearby Ayeyarwaddy River.
Get out on the streets in Nyaung U by 7 a.m. and you are likely to see monks, wearing their burgundy robes collecting food from well-wishers. Sometimes they are led by someone carrying a little bell and drum. You can also see bald-headed female monks with their pink robes and orange skills. They use woven cane trays carried on their head and receive only uncooked rice from each donor.
08. Tamarind Flakes
While traveling around Bagan, you are likely to see tamarind pulp on the side of the road. The pulp is rolled through antique cylinders and cut out with cookie cutters then given a quick dusting of sugar. After a meal, you may be presented with one of these small sweets.
This is called a tamarind flake and it is the local specialty’ of Bagan. It is sugary but also slightly sour. I think they are delicious. You’ll also find them at markets wrapped in paper or sometimes in bags.
09. Hot air ballooning
To float above hundreds of ancient pagodas as the rising sun spreads across the landscape is one of the iconic activities in Bagan. Few Myanmar vistas are more inspiring but it isn’t cheap. Despite this, some visitors book months in advance to ensure a space on these spectacular tours. Trips usually last about an hour and are offered daily from October through March.
10. Sunset cruise
You shouldn’t leave Bagan without doing a sunset cruise on the Ayeyarwaddy River. At dusk, the river comes to life in beautiful warm evening hues and local life is on display. You see locals involved in their late-afternoon bathing rituals, starting cooking fires and relaxing before darkness.
The trips are in wooden long-tail boats which leave from the bank adjacent to Old Bagan. Boats power upriver then drift down again on the flow. Initially, it is quite loud but then the engine is turned off and you can listen to the natural sounds of the vast river while watching a wonderfully majestic sunset.