Travel Icons… by the Back Door
From Great Wall to Grand Canyon – skip the queues and leave flag-waving tour guides in your dust with these alternative approaches to the world’s most-visited sites.
Bagan – Mandalay, Burma (Myanmar)
Visitors Per Year: Around 2.1 million
Among the plains of central Burma lies ancient Bagan, the remains of a kingdom comprising some 2,000 Buddhist temples. Until recently, visitors were scarce but now the secret’s out…
Front Door: A fee (25,000MMK/£14.44) is charged upon entering the Bagan Archaeological Zone. Most visitors arrive via a short-hop flight at Bagan Nyaung U Airport. From there, the town of Nyaung U is a ten-minute taxi away, but the majority stay in the resorts scattered among the temples of Old Bagan.
Back Door: Stay in Nyaung U for more of a local feel; it’s also not far from the Irrawaddy River, so end your day with a quiet cruise. Rent an E-bike to explore the temples of Old Bagan away from the tours, while hot-air balloon flights are also a good way to skip the crowds. Be sure to book at least a month in advance; it’s also worth paying extra for the smallest (four-person) basket. Bear in mind also that access to the upper levels of temples is now banned in all but five pagodas.
For the most popular temples (Dhammayangyi, Shwesandaw, Ananda), arrive just after sunrise. The tours leave shortly after the sun comes up and the touts are too drowsy to bother you. After, rent an E-bike and head into the plains to discover smaller sites such as the Nandapyinnya, near Minanthu village, which has some of the best-preserved wall paintings in Bagan and is usually empty.
Head down to the jetty in Nyaung U and hire a boat (from 150,000MMK/£9) to take you up the river to a pair of temples (Thetkyamuni and Kondawgyi) not easily accessed by land. Plan this as an afternoon excursion and you can spend the sunset on the Irrawaddy as well.
“Thisawadi (near New Bagan) is a quiet alternative to catch sunrise/sunset. There are several levels on the way up it, but the highest offers the best shots. This is also one of the few temples still open for visitors to ascend, but less popular than the likes of Shwesandaw.”