Day 1: ON YOUR BIKE – There are many ways to explore Bagan – by car, horse-and-cart, on foot, by balloon, by boat – but the best mode of transport is a bicycle. Not only is it cheap, it grants easy access to the countless pathways that lead to remoter temples overlooked by the tour buses. Concentrate on the South and Central Plains between Old and New Bagan. Visit Thambula Pahto for its old Jataka frescoes and the formidable Dhammayangyi Pahto. But also be sure to ditch the map. One of the great joys of exploring Bagan is simply heading down trails without any idea of what lies at the end.
Odds are it’ll be a stupa of some sort but even so… Some of the best temple art can be found at the 13th century Upali Thein, named after a local monk, and the 13th century Nandamannya Pahto, he walls of which k are adorned with murals depicting topless women trying to tempt and distract Buddha from meditating. Also visit the more famous sights. Chief among them is the gilded and grand Ananda, the largest of Bagan’s temples. Beyond the tall teak doors and thick walls are vaulted corridors and giant Buddha statues, up to 10m high.
Day 2: SUNRISES & SUNSETS – It’s well worth getting up at 4am to see the sun rise over the temple-studded plains. Best is from a hot-air balloon. Otherwise head to riverside Mingalazedi, nicknamed the ‘Sunrise Pagoda’ -the views from the top justify braving the steep staircase. Next, escape the day’s heat at the Bagan Archaeological Museum. It houses some impressive exhibits including stone relics from the Prehistoric Ages and 11th century bronze Buddhas.
After lunch at Sunset Garden Riverside restaurant (more for the view than the food), head to the village of Nyaung-U. This lively community is a good place for local interaction and more temples. Don’t miss golden Shwezigon Paya. Choosing the best sunset spot can be tricky. Pyramid-style Shwesandaw Paya is popular – its terraces fill up, so arrive early. For something more intimate, pick one of the more remote stupas, such as numbers 1774 or 394, both just south of Anawrahta Road.
Day 3: MOUNTAIN HIGHS – After exploring Bagan at leisure, spend a day further afield. To the south-east are the hills and low mountains of the Pegu (Bago) Range including the star attraction: Mount Popa (above). Located 50km from Bagan, this dramatic volcanic plug soars up 737m; perched at the top is a complex of sacred monasteries. The revered peak (once the site of animal sacrifices) is thought to be the centre of a volcano that last erupted 250,000 years ago. Conflicting with that is a Burmese legend that claims it erupted out of the ground in 442 BC.
It’s a steep ascent to the top, via 777 steps and several mischievous monkeys (don’t feed them). Like the pilgrims that flock here, walkers must undertake the journey barefoot. Superstition also dictates you shouldn’t wear red or black. Alternatively, cruise along the Irrawaddy to the fishing community of Sae Lan or the village of Salay, home to colonial buildings and a wooden monastery. Overnight itineraries are also available; Exotissimo Travel offers tailored trips.