Allow at least two full days for Bagan, even if you're not a temple buff. If you are, allow a lifetime. With more than 4400 temples strewn across miles of desert, that's probably what you'll need. For a regular person, however, two days should suffice and keep you cool and clean enough to still be happy when you leave.
Bagan is a dusty spread out place, and you'll need a good bicycle to make do. We hit the main temple highlights on our first day, stopping for a long lunch in an attempt to stay cool. For sunset, we headed to Pyathada Paya, which is a bit off the beaten track and should have been spectacular. However, as it's dry season, the sunset was a bit ehh. You stopped seeing it about 10 degrees above the horizon. The moving herds of livestock, however, made for a beautiful view.
Make sure you bring TONS of baby wipes (for feet and sweat), a headlamp since the bikes have no lights, and patience. We both got flat tires, which makes riding on deep sand nearly impossible. Push your bike when need be as it's better than wiping out, which I did in spectacular fashion in front of a group of locals. Rob did manage to push through the deep sand (even with a flat tire) by standing and pedaling.
We rose at 5am and biked out for sunrise on day two. Watching from the top of Buledi was spectacular. The air was clear and we were surrounded by temples.
We even got to see a bunch of hot air balloons get ready for takeoff--only to be deflated due to "wind." (There was not one leaf rustling on the trees, so go figure.) Sunrise is an absolute must at least once, no matter how miserable you are when the alarm goes off (we actually woke up before our alarm). Because it was so hot, we knew we wanted to find a pool for part of day two. In actuality, we ended up spending all day at the infinity pool at the Aureum Palace Resort, by the watchtower. The grounds were incredible and at $10pp for visitors, well worth it. Thanks, Lambert, for the recommendation!!
After our refreshing day at the Aureum, we decided to stay another night. On day three, we opted for an afternoon river boat tour to see older temples from the 11th century. We bargained to 13,000K for the boat and visited temples that rarely see tourists. A resident monk unlocked gates and climbed stairs with us, pointing out his meditation and sleeping areas as we went. We later stopped at a fishing village, where children wandered alongside pigs and goats and squealed in glee as I fashioned crowns out of flowers. As we watched the sun set over the Ayeyarwady River, I couldn't help but think of those children. They had asked for shampoo...
One of the most fascinating aspects of Bagan was how many local families were out on the temples with us. Bagan is not just a tourist attraction; it's something the Burmese people are incredibly proud of. Most temples are from Burma's heyday, about 800 years ago, and they still carry a tremendous amount of power for the locals. The one thing that makes it better for them is us--the tourists. Rob and I were asked to be in at least 50 photos over one day. Considering all the photographing you're likely doing of the locals, do your best to oblige.
On a limited budget, the only place to stay is Nyaung Oo, which is a bit far from the main temples but doable. On a bigger budget, head to Old Bagan, which is literally set amidst the temples. A few decades ago, locals actually lived here, but the government kicked them out to an area south, now known as "New Bagan." What you have in the Old area is now luxury hotels and tons of temples. Enjoy it for those who no longer can.
Interested in seeing the temples of Bagan without paying for a plane ticket? Check out our Bagan photo tour. If you're planning a backpacking trip to Bagan, our tips for budget travel in Bagan might help.
You can also share your top tips for Bagan on a budget by leaving a comment!