Hints for navigating the dust, the heat, and the 4000+ temples of Bagan without breaking the bank.
The night bus from Inle Lake put us in Bagan at about 3:30am. We had Skype'd a hotel from Inle to ensure we would have a place to stay, but were hoping to save a night worth of lodging and so reserved the place for the following night (i.e. we left Inle Monday night, arrived Tuesday morning, and had a reservation for Tuesday night). Luckily, Motel Eden in Nyaung Oo seemed to be fine with this arrangement when they let us in at 4am. At $30/night for a double with private bath and AC, Eden was a decent stay. Unfortunately, the power went out at least 12 times during our three days in Bagan, which meant AC, lights, etc. were a luxury that didn't work. That said, the breakfast was pretty good.
If you are on a budget and still want a pool, you are in luck. You can stay at cheaper hotel without a pool, then go to a hotel with a pool and pay to use it. Aureum Palace Resort was $10/person and had an infinity pool with a view of several temples (and had the fastest wi-fi we used in Burma). Sunset is also quite nice at Aureum.
If it's too hot to trek out of Nyaung Oo (it was about 3 miles from Eden to Aureum and not a bad bike ride), you can use the pool at Thante Hotel for $6/person.
Eat and Drink
For the most part, we followed Lonely Planet recommendations. While slightly more expensive, these restaurants (Be Kind to Animals, Black Bamboo, etc.) proved a lot better food-wise than the local choices, which were pretty tasteless. The Beer Station on Restaurant Row is a good bet, with 500K for a pint of Dagon beer, free WIFI that works, and free peanuts.
See and Do
4000+ reddish temples strewn about a dry red plain. Need I say more? The best activity is just going from temple to temple, hitting the highlights, but also stopping at the small ones along the way. At least one sunrise and sunset is a must, though we found sunrise a lot more spectacular (likely because of the haze that the hot season brings). We captured some great sunrise pictures of Bagan.
Want to get off the beaten tourist path? Negotiate a boat tour at the pier of Nyaung Oo after 2pm. We heard anywhere from 15,000K to 20,000K from boat operators, but were able to negotiate down to 13,000K. We saw a fishing village across the river, 3 different temple sites, and sunset to boot. We had some amazing temples practically to ourselves -- a monk gave us a private tour of one site.
The best way around Bagan is by bicycle. At 1500K per day, it's also the most economical, especially since we bargained for 5000K for two bikes for two days.
We arrived to Bagan from Nyaung Shwe in Inle Lake by bus for 10,000K per person.
To get from Bagan to Mandalay, we took a bus at 7500K each. Some places will try to charge more, so find one that gives that price. Everything else is going into someone's pocket.
Have you visited Bagan on a budget? Leave your tips in the comments below!