Bagan: Sunrise and Sunset Perfection
When I went to Angkor (Cambodia) in 2017, I had a picture in mind of a dusky, mystical landscape dotted with domed stupas. Turns out, that image was actually of Bagan.
By the end of this post, you’ll be convinced that there’s a clear winner in the Bagan vs. Angkor debate and see the best, most amazing sunrise and sunset spots in Bagan.
Journey to Bagan - A missed sunset
After an unexpectedly fun couple of days in Yangon, my grand plan was to fly to Bagan in the late afternoon, just in time to catch sunset as the plane landed.
But, thanks to Air KBZ bumping me onto a later flight, I ended up landing in Bagan after dark. Oh well…
With no particular pre-planned sunrise spots, I signed up for a sunrise tour at the Baobabed Hostel (Old Bagan) where I was staying.
Turns out that was a pretty wise idea. Unlike in Angkor, most of the roads leading up to all but the largest temples/stupas are quite literally dirt tracks. Navigating them alone in the dark when you have no idea where you are going (Google Maps doesn’t do dirt tracks) is just a bad idea.
Sunrise no.1: The Awakening
04:30 am: I’m really not a morning person… so it’s a struggle. But I manage to get up and hit the bike rental shop across the road for when it opened at 5 am.
These e-bikes are basically electric scooters, imported from mainland China where you’ll find them silently whizzing around in any major city.
Top tip: As at December 2018, it was 8,000 kyats (US$5) for a day’s rental - bargain! If you only want to do sunrise, then it’s 4,000 kyats. Be sure to check the bike carefully as I don’t think they are that well maintained - the one I had on Day 1 had a bit of a jumpy drive and I’ve heard of others having problems as well.
Along with the rest of the group from the hostel, we started off to our sunrise viewing spot.
Nearly a disaster on the way, as I and some of the others in the group nearly crashed on one of the dirt tracks. Riding on the dry, sandy road (did I mention it’s still pitch dark?) took some getting used to. E-bikes handle a little differently to scooters, while my temperamental e-bike didn’t help! Remember my warning from earlier?
We arrive at a brick monastery, illuminated only by dim tealight candles, giving it a mystical atmospheric ambience. These candles were lined along the staircase leading up to the first floor terrace, which built my sense of excitement.
On the terrace, shadowy figures and the low chatter of voices told us we weren’t alone.
Turns out, this was a pretty well-known sunrise spot, and we ended up being some 40 people all trying to secure a clear view of the impending sunrise.
Now, that sounds like a lot when you’re hoping for a secret (maybe romantic) spot.
But let’s compare that to the sunrise crowds at Angkor Wat…
Anyway, back in Bagan…
Everyone was silent as the first rays of the rising sun shone through, turning the landscape and skies gold.
In that moment, I knew that I would be waking up before dawn the next 2 days I had in Bagan to see the sunrise.
And soon after, the incredible sight of hot air balloons filling the sky pushed the feels I had to a whole new level.
Sunset no.1: A Stroke of Luck
In my eagerness to visit as many temples/stupas as I could (blog post coming up), I ended up cutting it fine, and hadn’t found a spot to go as the sun was nearly setting.
This could have ended up as missed sunset no. 2!
But, with a stroke of luck, it led to me finding THE most amazing sunset (and sunrise) spot in Bagan.
I had pulled over at a junction to consult the map. It must have been obvious what I was looking for a local guy on a motorbike stopped and offered to show me a little known sunset spot.
In return, I would look at his paintings and, he hoped, buy one. Wary as I am of getting ripped off, I also drive a hard bargain and am pretty good at saying no when I need to.
So I accepted and followed him along some small dirt tracks, which led to a 2-story brick building that seemed to emerge from nowhere.
Just in the nick of time too…
With only 3 other travellers there, it was a very different atmosphere from that morning’s sunrise, albeit with the same magnificent gold tones across the land and sky.
A perfect end to the day.
Side note: True to my word, I did look at paintings from the guy (couldn’t quite remember his name) and bought one for 20,000 kyats (US$13). I’m sure that I could have bargained him down or even just not bought any. But I believe in fairness and was really rewarding him for showing me this perfect sunset (and sunrise) spot.
Sunrise no.2: Climbing a Stupa
By now, I was well and truly hooked on the sunrise and sunsets, and it was time to take it to the next level.
Climb a temple/stupa to watch sunrise.
Many of Bagan’s temples, stupas and monasteries now ban climbing of any sort. And for good reasons too, both for preservation and visitor safety. Both of these are more risky since a major earthquake in 2016.
I certainly do not condone or recommend climbing any where signs or officials explicitly prohibit this.
But in the grey zone… Bagan does, however, have over 2,000 ancient structures and officials seem somewhat relaxed about the more minor ones that seem to be regularly climbed by visitors anyhow.
The day before, at the perfect Sunset no.1 spot, I met Lucas, who had climbed a pretty impressive set of stupas that morning and was going for sunrise again (yes, it’s that good).
Turns out, he was also staying at Baobabed, so we decided to do sunrise together.
We arrived at the stupas just after 5:30 am and were the only ones there. Score!
Climbing up the steep sides in the dark was a little tricky, especially with my backpack full of photo equipment. But a full moon helped, and slowly and carefully we made it up to the top tier.
A trickle of other people started to arrive a little after us, but Lucas and I had already bagged our prime viewing spots.
In all there were 20 sunrise seekers spread over a much larger area than yesterday and with multiple tiers, so plenty of room for everyone.
A Bagan official did make an appearance to check we were climbing safely and had our Bagan Archaeological Zone tickets, but no one was told to leave. Please make sure you carry your ticket, and climb barefoot (for safety and respect).
Coincidentally, you can actually see the Sunrise no.1 spot (and the people on it) from here.
Hey Sunrise. We meet again.
Sat there at the top of the stupa, I easily imagined people in the same spot a thousand years ago, watching that same sun peeking out over the hills.
Though maybe they didn’t see the same hot air balloons soon after.
I was a little bit disappointed I didn’t go up in one of the hot air balloons. Apparently you have to book weeks if not months in advance around Christmas-time. On the bright side, it would have cost US$350+ (literally doubling what I spent in Myanmar excluding flights and hotels) and perhaps it’s not as amazing as it’s made up to be.
But I still got to fly and view the stupas from the air.
So another day, another epic sunrise.
Find out where in Bagan you can find these magnificent stupas you can still climb for sunrise.
Top Tip: Do be careful when climbing stupas or temples as even the ones regularly climbed by visitors can have loose parts. The stump that Lucas has his arm on in the photo above was actually fully loose and could have toppled over.
Sunset no.2: A Spectacular Surprise
I’ll say upfront that this was the least ideal of all the locations I went to for watching sunset.
But, there was a wonderful surprise that more than made up for it.
I joined in Baobabed Hostel’s sunset tour, which first took us to a for a view of the Irrawaddy River.
Then, as we made our way to our sunset viewing destination, we spotted this scene by the road!
By pure luck, as we carried on to our destination, that was also where the water buffaloes were heading.
Sunset itself was pretty mediocre, as it faced away from the Dhammayan Gyi Temple, and there was little else of interest in the foreground. Maybe for sunrise it would be better (though I already something else in mind).
Perfect for Golden Hour portrait shots though.
Location of this sunset mound is at GPS coordinates: 21.161780, 94.883641
Sunrise no.3: The Grand Finale
Remember Sunset no.1? Well, it actually had a terrace that went all the way round, giving a 360-degree view.
I had a particular image in mind which I thought that secret location would give me.
The guy who showed me the secret location didn’t think it would be great for sunrise as "the sun would be blocked by the Sulamani Temple”. But this was exactly what I was going for!
When I was at Angkor Wat for sunrise, it was a cloudy morning, and I didn’t get the magic moment when the sun peeked out behind the temple.
Bagan rose to the challenge.
And boy did it deliver.
I still can’t believe how lucky I was with not just the weather, but the good fortune to find all the most amazing and best sunrise and sunset spots in Bagan.
Do you want to know the locations of the best sunrise and sunset viewing spots in Bagan?
If not, here are are some things I’ve learned from my experience to help when you’re visiting Bagan.
5 Top Tips for Sunrise and Sunset in Bagan
Plan for enough time in Bagan. I had perfect weather the entire time, but I’ve heard many others who didn’t have as great weather, even in dry season November-March (the best time to visit Bagan and roughly the only time the balloons fly). You don’t want to rush through Bagan for one day, have crappy weather, and miss out on sunrise / sunset. I’d recommend two full days in Bagan.
Get there early! Aim to get there an hour before the actual sunrise/sunset so that you can:
Allow time to find the spot you want to watch from (don’t trust Google Maps timings, and unless you’re being boring and only sticking to big temples, you’ll find yourself on random unmarked dirt tracks more often than not);
Bag yourself a prime viewing spot. If you get to a spot too late and don’t have a good clear view, chances are you don’t have time to go and find an alternative spot before sunrise/sunset anyway; and
Set up for photos (especially if you have a tripod, etc) or just get comfortable.
Avoid large and well-known temples/stupas. At time of writing (January 2019) climbing all big temples/stupas are explicitly banned and this seems to be strictly enforced. Generally any named temple you can find on Google you’re unlikely to be able to climb (even if they have built up stairways).
Explore the dirt tracks and keep your eyes peeled (difficult as it is with all the dust). There are tons of smaller stupas and structures dotted around the place (there are over 2,000 of them!) and because Bagan is so flat and spread out you really don’t have to get particularly high up to have an awesome view. Almost all my photos were from about 1-story up.
Ask around. A creative way (which I would have tried had I not been so lucky), would be to ask one of the locals trying to sell you souvenirs in return for buying something from them.
Or if you want to save yourself the time and effort (there are so many fantastic temples/stupas to visit!) let me share the detailed location of the sunrise and sunset viewing temples that I found.
Map and GPS coordinates, and additional tips for the best sunrise and sunsets spots in Bagan.
Check out this video I made of my 2 days in Bagan, with the 3 sunrises and 2 sunsets mentioned above.
Oh, we haven’t settled one last question…
Bagan vs. Angkor
Without a doubt, Bagan.
Angkor has majestic, imposing structures, but Bagan gave me all the feels.