Myanmar is the place to visit right now and perhaps its most famous tourist attraction is the historical city of Bagan. (Think Machu Picchu or Siem Reap, but with fewer tourists — for now.) No trip to Myanmar with kids can be complete without a stop in Bagan. It’s an excellent place to see where the past is catching up to contemporary life and it’s ancient ruins are really opened up to the international tourist trade. And for children – it’s just a super fun place to explore. Here is the suitcases&strollers travel guide to Bagan with kids.
This ancient city along the Ayeyarwady River had its “glory days” between the 11th and 13th centuries when Myanmar’s kings were inspired to create monuments in devotion to Buddha and the region’s new Theravada Buddhist faith. Although invasions, civil unrest and a powerful earthquake have led to the decline or complete destruction of many of Bagan’s majestic structures, the temples that remain are still used as religious sites by the local Myanmar people, in addition to their function as impressive tourist attractions.
A visit to Bagan with kids means you get to really witness local life in Myanmar at the same time as you are learning about the history of the area. That’s why it’s important to go now, before the entire district becomes too commercialised.
The temple-spiked plains of Bagan are broken down into three main villages: Old Bagan, New Bagan and Nyaung U. With over 4,400 temples to choose from, it’s difficult to make recommendations on what to see and when. Regardless of which temples you visit, you are bound to be impressed. Here are a few of the highlights of a temple tour in Bagan, although you may find that the most interesting temples for your family are those less visited.
· Ananda Pahto – an architectural wonder resembling a Greek cross and one of the largest and best-preserved temples
· Bupaya – a cylindrical Pyu-style pagoda with terraces leading down to the magnificent Ayeyarwaddy River, supposedly the oldest of all Bagan temples
· Thatbyinnyu – the highest of the Bagan temples
· Tharabar Gate – the entrance to the original palace
· Leimyethna, Thambula and Nandamannya Pahto – 13th century temples noted for their Mahayanist mural paintings
· Shwezigon Paya – a prototype of the later Myanmar stupas. The golden zedi (pagonda) is dramatically lit up in the evening.
Adding a guide is relatively inexpensive and he/she can bring much knowledge regarding history, religion and architecture to your experience visiting the temples of Bagan with kids. At the very least, a guide will help to entertain the children while you examine ancient mural paintings of Jātaka scenes or may offer suggestions on where to pick up a box of UHT milk when your toddler is screaming! If you do not hire a guide, please be aware that there are little-to-no signs or descriptions of the temples in English, although the information contained within some guidebooks may be more than adequate for many travelers.
One could easily spend a week or more exploring all 26 square miles of the Bagan Archaeological Zone, but kids may get “templed-out” after just a few days. Fortunately, there are a few activities in Bagan aside from touring temples to interest the entire family.
[For an amusing anecdote about dealing with “templed out” children, see the suitcases&strollers story by the founder of Lonely Planet, Tony Wheeler]
An amazing experience for older children and adults is a hot air balloon ride at sunrise. Bagan is very often listed as one of the top places in the world for hot air ballooning. Although not appropriate for children under age 8, the balloon company, Balloons Over Bagan, has been operating in Myanmar since 1999 without incident, abiding by the highest international standards for ballooning safety. The ballooning season in Bagan runs between October and March, although flights are more likely to be cancelled due to weather in October and March. Due to the early pickup for the flight, young kids left behind may sleep through some, if not all, of your absence. Some of the resorts in Bagan do provide babysitting services where the sitters will come to your hotel room so you can opt for a kid-free ballooning experience.
If a hot air balloon ride at sunrise isn’t enough, Bagan at sunset is equally stunning. Many visitors make their way to the higher temples in the early evening in order to watch the sun set over the plains of central Myanmar. Be aware that some of the more popular temples do get crowded and you may not get the best view if you arrive only just before sunset. Nonetheless, there are many peaceful temples to view the sunset from if you are looking for a more private or tranquil setting. Please note that it may not be possible to sit back and relax if you have chosen a rooftop or multi-story temple and you have toddlers with you. Safety railings haven’t been introduced to Myanmar just yet, so you’ll likely spend your sunset keeping your little ones away from the edges! Also be aware that many of the temples will close shortly after sunset, so don’t plan to stay long once the sun is down.
Monasteries are common throughout Myanmar, but a unique experience for kids is to visit the Shwe Gu orphanage/training monastery in Bagan. Depending on the time of day that you visit, you can see the young boys studying in classrooms, preparing for their meals or just playing around with the local dogs. The monks-in-training are often happy to show visitors around and interact with foreign children.
If you are lucky, you may see a shinbyu (right-of-passage) ceremony which is a ceremony where young boys are offered by their parents to spend time at a monastery as novices. The boys are dressed in elaborate costumes with face makeup and may be seen processing down the street on horseback or inside a temple, surrounded by a large group of people.
Bagan is the hub for lacquerware workshops in Myanmar. The workshops all give free tours to demonstrate the process of lacquerware-making, which includes the weaving of bamboo and horsehair bowls, preparation of thayo (a mixture of sap from the lacquer trees and sawdust or ashes), polishing of the different lacquer layers, drying in underground caves, engraving of traditional Myanmar designs, coloring of pieces and the use of gold leaf as contrast to the black lacquer.
Because Bagan is now a highly visited tourist destination, there many different types of accommodations to satisfy all types of family structures and budgets. Regardless of which resort you choose, consider a hotel with a pool because of the high temperatures in Bagan year round.
The Thiripyitsaya Sanctuary Resort is a good option for small families. They do not have any multi-bedroom suites (which are difficult, in general, to find in Myanmar), but the Riverview Suites or the Deluxe River/Garden View Rooms have space for a cot or two. In addition to a large beautiful pool overlooking the Ayeyarwaddy River, there is a small toddler pool and plenty of open lawn space for little ones to run around on while you watch the sunset over the river. There is a spa onsite and a very nice restaurant and bar. If requested, this resort can offer in-room babysitting services.
Another option is the Amazing Bagan Resort. This hotel has standard rooms, as well as bungalows, and has both a spa and golf course onsite. Parents and kids alike will enjoy the nightly puppet show performed during dinner service.
Although many hotels/resorts will offer baby cots, you may want to bring your own portable crib if you are at all picky about what your baby sleeps in (and if you don’t want them in bed with you!). The safety/stability/cleanliness of the baby cots provided by even the high end hotels are often unacceptable.
Because Bagan is often wickedly hot in the middle of the day, the most enjoyable way to tour the temples is to break up the sightseeing and avoid the midday heat. After a few hours of touring temples, everyone will likely be ready for a nice relaxing meal. There are many local restaurants in the village areas serving different types of cuisine and catering to tourists. Recommendations can be made by your driver, guide or hotel staff based on your preferences and budget. Consider heading back to your resort after lunch for naps or a dip in the pool. Heading out again in the afternoon or early evening, with your morning driver or by horse cart, will allow you to visit several additional temples before watching the sunset.
Consider heading out as early as possible after breakfast in an air-conditioned car with driver. Depending on your interests, you can hire a tour guide as well or a driver alone may be sufficient. If you are only in Bagan for a few days, having a car and driver will afford you the opportunity to see some of the impressive temples that are farther away from the main villages and resorts (approximately 15 minutes by car) more easily. The air conditioning is a welcome reprieve from the heat and you can safely store your belongings in the locked vehicle while inside the temples. In addition, a car will allow you to avoid the dust (during the dry season) or the rain (during the wet season), which can be bothersome if travelling by horse cart or bicycle.
Many visitors to Bagan choose to explore the area by bicycle or horse cart. Older children would likely be fine with either method of transportation. These can be coordinated by a travel agent, but may be more convenient to do through your resort/hotel. If the kids don’t want to miss out on the horse-cart experience but you prefer the luxury of hiring a car, use one to go from your hotel to a restaurant for dinner after your temple touring for the day is complete.
Most of the temples are accessible by dirt roads and uneven footpaths, so the use of a stroller is not feasible in Bagan. Regardless of your mode of transportation, you’ll be dropped off very close to the temple entrances, so there isn’t a whole lot of long-distance walking. You may want to carry curious toddlers in some sort of baby-wearing device when visiting temples with lots of stairs and/or souvenir stalls. Although some of the temples are only a short distance from shops and restaurants, it is helpful to bring snacks along for the little ones to avoid going out of your way to find something if they get hungry.
Because the temples in Bagan are still used as religious monuments, shoulders and knees should be covered and shoes removed when entering. Most of the temples in Bagan are not formally staffed, therefore these religious practices may not be enforced. You may find local vendors at some of the larger temples selling traditional longyi or sarongs if you happen to forget to cover up. The guidelines for attire inside the temples do appear to be less strict for young children: it’s unlikely that someone will stop you if your toddler is wearing shorts. As a responsible tourist though, ensuring children are dressed appropriately for entry into sacred Buddhist sites would likely be appreciated.
Unlike the ruins of Siem Reap, the areas in which you may explore can sometimes be restricted for preservation purposes. Many temples are open to the public on the ground level only. Some have narrow staircases that allow you to climb higher up. Do be aware that some of the temples have accessible rooftops or upper levels that have low (or no) walls, which can be worrisome with small children.
It is still advisable to use a travel agent to coordinate accommodations in Myanmar, as well as tour guides, airport transfers and domestic flights. Most domestic airlines are currently unable to book flights online and/or do not take credit cards. Orchestra Travel offers high quality services at a reasonable cost and can tailor your vacation to the needs of your family.
Consider a backpack carrier instead of a stroller since the streets in Yangon are very busy and the sidewalks can be difficult to navigate.
Milk can be purchased at most of the large hotels/resorts, although it can be expensive. If your children drink a lot of milk, look to buy some at the local grocery stores. It may be harder to find in some of the more remote locations. Or pack some UHT milk in your suitcase. [For more travel tips on travel-friendly foods, see the suitcases&strollers story here.]
Plan to bring enough diapers with you for your entire trip – they can be difficult to find.
Some areas will only have squat toilets, so try to teach your children how to use them before your trip. [For more travel tips on how to use a squat toilet, see the suitcases&strollers story here.]
Prepare your children (and yourself) for the curiosity of the local Myanmar people. It is amazing how many people want to touch foreign kids and/or take pictures of/with them. Most people will be polite and gentle, but some may be aggressive and persistent!
It is not safe to drink the water from the tap in Myanmar. Only use bottled water for drinking and be wary of children drinking water in the shower or the bath.
For more travel tips on Myanmar with kids, see the suitcases&strollers story Yangon
By Robin Flannery