Anyone who has been to Myanmar will tell you: Bagan is hawt. Like Jennifer Lawrence but dustier and full of temples and foreigners on electric scooters.
Unfortunately, Bagan status as tourist favourite makes it a location ripe for the exploitation of foreign visitors through tricks and scams. And little do most tourists know, the biggest scam in Bagan is the organised racket between the taxi mafia at Bagan bus station, and the “tourist police” who collect the $20 entrance fee.
The Bagan taxi mafia
We’d made the big mistake of taking a night bus to Bagan, which unceremoniously dropped us at the bus station at 3:30am. The bus station was 10km out of town, and there was no other way in but by taxi.
And the taxi mafia knew it. They were like a pack of wild hyenas, whooping into the cool pre-dawn when every new coach pulled in to the station, before swarming the exit and chasing down each foreign tourists that stepped out. They worked together, refusing to budge below a set price because they knew, at that time of day, we had no other option. When we sat down to have a coffee and weigh our options, they taunted us: If you don’t like our price, then why don’t you just walk? Ha!
After a while, minibus-style pick-up trucks (lain ka) began to roll in and cart away groups of locals and their luggage. We began to ask around at the few bus offices that were open, but got told that none of them were going to New Bagan. A few members of the taxi mafia followed us around and continued to taunt. “Foreigners aren’t allowed to ride in minibuses here! Only taxi!”
Finally we found one minibus that was going to New Bagan, and he had space in the back. We asked how much. The taxi mafia went wild, pushing and shoving and shouting in Burmese at the driver until he squeaked, “3000 kyat each!” The same price as the taxi and obviously too much for us. The minibus drove off and the taxi mafia cackled.
As dawn cracked above the horison our sleep deprivation won us over, and we ended up falling straight into the scammers’ trap. Two-thousand kyat each for a taxi to New Bagan, and escorted straight to the tourist police booth on the main highway to fork out $20 each.
Why shouldn’t I pay the entrance fee?
Over the past two years, the entry fee has been raised incrementally from US$10 to $20 reportedly to prepare the city for entry to become a World Heritage Site. The money is collected by the Myanmar Tourism Federation, which is supposed to give 85 percent of the proceeds to the central government. The government should, in theory, give the money back to the Ministry of Culture’s Department of Archaeology, which is in charge of maintaining the Bagan archaeological area.
But things don’t always go how they should. Similar to the situation at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, there is no transparency about what happens with the money within the Tourism Federation or the central government. It very likely ends up in the pockets of politicians and other corrupt officials—minus whatever kickback money the taxi drivers get for corralling up tourists and bringing them in to buy a ticket. The one thing that is for certain is that (aside from the taxi drivers) the locals don’t see a dime of it.
Why pay money and feed this corrupt system when your cold, hard cash would be much better put to use patronising the businesses in Bagan? Follow the tips below and use that $20 to buy drinks from vendors and kitschy souvenirs from the desperate locals at the temples instead.
How to avoid getting scammed in Bagan
Don’t take a night bus
Night buses are the most common mode of transport for tourists coming from Yangon.
As is the case in all other Myanmar towns, the Bagan bus station is too far way from the centre to walk—a good 10km in this case. The night buses tend to land between 3:30am and 6am, at a time when the lain ka minibuses aren’t running. The only other transport option into town is the taxi mafia, who will charge you 2000 to 3000 kyat per person and drive you straight to the tourist police to buy a ticket.
Aim for buses that bring you straight into town
Some VIP night buses from Yangon drop travellers straight in New Bagan or Nyongoo, going straight past the tourist police. There are also minibuses during the day from Mandalay that will drop you directly at your guesthouse.
Catch a songthaew/mini bus into town from the main road
It’s a strategy that all good travellers know, but never take onward transport directly from the bus station. In the case of Bagan, not only is the starting price higher and the room to negotiate smaller, but the taxi mafia will harass the lain ka drivers into not picking up foreigners. No matter what time of day you arrive, walk out of the bus station and pick up a ride from the main highway.
Don’t be afraid of getting caught at the temples
Aside from the very largest temples, your ticket will not be checked. If there is a check and you don’t have a ticket, simply tell the police you left it in your scooter (or with a friend, etc.) and walk away. You won’t get in trouble, and you won’t be escorted out to buy a ticket.
Did you have a run-in with the Bagan tourist police? Let us know in the comments!