Oh Bagan! A piece of my heart will always be in Bagan. Hours, days, weeks, months, can be spent here, biking around with the sun on your back, the wind in your hair and your eyes drinking in the wondrous landscape of various ancient temples and crumbling pagodas.
One can easily take a swift exit from the main road and end up journeying through empty fields apart from hungry goats grazing on thorn bushes, to be memorised by a pagoda that looks barely intact, still soldiering on and standing in full splendour amongst the horizon, with thousands of other pagodas as far as the eye can see. Trying to explore all of them is challenge for a fool, (which alas this time I was not), so I advise to choose the most popular 8 or 10 temples to visit and take your time to appreciate them in their grandeur, their simplicity, their momentous importance, their varying architecture and design- from glittering gold to Ancient Maya style and their rich past. You can only admire their strength and valour in surviving an earthquake and thousands of years. The most popular and the ones I made sure I visited were; Thatbyinnyu temple (where unfortunately my trousers ripped showing a big hole in an inappropriate place, perfect timing to visit a temple!) Ananda Temple, Dhammayangi Temple, Shwesandaw Pagoda, Shwezigan Temple, Gawdapalin Temple and Siennyet Sister Temple.
After spending a few days exploring the most breathtaking temples, leave a day to discover your own temples at your leisure, whizzing past crowds of tourists and chanting postcard sellers- having your own Indiana Jones adventure. One can easily lose sense of time here, as temple discovering can be a tiring sport. You also begin to lose any sense of importance you might have as human being, recognising how insignificant you are in the world and questioning your position on earth, questioning your choice of religion and questioning your purpose on life. These thoughts relentlessly tumble and fall through your mind as you stand as if a speck next to a victorious, stupendous piece of history, culture, art and religion. Not to mention lose sense of location! Maps.Me– the offline navigation app for travellers is an adequate remedy and helps aid direction, however is not always as reliable as you would hope, so a good sense of direction or travelling in a group (at any time) is highly advised.
Finding an ideal spot for Sunset and Sunrise I would say is similar to shoe shopping, all pagodas are similar but slightly varying in style, popularity and location. You may visit a few until you find the perfect pagoda that suits your tastes. Of course the Shensawdaw pagoda is extremely busy, with horror tales of tourists taking pictures above the mad crowds of visitors and through their legs although hilarious, was not something I was keen to experience myself. I was more of a fan of quieter, calmer temples, where one would have to squeeze up its dark tunnelled stairs and admire the dipping sun from a spot where you can see the more renowned temples from afar. Pagodas offer alternative views depending on where you are in the landscape, where the omniscient mountains stand aloft, with the pagodas hidden in their shadow. Sunset is the most popular time of day to visit the temples and it is a race against time to view it, so do give a leisurely amount of time to find a pagoda and get comfortable, or if even if needs be, to move onto a second pagoda.
Bagan is split into Old Bagan, New Bagan and Nun-U. Each area has its own collection of temples, however each place varies in ambience and feel with varying accommodation and restaurants. Modes of transportation vary widely too depending on location, with e-bikes most popular in New Bagan, and bi-cycles, horses and carts more popular in Old Bagan.
E-bikes, although safer than scooters and much cheaper (4 thousand for a full day and 2 thousand kyat for a half day) e-bikes can cause a bit of a problem. If renting from the wrong shop, unfortunately you may end up with a dead bike in the middle of nowhere, even after the shop owner saying its fully charged. When watching the sunset out with a large group of us, two had to leave their bikes behind because of flat batteries, which could have easily happened to a solo driver stuck in the dark. On my final day, the gods struck down with unluckiness and I picked the wrong rental choice, going through 2 e-bikes in the space of 3 hours, both with not enough charge in them. So a word of advice, do be careful where you rent from and always have a way of contacting them (and try travel in a pair at least -if you can-so you aren’t completely stranded!)
I also took an afternoon trip to a nearby monastery by Mt.Popa. A shred taxi organised by the hostel cost 9 thousand kyat although you may be able to get a slightly cheaper rate asking around. The journey is an hour and a half from Bagan and the monastery is situated out on the top of a rock some 777 steps up (Buddhists believe odd numbers are lucky). The steps aren’t too difficult (especially after surviving the steep two thousand from Mount Zwegabin in Hpa an) but squelching on monkey poop whilst ascending steps filled with aggressive monkeys lingering around, does make the journey difficult. They are used to receiving food from locals (and tourists) and now expect treats from all that visit. Don’t have any loose items like sunglasses or cameras as the troop will steal it and use it as bait for food, so be really wary of your belongings and don’t make eye contact with them either, they see this as a challenge. I have never been scared of of monkeys before, but after this journey…I was terrified.
If this hasn’t put you off, then you will gain marvellous panoramic views of the sweeping countryside that surrounds Bagan, with statues and pagodas dotted around the landscape, whilst Mt Popa stands looming in the distance, surveyor of the land. The monastery at the top has wonderful steep spires and jewelled designs. I do think this view would have been much more appreciated from the top of Mt.Popa itself though, seeing the monastery from afar. It is a full day excursion, taking roughly a few hours each way to hike the mountain, which would have been exhausting but rewarding- and imagine, no monkeys! I took the organised easier option, but I would have definitely have liked to trek up the volcano if I had been more organised with my trip.
Once again, I stayed in Ostello Bello (the flash packer place I stayed in Inle Lake and Mandalay). Being the original Ostello Bellow, I had high expectations but in actual fact, I think it was the worst hostel of the three. Yes the rooms were clean, the AC was working, but other Ostello Bello’s were more organised, had more activities on offer and more space for backpackers to socialise. The rooms also significantly differed in price from 12 dollars to 22 dollars on the 1st of October in high season- and that was pre-booked! My friend was quoted for 38 dollars for a single bed in an 8 bed dorm in high season, which for the same price you could have your own room in a hotel with a pool, so choose wisely! Some backpackers stayed in cheaper alternatives and drank in the evenings in the hostel to socialise and meet others so that would be a smart option for a budget conscious traveller.
The drinking scene in Bagan is quite limited with either expensive restaurants or local bars, where it is unheard of for a woman to be seen drinking in (I know as I was ogled at in surprise in Yangon) thus, many backpackers just drink in the hostel, despite it’s steep prices. Restaurants vary in price and style in Bagan, depending where you stay. Old Bagan is filled with expensive hotels and original guesthouses with many restaurants lit up with traditional lanterns and souvenir shops, whilst New Bagan is more spread out and filled with guesthouses and newer restaurants. I only stayed in New Bagan due to Ostello Bello, but I think Old Bagan would be a much more picturesque place to stay. Restaurants that are good to eat at in New Bagan are; Silver Star, Black Rose and the pizza place ironically called “Pizza“, although expensive (9 thousand kyat) the pizza did taste like a stone backed slice of heaven on my taste buds.