“Not like that!!”
I yelled again, drawing a raised eyebrow from the elderly couple walking past. “Lauren! Slow down!”
Seconds earlier she’d been alongside me, the pair of us standing awkwardly astride the least-comfortable electric bicycles in the world discussing how they worked. Now, she was hurtling along the rutted dirt alongside a busy road, bouncing out of control towards a cluster of nearby trees. I’d envisaged spending our time in Bagan cruising along deserted trails, finding out-of-the-way spots to explore empty temples for a few days. Now a trip to the nearest hospital seemed more likely. I had a feeling the architects of this ancient kingdom hadn’t been big on wheelchair access.
Screeching to a halt in a cloud of dust and tears, a dejected figure slumped forward over the rickety basket. “See? I told you I didn’t know how to ride a bike properly!”
In that moment, it was hard to argue. Were we destined to walk or take taxis everywhere, I wondered? Or even worse, be confined to one of the enormous tour buses that rumbled past every few minutes?
I seriously hoped not… but what other options were there?
The happy cry whipped past me in the breeze as I twisted the throttle to the limit. What a difference a day makes. From an inability to steer in a straight line or turn around, Lauren was now well ahead of me, flying past cyclists, horse-drawn carriages and the occasional mangy dog with an air of misguided confidence. We’d nervously navigated to some nearby sites the previous afternoon, but this was our first full day in Bagan. Armed with a map someone had left in the basket of one of our bikes, we had around 2000 temples to choose from. Just us, a crumpled map, two poorly-maintained e-bikes and the ever-present risk of heatstroke in the tropical sun. What more could I ask for?
We were visiting Bagan in mid-November, towards the start of peak tourist season in Myanmar. It’s cooler that time of year, although as usual in the tropics, it’s all relative. I’m sure there’s all kinds of advice out there about which temples are best to see, and when, but as usual we’d done no planning and just decided to wing it. We still managed to take in all of the main sites shown on the map over the course of four days, but also stumbled across dozens of isolated spots where we didn’t see another foreigner the entire time.
Bagan is a big area — over a hundred square kilometres — which meant two things. One: we got a whole lot more out of our time by having some form of motorised transport, and two: because of that, getting far away from the buses and tour groups didn’t take much effort. The dogs and cows, though? Well, they were everywhere — and thankfully far less annoying than 40 shouting tourists.
That Bagan was, and is, primarily a religious site wasn’t hard to figure out. Most of the temples still had their original Buddha paintings and statues inside, ranging from faded marks on the wall of a dilapidated building to giant golden statues towering far above our heads. You never quite knew what you were going to find around the corner — even if it was sometimes monks posing for a new profile shot.
Sunrise and sunset are the best times to get those misty golden shots of Bagan so beloved of guidebook publishers — but they’re also seemed the best time to get run down by a convoy of tour buses, especially if we were heading to any of the large temples. As a result, we skipped out on sunrise entirely, opting for a more leisurely start to our days, and picked sunset spots that the buses couldn’t easily get to. We tended to hit the main attractions around mid-morning or mid-afternoon, and although the light wasn’t as good, it meant we often had them largely to ourselves. Given the bedlam at other times of the day, it was a sacrifice I was happy to make.
Our hotel rented electric bikes per day, or for 1000 kyat (around $1) an hour. We chose to explore for two or three hours in the morning, and another few hours leading up to sunset. Unless we were inside a temple, it was hard to find shade on the Bagan plains in the middle of the day, so we found somewhere much better to spend our time. Our hotel catered primarily to tour groups, but also had a few budget rooms out the back. They were a bit dark and dingy, and came with complimentary millipedes, but we still had access to the same amenities as everyone else. Including this pool. Yes, we made good use of it.
We were blessed with amazing sunsets every night, whether we’d been clambering up broken staircases at Dahmmayan or clinging precariously to the side of Shwe-Leik-Too to see them. There were always a few other people around, but never enough to spoil the moment — and watching colour drain from the landscape and those unmistakeable silhouettes appear on the horizon was enough to take my mind off whatever else was going on.
Our biggest highlight, however, came in broad daylight. It involved a long ride down increasingly-sandy tracks, discovering the limits of our bikes as the back wheels slid out every few seconds. We didn’t have a particular destination in mind, and even though the tyre marks suggested that vehicles went down those roads, the entire area seemed to be deserted. Finally reaching the end, the map suggested we were at Pya-tha-da, a large temple with a solitary taxi outside.
The interior was mildly impressive, but nothing to get excited by. After a few minutes we turned to leave, only then noticing the partially-hidden staircase on one side. Up we went — and then up further, and further again. Even before we reached the top, it was clear we were going to end up much higher than any of the other temples we’d climbed. Emerging onto a huge terrace (with a smaller one even higher up), it was one of the few times I’d audibly gasped at a view anywhere in the world.
Temples stretched almost to the horizon, peeking above the treetops in a wonderfully-random assortment of shapes and colours. The taxi’s passenger, an older English guy, waited as we emerged onto the terrace. “Impressive, right?” he asked, a grin lifting his eyebrows inside the brim of his floppy hat. I didn’t even have the words to respond, nodding mutely as he passed.
For twenty glorious minutes, we had the entire place to ourselves. I was like a small child, just walking around in circles and pointing at random objects. I took dozens of tiny variations of the same photos, for no reason other than I could. I don’t get ‘wowed’ all that often on my travels any more, but on that afternoon, in that place, there was no better way to describe it.
We’d only planned to stay three nights in Bagan, but soon tacked on an extra day. It was so much larger and more impressive than expected, and we wanted more. Instead of booking a $300+ balloon ride, we opted to upgrade our room instead — strangely enough, the more expensive poolside rooms were nicer than our previous ghetto digs.
Our final explorations saw us on the road to New Bagan, which we never even reached. Dozens of temples waylaid us, in what was apparently an area that most tour groups never got to, and we again found ourselves out of sight of both the road and any other foreigners. Picking our way through an overgrown field at Law-ka-ou-shaung, we entered a small, dusty temple with seemingly nothing much going for it. Our experience the day before had taught us to look for hidden staircases, though, and again we found ourselves on the roof without any company.
Mist and smoke drifted slowly above the surrounding temples, only the sounds of birds and insects breaking the silence. In that moment, I never wanted to leave this place. We could easily have spent another week there and still not run out of spots to explore.
Reluctantly checking out just after dawn the following day, we trudged towards the beaten-up truck waiting to take us to the bus station. Bagan, though, wasn’t quite done with us yet. There was one more surprise in store, one last ‘wow’ moment. Glancing blearily upwards, I was greeted by the sight of four balloons rising above the trees. Silently they climbed, their well-heeled passengers enjoying a view even greater than those I’d experienced over the previous days.
Still, I wasn’t upset or jealous. Bagan had been more, so much more than I might have hoped for; a highlight not only of my time in Myanmar, but of all my travels.
I turned as the pickup pulled away, craning my neck until the balloons finally disappeared out of view. We’d soon be in a bus bound for Kalaw, new adventures lying in store. Still, I couldn’t help but gaze at the passing temples with a small twinge of regret. Maybe we should have stayed an extra day? Just one more day couldn’t hurt, right?
The WiFi was utterly awful, only available in the lobby and too slow to load a webpage regardless. I had bought a local SIM card in Yangon, but as there was no service except on top of the highest temples, I was largely disconnected during my stay in Bagan. Next time I visit, I’ll likely look for a guesthouse in Nyaung-U — it’s a little further away, but the food options and range of budget accommodation are far better.
We were delayed by around 90 minutes on the outskirts of Yangon as the driver fixed a problem with the bus, but as that meant arriving at 7am rather than 5:30am, I was more than happy to go with it!