Bagan is one of the few places we’ve visited that lived up to its reputation. There is something surreal about bike riding down a dusty path and coming across forgotten temples which you can explore. The first temple we stopped at had a hidden stairway to the upper levels where we were given an amazing view of the landscape of temples below.
Day 1 – Friday, February 20, 2015
Getting to Bagan was not easy. Being unable to secure tickets on the night train from Yangon to Bagan, we had to decide if we wanted to take a bus from Yangon to Bagan or if we wanted to take a train to Mandalay from where we’d have the option to continue by bus or boat to Bagan. We decided to try the train to Mandalay. A travel agent in Yangon told us the bus from Mandalay to Bagan took 3 hours, which sounded good to us.
The ride on the night train to Mandalay was bumpy but comfortable. When we arrived at 5am it was still dark so instead of going into the city, we had a taxi take us straight to the Mandalay bus station. The bus station was interesting to say the least. It appeared to be a parking lot in which many different companies operate tour buses. Even at 5am, there were many buses and people scattered around at the small buildings around the area, which seemed very chaotic. Our taxi driver took us to one company where we got tickets ($8/person) and waited for the 7:30am bus. The bus was comfortable enough, but wasn’t a 3 hour journey. The total ride, including one lunch stop, took 8 hours. The bus played a video of a monk speaking for an hour or so, followed by music videos for the rest of the ride, which made it difficult to sleep.
Our next challenge was getting to our guesthouse from the Bagan bus station. Before even stepping off the bus, a hoard of taxi drivers swarmed us hoping to get our service. They all asked for $15. After our hesitation they offered to take us for $10. We said ‘no’ and started walking down the road after meeting another traveler. Minutes later they followed and brought the price down to $3/person. On the ride into Bagan, the taxi stopped at a booth where we had to pay a $20 fee to enter the temple area and were given a 5 day pass.
Our guesthouse was The Winner Guesthouse. We were shown to a private room with air-conditioning and a shared bathroom which was located outside in a courtyard. The Winner also offered rental bikes and included a complimentary breakfast. The Winner is one of the closest hotels to the temples, although that means it isn’t in the nearby town Nyaung U. Luckily the main road is lined with inns and restaurants and there were many places within walking distance despite not being in Nyaung U.
Before it got too dark, we decided to take a bike ride. The hotel’s rental bikes were 1500 kyat/day ($1.50) but because it was already late in the day they rented us the bikes for 1000 kyat ($1) each. We headed towards Old Bagan, a walled off area of temples. Up until that time, we hadn’t seen any temples and I wasn’t sure how exactly you see Bagan. We started down the road towards Old Bagan and we hadn’t gone 100 feet before we started to pass ancient temples on both sides of the roads. A few minutes later we pulled off of the road to go explore our first temple, Shew Leik Too.
Shew Leik Too was accessed from a dirt road. Before entering the temple you must remove shoes and socks and cannot be wearing shorts. The only other person at Shew Leik Too was one local man selling paintings. I think that each temple has a gatekeeper with a key to unlock the temple each day. The gatekeepers are very enthusiastic to tell you about the temple, point out original wall paintings, and direct you to the temple’s upper levels, however on your way out of the temple you are expected to look the souvenirs they are selling. This particular gentleman was less pushy than most and directed us to a small stairway in a dark corner which took us to the second floor of Shew Leik Too. What an amazing view! This is how Bagan captures you.
After Shew Leik Too, the possibilities of where to go next were endless, but we stuck with our plan of going to Old Bagan. Old Bagan didn’t have a town area, but because some of its temples and pagodas are still active, food and souvenir stands could be found. First we went to Bupaya Pagoda. We went more for the view of the river than to see the golden pagoda it is known for.
Next we went to Gawdawpalin. Gawdawpalin was large, but was also crowded and didn’t let visitors climb to the upper levels. Finally before sunset we rode our bikes to the Shwesandaw Pagoda where we saw a crowd of people already gathering. (This was the only time all trip we were asked to show our temple pass). We climbed the temple exterior and joined everyone in watching the sunset. To get back to our hotel, we took some of the dirt roads which cross the temple area.
For dinner we walked to the Golden Emperor which was recommended on Trip Advisor. Once again we had Burmese fare which included soup (lentil this time) and vegetables as accompaniments.
Day 2 – Saturday, February 21, 2015
Our morning started with breakfast at the hotel. The breakfast was large and typical of what we had throughout all of Myanmar; toast, fried eggs, and fruit. We had talked about renting bikes again, but decided it would be worth it to rent an electronic bike (ebike) to save some time and effort traveling between temples. Ebikes are rented at many places, and we only had to walk next door to rent one. The ebikes were $8/day for a single bike or $12/day for a double bike, so we rented a double bike.
Before the temples, we went to Nyaung U to inquire about buses to our next destination, Kalaw. From Nyaung U we went to the temples. We didn’t have much of a plan or agenda. There were a few temples in particular whose names we had read, but mostly we decided to stop at whichever temples caught our fancy. Later in the day we headed back to Nyauny U to eat at Weather Spoon’s. Weather Spoon’s was popular and we had to kill time before a table opened up. I thought it was a bit overrated.
Over the course of the day we stopped at approximately 10 temples. Our two favorites were North Guni Temple and Dhammayangyi Temple. In North Guni, hidden stairways led higher and higher and we could twist our way to the top of the roof. In Dhammayangyi high ceilings created dark areas where bats congregated.
We also saw the Ananda Pagoda, which is one of the most popular in the area. When you walk in, the huge standing Buddhas on each face are impressive. The temple is still in use and is well maintained with walls filled with Buddhas in niches. It was almost impossible to keep track of the temples we saw, but I think we also went to Bagan Myo, Gawsawpalin and Buledi Pagoda. We climbed the outside of Buledi to watch sunset, but it was crowded so we rode further down the road and found a small temple with a second story. The gatekeeper led us up to the roof for sunset.
Our dinner options were limited because we had to return our ebike at 7pm. This time we walked north from our hotel without anywhere in particular in mind. We ate at Queen Restaurant.
Day 3 – Sunday, February 22, 2015
Saturday was our last day in Bagan and we had a few big logistics to work out. First, we had not yet watched the famous hot air balloons which fly over Bagan at dawn. A ride on the balloons is almost $400/person for a 20 – 45 minute ride, so we decided that watching them would be enough for us. Second, we had to get ourselves to our next destination Kalaw/Lake Inle. Buses only left for Kalaw at 8am (the same time as the balloons) or the overnight bus at 8pm. Private companies also run mini-vans to Kalaw at 9am, so that is what we opted for.
We woke up before dawn and rented bikes from the hotel to go watch the balloons. We headed to Buledi Pagoda where we could climb to the top and have a high vantage point. There were already other people there, but it wasn’t as crowded as it was during sunset. Slowly in the distance we could see balloons starting to inflate just above the tree line. As the sun rose, approximately 20 balloons from three different locations, lifted off the ground. The balloons slowly drifted across the temple area to our north.
When the balloons had passed by, we hurried to return out bikes and eat breakfast at the hotel before being picked up by our minivan to Kalaw. Traveling to Kalaw on the mini-van from Bagan was one of our worst experiences in Myanmar. The mini-van is more expensive than the bus, is much smaller, and wasn’t any faster. The van packed 10 of us in, and was hot and bumpy. We stopped several times, which confused us. Once was for lunch, but the other stops were long breaks at gas stations and short breaks along the side of the road where we suspect the driver had a friend he wanted to see. The van travels all the way to Inle Lake, but Jon and I had decided beforehand to get off in Kalaw, where we would start a trek to Inle Lake
How to see Bagan: Temple area of Bagan, or the Bagan Architectural Zone, costs $20 to enter for a 5 day pass. The temple area lays mostly between Old Bagan and Nyaung U and can be accessed from Anawratha Road or Bagan-Nyaung U Oo Road. Between these two roads a series of dirt paths and trails lead to the entrances of the temples. Only the major temples had roadways leading up to them. Most people rent bikes, ebikes, or hire a horse cart to take the to the temples. We used bikes and ebikes, however the loose sand paths can be difficult to steer on.
Monks Collecting Alms: Another popular activity in Bagan is to watch the daily ritual of young monks walking the streets early in the morning collecting alms. We didn’t get a chance to watch the Monks, but they are said to be found walking on Nyaung Oo Road towards the Shwezigon Pagoda at 7am.