Biking and Exploring the Magical Temples of Bagan, Myanmar

Planning the Trip

Myanmar is still a little off the beaten path, so I was a bit unsure of doing things myself. I contacted a few operators and was quoted around $1000 for for even a basic 4-day itinerary in Yangon and Bagan. There was no way I was paying that much and I usually like to do things myself, so the solution:

I used Oway, an online booking tool, to make all of my hotel arrangements and flight arrangements in Myanmar. My domestic flight confirms basically looked like Microsoft Word documents, but they seemed legit. Some people have criticized Oway for falling through, but at least for me, it worked fine enough with the hotel and flight arrangements I needed.I was able to pick the hotels I wanted, pay by credit card, and get coupons to present to my hotels. All 3 of my hotels gave me no problems in this regard. I honestly did not want to show up and have to pay for hotels and flights in crisp US bills (I brought them along regardless), and the limited options on hotel booking sites offering pre-payment were the dreadfully expensive (and mediocre) options. 

Spending a Day in Orientation

The boarding process at the Yangon domestic airport was something else! You are essentially given a sticker for boarding, and there are no boarding announcements, just a variety of these small airlines coming out with a board, and in the early morning hours there are a ton of domestic flights going out, so it was very confusing to figure out when to board – I just kept asking around until it finally came time for my Air Bagan flight to board. We walked right out to the tarmac and were in the air in the propeller plane, a mediocre snack and drink served on-board

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When I arrived at Bagan Airport, my driver/guide was waiting for me. I could have spent the 3 days exclusively on my own, but I honestly appreciated the orientation.

We started at the Bagan Market just for a peek through to see the vegetable and meat selling going on, and I was briefly fitted for a lunggyi

My guide took me through some of the most important temples in Bagan and I was also able to get information on their history and significance, which is honestly not really well-formulated into guidebooks or internet resources compared to other destinations.

Some of the famous Bagan temples include:

  • Shwezigon Pagoda, a famous temple founded by the founder of the Pagan dynasty and covered in gold leaf.
  • Ananda Temple, the temple heavily inspired by Hindu design
  • Sulamani Guphaya
  • Dhammayangyi Temple, the largest of Bagan’s temple shrouded in a dark past. King Narathi killed his father and elde brother to ascend to the throne.
  • Shwesandaw Pagoda – the famous temple where people catch the sunrise and sunset, although ust one of many. This is probably the only temple where I sort of felt the crowded tourist thing around sunset, but it was not suffocating, as I found myself a spot and enjoyed watching the sun go down.

 

Exploring On My Own

Having seen the “must see” temples, I just sort of ripped out a map from the Lonely Planet guidebook (I hate, hate, hate Lonely Planet, but they are the only ones with a Myanmar guideback) and started exploring. In hindsight, a detailed map of the temples is more ideal given the lack of cell reception.

I have a terrible sense of balance and direction – as I was getting the hand of the e-bike, I took one nasty fall in New Bagan. I also ended up navigating myself into some very desert-like terrain and as the electric bike’s battery started to beep, I became quite panicked as I really had no clue where I was, and was semi-concerned I was going to get stranded on foot in the middle of nowhere. It makes you really realize how dependent we are on having internet access to maps or GPS. 

And that was it – it took my phone picking up some sort of location bearing for me to figure out a path leading back to the main road. I ended up passing through one of the villages by the main road, where a few people were a bit amused by my appearance. 

The next question was how to put down the stand for the bike. Luckily, an older local gentleman saw me struggling and came over to help me out. 

Thailand is hot, Cambodia is hot, but Myanmar is scorching mid-day. One of the downsides is that it gets so hot in March that even walking barefoot on the pavement can burn up your soles, not to mention just sort of dealing with heat exhaustion mid-day while outside, and the beauty of most of these temples is on the outside. 

Besides people-watching, I did end up at a few temples. Shwe-gyu-gyi was just one of them, with the rest being mostly smaller temples.

Sleeping and Eating in Bagan

I opted to stay at Ruby True Hotel in New Bagan. Most accommodations in the Bagan area that can be booked online were extremely expensive, but Ruby True was $40 a night. The wifi was pretty shoddy and even though I had a SIM card I brought in Yangon, reception was terrible in New Bagan except when I went closer to Nyaung U. 

It was a pleasant but rustic place, laid out with some nice gardens. The streets around it were dirt roads and very quiet. New Bagan was very, very quiet. The funny part was I saw all these new-looking hotels, but never saw anyone entering or existing them.

The hotel took care of getting me the e-bike and charging it when I returned back to the hotel. On my last day there, the manager was yelling from outside to tell me I could stay in the room longer – it was sort of funny but I appreciated that she was going out of her way. 

I could tell they wanted their guests to eat at the hotel and had formally dressed waiters and a puppet show going on. I also wasn’t sure if March was a particularly busy season – the hotel was pretty empty . They offered up a pretty decent British style breakfast though, which was nice because there are only so many restaurants in the area, and near that hotel there was very little.

In New Bagan, a couple of the restaurants I ate at included Green Elephant and the 7 Sisters Restaurant. Personally, I would opt for 7 Sisters over Green Elephant anyday. In Nyaung U I ate dinner at Leo Restaurant, which was honestly better than the other two but also a little more Westernized. In Nyaung U, everything is pretty much along one little strip (Thi Ri Pyitsaya 4), while in New Bagan, things are also close to the main road through town (Kayay Street).

Hindsight

I made one stupid mistake. I flew into Yangon from Bangkok and arrived in the evening. I then proceeded to a long 45-minute plus drive to downtown Yangon to stay at Hotel Bahosi, and the next morning I proceeded to back to the airport to fly to Bagan. I really should have stayed close to the airport that night, or tried to schedule myself to arrive in Yangon and jump directly to a domestic flight to Bagan. The journey from Yangon Airport to downtown can take an hour or more. On my final trip back to the airport, traffic literally came to a bizarre standstill for a good half hour. I started freaking out a bit but eventually I did make it with time to reach my flight back to Bangkok.

I liked Ruby True, but it was a little too off a dusty trail for my taste – I would have personally preferred to stay in Nyaung U if I had the chance or maybe something on the river, if I could actually afford it.

Final Thoughts

Bagan is a bit annoying to get to because there are no international flights and one has to connect through Mandalay or Yangon. The upside of this is it is still not consumed by crazy amounts of mass tourism – yet. I suspect this will change eventually as Myanmar becomes more exposed and infrastructure gets built, ranging from hotels to larger airports and a fully-functional banking system integrated into the international banking system and so on.

My last destination before Bagan was Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is the dictionary definition of mass tourism gone wild. Siem Reap is practically a made-for-tourism city. New Bagan and Nyaung-U are still very much dusty towns with little tourism infrastructure. Angkor Wat is over-run with Chinese tourists, and I was really surprised that in Myanmar this was not the case at all. The main tourists were Europeans, mostly traveling as couples or small groups of friends, but no 100-person tour groups. That is the charm of the whole thing. You still have reality if you wander around. I honestly was just roaming around aimlessly – there are not many signs telling you where to go and some of the temples require going through a lot of sand – either that or I ended up coming in the wrong way and that was my only option, but heck that just added to the fun. Most of the tourists were in fact the people of the country, arriving and departing in the backs of the converted Toyotas. As I zipped around on my bike, it was simply fun to be watched by them with curiosity – a few families asked me to take a photo with their children in the temples. These are the kind of memories that make me smile when I think of my time there. How long this will last is anyone’s guess.

Bagan is not for everyone either. The accomodations are generally rated pretty poorly. I can’t regard anything as slick or modern – you might be downing warm soft drinks or waking up an older woman from her nap to buy a coconut. For whatever tourism infrastructure that is lacking, I could complain, but I honestly just loved it more for not feeling like such a commodotized place.

Flying Solo

As with other Southeast Asian destinations that are not resort towns, traveling alone is just extremely common. That does not mean you will encounter thousands of solo travelers around, but as a solo traveler the big tour groups of 100 people are likely to shove you aside (Some of the Chinese tour groups in Angkor Wat actually shooed me out of the way of their photos) whereas the mostly couples and small groups of friends that are wandering through Bagan tend to not get in each other’s way. Dining out, exploring, and sleeping in Bagan solo would be rated an “A”. The only downside is the towns are sleepy and dusty. If you travel solo with plans to party, this may not be for you. If you planned to try to meet other travelers, this may be a more challenging destination than others.


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