*The* way to see Bagan is in a balloon, rising before dawn to see the mist and then the sunrise over the 2,200 pagodas and temples. If you don’t have the budget to do that, then we suggest you see Bagan by bike.
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It would be stunning to see Bagan by balloon. It would also cost $US 380 each, so its off the agenda for us at least. Even more so when we find its not running while we’re here. See there are benefits to travelling in the off season!
And so with no balloon in our Bagan, we are reduced to three options. We can rent a push bike and cycle around the area. We can rent an electronic bike (e-bike). (5,000 kyat for a single seater, or 8,000 kyat for a twofer) Or we can take the traditional mode of transport, a horse and a cart. (20,000 kyat for a day).
Head on over to 7 Continents 1 Passport for a great overview of how great Riding A Hot Air Balloon in Bagan really is.
Foreigners aren’t allowed to rent or ride motorbikes (other than motorbike taxis, where a driver rides and you hang on) here in Bagan, so the e-bike has risen to the fore. And, on the basis that we don’t want the roof, like these domestic tourists.. we decide to see Bagan by bike.
The area that we want to cover is large and it’s hot, so the push bikes are seriously out. And it’s likely we will want to head back to the room for a midday siesta or at least respite from the sun, so we opt for e-bikes. And because it’s so damned hot we take one each.
Where to Rent eBikes
We rent from the Shwe Na Di, the guest house where we’re staying. There are places all over town to rent them, of varying quality and age. We’ve got the old, mostly roadworthy, at least the battery is the fully charged type.
Bagan by Bike – Day One
Day one is a late start, breakfast and then we’re on the bikes with a vague list and direction by 0930. Our German breakfast companion isn’t much use. His favorite pagoda was, well he can’t remember what it was called, but it was over there somewhere he said. He pointed with an Asian-style wave that indicates north to south cardinal points.
The Shwezigon Pagoda
Shoes off, legs covered, no spaghetti straps, the rules are clear. The floors are cleanish. Well cleaner than India and Sri Lanka, and cooler than Mandalay.
We eschew the services of a guide and stick to the Insights Guide to Myanmar. But we do hang around when there’s an English-speaking guide talking to a group. If only they wouldn’t waffle so much and repeat themselves!
By accident of poor map reading, we arrive at the Mahabodhi Temple. If this looks familiar, its because it’s a copy (although poor in my opinion) of the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodhgaya, in the state of Bihar, northern India. Like its namesake, there’s little inside, and outside we’re stared at by suspicious-looking men.
A puncture stops us in our tracks and a local lady with a drinks and longhi stall calls the bike guy for us. In return we buy 1,000 kyat cans of coke zero and sit under her tree to wait. Nige ends up with the twofer bike for the rest of the day as our bike guy sits down and prepares to fix the puncture.
Literally every few minutes there’s another temple, another pagoda, another stupa. The temples of Bagan truly are some of the most amazing landmarks of Asia.
There are ancient paintings inside.
Wonderfully empty corridors.
Ceilings to marvel at.
And all instances of Buddha in many formats.
After a couple of hours cooling down in the room, where trying to find somewhere to stay in our next stop Nyaungshwe, Inle Lake is like trying to raise the dead. The Internet sucks here in Myanmar, worst country so far by a long way.
Shwesandaw Pagoda for Sunset
We head out for sunset to the Shwesandaw pagoda. This time we ride along the Anawrahta road – its much quieter and a better road by far, lined with mature trees that provide some shade and dotted with glorious looking pagodas that appear to draw no visitors.
The Shwesandaw pagoda is one of the few that you can climb onto and this is a popular place to watch the sunset. It must be hellish in high season. We find the Cardinal point where the photographers have set up. It is, though, the rainy season and clouds abound, so it’s not much of a sunset.
It’s an interesting ride back in the dusk, then dark. It’s like skiing in powder in a white out. My light is feeble and illuminates only the bugs as they head towards my face. So it’s easier to ride with my eyes almost closed and my lips twisted into an insect avoiding grimace.
It’s not like I’m going fast though, my brakes barely stop the bike even when both are applied in full. So I spend most of the time mentally preparing the best way to jump and roll without dire injury.
Eating in Nyaung U – Bagan
There are a host of local restaurants nearby, but no signs in English (apart from the Italian restaurant), so we head to “Restaurant Row”, where its remarkably quiet. There are more Burmese folks here than westerners and most restaurants seem to serve a similar fare of Chinese, western and some Burmese.
And everywhere, the symbols of Bagan, the wonderful colourful umbrellas.
Bagan by Bike – Day Two
Our alarm the goes off at 0500 the next day. Our e-bikes are waiting, Nige is back on a nag after returning the speedy two-fer. We’re back at the Shwesandaw and we find our same photographer from last night.
A spectacular sunrise isn’t on the cards, but its interesting to see the soft light on the pagodas and temples and also to get a view from higher up.
This is the best time to explore Bagan and we head off to the Temples. This is where the pushbike would be useless. Most of the tracks we follow are sandy and rutted. I ride with my feet down most of the way and wonder what the name for aquaplaning a bike in sand is.
The only folks we meet are two local guys and their horsses, collecting grass by a remote temple.
Bagan is beautiful.
Even if the museum is closed when we get there and the laquer-ware workshop village is a laquer-ware shop village, round every bend, and behind each tree there’s another pagoda.
We end our trip by looking at the murals, at the Ananda temple. And the head to New Bagan, and then catch the glorious golden Dhamayazika temple before completing our loop and heading back to Nyaung U.
Bagan has been quiet, beautiful and mostly empty. Next stop, Nyaungshwe, on the shores of Inle Lake.
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