I’d wager that at one point in time, Bagan was the world’s most prolific construction site. The Bagan temples are oft-cited as Myanmar’s equivalent to Cambodia’s Angkor, although I can imagine this refers only to the volume of temples; the architecture and settings are quite different and the 2,000 temples of Bagan are generally in better condition. There is something for everyone as well – the temples range from simple, one room brick shells to grand three storey temples complete with roof terraces and giant bronze Buddhas.
Bagan truly is a spot that rewards the early riser. The sunrises are spectacular – more so than the sunsets – and well worth the 5am start. The first morning, fresh off the bus, we headed for a temple suggested by our guesthouse where we sat watching the hot air balloon tours launch across the plain of temples before going for a walk around the dusty fields, peering into the smaller temples.
To cope with the intense March heat, we split our days. We got up at 5am for sunrise, heading back to our guest house about 11:30am for a nap and then went back out again at about 4pm for sunset.
Our second morning was an even bigger success. We headed to Lawkaoushaung Temple and scrambled up the narrow stairwell to the roof terrace. Just 100 metres or so ahead of us, we could see several coach loads of tourists scramble over one another at the crowded Shwesandaw Pagoda to get a viewing spot. By contrast, there were no more than eight of us sitting on our roof terrace, peacefully watching the sun rise over the dusty Myinkaba plain as balloons drifted into sight.
By far and away the most popular temple is Ananda Pahto, and we headed here shortly after sunrise to miss the worst of souvenir sellers and tour groups. I’d expected not to like it given how much I loved the serene temples further afield, but I was rather taken with the bustling temple which is currently undergoing major renovation in partnership with the Indian government. The tourism operation is definitely more slick here than anywhere else though – a local kid attached himself to us for an informal guided tour (which was actually really interesting, so I’m glad we didn’t dismiss him out of hand) and when wandering around the grounds a local sweeper insisted on showing us some spots for photos, which he naturally expected a tip for. His unbridled joy at receiving said tip dissolved any annoyance I had for being hustled.
Three small towns nestle amongst the temples – Old Bagan (home to the luxury tour group brigade), New Bagan (for “mid-price” hotels and guest houses) and Nyuang-U, where the backpackers and budget travellers congregate once they’ve been booted off their night bus. We stayed at May Kha La – a medium sized guest house on the main road which was quiet and – amazingly – had passable wifi and an ensuite.
The 2,000 temples of Bagan cover an area around 42 square kilometres, so unless you are seriously keen on walking in the baking heat (spoiler alert: we aren’t), some form of transport is essential. Some opt for traditional horse-drawn carriages, or pedal bikes but we gave those a miss because of welfare and laziness concerns respectively.
Another option is e-bikes, which are essentially electric mini scooters with pedals stuck (sometimes literally) on the side to get round Myanmar’s “no renting motorcycles to tourists” rule. Hire shops line the main road in Nyaung-U, and open from 5am for the sunrise crowd. Our guesthouse owner arranged for two bikes from the lovely people at Lucky bike hire – which would prove to be a somewhat ironic name – and we wobbled off down the road in the dark, our small headlights only showing cavernous potholes at the last possible moment.
One of the things I loved about Bagan was the freedom to pick a temple and head in that direction. Too crowded? We simply moved on and came back later. Each temple was an unexpected delight. Apparently empty chambers revealed nooks and crannies to explore, and every so often a kindly Temple Keeper would point out a secret staircase for you to crawl up, feeling like Indiana Jones. The reward for crawling up a dusty, spider infested stair well could be a dead end, but sometimes you emerged onto a roof terrace with a hell of a view and no one else around. Magic.
By contrast, to the stunning sunrises we found the sunsets a little less spectacular. Rather than the glorious technicolour shows we had been used to in Fiji, the sun simply shrank below the hills. We headed to North Guni temple for our second sunset, which proved to be pretty lacklustre. Happily, distraction came from local kids, who scrambled around the seven storey temple like monkeys in between trying very, VERY hard to sell us a postcard, or swap one of our 1,000 kyat notes for a 10 kyat note. We don’t buy from kids in the – perhaps vain – hope that they won’t be tempted to swap their education for short term souvenir selling but these guys spoke good English and were highly entertaining in their sales tactics. The schoolbooks in their bag reassured me that, for now at least, they were just looking to make some pocket money on the side.
Although the e-bikes proved to be a great success, as we discovered on the second day, safety is an issue. We were driving along the main road and coming towards an intersection. Craig (who was in front) slowed down but, as the road was quiet, I didn’t assume he would stop. I was also slightly distracted by the truck cruising next to me and honking rather deafeningly. I noticed Craig had stopped all too late and, although I slammed on my brakes, I smashed into the back of him. At this point we realised two things:
- Craig’s brake lights didn’t work; and
- my accelerator was inclined to jam.
My lawyers will be in touch, Craig.
If you plan to see the Bagan temples
- We paid K6,000 (£3.75) each per day for electric bike hire. Helmets weren’t provided, and we didn’t see anyone else with helmets on. Be careful on the roads and check the brake lights!
- Whilst I would always discourage buying postcards and souvenirs from kids, the local children who hang around the temples collect foreign currency and were really proud to show us their collection of notes from countries as far as Georgia and Cambodia. If you have (small denomination!) notes left from your travels, you’ll find a happy home for it in their collections. Just be sure to bring enough that you don’t cause any arguments!
- Don’t forget to pick up a map (most guesthouses have them). It’s a good idea to plan out some sunrise and sunset spots ahead of time and have them circled on the map. There are some great ideas here.
- In addition to the temples mentioned above, I particularly liked Mimalaung Kyaung – a fairly plain temple with a large platform which survived a great fire in 1225 – and the spectacular Thatbyinnyu, which is the tallest temple in all of Bagan. Do check them out!
- It is possible to avoid the crowds at busy temples, such as Ananda Pahto. We found heading there about 8am (after sunrise) meant we missed the tour buses. Likewise, there are sometimes smaller temples next to the “main” ones for sunrise and sunset, so be creative!
- We spent two full days exploring the temples, which was plenty for us although we certainly didn’t see all of them. I’d suggest a minimum of two or three days – longer if you are a big fan of temples.