We left Yangon heading towards Bagan, which is a place with countless ancient temples scattered across its plains. When people think of visiting Myanmar, it’s often the place they picture.
The bus station in Yangon is huge. Massive, even. It’s less of a bus station and more of a sprawl of bus companies spread across an area the size of a small village. It’s so big that taxi drivers sometimes have trouble finding the correct place for the correct bus company. Because of this we arranged for the bus ahead of time through a ticket office across from the train station, near our hotel. They even offered free transportation to the bus station! When we arrived, there was a small truck-like vehicle waiting for our luggage, but we saw nothing waiting for us. It turned out that we rode along in the back, with the luggage.
Our bus was a comfortably air conditioned (to me, others might have thought it was freezing) night bus and we arrived in the earlier hours of the next morning, before sunrise. We found a ride to our hotel in Nyaung-U, ate breakfast, and then all took naps. Our following two days were early mornings full of temple visits, then afternoon naps while we escaped the heat, then more temple visits in the late afternoon.
Racing across the Sahara on e-bikesThe temples are spread out over a wide area, so we rented e-bikes (like a motor scooter, but electric). Bonnie was apprehensive at first, but quickly caught on and was soon cruising around, bracketed between me and Michelle. The only time there were any real issues was when our map took us on a path that disappeared into a sandy field. Really sandy, like a desert! I highly recommend the maps.me app. (To which we were introduced by good friend and fellow RPCV Gfree) It’s fantastic and has gotten us through Paris, Barcelona, Hanoi, and even the darker back alleys of the medinas of Fez and Marrakech; but on the sandy plains of Bagan it failed us. Racing across the Sahara on e-bikesMichelle and I barely managed to drive through this stretch while Bonnie walked it, after which I ran back (as gesture I could through the sand) and drove Bonnie’s bike; all done as quickly as possible so we wouldn’t miss sunset. As Bonnie stated, we had crossed the Sahara.
As if the sunrise, itself, wasn’t good enough, in Bagan it is accompanied by a flock of hot air balloons that slowly rise and float across the landscape before disappearing as they descend back to earth. Michelle had always wanted to do the hot air balloon ride, but the over $300 US price tag stopped us. There’s a lot of other things we can do with that much money! So we opted for the next best thing, watching it all from the temples.
A side note: The temples of Bagan are old and many, if not all, are showing their age. The earthquake of 2016 did further damage and this is all compounded by the visits of growing numbers of tourists. There is currently a government plan to close off access and disallow climbing the temples, but for now they remain open. Being aware of this fact made us face the choice of whether we should climb the temples, despite knowing that we might be partially contributing to the problem. Looking at our pictures, you’ll see the decision we made. I’m not apologizing for our actions, merely explaining the situation, which is even further complicated by the government’s (apparently shoddy and unauthentic) efforts at restoration.
We visited different temples for our two mornings of sunrise watching. The first day we went to Shwe Leik Too. There were only a few other people, maybe 8-10, it was not very far from our hotel, but it was a cloudy dawn and sunrise was largely obscured. The second day we went to what has been referred to by others as the secret temple and it was amazing! It was a clear morning, there were only 4 other people present and we could not have enjoyed ourselves more!
One of the big challenges at Bagan is to find temples that are out of the way (or just inaccessible to tour buses) and therefore to avoid crowds, but that still offer great sunrise or sunset views. This secret temple was like hitting the jackpot! I’m sure it is not really a secret and that many others have found this place, but for my part I’m not going to publicly post its location. If you read this and you’re going to Bagan and really want to check it out, drop me a line and ask; the chances are pretty good that I’ll be more than happy to help you out!
We also found a pretty great place to watch the sunset, after our struggle in Bonnie’s Sahara desert. Just north of the temple called Winido is a small complex of temples behind a family’s house. One of the family members called out to us, asking if we wanted to watch sunset, and guided us back to what I think was temple 670. Despite the fact that the sunset was largely covered by clouds, there were 8 other people there to watch. It was still a really beautiful evening, even with the clouds. This was not the easiest place to reach the top of, with the narrow Bonnie, hanging ondark stairs typical of these temples. Additionally, though there was a climb across a homemade bamboo ladder and another over a medium sized ledge, all led the guy that had first called out to us from the nearby home. The entire time we were watching the sunset, Bonnie was quietly plotting her strategy for getting back down. She acted cool while keeping a firm grip on the temple rocks.
Many of the temples at Bagan are locked by the government, with the key being kept by the caretaker, who generally lives next door. The general idea is that you pay 300-500 kyat (less than $.50 US) to the person that unlocks the gate for you. When it came time for us to leave this temple I thanked the man and tried to hand him 500 kyat. He looked at me and shook his head no. “Are we not friends?” he asked in broken English. I responded rather generically that yes I supposed we were. “Friends do not need to give money for this” he replied back. I was almost frustrated because by all rights he had done more than enough to deserve to take that 500 kyat, but he didn’t want it. I thanked him profusely and headed down the dark stairs to catch up to Michelle and Bonnie, amazed at yet one more display of how nice and hospitable the people of Myanmar are.
During those 2.5 days we saw more temples than I could believe, both from a distance and close up. The construction, the art work, and the fact that many are still used actively for prayer amazed all three of us. But our time in beautiful Bagan was over and we hit the road for unremarkable Mandalay.