My next stop in Burma is Bagan. So before I start, since most of Burma is still relatively unknown, I should probably answer this question: what is Bagan?
What Is Bagan?
Bagan is an enormous temple complex, not unlike Angkor in Cambodia, about 430 miles north of Rangoon (Yangon). Unlike Angkor however, Bagan is still relatively unknown to tourists. Imagine going to Angkor 50 years ago, before backpacking became a thing. That is Bagan. Unlike Angkor Wat, there are no guards or signs. Literally the only rule is to take your shoes off before entering a temple. That is the Buddhist custom. After that, go wild! Explore!
Built between the 9th and 13th centuries, Bagan was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan. The Pagan Dynasty was the first kingdom ever to unify all the regions that today compose modern-day Burma. At it's height, there were 10,000 temples, but time is a cruel mistress, and today a bit more than 2,200 remain. That's still a lot though. It would take months to visit all of them!
Bagan sits in a valley, surrounded on all sides by mountains. The Irrawaddy river flows quietly by on the eastern side, and life goes on for the people of Bagan much as it did 100 years ago. Except that most people have traded in their horses for motorbikes. Note that I said "most," not "all."
Getting To Bagan
I booked a ticket on the night bus up to Bagan. It would be a 10-hour ride. The ticket cost me about 18,000 MMK (about 14 USD), which seemed a bit expensive, but the hostel assured me that it was a ‘VIP’ bus… whatever that means.
They told me to leave 2 hours ahead of time because the bus station was far away, and it really was. It was an 8,000 MMK (6.24 USD) taxi ride to get there and it took a solid hour and a half. When I finally did arrive, I was dropped off at the most muddy, 3rd world looking bus station you can imagine. It was a little scary at the time. But, as luck would have it, the bus was actually very nice! I would go so far as to say it was one of the best buses I have ever ridden on. I cannot say the same for the Burmese roads however. I took a few of my Vietnamese Valium knock-off sleeping pills and was lulled to sleep by the constant bumps and vibrations from the uneven pavement below me.
We stopped for dinner around midnight. Still very much under the spell of my sleeping pills, I got myself up and walked around the collection of Burmese restaurants like a zombie, eventually buying a tiny can of off-brand Burmese Pringles from a street vendor outside.
When we finally arrived in Bagan, 2 Italian men and I made the connection that our accommodations were close to one another, so we decided to split a cab. There were 2 Burmese men in the front of the cab. It was barely light outside when we arrived, so they offered to take us directly to a tall temple to see the sunrise. We agreed and excitedly hopped into the car.
Now that Burma has officially opened for recreational travel, pretty much every area of interest now carries an entry fee for foreigners. In order to enter Bagan, we all had to pay a fee of 20,000 MMK (a bit less than 20 USD).
Only then did it occur to us to ask about the price of the cab ride. The men in front told us it was 30 USD. We all looked at each other. What?? We told them that 30 USD was absurdly expensive. They got very angry at us and refused to budge on their price. Also angry, we told them to just forget about the sunrise and take us to our respective hotels. This cut our price in half, but it was still way too much. When I got to my hostel I asked about what had just happened. Apparently the word on the street was that a new cab company had just started operating and had already gained a horrible reputation for hustling anyone and everyone they can. I was unlucky. And stupid for not negotiating the price ahead of time. But let that be a lesson to you: negotiate the price ahead of time! And if it's 30 USD, tell them to go f**k themselves!
Hostel Review: Ostello Bello
Price: 19 USD per night
I stayed at a hostel called Ostello Bello. It’s pretty much the only option in Bagan other than actual hotels and guest houses. It is a bit expensive, but it’s probably your best option. It was actually a great place to stay – definitely worth the 19 USD that I paid per night. They serve good food and can help you with whatever you need. The bathroom was great too. Western style bathrooms (i.e. showers that have some sort of barrier between them and the toilet... and toilets that use toilet paper instead of the bum-gun) are a rarity in developing world Asia, so this is a big plus. I cleaned myself up, made some friends in the common area and then headed out to explore the temples with one of them. I was pretty worn out from my night bus, but I didn’t come all that way for naps. No rest for the weary!
Exploring Bagan By Motorbike
In Bagan, you basically have 2 options for transportation...
- Rent a bicycle
- Rent an electric bicycle (or e-bike)
There a few different levels of e-bike that are available, the most powerful of which is just a small step away from being a full-on motorbike. Riding the bicycle would have been murder in that heat, so we went for the e-bikes. The more powerful the bike, the more it costs. For a normal bike, it should cost around 8,000 MMK (6.24 USD) per day, but if you rent it for multiple days you should be able to push the daily price down a bit. I paid 14,000 MMK (10.92 USD) up front to rent the bike for 2 days.
After you get your bike, you are on your own. There is basically 1 road in Bagan. This road does a circle around the massive temple complex. At any point on this road you can pull off onto a smaller, dirt road to explore. There is no guidebook telling you where to turn off. There is no sign telling you which place is the best. It’s 100% up to you to explore. So we pulled off on a randomly selected dirt road after about 10 minutes of driving.
The roads are rough, dusty, and populated by goat farmers and their herds of goats. It takes some doing to maneuver your e-bike through some of the rougher patches on the roads, and up some of the steeper hills. When you go into any temple, according to Buddhist tradition, you must take off your shoes. So you are barefoot in these temples. Once you get inside, you can do all the exploring you want. Usually the lower level has a centrifuge of Buddhist statues, and also, somewhere, a tiny passageway with stairs that go up to the roof. I’m a pretty big guy, so many of these staircases were barely passable for me. Inside, even during the day, it is almost pitch black. So I felt my way up like a blind giant. There were centuries’ worth of dust and cobwebs to slow us down in some of the temples that had clearly received less exploration than others, but once we got to the top, it was always cool.
Here are some pictures from my daytime exploring:
Sunset in Bagan
By the time nightfall was approaching we had long since returned to the hostel. I needed some time to chill. But we went back out to catch sunset. We cruised aimlessly down the road on the east side of the park (so that we could look westward over the temples) until we came upon a temple that looked to be both big (so we would have a high vantage point) and unpopular (so that we would be alone). It looked that way from a distance at least. I crashed my e-bike into a ditch on the way over, but eventually we made it. The entrance was dusty and overgrown, so we excitedly kicked off our shoes went in. We felt around the walls until eventually the stairs were located. I crawled up the dusty, crumbling staircase to arrive at the upper eastern side of the temple. I carefully climbed over to the western side of the temple and there it was.
There were temples as far as my eyes could see. The tips of their spires mysteriously broke through the fog until, finally, the mountains rose up over them like a wall. I’ll just show you my pictures instead of describing it though.
This sunset was absolutely gorgeous. It was completely silent, save for the sounds of the crickets and other bugs chirping around us. There was almost no wind, and it was a dry 80-degrees (Fahrenheit), which is almost the perfect temperature to sit outside and drink a few beers on top of an ancient Buddhist temple.
Now take a look at this statue of Buddha:
This statue sits on the east side of Bagan, facing west. He sits in front of a small door that looks out from the temple that we were sitting on. That means that, for more then a thousand years, he has sat and watched this exact view each and every sunset. He hasn't missed a single one. He’s watching it right now. There’s a weird comfort in that.
Anyway, we sat on top of the Pagoda until well past dark. Bats came out and began flying around the spire of the temple above us. The stars were incredible – some of the brightest I’ve ever seen. A friend of mine once slept on top of one of these temples in Bagan. He said it was the best thing he did in all of his travels. We were pretty strongly considering the idea… until we started to see flashes of lightening off on the horizon. It was rainy season after all. Bagan is in the driest part of Burma, but it still rains sometimes. We decided to go back to the hostel to grab a few things, and then return later in the night, weather permitting.
Finding our way out of the temple in absolute darkness turned out to be easier said then done. We had to feel our way back to the door. When we finally found it I took out my phone and used its flashlight to illuminate our way down. What we saw was not a comforting sight. Even with my bright light, the stairs descended into total blackness. It was an eerie sight, but we had no choice. I took the lead, turning off the light in favor of having a 2nd hand. It was a considerably more difficult endeavor to come back down in the pitch black.
When I got back down to ground level I turned my light back on. My first move was, naturally, to point it up at the ceiling. This startled the colony of bats that were hanging out up there, and I had terrifying a Bruce Wayne moment.
We got out of there quick! We got on our e-bikes, turned the headlights on, and found our way through the rocky bramble back out onto the road. From the road we could see the full dark outline of the pagoda’s spire. It looked so creepy at night - like a massive haunted house. Still though, we had not at all ruled out the possibility of coming back to sleep on top of it.
Unfortunately, as soon as we got back to the hostel, it started pouring rain, so our plans were foiled. Drat!
Sunrise In Bagan
The sun was going to rise around 5:15am, so all the e-bike rentals start operating at 4am. We hopped back on our bikes, and set off, this time for the western side of the park, as to catch the sunrise in the east over all the temples. It was still completely dark at 4am, so finding a good temple was a bit of a challenge.
From our vantage point cruising down the road, we chose the biggest, darkest outline of a temple that we could spot. We set off down the dirt road that seemed to be the most likely to lead us there, and sure enough, it did. We parked our bike, took off our shoes, and stepped into another world.
Just as before, there were bats on the ceiling, and the stairs were pitch black. It was creepy, but at least we knew what to expect now. We found our way to the top eventually, and I confess that I was a bit disappointed. This temple was not as high as the one that we had watched the sunset from. We scrambled up the layers of brick that composed the spire to find the highest, most precarious seat possible. From up there it was a little better, so we decided to stay. Here’s sunrise:
Being up there, watching the changes between day and night was amazing. It makes you think about things. It gives you perspective. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen in life so far. I plan on doing a lot more traveling before I kick the bucket, but I don't imagine that I'm going to see many more things as spectacular as sunset in Bagan.
It might sound a bit weird to say this, but I was happy in Bagan. I'm a pretty neurotic guy, so this is a big deal to me. Things didn’t seem so complicated there. However, I don't think the biggest reason for this was the temples or the history, as has been the focus of this article (although that stuff was amazing too). Rather, it was the people that made Bagan so special to me. I actually met a lot of incredible people in Bagan, both locals and travelers.
I'd like to talk about those people in my next article…