Indiana Jones-ing in Bagan

We arrived in Bagan on the train by late morning and checked into the Crown Prince Hotel, a place in New Bagan with extremely polite staff. Bagan is divided into 3 areas: Nyaung-U, New Bagan, and Old Bagan. In terms of accommodation, Nyaung-U is the cheapest but furthest from the temples, while Old Bagan is the most expensive but closest to everything. We chose New Bagan just because it was in the middle. Upon arrival we headed out to find some food (having eaten junk food for our last 2 meals due to being on the train), where we immediately discovered it was basically THE SURFACE OF THE SUN outside. Chris immediately started melting/burning, so we had a quick lunch at a nearby cafe called Star Beam. Our waiter was about 14 and pretty much the politest teenager I have ever met. This turned out to be the trend in Bagan; I suspect it’s because it’s Myanmar’s biggest tourist draw but the city really has the most impeccably well-trained service staff. It’s actually a bit unnerving because everyone is so attentive. Star Beam is interesting – we went to it because of its Trip Advisor reviews, but if you were walking past it you probably wouldn’t choose to eat there because (like a lot of the restaurants here) it kind of looks like a shack. Star Beam was started by some hotel restaurant chef, so they combine French and Burmese cuisines (you get a nice fresh baked baguette to start and can follow that up with chicken cordon bleu or some kind of curry, your choice).

Anyways, we decided it was way too hot to do anything else that day but rest up in our hotel room, since we had an early start planned for tomorrow.

As is the case at many temple-type attractions, getting up to see the sunrise is one of the popular things to do in Bagan. So we were up at 5am and on our e-bike (a.k.a. electric scooter), headed to the temples in the dark. We chose to rent an e-bike over a motorbike (too scary and also potentially illegal), bicycle (too hot), car (too expensive), or horse cart (too slow), and were pleasantly surprised by how nice and quiet it was. Bagan is quite large, with over 2000 temples spread out over the area and miles between some of them. We were a little wobbly on the bike at first (neither of us really has scooter experience, and the tracks connecting the temples are all dirt/sand), but after an initial tumble into some sand, Chris got the hang of it pretty quick.

So many temples.
So many temples.

The staff at the hotel had given us a map marked with the most important temples and the ones with the best vantage points for sunrise/sunset, so we decided not to do anything too experimental on our first morning and head over to Shwesandaw Pagoda, one of the temples they had suggested for sunrise. Even though it is one of the more popular temples, being low season there was still plenty of room on the top level of the temple when we arrived. Of course being one of the more well-known temples meant that there were also some vendors out and about (sand paintings are the big thing here), BUT I won’t complain because even with this being possibly the most popular sunrise temple, there was still only about 1/100th the crowd of tourists and vendors you get when watching the sunrise at Angkor Wat, so…

Sunrise from Shwesandaw Pagoda.
Sunrise from Shwesandaw Pagoda.

We watched a lovely sunrise, took a bunch of pictures of the surrounding landscape, and then decided to take advantage of being up so early (before it became a million degrees out) to check out some of the other temples in the area. The cool thing about Bagan is that there are so many temples but so few tourists that we were often all by ourselves when exploring. Which is fun because then you can pretend like you’re Indiana Jones.

Murals in Sulamani Temple.
Murals in Sulamani Temple.

Of course the problem with so many temples is they aren’t all marked on the map and most of the signs are in Burmese only, so I’m going to be honest here and tell you I’m not 100% sure of the names of everything we saw haha. The other issue is that many of the temples are home to birds and bats, but you have to take off your shoes every time you go into one, so sometimes that’s a little gross in the less maintained ones.

Dhammayangyi Temple.
Dhammayangyi Temple.

I know that some of the ones we looked at that morning included Sulamani, Dhammayangyi, and North and South Guni.

Sulamani Temple.
Sulamani Temple.

Around 9am we started getting hungry so we scootered back to the hotel to have breakfast and regroup. We headed out again late morning and hit some more temples north of New Bagan, I think some of these included Myazedi and Gubyaukgyi.

Temples and cows...
Temples and cows…

Shortly after we hit a small hiccup when our bike got a flat tire (we aren’t sure what the policies are – we weren’t given any instructions after they had helped us to turn on the headlights that morning, so perhaps some of our off-roading on rocky ground wasn’t the best). Thankfully we were near the archaeological museum in Old Bagan at this point and not in the middle of nowhere, so we pushed the bike over and borrowed a phone to call the rental people. They sent over a guy who diagnosed and fixed the flat tire about 50 times faster than either of us could have, and we were on the road again.

Sad flat tire.
Sad flat tire.
Super efficient repair man.
Super efficient repair man.

We decided to stay in the Old Bagan area so we would be near civilization if the tire didn’t hold (although we needn’t have worried, it was fine). Old Bagan has many of the more important temples, however due to their popularity and proximity these are also more touristy so there are more vendors to fend off (Chris ended up buying some nice sand paintings to send home, although he immediately regretted not haggling more). We saw a number of large and impressive temples there, including Shwegugyi, Thatbyinnyu, Gawdawpalin, and Mahabodhi. They were a little less fun in my opinion though, since unlike the temples from this morning, we had to share them with others and visitors are no longer allowed to climb to the top.

Gawdawpalin Temple.
Gawdawpalin Temple.

We also visited Bupaya, this big gold structure on the riverbank that I honestly don’t really understand, but there is something to do with a guy fighting a flying squirrel and a giant gourd. For real.

Bupaya Pagoda.
Bupaya Pagoda.

By this point Chris was basically having heatstroke, so we headed to a fancy riverside restaurant called Sunset Garden for dinner.

Sunset over Ayeyarwaddy River.
Sunset over Ayeyarwaddy River.

The next day we woke up and decided to do it all again! This time we decided to head over to the Nyaung-U area. We watched the sunrise at Bulethi Pagoda, which was a little less crowded than the one from the day before.

Sunrise at Bulethi Temple.
Sunrise at Bulethi Temple.

Afterwards we went into Nyaung-U to see Shwezigon Pagoda and visited a bunch of temples in the area, including Alopyi, Htilominlo (which EVERY TIME I want to call Hitmonlee), and a bunch of others with Burmese-only signposts.

Farmland surrounds many of the temples.
Farmland surrounds many of the temples.
Shwezigon Pagoda.
Shwezigon Pagoda.

At one of the temples we met the caretaker, who opened up the gate to let us climb upstairs. He said his father had been the caretaker of the temple before him, but now that his father was elderly, it had become his job. He of course then asked to show us his sand paintings, but I won’t fault him because I can’t imagine you get paid much for sweeping out one of 2000 temples every day.

An unamed temple hangout.
An unamed temple hangout.
View from an unnamed temple.
View from an unnamed temple.

We headed back for breakfast, and then back out again to see Ananda, which is considered to be one of the most important temples. It also is the sand painting central, apparently.

Ananda Temple.
Ananda Temple.
One of the many buddhas in Ananda Temple.
One of the many buddhas in Ananda Temple.

We figured we’d better also see a temple sunset while in Bagan, so we headed to Pyathada Pagoda. This one is popular for sunset because it has a large upper terrace so it can hold larger tour groups. Even so there was tons of room when we arrived to claim a spot. A little later a ridiculously stereotypical Asian tour group showed with their tripods and ENORMOUS lenses. While waiting for sunset a rainbow appeared, and they all went bananas. It then of course started raining, making them all go hilariously MORE bananas as they ran around trying to get their expensive equipment to shelter.

Rainbow!
Rainbow!

Anyways, the sunset was kind of anticlimactic due to the clouds but still nice. Chris spent most of it complaining that he was hungry, so we left a bit early to beat the crowds (there is one tiny staircase to reach the top) and went to this cute vegetarian place called The Moon for dinner. Look at us all healthy!

Vegetarian deliciousness at The Moon.
Vegetarian deliciousness at The Moon.

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