After another awful bus experience, this one during the day, complete with broken air conditioning, dust covering the bus, and extra seating placed in the aisles (where one of my seat mates vomited for a while into a plastic bag), we arrived in Bagan Myanmar, Burma’s answer to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat.
Dustiness and a Mirage in Bagan Myanmar
We were miserable when we arrived, after the 11 hours bus ride. I was overheated, and could not tell if I was sun burn, wind burn, or just hot through and through. I wiped my face on my pink t-shirt and left a black dirt mark. Pure yuck.
The bus arrived in Nyaung U, the main tourist town, but we planned to stay in New Bagan Myanmar, and hired a pick up taxi to drive us the last 6 kilometers, where we promptly exceed our budget (only by $10 a night, for 2 nights) to check into the only hotel in town with a pool.
We threw on our suits, walked out of our bungalow, directly to the pool. We were considerate enough to rinse ourselves in the pool side shower (and watched the dust pour off of us), jumped into the pool, and admired the view. Within view of the pool, we could see at least a dozen temples, all made of brick, some in very good condition, and others not. As dusk came, there was an eerie golden glow over the temples.
There are over 4,000 temples in the plain of Bagan. Most of them are mere stupas, or small temple structures housing a sitting Buddha inside, some of them are ancient and grand. They were built over time, similar to Indein, to make merit, and to ensure a happy and healthy next life. Most of the temples were built between the 9th and 13th centuries. You can’t walk a few feet in any direction without seeing a stupa.
Myanmar, in February and March, is at the end of its dry season. The country waits for the rains to come in April, and they stick around for at least 4-5 months. That was why the water level was so low on Inle Lake. Another byproduct was the level of dust in Bagan. Although the dirt roads that snake through the temples are there year round, the level of dryness and dust in the air was astonishing. The pool was like a mirage.
Biking Around the Temples of Bagan Myanmar
It is virtually impossible to spend a full day viewing temples in Bagan Myanmar – its too hot and exhausting in midday. Most people spend a morning viewing the sights, return to their hotel, and head out again closer to dusk, mostly for sunset viewing. We did this on two separate days and in two separate ways.
One afternoon, we rented bicycles to tour some of the closer temples. It was my first time riding a bike in years, and on the dusty back roads, it became a challenge. My first time through several inches of dirt and dust almost had me on my back. But, I learned as we went.
We had no idea what to see, and just rode around until we saw something interesting. It was quickly obvious which temples were on the tourist “must see” list, and which were more minor. Riding around on the bike let us see both sides of the temples of Bagan.
The more minor temples were often nearly deserted, allowing us to wander around and explore in silence.
The more popular and larger temples were loaded with tourists and worshippers, souvenir sellers, kids selling water and post cards, and air conditioned buses parked along the side.
Horsing Around the Temples of Bagan Myanmar
A few days later we hired Mr. Tin Win and his trusty horse to drive us around for a few morning hours, before the sun took over. We tried to forget about our bumpy and painful horse cart ride through Inwa, and climbed aboard – me sitting in the front with Mr. Tin Win, and Eric alone in the small cart behind. For about $13, we got our moneys worth. Not only did Mr. Tin Win speak a lot more English than we had anticipated, but he took us to some amazing sights.
At one of the first temples, we drove down the dirt road past a temple with a smattering of tourists. We continued to a second temple, fairly small, and with not a single soul around. The temple itself was fairly small and did not seem too impressive, but we faithfully followed Mr. Tin Win. After viewing the Buddha inside, Mr. Tin Win motioned towards a tiny staircase. He provided the torch as we climbed, predominantly on all fours, until we arrived on a balcony surrounding the stupa. A stunning view around the temples awaited us.
There are a few ways to get this kind of view – one way is to go even higher up, in a hot air balloon. And, for a little over $300 a person, and a weeks long wait list, you can do just that. I was happy with the view Mr. Tin Win provided at about $6.50 a person instead. Eric looked at me and said, “if we see nothing else today, this was worth it.”
A little while later Mr. Tin Win took us up on the roof of another temple for a view in a different direction, he brought his torch out at another temple to show us the painted ceilings, and he told us stories of the temples and their history. At other temples, he allowed us to just wander around as we pleased.
Although we spent too long in Bagan (5 nights was way too much, we were more than templed out), we enjoyed seeing so many temples with so few people. The building craze continues there – with more hotels and restaurants seeming to open by the day. I am sure one day the main temples will be as flooded with tourists as Angkor Way currently is.
To read more about My Month in Myanmar, download my ebook Exploring Myanmar: Traveling the Dusty Roads of the New Burma.