Exploring temples in Bagan, Myanmar

Mingalabar! (Hello in Burmese.)

The rocky train ride from Yangon to Bagan came to an end around 11 in the morning. Not bad compared to the official arrival time of 9.30 AM given the state of the railroad network!

A large group of taxi men approached us like a swarm of flies discovering fresh meat. It was clear that they regarded the drowsy passengers coming off the train as well-filled ATMs. Their first quotes for the 30-minute stretch from the Bagan train station to Nyaung-U varied between 6,000 and 7,500 kyat per persona. Eventually we paid 3,000 kyat (about $3) per person which seemed reasonable. The town of Nyaung-U (also written Nyaung Oo or Nyaung U) is the best choice for budget travelers or tourists arriving by plane as it is closest to the airport. The alternative is New Bagan where accommodation is higher priced (more than $50 per night).

The taxis stop at a control post where you are forced to buy a ticket for The Bagan Archaeological Zone. The ticket costs $15 or 15 but I understood proceeds are not going to the maintenance or restoration of the ruins and hence once should try to avoid paying this entry fee. You can avoid paying the entrance fee by either jumping off the taxi and walking around the control post or claiming that your hotel has pre-booked your tickets (craft and print an official-looking email confirmation to back such claim). Nevertheless, our tickets were never checked at temples.

We stayed at Aung Mingalar Hotel ($45 per night for a double with AC) which I cannot recommend. The rooms were terribly outdated and full of mosquitoes, but the worst was the staff who had no intention at all to be friendly.

We were hungry and decided to join an American traveler for lunch at Weather Spoon’s Bagan Restaurant. The American appeared to be an MBA student at MIT and was boasting that he hadn’t been online for a day and that it felt amazing. However, he was now feverishly trying to access the restaurant’s WiFi but eventually had to give up, slightly disappointed. My impression is that many restaurants install a router but it is eventually just a network which is not connected to the Internet. The food at Weather Spoon tasted great: two people eat for about 10k kyat and I wholeheartedly recommend the burger, at 3900 kyat ($4) an excellent bite. During our journey, we found the Burmese food rather mediocre (not to say bad) and the burger stood out as the best meal I had during this Burmese escape. And that’s why we came back twice to eat more burgers. Also the juices are fresh and serve as a great refreshment after a day of driving around in the heat.

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Bagan features smaller temples which are very different from Angkor Wat in Cambodia. While Angkor Wat is the largest religious building in the world, Bagan has the highest concentration of religious buildings in the world. Bagan, formerly Pagan, was the capital of the Pagan Kingdom which controlled the Irrawaddy also written Ayeyarwady) valley and surroundings. The Empire went on a building spree between the 11th and 13th century which resulted in over 10,000 Buddhist structures.

The Pagan Empire felt in 1287 after repeated Mongol invasions but today still more than 2,000 temples, stupas and monasteries stand up and are spread out over an area of more than 100 square kilometer. Although Bagan has attracted an increasing amount of tourists over the last years, it never feels crowded and almost is deserted in the mornings.

So how to start this escape?

Walking is difficult given the vast area of the site. Most travelers choose to rent bicycles or e-bikes (electric bicycles) but you can also move around by horse cart or taxi. There are also hot air balloon tours going for $300-400 pp which was above our entrepreneurial budget so we stuck to bicycles which cost 2,500 kyat ($2.5) per person per day.

We cycled over the sandy paths to the Shwesandaw Temple to witness a spectacular sunset. There is limited space at the top of the temple and it gets busy so you better arrive on time if you want to have a good view. We witnessed some amateur photographers aggressively claim their habitat from as early as 4 PM. At the bottom of the temple there are kids claiming they “collect foreign currencies”. It is a bit early for them to be a Forex trader and this is obviously just an alternative way of begging which you should avoid.

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The next morning we woke up at 6 AM and decided to rent an electric bicycle at our hotel and cruise to the temples to see the sunrise. The hotel asked 10,000 kyat ($10) per day for one e-bike and I said that was OK and we would rent one. However, when the receptionist realized we were two people, he rapidly updated the price to 13,000 kyat by claiming that sharing the e-bike increases the price. I looked at him and argued that this didn’t make sense at all but he kept repeating his new price. It was clear that he had more negotiation power given that the longer we would haggle, the more likely we would miss the sunrise. Eventually, I was fed up with him, took a pen and changed the 13,000 on the receipt to 10,000. Next, I threw a 10,000 note on the counter and took the keys without looking back. He looked confused and decided to take another sip of this coffee while mumbling something evil in Burmese.

The e-bike looked cheap but worked surprisingly well and soon we were speeding among hundreds of temples. It was December and Bagan was surprisingly cold in the morning and we were literally shivering on the bike.

Then the sun began its ascent. Slowly, a truly magnificent scene started in front of us. It started with animal noises. Next, tens of hot-air balloons slowly lifted up from the earth and gently pierced the mist drifting above the jungle. Mystic Buddhist chants completed the spectacle.

The rest of the day we visited the Tharabha Gate and a variety of temples: the Ananda Temple, Sulamani Temple, Htilominlo Temple, Thatbyinnyu Temple and Gawdawpalin Temple. Bagan most definitely deserves a visit during your next Myanmar tour – moreover, I would say it is among the best Myanmar has to offer!

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