Sorry for the cheesy pun, but for me it holds some truth. I had been living and working in Bangkok in 2006 and had my heart set on traveling to Myanmar even then. Perhaps it was because it was closed off to tourism, perhaps it was because national hero Aung Sung Suu Kyi was in house arrest in Yangon and intriguingly always in the news and perhaps it was because I had met some really great Burmese while in Thailand. What really sealed the deal was an aerial photo I saw of the temples in Bagan. It was one of those “Where the hell is that?!” moments. So when I finally got to Myanmar this year, like most travelers, Bagan was a must see.
The archeological zone of Bagan is 26 square miles. There are said to be over 4,000 temples (of varying sizes), mostly build from the 11th to 13th centuries. These years coincided when the area was being converted from Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism to Theravada Buddhism which still remains most prevalent in Myanmar today. The Ayeyarwady River runs to the west side of the region and most of the land is very flat. This is also what makes exploring Bagan by bicycle so easy and fun.
The way most people get around Bagan is by E-Bike, which are motorbikes powered by a battery pack instead of fuel. Sooooo, technically it’s not a motorbike but it looks and functions like one, just a lot slower and quieter. However, I found you can see Bagan comfortably by just a simple, cost efficient, environmentally friendly, bicycle. It’s located in the plains, “plains” meaning very flat. The way to explore Bagan on your own is to ride around, stopping at all the temples, big and small, reading a guidebook to explain some history and architecture helps, and enjoying the scenery. The landscape of Bagan is impressive enough on its own and it’s not necessary to go inside every temple.
One of the things that surprised me most was that Bagan is still a fully functioning village and residential area. There are schools, neighborhoods, monasteries and businesses. It’s not a” roped off” archeological site that only serves the purpose of preserving history and accommodating tourists. People are grazing their cattle, plowing their fields and growing their crops all amongst these amazing temples. You will be riding your bike along and all of a sudden a big herd of goats stampedes across the road. We even went into a temple that looked as if someone was living in it, squatter style. There were beds, mats, a little cooking area and some chickens out back. My favorite area of Bagan ended up being the Central Plains on the east side between New Bagan and Nyaung U. It’s a lot of farmland, not many big tourbuses or tour groups bother going out there and the small, rustic temples have a lot of charm.
I had read about the controversial restoration of Bagan. It seems as if many specialists have criticized the inaccurate methods and materials being used during the restoration projects. UNESCO spent a decade and half as well as millions on projects, but the real money has come from the Burmese government with the support of locals who saw the obvious business opportunities and money Bagan’s temples could bring. The result is described by some keen-eye historians as Disneyland-ish. I would say that in some areas it reflects more of Banksy’s version of Disney than Walt’s. I kept this mind while riding around and observed the effects of these conflicts of interest. It’s mostly with the larger more central temples. Another reason I did most of my adventuring in the plains.
The temples aren’t the only thing Bagan has going for it, a few other fun things I did while in the region was take a sunset boat ride on the Ayeyarwady River, visit the thanaka museum, stroll through the local market, have a hamburger at Witherspoons (I had to have something that wasn’t rice or noodles for one meal!), , day trip to Mt Popa and an amazing hot-air ballon ride with Balloons Over Bagan.
Accommodation: Shwe Na Di in Nyaung U, clean, quiet, central, friendly staff, a step up from the cheapest place in town.
Food: cute place with table clothes to the left of Pyinsa Rupa Hotel, Witherspoons and Aroma 2 for good Indian. She Ya Su is the place to go if you have to catch up on your sports tv and drink beer, but the service is a bunch of rambunctious 15 year old boys who forget your order and drop dishes. Pyinsa Rupa’s restaurant has a pretty good, and inexpensive Burmese set menu.
Bike & E-Bike Rentals: Green Apple in Nyaung U (on the left going towards Old Bagan). The guy has nice bikes in good shape. He also arranged our sunset boat trip.
Travel Arrangements: Ever Smile next to the Balloons Over Bagan office. The guy there is nice and not at all pushy. He hooked us up with the OK Bus, a 19 seater that was door to door service from our hotel in Nyaung U to our hotel in Mandalay. Definitely recommended.