Bagan is undoubtedly one of the places I most looked forward to when planning our trip. An untouched ancient city in the middle of Myanmar (Burma), it’s home to thousands upon thousands of temples spanning centuries of construction. In the summer months you can hot air balloon over the temples at sunset and sunrise, hire horse and carts to drive you through the new and ancient parts of the city and visit millennial old excavation sites.
We travelled to Bagan from the country’s capital city, Yangon, where our Guest House owner arranged a return bus transfer costing us £20 each. The overnight journey of 12 may not seem for the faint hearted, but after a 37 hour bus journey across Vietnam and Laos I truly believe no length of journey time will phase us for the rest of our lives. The spacious coach was the most comfortable we had travelled on so far, and so the journey was quick, restful and comfortable.
The bus dropped us at a station slightly outside the city, so it’s necessary to either pre-arrange a hotel transfer or get a taxi, which costs 8000 kyat (£4). There is also an entrance fee into the city of 26000 kyat (£13) which may seem steep when combined with your Myanmar Visa ($70) – but trust me, it’s worth it. The temples themselves and the surrounding roads are immaculate. The only thing I would criticise with regard to the city entrance fee is that some of the more popular temples also charge an entry fee. Having said this there are thousands that don’t charge so if you’re on a budget, just stick to them. It’s important to remember that Myanmar was only completely opened up to tourists three years ago, and the country really is trying to get itself back on its feet financially.
Our hotel, Bagan Princess Hotel, is located in the outskirts of New Bagan. Costing £18 for a night – our overnight buses two and from Bagan meant two nights less paying for accommodation – let us check in on arrival at 5am with no extra charge. Our room was huge – a small suite with a desperate shower room and a small bathroom, which was outstanding value for money.
After a few hours of sleep in a proper bed, we had breakfast in the hotel and discussed the layout of the town with the receptionists. We rented two bikes from the hotel around noon, in total costing 2000 kyat (£1)((!!!)) for the day. The front desk gave us a map, recommended which temples to visit and told us where to go for the best sunset view.
The land is, for the most part, totally flat so cycling was easy even in the 27 degree heat. If you don’t want to cycle, it’s possible to rent mopeds or there are plenty of tuk tuks, taxis and horse and carts that can be hired for the day. After less than two minutes of cycling we were surrounded by temples of all shapes and sizes. We came across farmers with dogs, goats, horses and cows amongst the temples, going about their daily lives as we admired their stunning surroundings. It’s fascinating to see how nonchalant locals are about their homes while we, tourists, spend hours analysing and photographing and admiring them. Apart from locals and a handful of other tourists, the entire city is very quiet and definitely the least chaotic place we’ve visited thus far. Perhaps this is because of the time of year, but I’m glad we were able to see it so tranquil and peaceful smothered in rain.
The temples themselvess are exsquisite and it’s unbelievable how well intact so many of them still are considering their age. For the most part their terracotta colour contrasts beautifully with the bright green foliage tha surrounds them for miles; their bases comprising of rigid straight lines, and as you follow the building upwards curves are introduced to create the so recognisable padoga roofs. Immense detail covers the exteriors of the temples; skilled carvings and craftsmanship still so evident centuries later. Inside, inscriptions can still be read on the ancient walls and narrow, cramped stairwells lead you from the lower floors to the roofs above giving you extraordinary views of the entire coty. Although it is an entire city of ancient temples, each rooftop gives you a completely unique perspective and viewpoint of it.
At each of the temples there are locals showing tourists around and selling you souvenirs. What they have to say about the history of the city is really interesting and, after being advised to by our hotel owner back in Yangon, we learned a lot from listening to them. One young boy in particular who was only eight years old spoke endlessly about each of the most significant temples visible from his own. When we asked him more about himself he told us he worked each weekend at the paso has to pay himself through school, showing us his books and telling us about Alexander Flemming and Sir Alex Ferguson when he found out we were from Scotland.
There was an Italin restaurant, The Food Library, directly next door to our hotel that’s rated 5th in the city on Trip Advisor. The restaurant itself was decorated impeccably, and the staff were so attentive. After some observation and reading online o realised it had been set up to train local teenagers in hospitality and improve their English, thus helping them with work in the future. We seen this a lot in smaller towns across East Asia over the course of our trip, and without any bias it was undoubtedly the best meal we had eaten since leaving home – I had pesto chicken and pasta while Paul had “the best pizza ever”.
The weather while we were in Bagan was unbelievably awful; torrential rain for most of our time there, making sunrises and sunsets impossible. This being said, on our second day we hired two more bikes and stopped at all the temples we failed to visit the day before as well as revisiting our favourites. The rain absolutely pouring down was a plus as there were so few people everywhere we went, and it made cycling on the roads a little less terrifying.
Marking our fourth week in Asia, having seen cities and rural areas alike, Bagan was undoubtedly the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. I think what makes it all the more impressive is that you can weave through the temples unsupervised, and look at whatever you want for however long you want. The lack of restrictions is really liberating and made the experience so much more enjoyable for Paul and I both. It’s been nothing short of a privilege to visit somewhere as stunning and unique – there really is nowhere else like it on earth – as Bagan while it retains its charm.