Bagan is the reason I came to Myanmar. When I saw photos of the Bagan plains with scattered temples under the setting sun, I decided that I must see those with my own eyes. Literature says that there were over 10,000 stupas built in Bagan, of which only over 2,000 remained. At present, 2,000 pagodas in 41 square kilometers area is a whole lot, just the same.
From Yangon to Bagan
From Yangon, I got on a taxi to Aung Mingalar bus station for my trip to Bagan. The fare is 7,000 kyats, which is quite okay for a 45 minutes ride. I made the reservation at JJ Express bus company through their Facebook page. Yes, you’ve read it right…through Facebook. I’ve learned this through a thread in Tripadvisor.
I gave it a try and they replied the next day. Booking is allowed a month before the time of travel. They asked for my name and passport number. After I provided the details, they messaged me the bus schedule (8 PM to 6 PM), my seat number, their contract details, bus station address (A5/6, Mawlamyine Street, Aung Mingalar Highway Bus Station), and the ticket price (18,500 kyats including insurance). I paid for the ticket on the day of my travel at their waiting area.
I was at the bus station an hour before the trip. Thankfully, their waiting area’s got a wifi and they offered their passengers free coffee. The bus is designed for tourists, has sufficient legroom, and with 2-1 seating on each side. I was happy to be seated on the one-seat side. The fare comes with a free wet towel, a snack bread, bottled mineral water and a blanket. We left at 8 PM, as scheduled and stopped for dinner at around 11 PM.
It was my first time to encounter a bus ride with a female bus attendant, dressed in Burmese national costume,like a flight attendant. Aside from serving us the “freebies” I mentioned, she’s also responsible for providing information about the bus service and the trip. She spoke in Burmese and then translated in what I surmised as English. The translation sounded just like Burmese to me until she finished with a “Thank you”, the only part that I clearly understood. But I do appreciate the effort.
Arrival in Bagan
The trip ran smoothly and we arrived at 5:30 AM at the Bagan bus station. It was still dark outside when we arrived. What awakened my sleeping brain was the sound of swarming drivers coming into bus doors to offer transport. It felt like I was Anne Curtis as I got off the bus when men surrounded me, each touting their transport service energetically, challenging my newly awakened state of mind. Three choices emerged – horsecart, taxi and trishaw. Trishaw was the cheapest but I thought it would be too slow. Taxi would be the fastest but I thought it was expensive, so I declared the horsecart as the winner, whose speed and cost run in between the two.
There was a checkpoint somewhere wherein I was charged US$ 20 fee for Bagan Archaeological Zone entrance. The ticket is valid for 5 days. I’ve only been asked to show this ticket once at one of the major temples.
Exploring Bagan by horsecart
There are many ways of exploring Bagan – by horsecart, by e-bike or by normal bicycle, or by car/mini-van. The last one is the corniest because aside from being the most expensive option, it cannot take you to the little dirt roads leading to the more secluded temples. Many of the locals, however, use the motorcycle or pick-up truck. I wanted to experience the unique horse cart on my first day, so I got one through my hotel.
Bagan’s horsecart is different from the Philippines' horse cart or kalesa in Filipino. Their horsecart has a cushion, where you will be seated behind the driver in a fashion similar to how you’ll sit on a couch - with legs stretched or back to back with the driver. Riding the horse cart is laid back…really laid back. I can see cycling tourists run past us. Then the click-clack sound of the horse shoe and the slow swaying movement in combo with a lack of sleep from the overnight bus trip almost made me doze off, if not for the interesting sights along the way.
The many ways of exploring Bagan - by pick-up truck, bicycle or motorcycle
In spite of this, I did not regret the horse cart ride. Aside from having my hands free to take pictures while on the ride, I already had a tour guide in the person of my horse cart driver. In addition, the leisurely ride itself will give you a cultural feel of Bagan all the more.
Temple run...need I say more?
One of the rare moments that I encountered pink (female) monks
Exploring Bagan by hot air balloon
I travelled in Bagan on the 4th week of March, the last week that balloons operate (it runs from October to March). I decided to book for a balloon flight through Golden Eagle Balloon on my second day to experience sunrise over Bagan. I was so enticed at the thought of seeing a breathtaking view of the scattered temples from above that I seemed to have been hypnotized and agreed to pay for USD 315. That’s almost equivalent to my roundtrip ticket to Myanmar!
The cost included a 35-60 minute ride in the balloon, pick-up at the hotel at 5AM, light breakfast, champagne toast upon landing (Just a thought, how much lesser can the cost be if the champagne is omitted), and transport back to the hotel.
I was the last one to be picked-up at the hotel and was surprised to see that I’m the only Asian in the group and also the youngest. Majority are elderly Westerners, the ones you normally see on guided tour on a tourist bus. During the ride to the take off point, I was in anticipation of the magical experience that’s about to unfold, or rather, I was contemplating positively that this MUST be worth my spent dollars.
When we approached the take-off point, I already had a bad feeling as to why there is no single balloon in sight, only a long table with plates and wine glasses. The British pilot approached our van and broke the bad news that they can’t do anything but cancel the flight due to unfavorable wind direction. He said that the current wind condition will take us to the other side of the Ayeyarwaddy River. He expressed regret and offered us to at least have the breakfast.
Everyone, except me, uttered in unison that they prefer to be taken back to the hotel and would rather spend this suddenly free time to sleep. I was raised to respect the elders so I kept quiet and obliged as to what the majority desires (hehe). If anyone can read a bubble head at that time, this is what it says over my head “Sure, I’ll have the breakfast and the champagne that comes with it.” If you’re curious, by the way, the USD 315 was refunded in full.
If earlier I was the last to be picked-up, on return, I am also the last to be dropped off. It did not occur to me before then that these tourists I’m with must really be well-off. Most are staying in New Bagan. I even recognized some of their hotels while searching in Agoda, the ones I filtered off because of the ridiculously high prices.
So, would I recommend ballooning in Bagan? I cannot definitely answer as I haven’t experienced one. But what I can only advice is to check out reviews and think it over a lot of times before throwing off those precious dollars.
Show respect, follow the rules
Exploring Bagan by e-bike
Exploring Bagan by bike has been the cheapest and most rewarding experience. I headed to my own direction and kept my own pace (that includes getting lost). I chose to rent an e-bike for 6,000 kyats.
I’m not the athletic type but I found Bagan relatively easy to explore as the area is mostly flat, though some dirt roads are too sandy that I had to get off and drag the bike until I reach the drivable part. The only thing that’s tough is that it gets scorching hot in mid-afternoon (I traveled in March). In fact, I took more than an hour of rest in a restaurant where I ate lunch as I had a terrible headache most likely due to the intense heat of the sun. So, do bring a lot of water whatever mode of transport you choose.
Sandy dirt roads of Bagan
Shadow selfie and a (never mind the) dirty selfeet
Alone in the middle of somewhere
Novice monks doing their morning alms in Shwezigon Paya
Exploring with a map is the way to go. The thing is, I failed to remember the names of the temples I visited by horsecart on my first day nor cared to follow our course with a map that I made a mistake of visiting two temples I already saw on the day of the horsecart ride.
Some observations and encounters
Other temples have narrow and steep stairways leading to great views at the top. Some small temples are under the care of locals living next to the temple. They have keys to the locked gates and can give you access if you ask so.
In some of the large temples, aside from vendors selling souvenir items, I saw some children selling postcards and younger kids offering their hand drawings for sale. Sadly, children are also sometimes involved in a “foreign currency exchange” scam, wherein they collect small notes from tourists and try to ask you if they can exchange the notes in kyats if you happen to be from a country where they already have collected a note from. Hence, the tourist will either be asked for small notes of their own country or they would be asked to exchange for kyats their collected notes if they already have a note of your country’s currency. The children would usually approach you and start a conversation with “Where you from?”
I also met some locals who would suddenly approach me upon entering the temple, start telling me the history of the temple, and lead me to hidden stairways, which are not at all hidden even if I explore the small temple on my own. They would wait for me at the base of the stairs, and then the business begins when they start pointing you their pwesto (or “store”) where sand paintings and lacquer ware are laid out in a mat.
In all these instances, I just smiled and politely declined. Thankfully, unlike other touristy areas, most Myanmar people trying to earn a living through tourism are not as pushy (yet, and I hope this will not change as tourism continues to rise in Myanmar) as their counterparts in Southeast Asia.
In one of the temples (the Mahabodhi temple, if I am not mistaken), I ended up having a Thanaka cream on my face when a lady approached me, asked the usual where-you-from and asked if I wanted to try Thanaka. Thanaka comes from thanaka bark which they grind on a stone slab wetted with water until it forms a yellowish paste that they dab around the face, in different patterns. The paste dries as a powdery substance. I surely wanted to try one but before that, I made sure the lady understood that I’m just trying it on and not buying anything. She was a jolly person and replied “Okay, I apply thanaka on your face, no need buying”, and so I let her. She drew a beautiful leaf pattern on my cheeks. The paste had a cooling effect on my skin, perfect against the sun.
She then asked me again, “Where you from?”. Confused why she asked for a second time, I again replied “Philippines”. It did not occur to me that she was humoring me until she said, “No, you’re from Myanmar.” I have to agree it was an effective disguise because after that, I noticed the local vendors in the next temples I visited simply took no notice of me.
A very steep climb
I love that yellow-barked tree which is quite common in Bagan.
Business on the go
Overlooking the Ayeyarwaddy River
Communal drinking stations are also common in Myanmar
Cute chains that will never go home with me, except through pictures
Some of the large temples have shoe lockers, otherwise shoes are left ont he floor before the entrance
Bagan is not just visited by foreign tourists, but by devout locals, too
Plenty of souvenir shops in major temples
Looks like solid waste management needs attention
Bagan is definitely worth experiencing. I loved my time in Bagan. The large temples are great and touristy. Even so, there are over 2,000 temples scattered around Bagan and the chances of finding spaces all to yourself is high. It's one of the (many) places I'd love to go back to, given the opportunity.
Traveled March 2015