“- Minh, how long will you stay in Bagan?
– Uhmm, one night, maybe
– Only one night? No way. I think I will be there for about three nights.
– I have seen lots of pagodas and temples so I don’t know if I want to see more.
– Haha, I guess that place will be magical for you. It looks different so I hope it’s as good as the photos
– Yeahh, I hope so too. I might stay longer. I’m not so sure for now…”
Mervyn and I had that discussion on whatsapp prior to our Myanmar trip. Unlike most people, the only thing I knew about Myanmar before visiting this country was Yangon and I did not even feel the need to see any sunrise or sunset. But unexpected things happen all the time and what you should do is to ask yourself if you are ready to make it happen. So I eventually stayed in Bagan for 2.5 days, zipping around the temple-dotted plain and chasing the sun.
One more thing, our group had extended to five from two. Our new travel mates were Paula, who stayed at the same hostel as Mervyn in Yangon; Daniela who was on the same bus as Mervyn and I; and Khadija, who joined us later in Bagan. We all stayed at a guesthouse recommended by Daniela and teamed up to explore Bagan.
Chasing the sun in Bagan
It was almost 5pm when we ran to see a sunset after strolling around a few temples. Not until I was in Bagan did I believe it’s almost crime if you don’t witness any sunrise and sunset during your stay. And you do need a good place for your pursuit of the best Bagan sunrise and sunset. I know many people research intensively for a perfect spot but we were completely clueless about where to get to for our observation. Therefore, we ended up positioning ourselves at Shwesandaw temple, the nearest to us at that time, for the sunset.
We climbed to the top of the temple, hoping we were able to get a good sunset. However, our view was blocked by a decent amount of tourists who arrived earlier and luckily got a better spot. Shwesandaw temple is one of the most popular and “mainstream” places for sunset so it hit the crowd apparently. We were a bit disappointed with the sunset, to be honest, but it was lovely to view the temple-dotted plain from above and we managed to get some nice photos of it.
The day after, we got up at 4:15 and left around 4:45 for sunrise. With vague of ideas where were heading to (yes, still), we made our way back to the yesterday place. However, we chanced upon a small pagoda which was slightly off the beaten track road. The pagoda, named Low ka Oushang that I figured out later, turned out to be an ideal spot to capture the Bagan sunrise.
If there is anywhere in Myanmar that feel frozen in time, it’s Bagan in early morning. Embracing myself in a jacket, patiently I waited for the world to come alive. The sun gradually rose over the plain, illuminating the sky with rainbow colours. “Hey, I see balloons”, I heard Mervyn whisper. Oh yes, one, two, three and an army of balloons was drifting over the horizon. I thought my breath was taken away for seconds. The scene just melted the hearts of people, including us, who hoped up and waited for long to catch that breathtaking and majestic image. It was truly iconic, glowing and peaceful. The Bagan sunrise with hot air balloons has been the most beautiful sunrise I have ever witnessed so far.
Pagoda – thon
I had thought I had seen too enough temples but Bagan just simply and magically changed my mind. Shoes on. Shoes off. Get on bike. Repeat! Pagoda-thon was what I did in Bagan besides sunrises and sunsets.
Bagan was the capital of Pagan empire until its collapse at the hands of the Mongols. In its heyday between the 11th to 13th centuries, over 11,000 temples were built. Today, over 2,000 remain after several earthquakes including one in 2016 which knocked down about 400.
Bagan temples are varied in shapes, sizes and architectures, which is different from what I had thought. Some are empty, some are still functioning, but generally they are very exquisite and well intact. We stumbled upon quite a lot of pagodas from Nyaung U to New Bagan, and I only can recall one or two of them, including my favourite Ananda temple. The elegant, symmetrical cross-shaped structure housing four large Buddha statues at the centre is one of the finest, largest and best-preserved temples in Bagan. Coated in white, the Ananda somewhat looks like a European castle and an Indian Hindu temple to me although it is a Buddhist temple.
We roamed around the town and peeled off the main road whenever we saw a temple we liked or wanted to check out. Temples in Bagan are approached by dirt trails and even nondescript path of the main road here could lead to somewhere remarkable. On the way back from New Bagan to our guesthouse in Nyaung U, we stopped at a random temple that gave us a vantage point to capture the Bagan infamous temple – filled plain in the setting sun.
Getting around – Bicycle or E-bike?
… And you can even hire a horse cart or a taxi to get around if you can afford. It’s totally up to you and how much you want to see. I shared an e – bike with Paula the first day since she didn’t know how to drive and got a bicycle the day after. Khadija and Daniela gave the e-bikes a go for a half day or a day while Mervyn buzzed around with his e-bike most of the time. Despite a bit nervous at the beginning, my fellow travellers all got skilled at navigating the bikes and they immensely enjoyed the ride, especially Mervyn. The bike experience in Bagan would be one of his favourite moments in Bagan or maybe the whole trip, I guess.
Bagan was genuinely magical. I came in not really expecting a whole lot but this land amazed me every moment. Bagan reminded me of Kyoto, the temple land in Japan, and Angkor Wat in Cambodia but it was more mesmerising and tranquil here. The memories of the temple – dotted landscape, sunrise and sunset chases and bike rides on dusty roads are among my favourite travel moments. But my time in Bagan would not have been that great without my travel mates. Those folks entered my trip randomly, then became an indispensable part of it and finally turned it into the most amazing trip I have had so far. The moments spent with them are the ones I will treasure for good.