Thursday, 7 December 2017

Myanmar: exploring magical Bagan (and the 5 best temples to see)


Bagan is one of those places you see in the guide book and just think that can't be real.

It looks truly mythical - heat rising from the vast sandy plains and temples for days. That's no exaggeration; there are a ridiculous 2,200 temples (or pagodas) dating back to the 11th century still standing today - which begs the question - which to see first?

Let me help you!

How we got here

But first, a bit of background. We arrived by bus from Naypyitaw, costing 8800 kyat each - just under £5 in today's prices. The set up wasn't quite as luxurious as our journey from Yangon to Naypyitaw, but it got us there. Note of caution: the bus dropped us in the middle of nowhere and told us we'd have to get a taxi with some bloke for a huge sum - we later learned we were just around the corner from the bus station and this is a scam. By this point, we thought we had sussed these out! Anyway, if this happens to you be sure to make your way to the bus station where you may have better luck getting a taxi and avoid being ripped off. 

Where we stayed

As I have said countless times, although we had back packs, we weren't backpacking as such. No hostels for us! We stayed at Hotel Yadanarbon where we paid £25 a night for a clean and comfortable double room with breakfast. The best thing about this hotel, though, was the pool! It was absolutely scorching in Bagan when we visited in April (2016) - around the 45°c mark - and come midday the pool was more than welcome. 

What we did

Well, this is an easy one. We temple-hopped. 

Hire an electric bike from your hotel - we did this for around 8000 kyat a day. Tourists are banned from hiring motorbikes or scooters in Bagan, so these electric bikes are the next best thing. It is so hot you don't want to be cycling a push bike around, trust me. I vividly remember at one point feeling like there were 10 hair dryers blowing boiling hot air on to me as we biked back to our hotel... it is scorchio! 

My advise would be to get out there early, and be back to the pool for midday. Firstly, the sunrises are incredible and worth seeing, and second it gets so hot you wont actually be able to stand barefoot on the temples (you must remove your shoes) during the midday sun. Oh yeh, if you didn't know, you can gain access to the top terraces in most of the temples in Bagan by climbing up through often hidden, winding passages. I think the government has restricted climbing some of the pagodas now, but this experience was just so unique and incredible - truly one of those once-in-a-lifetime, pinch-me moments. When sunrise looms, get back out there!

As I say, there are over 2000 temples to visit - you can't see them all. These are the 5 best temples we visited during our three day stay in Bagan. 

Law Ka Ou Shaung: a little girl who lives in the house just behind this pagoda let us in, and showed us around. We were the only ones there! Incredible views and a beautiful temple. Be sure to find someone to let you in and make your way to the top for a stunning vista. 

Pya Tha Da: by no means a hidden gem - this one gets whole coach loads of tourists turning up for sunset, so get there in plenty of time to secure a spot to watch the sun go down. 

North Guni (or Myauk Guni): I absolutely loved this one as it is huge, but relatively quiet. We again went to this one for sunset and loved how peaceful the whole area was.

Kyan Ma Ba: just south of the mighty Gawdawpalin Pagoda, its far less busy and has great views over Gawdawpalin itself. 

Shwesandaw Pagoda: again, this one is no secret! At an impressive 328 feet tall, you can climb up the five terraces to oh-so-stunning views over Old Bagan. Just brace yourself, it's quite the climb. 

My top tips for exploring Bagan:

1. Wear flip flops - you'll do most of your travelling by bike, but once you get to the temples you'll need to remove your shoes. 

2. Cover up - Myanmar is not the place for short shorts or cami tops, folks, but Bagan especially. These temples are holy sites - be respectful. I wore culottes and threw a scarf over my shoulders.

3. Avoid the middle of the day - it's too hot! 

4. Try and get accommodation with a pool and aircon - so you can relax during these sweltering lunch time hours. Get back out there once it starts to cool down again. 

5. Eat at Weatherspoons - don't worry, it's heaps better than the UK version! Amazing burgers and cold beer, it makes a perfect rest-stop. 

6. Get up for sunrise - it's cooler and beautiful to see the sun rise over the horizon. 

7. Don't worry if you can't afford a hot air balloon ride - the views of the balloons themselves looks magical! We missed the season as it it usually runs from October through to March, but would love to see scores of balloons sailing over the temples. 

8. Sunrise and sunset never looks as good on camera - so put your camera / phone down and experience it, in the moment. 

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