Morning haze is starting to ease. As a passenger on an electric scooter, I enjoy the view as we move silently among the countless pagodas and stupas scattered on Bagan’s plains.
A few hours earlier: the night bus from Yangon (which I just barely got to in time…) turns into the bus station a bit outside Bagan. I rub the sleep out of my eyes and continue out into the complete darkness before night becomes day. The search for a taxi driver who is not looking to trick me, starts. I try to pretend that I’m not “beginner” in Myanmar, I did after all ask the hostel what the cost of the trip should be. I find another traveler going to the same place, and we negotiate a common price. Ending up paying more than what I originally had managed to negotiate down to, though. The attempt to understand the logic fails, and we are both too tired to object. Both the luggage and we are pushed into the car. A drive through the unknown darkness await.
The other traveler is Carlos from Colombia, who is now driving the scooter. Despite the fact that we barely had exchanged a few sleepy words, we quickly decided to hire a scooter together, and then also be friends for a day. It’s often that way when traveling alone; you find someone to hang out with pretty quickly. With cameras around our necks and a map in my pocket, we were on the road. Tourists? Us? Not at all… And we were far from alone. Bagan is a very popular destination in Myanmar, and hundreds of thousands find their way here each year. Fortunately, the area is large, so it is still possible to find yourself alone at one of the smaller pagodas.
Old Bagan seemed like a good starting point. Just inside the city walls, or more the ruins of it, we stopped at Gaw Daw Palin Phaya, dating back to the year 1203. The building bears the ravages of time, but personally I think it’s just the way it should be. A structure built 800 years ago, shall not appear new, although large parts were restored after the earthquake of 1975. Inside, however, the modernization apparently started long ago, with small electric candles in front of the Buddha for prayers.
Majestic Ananda Phaya Bagan is a sacred and important temple, with four huge statues in gold plated teak inside. Also this temple was severely damaged in the last earthquake, but restoration work here has been done historically accurate. The exterior is elaborately decorated with lions and dragon heads, but also flowers.
From Ananda we found a dusty back road, which leads us to some more deserted temples. After the crowds at Ananda it was lovely to wander by ourselves, only with the sporadic company of locals strolling past on their way to their daily routines.
The map in my back pocket was mostly intended as guidelines to ensure that we did not miss the obligatory highlights. The fun of exploring a new place is getting a little lost. We took turns on determining the direction each time we came to an intersection, and suddenly we ended up down by the river, where the local were doing the laundry.
We drove on, passing the everyday life. Shops of all kinds along the streets, small food stalls filled with guests hungry for lunch. Craftsmen, fruit sellers and improvised gas stations, which in fact were old soda bottles filled with fuel. We pass silently on our electric scooter, heading to explore more pagodas.
Shwe san daw pagoda was next. The tall building definitely stands out in the landscape. The sun is burning, and I’ll admit that the idea of climbing the high steps to the top, was not very tempting. But the view was. Pagodas and stupas close together as far as the eye can see, with lush green trees around them. That this is the most popular place to watch the sunset, I’ve absolutely no difficulty understanding. We, however, had a better plan. At least that was what we thought then… Anyway, we still had many hours to go before the sun would color the sky red.
Our lojal electric scooter was still in good spirits with great energy, and took us further through the plains on the sandy roads.
Shwezigon Pagoda is considered the prototype for many Myanmar stupas. Strangely enough, this was here we met the smallest number of tourists. Or, let me rephrase – less foreign tourists. The area swarmed with people, but most of them were local students on a school trip.
Sunset over Bagan is often described as a magical experience. With my fascination for sunsets, this was obviously something I had to experience. Fortunately, Carlos shared this opinion. Unfortunately, so did almost all the other visitors… Despite the fact that we had done research on where we should go, nothing could prepare us for what we experienced.
Sunset means rush-hour in Bagan, and traffic is at a complete standstill. Major tourist buses, private cars, tractors, horse and carriage, scooters, bicycles, mostly things on wheels really, compete to get through on the narrow sandy roads. All others than those with scooters and bikes have to realize that they are out of luck. The latter mean of transport is most likely to sneak past the queue, but is probably too far away from the goal and must recognize that it is too late. In other words, get there in VERY good time if you plan to watch the sunset from one of the most famous places. It applies for anyone anyway, since you often need to go via the major roads to get even to the remote places.
But do not despair. Sunrise in Bagan is also beautiful. In fact, even more beautiful. Learning from the sunset experience, I chose to spend the dawning morning hours at a smaller pagoda along with a small group from the hostel. A totally different experience!
In almost total silence we sat patiently and looked ahead of us in the twilight. At dawn we could see the hot air balloons being inflated in the distance, before they cast off at sunrise and drifted slowly along the horizon as peaceful shadows.
Many earthquakes throughout the centuries have placed much of the area in ruins. Extensive restoration work is implemented, but unfortunately a lot of work has been done without taking into account historical fidelity and accuracy.
A cool breeze mixed with historic atmosphere as the morning mist again disappeared and Bagan’s countless pagodas come out of the veil. It is indisputably a beautiful sight to see the peaks of the pagodas glowing in the colors of the sunrise.
Where to stay:
If you visit Bagan in high season, it might be vise to book your accommodation in advance, as the city is completely fully booked some days.
I stayed at Ostello Bello Bagan, simply because I had great experience staying at their hostel in Milan a few years back. The rooms are super nice, and they even have a resting area with a few beds on the roof terrace if you arrive early. The locals across the street offer all kinds of service, such as e-scooter rental, laundry, bus/boat tickets, etc. Very convenient.
Getting to Bagan:
I took the night bus from Yangon to Bagan, run by Joyous Journey Express (JJ-Express), but there are many other companies running the same route. I booked the ticket very conveniently by chat on their Facebook site. The ticket is paid directly at the bus station when you arrive.