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After getting up at 3:30am to catch our 6:30am flight from Yangon, we arrive in Bagan, Myanmar. It’s just before 8:00am and we’re excited to explore the town we’ve heard so much about.
Before exiting the airport, we stop at the ticket counter to purchase the $10 pass to the Bagan Archeological Site. This pass will grant us admission to all of the temples during our stay.
Angela (who has thankfully taken on the task of arranging most of our Myanmar accommodations) has selected our hotel primarily based on its #1 ranking on Trip Advisor. And when we arrive at the Blue Bird Hotel in the New Bagan area it is just as lovely as advertised.
They are even kind enough to check us in when we arrive at the early hour of 9am.
Our room is bright and spacious and the air conditioner is pumping out chilled air with an impressive efficiency. Despite the already oppressive morning heat. There is also a secluded infinity pool surrounded by a lush, Eden-like garden.
It is heaven with wifi and a mere $75 a night.
How to explore Bagan’s temples
After settling in, we head back to the reception desk to decide what to do with our day since it’s still just 9am.
The helpful woman at reception spreads out a map. She then goes over a few of our transportation options for seeing the area’s many, many temples.
You can hire an air-conditioned car for a half or full day, a half-day is just $25. Or you can take one of the hotel’s free bicycles and head off to see the temples the slow and athletic way (or, in this heat, the masochistic way).
A final option is what she keeps referring to as a “haas kaht.” With her thick accent, I can’t quite make out what this is but I am moderately alarmed she is saying “house cat.”
Luckily, thanks to Angela’s astute ear, she is able to decipher this option for me as the far more sensible “horse cart.” And thank goodness because saddling up a house cat to see the temples seems impractical, at best.
Exploring New Bagan
Since the weather is good, we decide to book a car for an afternoon tour of Old Bagan. We’ll spend this morning exploring the town of New Bagan.
Morning tours run from 8am – 1pm and afternoon tours from 2pm until after sunset.
We set off on foot from the hotel. This seems to alarm the locals, a variety of whom follow us. At regular intervals they offer all methods of possible transportation: bicycle, scooter, taxi, house cat (ok, horse cart, but it still sounds like house cat).
Mystified by our desire to actually walk the mile or two around town, they eventually abandon us and go in search of other tourists.
Bagan is a sleepy little town. The locals eagerly return your smile as you pass by. And even turn on lights and little-used air-conditioners when you enter their shop. We stop in a few shops and I buy a necklace and a pair of earrings. The shop owner is a lovely woman whose sister actually teaches at a university in the US.
We also pop in a few lacquerware stores to check out Bagan’s most famous traditional handicraft. The lacquerware is beautifully crafted into bowls, cups, tables, jewelry and anything else you can think of.
The challenges of exploring Bagan on your own
As we walk between stores, we are continuously approached by local children begging for money. They come up to us and genially ask where we are from and what our names are. But they really just want to “sell” us postcards, typically for 1,000 kyat (an absurd amount by local standards).
They are adorable and friendly at first. But they are aggressively persistent, even waiting patiently for us to exit a shop to continue following us down the street.
This is a struggle for us as the children are adorable (until they started aggressively asking for money). And we enjoy chatting with them and are impressed with their excellent English skills.
I’ve read that most of the beggars are part of larger begging syndicates. They are just after easy money and tourists should remember that the poor can always obtain food from the local monastery. Also most Burmese earn just $40 a month so giving US $1 to a beggar is considered overly generous.
Yes, we did succumb to the cute little boy in Yangon selling postcards on the street. But we now have plenty of postcards (not that we needed any in the first place) so we politely decline the repeated requests for money.
In the end I decide that I’d much rather give my money to local shop owners, guides and family-run restaurants who are providing a service. Instead of handing it out to persistent children on the street, no matter how cute.
A stop for lunch
We eventually reach the banks of the Ayeyarwaddy River and (thank God) there is a modern-looking restaurant. It has a perfect view of the river and the golden-domed Lawkananda Pagoda.
By now, we are sweaty and tired so it’s the perfect time to stop for an early lunch break. And we need to get out of the heat for a while. We sit down and order two Mandalay beers. It’s still only 10:30am but since we’ve been up since 3:30am it definitely feels like lunch time.
This is vacation, folks.
Refueled by our lunch break, we start the walk back to the Blue Bird. We even have time for a dip in their lovely pool before climbing into our air-conditioned van for an afternoon temple tour.
Bagan’s incredible temples
Marco Polo once described Bagan as a “gilded city alive with tinkling bells and the swishing sounds of monks’ robes.” In the mid-9th century, Bagan was a central powerhouse under King Anawratha.
As many as 13,000 temples and stupas may have once stood on this windy plain stretching 26 square miles.
Bagan’s reign of power ended in 1287 when the Kingdom was invaded and partially destroyed by the Mongols. Today, just 2,200 temples remain in various states of preservation.
Some are large and still retain much of their grandeur from long ago. While others are tiny and crumbling in overgrown grass.
Temple-hop ’til you drop…
With so many temples to choose from around Bagan, you really have to be selective to maximize your time.
Like most visitors, we elect to visit the largest and best-preserved of the bunch. Then, we’ll end our day with Bagan’s top attraction – sunset from the Shwe-san-daw Pagoda.
Shwe Zigon Pagoda
We begin at Bagan’s most revered temple, the Shwe Zigon Pagoda.
Built in 1087, the gourd-stupaed golden pagoda was the first one built in the traditional Myanmar style. It was the design inspiration for thousands more throughout the country, including the astounding Shwedagon Pagoda we marveled at in Yangon.
Next we visit Htilominlo, Ananda, Thatbyinyu, Dhammayangyi and at least a dozen others. Each with its own unique design and character as we temple-hop around Old Bagan. We visit some of the most revered Buddhist sites and take in a lot of local culture along the way.
It’s a marvelous afternoon marred only slightly by the aggressive selling techniques of the local souvenir hawkers. Unlike Yangon, the opportunistic entrepreneurs of Bagan have quickly caught on to the obnoxious sales tactics employed at many of the world’s other famous monuments.
The aggressive hawkers of Bagan
I cannot tell you how depressing this is to me. Just when you think you’ve discovered someplace totally untouched, someone has already found a way to cheapen the experience.
I understand they need to make a living. And in most cases I am totally happy to look in their shops and to buy things to support the local economy (in fact, I already have today). But it is such an incredible turn-off to be harassed incessantly.
I always refuse to buy anything from people who solicit that aggressively. And the hawkers in Bagan are absolutely relentless. They attach themselves to us as we enter each temple and follow our every step displaying their wares until we leave.
We finally get to the point that we can’t bear to walk into another temple.
The most frustrating part is that we really want to talk to the locals. The people we’ve met so far in Yangon were amazing. The same is true for everyone in our Bagan hotel and in the shops we visited earlier today.
And at first it’s difficult to tell if someone is just trying to be nice and sincerely interested in talking to you (as in Yangon). Or if they are only interested in what you might buy from them.
But at the temples it’s pretty obvious the locals are only interested in our money. And this is heart-breakingly disappointing.
A ray of local sunshine
With more than an hour to go before sunset, we can’t stomach another temple sales pitch. So we decided to wander across the street and watch the local football match that seems to have the whole town’s attention.
It’s a much better experience than the temples. We have an opportunity to interact with locals who are just happy to return our smiles. That is what Myanmar’s really all about. Not the sweeping commercialism that threatens to turn this incredible town into something it needn’t be.
Our joy of interacting with the locals is revitalized after our visit to the football match.
Sunset at Shwe-san-daw Pagoda
By now it’s time to head over to the Shwe-san-daw Pagoda for the sunset finale of our day. Though we purchased our archeological site ticket at the airport, it is never checked until we arrive at Shwe-san-daw for sunset.
Which makes perfect sense, can you imagine staffing ticket takers at each of 2,200 temples? Why not just hedge your bets on the one tourist sure-thing, the prime sunset spot. Genius.
Foreign and Burmese tourists alike make the steep climb up the large steps of Shwe-san-daw to gather at the small top of the “sunset temple” each night.
The climb is worth the vertigo-inducing effort for a panoramic view of thousands of temples as they burn orange with the sun’s setting rays creating one of the most memorable sunsets I’ve ever seen.
The sunset temple experience is one of my 30 most extraordinary travel experiences around the world.
Here are 29 more if you’re curious: Around the World in 30 Extraordinary Travel Experiences
It’s nice to escape the souvenir hawkers below and enjoy the beauty and tranquility of an epic Bagan sunset.
It’s also nice to see that there are actually other tourists here in Bagan. We’ve hardly seen a single one since arriving in Yangon. That’s a unique experience for me, too. Visiting a place where you can go hours without seeing another tourist.
Considering that, it seems the ratio of souvenir hawkers to tourists is severely unbalanced. And I wonder how any of them ever sell anything at all. Perhaps that’s why they are so aggressive. Of course, we are visiting during the less popular monsoon season so perhaps there are far more visitors in the dry season.
Exhausted from our full day of sightseeing, we decide to forgo another foray into town in the darkness and try out the Blue Bird’s restaurant for dinner.
It’s a good decision and a great meal. And with much of Bagan’s best sights knocked out in a day we are looking forward to sleeping in well past 3:30am tomorrow.
The Bliss of the Blue Bird
For our last day in Bagan we are far less ambitious.
The lure of relaxing by the Blue Bird’s secluded oasis of a swimming pool is just too strong to ignore. Plus I’m in need of a work catch-up day.
So we sleep in until a reasonable hour, have breakfast and then park ourselves at the pool for much of the day. It is glorious. In fact, we have it all to ourselves until mid-afternoon when some of the morning temple-hoppers begin to return.
It’s a perfectly peaceful way to spend our final day in Bagan.
We planned to take in another sunset from atop a different temple tonight but the weather doesn’t cooperate. Instead, we wander into town and find a terrific family-owned restaurant for dinner.
I have really enjoyed our brief stay in Bagan despite the persistent hawkers. It’s incredible just how much there is to see in Myanmar and Bagan is ground-zero for archeological wonders. It’s equally as impressive as fellow Asian superstar sights like Cambodia’s Angkor Wat or China’s Great Wall.
I suspect tourism will flourish here in the near future. And I feel fortunate to have seen this place at a time when there is rarely another tourist to be found.
Next, we’re on to the final stop on our Myanmar tour, the royal city of Mandalay.