Shoes off, shoes on. Get on bike. Repeat. Bagan is a pagoda-thon, well worth the visit
Racing around Bagan on an electric bike, I’m searching for the perfect spot to watch sunset.
The key qualities: not too crowded but still has an expansive view, so as to encompass the most temple tops.
Chances are, I’m not going to find one all to myself, so my eyes are darting at the tops of temples to see little dots, which are actually people. That means that the entrance isn’t blocked and I’ll actually be able to get up on top of the pagoda at all.
If there’s anywhere in Myanmar that feels frozen in time, it’s Bagan. This is probably the image you see when thinking of Myanmar: hot air balloons rising with the golden sun, over a stretching landscape of pointy pagodas popping up above the trees.
It’s what most people want to see when they visit Bagan, to the point where droves of tourists head to the appropriate temples to set up their tripods long before sunset just in order to get the perfect angle.
There’s a reason so many people visit and why they all have their camera. It is absolutely breathtaking and absurdly photogenic.
There are more than 2000 (3000? 4000? I heard a lot of different numbers) temples scattered throughout the approximately 13 x 8 km archeological zone. One could spend weeks and not see all of them. However, it’s not necessary to see them all and if you did, you would probably never want to look at a temple again.
To get there, I took the express bus from Mandalay, which took about 7 hours. From the entrance of the city, I got in the back of a truck, which took the travellers going to New Bagan; another departing for Old Bagan. The truck was able to drop me off right at the hostel door.
This would be a great place to have a scarf or dust mask handy in order to protect your face from the immense dust cloud following the back of said truck.
When visiting Bagan, you can either stay in Old Bagan or New Bagan, both of which will put you in a good place for pagoda exploring. Either way, there is a $20 USD charge to enter the site so make sure you have cash ready when bussing in.
I stayed in New Bagan, at the incredibly slick hostel Ostello Bello. It’s got everything you could ask for out of a hostel if you’re looking for the comforts of home. I was also able to rent a bike, get my laundry done and book my outgoing bus ticket at the stand across the street so you could say it was convenient.
The fun is in renting an electric bike (scooters are not available to foreigners) and exploring the lay of the land. There are a lot of people roaming around, whether on bicycles, by car or by bus, but I found having the freedom of the electric bike let me get away from the crowds and cover the most distance.
If you have a bit more time there, most travel companies offer day hikes to nearby Mount Popa. Otherwise, pace yourself, drop the map and see where the pagoda trail takes you.. (but actually, keep your map because it is very easy to get lost).
The first evening there, I found a seemingly uninhabited stupa with a good view to watch the sunset. Whereas at the very popular Shwesandaw Pagoda, you are charged $25 USD to watch the sun go down (WHAT?!), my little pagoda was free and quite empty save for a couple of families who shared the view with me.
I was shocked to hear from a couple staying at the same hostel as me that they were charged that much to see the sunset at Shwesandaw. I had been their a little earlier in the day free of charge. And the following morning, getting up to watch the sunrise, I wasn’t charged either.
It is possible to find these little hidden spots (like I said, look for the people dotting the tops of these “hidden” structures). Sometimes you can pay a “gatekeeper” in order to enter a pagoda and find a good view. I definitely recommend staying away from the main temples for sunset. In my opinion, even if it has “the best view”, I don’t want to be jockeying for a spot to see it.
The sun was almost down on my last night in Bagan, and I was almost ready to give up finding a sunset spot and head back to the hostel since I had already seen one stunning sunset and sunrise there.
But just as I turned back onto the main road back into New Bagan, I spotted what looked like a person, and veered quickly off the road. Bikes sitting at the base meant my eyes hadn’t failed me, and climbing to the top, I found a couple of other travellers, basking in the orange glow of the early evening.
We sat, mostly in silence, but the little talking we did, was about the beauty of this place, and the warmth of the people in Bagan. They have seen a thousand sunsets here, so like many of the cab drivers who don’t bother to walk up to the tops of temples, the novelty has worn off and they smile knowingly, as we gasp at the beauty.
But for us, and for all the visitors who come everyday, just feeling the energy and the glow of that setting sun makes it worth the trip and a travel memory not easily forgotten.