Bagan is a popular place, busy with tourists. Forget about being the object of local fascination as is standard practice in less touristed corners of Myanmar. While you may not feel like a V.I.P. in Bagan, you can still get away from the crowds and do your own thing, gawking millenia old temples in the process. And you can do so in a rather exciting manner… by zooming around on an electric bike.
I revved the throttle with my right hand, flicked the turn signal with my left and steered my e-bike across the road toward the row of bikes stationed outside the guesthouse. I hopped off as the bike came to a stop and pushed the heavy machine into its spot at the end of the line.
Just as I relaxed, the dusty morning rush hour traffic of Bagan behind, the bike, seemingly on its own, jerked forward and crashed into its neighbor. It tumbled onto my right leg and pinched my arm beneath the handlebar as I fell into the gravel.
The guesthouse manager rushed out, perhaps equally alarmed at the prospect of a damaged investment and an injured tourist. Her fears — and mine — were allayed; both man and machine were fine. The bike was stood up and parked with no visible damage; same for the tourist, fine, but for a few bruises and a couple scrapes.
It was time for breakfast.
A few hours prior to my little crash, I pulled into the Bulethi temple grounds after a white knuckle, pitch-dark jaunt through the scrubby desert. I parked the bike, kicked off my sandals — as with all Buddhist sights, footwear and socks of any kind are strictly forbidden — and began the ascent.
Bulethi was rather steep, the footing precarious, the looming sunrise still an hour away. The number one must have for properly exploring Bagan — a flashlight. One misstep could easily mean your life.
I was somewhat late — if 5:40am can ever be called “late” — and missed the prime sunrise seating, but there were few bad seats on the narrow ledges of the highest circular level. In the distance twenty hot air balloons inflated and took off, punctuating the beautiful early morning scene.
Interested in floating over the temples in one of those balloons?? I explain your options and detail my experience here.
Down below a horse cart owner stirred, hopeful for a nibble from the early risers looking to beat the heat. Bulethi’s twin temple across the way morphed from brown to mustard to radiant gold as the sun rose higher in the hazy spring sky.
WHAT IS BAGAN?
Bagan is the former capital of the ancient Pagan Empire. The city itself was founded in the 9th century on the banks of the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River in Upper Burma. Between 1044 and 1287 the area flourished as Pagan expanded and its wealthy leaders constructed an astounding array of temples, stupas and monasteries, perhaps numbering 13,000 at one point. Bagan developed into a center for learning, thought, research and religion. It attracted monks, scholars and students from across southern Asia. Pagan — and consequently, Bagan — thrived.
Then the Mongols arrived.
After a series of sustained sackings and invasions in the late 13th century, Pagan collapsed in 1287. A new kingdom grew out of the rubble, but Bagan’s time as a capital city and center of empire was through.
Bagan didn’t exactly turn into a ghost town. People still lived in the area and continued to construct religious structures even after the collapse. But the long, slow decline had begun.
By the turn of the 20th century Bagan was just sort of there. Erosion and centuries of earthquakes took their toll. A series of misguided restorations certainly didn’t help. Many of the temples were falling down and those that stood were re-built in incongruous fashion using modern techniques. A major earthquake in 1975 took down a number of temples and brought Bagan to its knees.
Luckily Burma’s military government decided to step in and rebuild the temples! Actually, no, that wasn’t such a good thing. It was a complete debacle.
The restorations were so bad UNESCO refused to grant Bagan World Heritage protected status.
Luckily — I’m serious this time! — the newest restoration work has been of significantly higher quality, carried out properly amid expert oversight. Bagan, despite a devastating 2016 earthquake, is currently on track for eventual World Heritage status.
Some Bagan temples are extremely busy, many others virtually empty. If given the choice of exploring a less impressive sight alone or “the best temple” along with hundreds of others, in my world that’s an undeniably easy decision.
Point in case — North and South Guni vs Shwesandaw. The latter receives ALL THE PRESS. Lonely Planet sings its praises. Travel bloggers seem to love it. The ubiquitous Bagan map lists it as a prime sunset location and my guesthouse owner echoed that sentiment. Red flags!
Shwesandaw is easily accessible to cars, buses and anyone else interested in a visit. I rode over one afternoon around 3pm and found the place totally empty. Hmm, this wasn’t what the guidebook said. I had the sugar cane juice vendor to myself. Kids and dogs were keen on having a kick about with a soccer ball. What a pleasant surprise!
I climbed to the highest levels of Shwesandaw and enjoyed the solitude. For a while.
But then the noise increased. Taxis kicked up dust clouds as they made their way in from the main road. Buses idled in the parking area. Tour groups began flooding the platforms. Camera shutters clicked away. People laughed and chatted and elbowed their way into the best sunset viewing nooks.
I became markedly less enthused as my new companions filed in.
I found the entire scene quite amusing, but even my admittedly peculiar sense of humor has its limits. The side opposite the impending sunset had been blissfully quiet all afternoon, so I retreated there. Every so often a peek around the corner confirmed my fears — Shwesandaw was a zoo. I snapped a photo of the masses crowding the steps, hopeful for that “perfect” sunset experience… alongside several hundred others.
For the complete opposite experience, head down a narrow sandy track just five minutes away and discover the rather quiet North Guni (Myauk Guni) and South Guni (Taung Guni). These twin temples are only accessible to bicycles, e-bikes and cars with adventurous (crazy?) drivers. Perfect!
I strolled through the open gate in South Guni’s perimeter brick wall and gave my best “Mingalabar!” to a group of workers taking a break in the shade. A few flights of stone stairs led me to the roof and a spectacular view across the Bagan plain. Bamboo scaffolding wrapped South Guni while its unencumbered sister temple pierced the blue sky like an ancient Burmese mini skyscraper.
The sense of exploration and discovery is what drives my off the beaten path sensibilities and this was right in my wheelhouse. I was, quite literally, the only one here. I leaned back against the brick structure, propped up my bare feet and eventually dozed off in the midday shade.
An hour later I confronted potential disaster — the front gate was locked. Visions of shouting to the occasional passersby danced through my head until realizing, upon closer inspection, I could climb the chest high gate without a) impaling myself or b) damaging anything. Crisis averted.
I wandered over to the officially open North Guni, squeezed through some rather tight passageways and discovered a wedding photo shoot in action. Much credit goes to one amazing bride for making it up seven flights of crumbling steps without dirtying or destroying her dress. Impressive work! I enjoyed a lovely sunset with about ten other travelers, all of whom who seemed to relish their distance from the tour bus masses.
A handful of young lads put out candles to illuminate the steps coming down from the roof terrace. Most visitors ignored the kids and seemed more interested in getting back to town before dark (a valid concern), but I appreciate entrepreneurship. I had to give it to them — the candles did the trick. I gave them 200 kyat (US$0.15), snapped photos and shook a few hands. My day couldn’t get much better.
OUT AND ABOUT
E-biking around Bagan was my first experience operating anything with two wheels more powerful than a bicycle and it had gone spectacularly well. I had a helmet — not always on offer. I had a strong bike — a newer Chinese Taiyuan model, great for powering through the sandy paths necessary to reach the most secluded temples of Bagan. And I had the proper attire — linen pants, a lightweight t-shirt, long sleeve linen shirt, sandals, sunglasses and a small scarf tied around my face. Sound like overkill? The only ones dumb enough to wander out in shorts and t-shirts were tourists.
An average day on the plains of Bagan in March registers 95F (35C), exceedingly sunny, bone dry (it hadn’t rained in five months) and exceptionally dusty. A vehicle of any sort in close proximity meant a giant dust cloud in its wake. And on the sandy pathways off the actual roads it could mean blinding by kicked-up particulate. I appeared set for a bank heist.
I spent four days e-biking around Bagan. Several mornings I was on the road in the darkness at 5am, making a beeline for a quiet sunrise location. Navigating down a narrow sandy track in the dark while trying to stay on the most compacted part of the path took skill. And I was definitely lacking. I got used to the bike’s strong suits (acceleration) and its weak ones (traction in the sand). Except for the incident at the guesthouse, I managed to keep my e-bike upright the entire time.
I followed my sunrise trips with homemade Shan noodle breakfasts on the guesthouse roof. After some down time during the hottest part of the day I would head out again for a late afternoon of templing. Glasses of freshly squeezed sugar cane juice — 500-1000 kyat (US$0.40-$0.75), location dependent — from vendors set up outside the larger temples kept me hydrated.
THE BEST OF THE REST
Depending upon who you ask, present day Bagan includes between 2,000 and 4,000 structures and regardless of the difference in accounting, there is a lot to see! Some people carve out just one full day for Bagan. ‘Pure lunacy’ is an apt description for that plan. Take your time, relax, don’t get “templed out”. It deserves at least three days of your time.
E-BIKES — what and how
Don’t confuse the term “e-bike” with your everyday electric bicycles increasingly found in large American and European cities. A Bagan e-bike is an electric bike powered by rechargeable batteries. As you can see from the photos, some bikes are smaller, more like mopeds, while others are distinctly larger, cut from the same cloth as sport bikes. All versions are outfitted with standard motorbike features — horn, headlights, hand brakes, storage compartment and kickstand. License not required.
My guesthouse rented e-bikes from the front doorstep, but they’re on offer everywhere. Standards of upkeep will vary, of course. Check it out before agreeing. Take it for a spin around the block. Ensure the lights and horn function properly. Inspect the tires. Inquire about assistance should the bike’s battery die in the middle of the scrubby desert far from town. Do not assume bike rental includes a helmet.
|E-bike type||Top Speed||Daily Cost||Battery Life||Risk|
|Standard - smaller, most common||15-20 mph |
|Most likely a full day||Minimal, but not quite non-existant|
|Bigger - larger, more rare||Unknown! I maxed out around|
38 mph (61 kph).
It was definitely up for higher speeds!
|All day, no problem, probably longer||A bit of excitement, but be careful!|
I would never operate a full-size e-bike or motorbike without a helmet, but plenty of travelers do. Fewer than half of riders wore head protection. Imagine the consequences of an accident while traveling at a reasonable speed. Think about it and remember where you are — a Burmese hospital is not a destination you want on your agenda.