Exploring the Temples of Bagan, Myanmar, by Bicycle

Bagan's pagodas

“One more photo. Please??”

I wrap my arm around the young girl’s tiny waist and smile. It is barely 9 am, but I have already posed for at least 20 photos that will soon decorate homes around Myanmar. Everyone around me is dressed in their Sunday bests for visiting the Ananda Pahto, one of the most important temples in Bagan. I, on the other hand, am touring Bagan’s temples by bicycle, and I am covered in sweat and dust.

Busloads of Burmese tourists and pilgrims are visiting the Ananda Pahto this morning and for some reason nearly everyone wants a photo of me. Many tour groups have come with a professional photographer who, in a friendly but efficient manner, forces me to pose with each member of his group individually. I’m happy to do it, but I’m dressed for cycling, not for photos: I wish I was wearing something more presentable than an old t-shirt and a pair of cheap trousers.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • With more than 2200 pagodas, Bagan is one of Asia’s most important archaeological sites.
  • Bagan is one of the main tourist spots in Myanmar, yet it is easy to get away from the crowds.
  • Good for independent travelers, anyone who likes temples, and anyone who wants to visit Southeast Asia’s least explored country before mass tourism arrives.

The Bagan Archaeological Zone

The Shwezigon Paya, Bagan

Bagan (Pagan) stands on a hot, dry plain by the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) river in Myanmar (or Burma as it was called before the military junta changed the country’s name and the names of many of its cities). More than 10 000 Buddhist temples were built in Bagan between the 11th and 13th centuries; more than 2200 remain today. Some are giant structures with golden roofs, visible from miles away. Others are small brick pagodas that seem to be crumbling in the heat.

Once I have smiled for around 30 photographs my jaw starts to ache. I head to my old gearless bike and pedal down a dirt road, looking for a more peaceful temple. After a few approaches by friendly young salesmen who follow me around on motorbikes offering sand paintings – a local art form – I arrive at a small temple at the end of a narrow path. It seems deserted. I hide my bicycle behind a thorny bush, leave my sandals at the door and step inside the brick pagoda.

The stone floor feels cool under my bare feet, and it takes me a while to notice it is covered in droppings: rats? Bats? I’m not sure I even want to know. It is dark inside, but in the little light that filters through the doorway I see a giant Buddha sitting on the altar. Even the smallest pagodas in Bagan come with at least one beautiful Buddha statue. The biggest temples often have several giant golden Buddha images.

Inside a pagoda

I find an open door and behind it a narrow, dark stairway. I climb up the stone steps in near darkness and end up on the roof. The sun burns my skin and as.I look around I see dozens of red pagodas. They are everywhere: there are large, decorative pagodas right next to small, simple structures. It seems almost as if they are growing from the dry earth.

Temples to See in Bagan

I hired a bicycle to tour the Bagan Archaeological Zone because I wanted to see some of the big temples, but I also wanted to get off the main sightseeing trail every now and then. It was not hard to find my way around Bagan: hotels, guesthouses and restaurants offer free maps. The maps also include information about the most important temples: the Ananda, the Sulamani, the Dhammayangyi, the Dhammayazika and the Shwezigon.

The golden Shwezigon Paya remains one of my favorites: an 11th century pagoda that is considered a prototype of Burmese temples and that also has a small temple devoted to Nats, animistic spirits. My most memorable moments in Bagan, however, involve cycling along narrow paths, sometimes pushing the bicycle through sand, and finding a pagoda with no souvenir sellers or other tourists in sight. And nobody taking pictures of me.

Practicalities

  • Most large hotels and luxury resorts are in Old Bagan, in the heart of the archaeological zone. Budget guesthouses are in nearby Nyaung U. You can fly to Bagan from Yangon (Rangoon) or take an air-conditioned and surprisingly comfortable overnight bus.
  • All foreign visitors have to pay a US$10.00 entrance fee to the Bagan Archaeological Zone. Hotels and guesthouses want to see your entrance ticket and they also arrange tickets.
  • Many shops and hotels in Bagan rent bicycles. The main roads are paved, but you may have to negotiate a few dirt tracks. If cycling sounds like too much hard work, alternatives include horse carts and taxis.
  • Bagan can be hot especially in March and April. Start your tour early in the morning, wear sun screen and bring a hat for sun protection. Always carry a bottle of water. You will find tea stalls and snack shops near the biggest temples.
  • Dress respectfully when visiting the temples: cover at least your shoulders and your knees.

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