asia · travel

A Pagoda Safari in Bagan

Sulameni temple

The sound of chimes ushered me in, as if on cue, as I approached my first temple in Bagan. I hesitate a bit, unsure if I was even allowed to go inside; there were hardly any other people around. I take a step forward. Then another. I take off my slippers and walk into the brick arch that revealed the temple of Sulamani. If this was a movie, there would be a gust of wind and a grinning shaman, bathing in heavenly light, waitingon the other side to bestow on me eternal wisdom. But there was no shaman, only a small family on their way out. There was still a hint of mystery in the air, nonetheless.


If you have fears of being underwhelmed in Bagan after combing the likes of Angkor Wat and Bali, then you can breathe freely now — Bagan holds its own. For one, getting to one temple to another is quite a different experience. Driving through the dusty dirt roads and tall grass reminded me of an African safari — only instead of seeing giraffes, pagodas emerge from behind the trees. If you can bear the scorching heat, May is a good time to visit Bagan sans the crowd (unfortunately, also sans the famous hot-air balloons, which only operate from Dec-March).

Dhamayangyi Pahto

It’s also quite an experience inside the temples themselves. While there are less intricate bas reliefs as compared with the temples of Angkor, there are certainly more splashes of hue and life inside, with most of the painted wall artwork and draperies still intact. Long corridors draw you in, where a towering Buddha will greet you at the end every now and then. Narrow, dark stairways leading to God-knows-where beckon the curious and the brave to explore.

A peek at Dhamanyangyi
A peek at Dhamanyangyi

Dhamayangyi Pahto

Definitely come for a stroll around Khay Min Ga Temple
Definitely come for a stroll around Khay Min Ga Temple

Exploring outside could be quite fun too. Among my favorite experiences in Bagan were strolling on foot around the smaller temples around Khay Min Ga, and climbing on top of Guni Temple for the view. There was something about exploring in solace, of fully embracing yourself as a tiny speck in a vast world of diverse wonders, that makes a seemingly trivial action, like putting one foot in front of the other, larger than life.

When you're expected to take off your shoes half the time amidst all the dust, then the ubiquitous broom of Bagan is certainly a necessity for locals.
When you’re expected to take off your shoes half the time amidst all the dust, then the ubiquitous broom of Bagan is certainly a necessity for locals. This one is atop Guni Temple.

At Dhamayangyi Temple

Dozens of marionettes hanging from a tree would normally creep me out, but oddly I was drawn to them. Must be more of that Bagan magic.
Dozens of marionettes hanging from a tree would normally creep me out, but oddly I was drawn to them. Must be more of that Bagan magic.

If you do hire a guide for Bagan, they would normally bring you back to the hotel at noon, then pick you up again in the late afternoon, when the sun was kinder, for another round of temple-hopping. As I wasn’t staying for that long in Myanmar, I thought it would be the perfect time to embrace another new experience: exploring solo on an electric bike. I’ve never driven a scooter before, but it was one of those spur-of-the-moment decisions that one simply doesn’t fight against.

Luckily, traffic is really light in Bagan, especially at midday, so you have to be quite a troublemaker to get yourself into a mishap. I consider myself an apt troublemaker. After a few rounds and also a few minor scuffles (all totally my fault), I managed to bring back the bike (and myself!) to the rental in one piece. I opted to borrow a normal bike instead. Ah, the wonders of analog!

Me, safely on a bike
Me, safely on a bike

By the late afternoon, taking a snooze in the comfort of one’s A/C hotel room felt so gratifying, I was tempted to just stay in. Fortunately, good sense took over and I was able to drag myself out of bed for another shot at the pagoda safari. My guide took me to temples farther off, including the massive Ananda Temple which somehow reminded me of stepping into one of the minor castles in Europe.

Sunset viewing at Shwe San Daw
Sunset viewing at Shwe San Daw

There is little nightlife in Bagan, but the sunset viewing at Shwe San Daw does come close to what you can call a box office hit in these parts. It was the low season, so luckily everyone could find a spot in one of the many pagoda tiers to take in the view.

And cue curtains.
And cue curtains.

If you do want to enjoy the view with a bit more peace and quiet, in general, any temple where you can at least clamber up an extra tier or two, will give you a good view. There is little in the way of eyesores to block the landscape after all. For sunrise, we chose to watch atop the Bulethi Pagoda. Stairs were a bit steeper than in Shwe San Daw, and there were no rungs, so this might not be the best choice for the faint-hearted.

Catching the sunrise at Buledi Temple
Catching the sunrise at Buledi Temple

It was very peaceful, though, at the top. No postcards or trinkets being peddled, no overeager tourist elbowing his way for the perfect angle. Simply peace and quiet, which I think is the foremost reason we all came to Bagan in the first place. Coming from cities where train delays and bad wi-fi are considered unbearable and even unforgivable, it was quite the revelation that we were all willing to sit still and patiently wait for around an hour, just to see the sun to paint the sky in pinks and oranges. You could feel a hint of awe in the air, a grateful appreciation for the fact that there are still marvels on earth that one can simply enjoy in tranquility. Sans the shiny lights and bling, Bagan delivers.

Sunrise near Bulethi

The Rundown:

  • 9:30 pm overnight bus from Yangon to Bagan with Elite Express, booked through ScapeTour– USD 20 (I liked the bus I took with Elite Express better than the one I took with the more well-known JJ-Express)
  • Deluxe Room at the Oasis Hotel Bagan – USD 46/night (Tip: pick a hotel with a really nice bathroom. You’re going to want to shower a lot after going out into the heat, trust me.)
  • Bagan Archaeological Entry Fee (compulsary when entering Bagan) – USD 25
  • Guide Hire by Car – USD 35 from 9 am to sunset
  • Sunrise Tour – USD 10
  • Electric Bike Rental – USD 5
  • Simple Bicycle Rental – USD 3
  • Taxi Fare – oddly enough, ~USD 7-9 wherever I go
  • A curry with rice meal at a restaurant – ~USD 4-5
  • A mug of draft beer – USD 0.50 (and with complimentary peanuts!)
  • Foot reflexology at Amazing Bagan Resort – USD 15 (they let you use the pool and shower after, which is perfect if you want to cool off before leaving via the night bus
  • 8:30 pm overnight bus from Bagan to Yangon with JJ Express, booked via FB message to JJ-Express proper – USD 19


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