After nearly a month in India, we returned to Bangkok for a short few days, applied for our visas and were off again to one of the countries I was most looking forward to: Burma. We started our month in Bagan, an ancient capital city with more than 2,000 temples. All in an area of 104 square kilometers (40 sq mi)! And to make it even crazier, there used to be 10,000 of these temples during the Pagan Kingdom's height between the 11th and 13th centuries. 10,000 temples! I can't even begin to imagine what that looked like because with “only” 2,000 of them, it's impossible to look anywhere without seeing dozens.
We gave ourselves 3 days to explore, which we felt was enough time to see plenty and not get “templed out”. We woke up most days to watch the sunrise, explore a few temples before returning for lunch and staying in during the hottest time of day. We'd go back out in the late afternoon for more exploring before watching the sunset. During our visit in June, temperatures surpassed 30°C (85°F) every day so going out in the morning and evening felt most comfortable. On top of it all, Bagan lies in the middle of plains, so the lack of shade meant it felt even hotter. I thought we'd be okay renting bicycles to get around but thankfully, as I'm sure Tyler will tell you (Tyler: Amen), I quickly regained my senses and by the second day, we were out and about on our electric bikes like most tourists around. Distances between temples can be quite far at times so renting an electric bike or motorbike makes the most sense.
I'd like to tell you there's an organized way to visit these temples but there simply is not. There's no real organization and, to be honest, I probably would have gotten lost 100 times had Tyler not been around. But my sense of direction is one of the worst so that's not saying much. There are maps for sale or you can just print one online before your visit. Tyler and his trustee GPS were all we needed. Really, all HE needed since I was just following him. After reading a few online guides of people's favorite temples, we constructed a rough itinerary making sure we saw the “largest” and “tallest”, etc. but also making stops whenever we saw something that looked interesting. These temples range in size, architecture, details, etc. so it's worth seeing a few different ones. Our itinerary looked something like this:
North Guni (sunset)
Shwe Leik Too (sunrise)
Bulethi (can only climb)
Seinnyet Nyima & Seinnyet Ama (sister temples)
Gubyaukgyi (AMAZING wall paintings, need flashlight to see)
Shwe Gu Gwi
Shwesandaw (too packed at sunset for our taste)
North Guni (sunset favorite)
With our trip over, I can tell you that Burma is, by far, the country with the nicest people (that we visited anyway). We'll talk about this in probably every post about this country and our first stop was a great introduction. In Bagan, the locals opened gates (many of the smaller temples are locked) and often showed us around temples, every little nook and cranny we might not have noticed otherwise. Of course, there are always those who will try to sell you things (in this city, mostly paintings) but let them know you're not interested and they'll stop and tell you a random story, just to chat. Just make sure you don't tell them you might buy something as it will keep their hopes up. On our last day, we ended up talking with an artist for a while. He let us borrow some very powerful flashlights so we could see the paintings in Gubyaukgyi Pagoda and when we came out, he gave us each a few small canvases he made for us on the spot. While we were riding back to the hotel, another guy came up to me on his motorbike to practice his English and welcome me to the country. Excuse me?!! I couldn't believe it.
Currently, there is a $20 fee to enter the historical park. If you visit during low season, manage to get very lost from the start, and generally avoid the main tourist office, you might not have to pay. Also, we drove straight past the tourist office one day and no one stopped us. Hooray low season!
If you can afford it, stay somewhere with A/C and a pool. We had A/C but no pool and with frequent power outages, a pool would have been quite welcome. Plus, it gives you something to do in the afternoon while you wait for the temperatures to cool off. We usually read or took naps.
In terms of navigating, you can star most of the major temples you want to visit and save your work to Google Maps to use the GPS on your phone. Not all paths are shown on Google Maps, and you may inadvertently ride your e-bikes into the inner complex of Shwesandaw at sunset and receive dozens of dismayed/confused looks, but you'll be able to get around. The Maps.Me Android app also came in quite handy as they had some smaller temples marked as well.