This is the first in a series of guest posts from Rhiannon Roy – a freelance writer, travel photographer and hiking instructor from London, who recently spent two weeks exploring Myanmar.
Bagan, the ancient city and former capital of Burma, is an intriguing expression of antiquated religious devotion. Set within an arid landscape of sand and tamarind trees, and framed by they hazy smudge of distant mountains, an incredible 10,000 religious monuments are packed into the 102 square km area, with little sign of human life between them.
And those are just the temples, pagodas and shrines that have survived the years of earthquakes and Mongol invasion. It would take months to see every relic of religious history in Bagan, so if you only have a few days, here are some tips on how to make the most of your trip:
Commandeering a motorbike and navigating the hectic Burmese roads may seem daunting, but electric bikes are by far the best way to get a feel for the ancient city, and the dirt tracks of Bagan are far less scary than the MarioKart-esque roads of Mandalay and Yangon. Being able to choose your own routes and stops allows you to explore exactly what you want to see and stumble upon otherwise-undiscovered nooks which make the trip truly your own.
Memories of your first driving lesson may flash before your eyes when you climb aboard: you immediately panic at how fast you are moving, but you are actually toddling down the road at 10mph. You quickly get used to it; myself (scraped through my driving test a year ago and haven’t driven since) and my aunt (nearly frozen with terror) were soon happily trundling off on our own.
Nervous drivers can easily spend the entire day on the first of three-speed settings, which caps 20mph as your maximum speed and allows you to leisurely roll along at the pace of a mobility scooter. Stick to the right, aim for smaller roads where possible (although avoid footpaths, which can get too sandy for the bike) and remember that when other road users beep behind you, you are not (necessarily) doing something wrong – they are likely just warning you of their presence or their intention to overtake. Stay going straight and let them navigate around you.
Day rental: 5,000-6,000 kyat per bike, each bike can carry two people.
MAKE A MAP
I would highly recommend downloading the app maps.me, which provides detailed offline maps of countries and keeps track of your location without the internet. You customise your map by dropping coloured pins at particular sights, restaurants, hotels, etc, and it can show you how to get from one to the other.
Before venturing out on the bikes, I dropped pins on the ‘important’ temples that we wanted to visit and the next day we simply drove from one to the other. Not needing to worry where we were or whether we were heading in the right direction meant that I could appreciate the scenery around me on the ride (and focus on adhering to the foreign traffic system).
FIND A GOOD SPOT FOR SUNRISE AND SUNSET
The panoramic backdrop of thousands of shrines melting into the distance makes a wonderfully photogenic sunrise and sunset from the right location. Several are noted on maps.me, otherwise your hotel and other friendly tourists will happily give you recommendations. If you can find a secluded spot not stuffed with 200 other tourists, then all the better. For sunrise, make sure you are in Old Bagan, as you will be able to snap a shot of the hot air balloons rising with the sun. You can take the balloon ride yourself, however, it is expensive for a 45min trip ($300-$350 per person) and you will need to book it well in advance.
TAKE A HALF-DAY TRIP TO MOUNT POPA
Jump in a taxi for an hour and you’ll come across a huge boulder stretching up into the sky from surprisingly flat surroundings, on the top of which a golden temple is perched. The steps leading up to the temple wind around the rock and are inhabited by scores of playful monkeys. They are unlikely to be interested in you (unless you have food, which I would strongly recommend leaving behind!), but they run about the stairs and clatter over the rooftop around you. The monkeys are kept in check and the stairs are continuously mopped clean by locals, who may ask you for donations for the cleaning as you ascend.
Reaching the summit takes a surprisingly short 15-20 mins. At the top, the temple for the nats (animist spirits which have been largely assimilated into Burmese Buddhism) looks a lot gaudier than from the bottom, however, the view provides a 360-degree panorama of the surrounding countryside, which is pretty spectacular.
Bagan can be reached from Mandalay, the nearest major city, by boat ($40, 8hrs), by bus (15,000 kyat (£10), 5-6hrs) or by air. Flights and buses to and from Yangon and Inlay Lake are also available.