A Bicycling trip through Bagan: Before the earthquake


4 years ago, I had taken a bus ticket from the Aung Mingalar bus station in Yangon, heading towards Bagan. And I just realised – in 2018 – that I never wrote about Bagan! Well, since Bagan was hit by an unfortunate earthquake in 2016, here is looking at a mystical, magical place that I am always happy to revisit.



Note: These experiences are from 2014, when Myanmar just started opening up for tourism, and Bagan was an extremely offbeat place to visit. Your experience now would be very different from mine, as Bagan has already become quite touristy and commercial.




Hello, Bagan!


The road from Yangon to Bagan was not so bad as I had expected. But the ride was. For one, the semi-sleeper bus that we had taken was one designed for mere mortals to experience the Antarctic climate – it was freezing inside! I had to ask the bus driver to stop at least 3 times during the 10 hours overnight bus-trip, so that I could take a leak. And that was apart from the mandatory dinner stop that he made somewhere near Naypidaw. My bladder situation was not helped by the fact that the bus driver also played some glaringly loud Burmese music through some really crappy speakers. But, what the hell, it was a fun ride!

Somewhere near the Nyaung-yi bus terminal. Atleast we had an arrival party.

Bagan faces

Friendly – but confused – faces in Bagan.

We reached Bagan early in the morning, and walked to our guesthouse. This was in 2014, and back then, there was only an option of maybe 2 to 3 hotels in Bagan, and the cheapest was Aung Mingalar, which somehow had the same name as the bus-stop in Yangon. And by cheapest, I mean that a room was 40 USD for a night! (I hear that the prices are still the same nowadays.)

 

Since it was too early for us to check-in, we dropped off our bags at the hotel and started looking for ways to get around the island. The most common option was renting a horse-cart for the full day. The cost was around 10000 Kyat. We would have gone for this option, if it wasn’t for the language barrier. We could barely communicate with the horse cart drivers, and would be at their mercy to see the sights that they wanted to show us. So, instead we settled for the more difficult transportation.

 

We rented bicycles. For USD 2 per day.

It would be an interesting – and beautiful – day of cycling today!

 

But we did not know where to go with our bicycles. There was not even a proper tourist map for Bagan in 2014. The Bagan archaeological zone was filled with more than 2000 temples, and the number of villagers in Bagan was just slightly more than that. In fact, we were told that old Bagan at that point had more temples than houses, but I am unable to verify that fact.

 

We just started cycling aimlessly at first. It was fun, because there was literally no other tourists on these paths. A short ride from the hotel brought us to the Anawrahta road, which is like the central nerve of old Bagan. All the temples in old Bagan could be accessed by taking small roads that diverted from this one main road.

 

Although many believe that Bagan is a UNESCO heritage site, it is NOT. And the main culprit in this case was the military government of Myanmar, which restored many of Bagan’s temples – which were periodically hit by earthquakes – with more modern materials. But still, there were plenty of temples in the archaeological complex which were never restored and retain their original look and feel. After 4 KMs of cycling from our hotel, we finally got our first taste of Bagan’s temple masterpieces.



Shwe Nan Yin Taw and Shwesandow


The Shwe nan yin Taw monastic complex is not one, but a group of temples. We understood what the ‘bagan view’ meant when we climbed on one of the temples to look out at old Bagan. Thousands of temples dotted the landscape! But what we did not know was that this was just the beginning of a day full of great views.

Shwe Nan Yin Taw monastic complex

At the Shwe Nan Yin Taw monastic complex

 

From the Shwe nan yin Taw, we returned to the Anawrata Road and continued cycling west. Somewhere on this route, we could have taken a right and seen the Ananda temple, but we had no idea where it was. (I did see it after a couple of days, not on this ride).

 

But we turned left instead, and ended up seeing an equally amazing Pagoda.

 

 

The Shwesandow pagoda was built by King Anawrahta – yeah, the same guy after whom the road is named – and was constructed with 5 terraces, and topped by a glittering Hti, the Burmese umbrella that was visible on most pagodas. And if you managed to climb up the 5 terraces, the view was beyond amazing! It was October, and the fields of Bagan had a verdant green glow all around it, broken by the colourful brown of the mud and terra cotta from the Pagodas.

shwesandow pagoda

The last terrace of the Shwesandow pagoda, and the Hti at the top

View from Shwesandow Pagoda

The View from Shwesandow Pagoda

Bagan at its colorful best!



Meeting the Two Gunis : Myauk and Taung


From Shwesandaw pagoda, the short road led us towards the two gunis: Myauk Guni and Taung Guni. I was told that ‘Myauk’ is Burmese for North, and ‘Taung’ for south. Well, that explained the positions.

 

Note: Myauk Guni did face some serious damages in the 2016 earthquake, and is currently only accessible during day-time. In 2014, it was famous for having one of the best sunset views in Bagan!

 

Myauk Guni itself is a small temple compared to the other stalwarts of Bagan. But in the area between Myauk guni and Taung Guni, there was a small, happening market, where local villagers sold artefacts and other curiosities. To boot, both Myauk Guni and Taung Guni were hollow temples, and the passageways inside the temple made for some very interesting photography!

myauk guni bagan

At myauk guni

market between myauk guni and taung guni

At the market between Myauk guni and Taung Guni

Taung guni market

Artefacts from the market

Taung Guni passageways

The passageways of Taung Guni



Through the land of kings


Just north of Myauk Guni, was the famed Dhamm Yangyi temple. Built by King Narathu in remorse for killing his father, brother and wife, this temple is the perfect example of how dysfunctional families can sometimes be useful to the world. Narathu himself was assassinated before the temple was finished, hence the construction looks incomplete. Do note, the Dhamma yangyi does have a local reputation of being a haunted temple.

 

So, we skipped it for now and came back the next day early morning for sunrise views from it.

dhamman yangyi temple

This was the sunrise at Dhamman Yangyi on the following morning

 

After King Narathu’s masterpiece, was the Sulamani temple. Very similar in appearance to the Dhamma Yangyi temple, but definitely completed. And in much better preserved state. ‘Sulamani’ means the gem, and it carried that appearance too. Except in the rainy season, when the access roads to get here can be quite horrendous.

 

But we were there in quite dry season, so there was nothing to be worried about when it came to roads. And what was better, was the view from the Sulamani temple. Just like the rest of Bagan, it was an amazing expanse where the green met the blue.

Towards Sulamani temple

On the way towards the Sulamani temple

View from the Sulamani temple

And that is the view from the Sulamani temple



Finishing at Minnanthu Village


By this point, we were already at the fringes of Minnanthu village. Minnanthu is a small village on the east side of Bagan, which mainly produces peanuts and sesame. It’s impossible to miss this village as you start seeing cow-carts which also double up as seed grinders. Farmers rode their carts, while carrying their little children along, and smoking the thick Burmese beedis.

minnanthu village

A common sight at Minnanthu villageq

minnanthu village 2

Burmese villagers with kids

 

By this point, we had cycled nearly 10 Kms, and the sun was slowly beginning to set. We cycled back, just stopping once along the way to see the famed sunset of Bagan. I can’t even remember which temple we stopped at for the sunset.

 

Because they were all gorgeous.

Bagan sunset

And that was the sunset at Bagan



Practical information for your visit:


  • Bus ticket from Yangon to Bagan: Cost 15000 to 18000 Kyat. Buses can be booked at JJ Express or Bagan Minn Thar Express. Take the night buses for better arrival options.
  • Bicycle rentals can be done at old Bagan for 1.5 to 2 USD per day.
  • Take usual precautions when bicycling in Bagan. There are no separate bicycle tracks, and you will be sharing the road/tracks with other regular vehicles. So, stick as left as possible.

 

 

Note: This trip was before the 2016 earthquake, and some of the monuments mentioned in this article did suffer varying amounts of damage. For an updated list of which temples in open are accessible right now, refer this link.

 


This post is part of my travel stories in Myanmar. Click here to check out other amazing stories from Myanmar. 



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About Abhi Surendran

Abhi quit his corporate job, and decided to immerse himself in travels, photography, occasional periods of bankruptcy, and copious amounts of insanity. He is currently working on a book of his experiences, and a dream road trip through South Asia. Both in a haphazard fashion. He blogs at Iamnothome and you can also catch him at times on Facebook and twitter.

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