My visit to Bagan, Myanmar, is one of the first times I’ve travelled somewhere alone in a while.
When travelling alone I find all my senses are heightened. Not solely due to always being slightly more wary (although there is an element of that) but I also think it’s because there are no distractions, you have so much more time to contemplate everything around you, and other thoughts altogether. On the 4 hour drive between Mandalay and Bagan as well as being entranced by the scenery rushing past outside the car window, I found my mind going back over all sort of times in my life and things I haven’t thought of for years. That for me is part of the joy of travelling alone.
Where I stayed: BlueBird Hotel, Bagan – $80USD/night
What I did:
- E-biking around the temples and pagodas of Bagan – $5USD/day bike hire
- Sunset over the Pagodas at Shwesandaw Pagona – K25,000 / $20USD for a 5 day archaelogical zone pass
- Sunset over the Ayeyarwady River at ‘Sunset Garden Restaurant’
- Failed launch at Hot Air Ballooning (full story here) – $310USD, fully refunded
- Relaxed by the gorgeous pool at Bluebird Hotel
How to get there:
When planning how to get from Mandalay to Bagan I read this excellent and helpful blog post. I opted for the Viatour pre-booked transfer, $73USD each way for a 4 hour drive. Considering I had limited time in Bagan this was the quickest and cheapest way for me to get there. It also removed the stress of thinking about having to find a cab at the airport that would drive me 4 hours, and what they would want to charge!
I absolutely love the feeling of stepping off a plane in a new country. Whether it’s the wall of heat and humidity that greets you, or new smells and sights, it gives me such a buzz.
Mandalay was no different. The climate felt instantly different to Bangkok and Siem Reap, whilst hot as we landed at midday, it was nowhere near as humid as they had been. Immigration at Mandalay International Airport was quick and easy, I had purchased an e-visa online in advance here for $50USD and only had hand luggage so went from landing to taxi in about 15 minutes.
Always the worrier, I’d had some concerns that my pre-booked private transfer wouldn’t be there, and then what would I do?! But as I walked into arrivals there was someone with a board with my name on, and we were on our way in no time.
The driver told me he didn’t speak English, which I was totally happy with, as it meant there was zero obligation to make conversation on the 4 hour drive. I contently stared out of the window at the lush green fields, vast quantities of watermelon (!) and the occasional gilded temple which popped up in the distance.
Notable events on the drive:
- I’d assumed we’d be on the ‘motorway’ from Mandalay to Bagan. When we left the main road about 5ks into the journey and headed onto a little A-road I thought oh no, he’s kidnapping me but after about 15 minutes of being ‘kidnapped’ and quietly shoving my passport and my cash down my pants I decided perhaps this was just the route so sat back and enjoyed the ride, and removed said items from my knicks as they were slightly uncomfortable.
- We crossed a 400m long bridge a couple of hours into the journey. When we were halfway across the driver slammed on the brakes, and got out of the car. He was gesturing wildly and shouting at a car that was approaching us. It turned out there were ‘bridge wardens’ who were supposed to act as traffic lights and regulate the flow of traffic so it was only ever one-way and somehow the oncoming car had snuck past them. In the end the other car had to reverse about 200m back off the bridge whilst my driver bore down on them about 1m from the front of their retreating vehicle. To be totally honest I think we’d have easily fit past each other 🙂
- When we finally arrived in Bagan we pulled into a horrendously ugly complex of buildings. My heart sank. Is THIS the hotel? But no, it was the coach station, and it was just time for a driver change. The driver parked and left me in the car with the keys still in the engine and returned with a mate. My guess is that he knew the way from Mandalay to Bagan but didn’t know the town in detail. He also didn’t seem to know how to drive, with the windscreen wipers and indicators mixed up multiple times and a few stalling incidents we made it to the BlueBird hotel (lucky there are not many other cars on the roads in Myanmar, mainly scooters!)
I was instantly charmed by the BlueBird hotel. The staff were so genuinely friendly and helpful and keen to chat. I was welcomed with a cooling towel and plum juice, and this continued throughout my trip, every time I got back from a dusty temple outing, someone would miraculously appear with a cooling towel and cold drink, bliss.
Next I went to check out my room. Now…I have seen petals on the bed before, names made out of bamboo, towels shaped like every animal going…but never before have I been greeted by petals IN THE LOO!!! I felt so guilty flushing them away…
My room was gorgeous. Spacious, clean, beautiful wooden furnishings. The bathroom was massive and had a huge waterfall shower. In fact the whole hotel was a total oasis.
I arrived earlier than I’d expected, meaning there were still a few hours of sunlight left. The lady at reception had told me that the best way to see the temples was by E-bike, and that there was a man stationed outside the hotel who rented the bikes out. I asked her “Is it safe, me going out for sunset on the E-bike by myself” and got the response from her “well it depends if you’ve ridden one before”…
The fact that she did not even contemplate that I could be asking a question about safety as a solo female traveller was actually a massive reassurance, and was totally supported by all my interactions over the next few days. I have rarely felt so safe, and so comfortable as a traveller, let alone as a solo one, as I did in Myanmar generally and in Bagan.
She showed me a map and explained that the most popular place to watch the sunset was the Shwesandaw Pagoda, which you were allowed to climb up to get a good view. It was in a straight line north from BlueBird, but along a dirt track, so she explained “When you come home, please come back via the road because it will be dark” i.e. I had to do 3 sides of the rectangle… more on that later…
I walked out of the hotel to find a man who presented me with a moped. I said “oh no I am getting the E-bike” (picturing an electric bicycle), he gestured to it..”E-bike“. Righty ho, off I go.
On the E-bike ride from the hotel to Shwesandaw I felt so incredibly happy. It was the perfect temperature, warm but breezy on the bike, and the hour or two before the sun goes down is without doubt my favourite time of day. Once it’s down, I’m not fussed, happy to head to bed, but I find the light and the air so magical just before sunset.
There was greenery all around the track and the smell actually reminded me of a warm English summer evening. I ended up stopping about every 100m because around every corner was a new view and new temple to admire. It was totally stunning.
Sunset was beautiful, although busy. As soon as I got to Shwesandaw the spell was broken somewhat by large buses of tourists and hawkers selling their wares. I had to pay $20USD (or 25000 Kyat) for the 5 day ‘archaeological zone pass’. Out of all the temples I visited during my trip this was the only one that asked to see it/appeared to sell it, so if you were only visiting other less popular temples you may well not end up buying a pass.
Once the sun dipped below the horizon the crowds quickly dispersed. I hung on a bit longer, knowing that often the best light comes after the sun has gone, and it didn’t disappoint.
Then it was back to BlueBird for dinner. All I had to do was find the way. Now, I’ll happily say that I have a pretty excellent sense of direction. However, given I hadn’t driven the road route on the way there, I knew I’d just need to work out which left turn I had to take to get back to BlueBird.
I was chugging down the main road south, pootling along nicely at about 45kmph on the E-bike. I genuinely think all my cycling meant I found it much easier because I have built up traffic awareness (read constant fear of death) and could blend in nicely with the other mopeds and cars.
I got to the first place resembling a little town, but thought perhaps it was too small, so drove on through, but then the road on the other side of town was very dark and looked like it was heading back out into the countryside. So I turned around, went back into the town, and took a right at the only ‘main’ turn, where I thought if I’d had to turn left from southbound then I should have turned.
This road got smaller and smaller, and darker and darker, until finally there was a lady and her house and a goat, and I made the call that it was definitely the wrong way. Even at this point though, I didn’t feel intimidated by any of the other people around, or like they were even that fussed by me being there. It turned out this place was Myin Ka Bar which you can see on the map above.
So back to the main road, back south, and back through the countyside road, until eventually I reached the second traffic light I’d seen all drive. I decided right this must be the main road through New Bagan and took it. It was much larger than my previous turn, and dusty, with restaurants lining the sides. I drove for a km or so (although it felt like more!) and was just reaching the point where I thought if I don’t find the little right turn to the hotel soon I’m not sure what I’ll do… when I got back to the turn, and the festival that had been being set up when I left was now in full swing, acting as an excellent marker of the hotel. Phewy.
I was very happy to have my cold towel on arrival, wash off the layer of dust I’d picked up on the road, and then head to the hotel restaurant for dinner. I had a ‘Bagan-jito’ cocktail and a pork curry. Both of which were totally delicious. The pork was some of the best I’ve had.
The food in Myanmar is very different to their Thai neighbours. It seems to have more influence from India in the sense there are lots of curries, however the food is not spicy (at least not in Bagan!)
I was in bed early, pooped from a long day of travelling and ready to be collected at 4.30am the next day for a hot air balloon ride over the temples!! I’ve written in detail here about the hot air balloon trip, but in summary…went to site, got in balloon, inflated, wind was wrong, deflated, went home, totally devastated.
I was back from the balloon attempt by about 6.30am, so I had breakfast at the hotel (once again really tasty…omelette and banana pancakes!) and then headed back to my room to read and rest.
My plan for the day was to hop on the E-bike and explore some more temples, but I knew I wanted to be out until sunset, so decided to spend the morning relaxing by the hotel pool, and what a treat that was. I really do think ‘Oasis’ is the right word for the hotel, there were so many beautiful plants and flowers, there were even birds nesting in the beautiful pool umbrellas.
In the afternoon I hopped back on the E-bike and set off exploring. I went the other way this time, back through the roads I had felt so lost on the night before. Once I was back on the main road running between New Bagan and Old Bagan, there were temples every few hundred metres. I stopped at a few on the road, but my favourites were once I got into Old Bagan.
There was a huge contrast between the smaller, simple pagodas, with a single chamber, which felt more like relics of an older time, and the much larger ones, with gilded statues and offerings inside, and with a steady stream of worshipers passing through.
It was at one of these, She Myet Hna that I made some new friends. I had walked past the girls and smiled at them, and then when we next passed each other they shyly asked whether we could have a photo together. This then involved a photo with everyone individually and some group snaps. They were from Mandalay and down with their family for a holiday.
Ananda Temple was the busiest outside, with a pathway lined with stalls to get to the temple. I kept hearing throughout my trip that ‘lacquerwear’ was the speciality product of Bagan. But if I’m being totally honest I couldn’t have told you what lacquerwear was when I got there. My best guess would have been some shiny outfit you’d see in Soho or down Oxford Street on the weekend 😉
In contrast to some countries where you feel so hassled that you can’t even look at the products properly, at Ananda I had a look at what was on offer at the stalls. There were some truly beautiful plates and cups. I ended up buying some little cups that were made from bamboo with horsehair woven between the bamboo and then the whole thing coated with black lacquer. I haven’t actually used them to drink from since they do smell somewhat ‘painty’ however they are really lovely to look at.
The man who made the ones I bought proudly told me that he’d featured in Lonely Planet’s German publication on Myanmar. He asked me if I had anything to trade for the cups, which given I’d only brought a bumbag for the day I truly didn’t. I asked what sort of thing he wanted and he said Either old iphones for me to take apart, or perfume for my wife.
After Ananda I drove back south and stopped off at the Sunset Garden Restaurant Bagan. The place was totally deserted when I got there but quickly filled up as the sun dropped over the Ayeyarwady river.
Upon leaving the restaurant there was a temple just off the side of the track, with people gathered at the base. I thought it was tourists but as I parked my moped and walked closer I realised it was locals. They were lighting candles that were placed all over the outside of the shrine. A young woman who was with them was very friendly to me, but I felt bad like I was interrupting, plus my ankles were being bitten by little bugs in the dirt, plus they still had roughly 10,000 candles to light, so I quietly snuck off. It would have been impressive to see them all lit though.
So after going to Bagan for the ballooning, and that being cancelled, I still had an absolutely magical time there and would highly recommend it!
P.s. If you have time to read an interesting story about a missing giant Ruby from the Burmese Royals, check this out….