My thigh muscles ached as I pushed the pedals of my bicycle slowly, the tires crunching along the dirt road.
Sweat poured down my forehead and collected at my chin, dripping off my face in fat drops. My t-shirt was soaked through between my backpack and my lower back, sweat pooling at the base of my spine. The long road ahead swayed in my vision for a moment, shimmering in the midday sun.
I wiped the sweat away from my eyes with the back of my hand and kept pedaling. The day wasn’t over and we had plenty more pagodas to see.
Big Beautiful Bagan, By Bicycle
Bagan is located in Central Myanmar on the banks of the Irrawaddy River and it is where you will find the biggest and most concentrated collection of Buddhist pagodas and ruins in the world. There are many stunning structures scattered across these flat plains dating back to the 11th and 12th centuries and each of these buildings is rich with spiritual significance.
This area was very important during the 9th century, when King Anawratha unified Burma. During this time, Bagan had an estimated 13,000 temples – these days there are approximately 2,200 left standing.
For 2,000 kyat each we rented bikes for the day. There are several bike rental places around town to choose from. If you are planning on getting up early for the sunrise you might want to get your bike the night before, as many of the bike shops will not be open early enough.
Make sure that you give your bike a short test ride and an inspection before paying for it, as some of them are old. Another option is renting an electric bicycle or electric scooter, which would allow you to cover more distance with less effort. However, the electric bikes we saw were buzzing along very quickly in the morning and then slowly chugging along later in the afternoon. I guess the batteries run out quickly and you mind find yourself stranded at a temple in the middle of nowhere.
Get On Your Bikes and Ride!
We didn’t have much of a plan, we figured that we would head towards Old Bagan and see what pagodas we discovered on the way. Of course, if you wanted to choose pagodas in advance and see particular ones, you could look up their names and then find them on Google maps.
Don’t worry that you will miss the pagodas – it’s impossible to go anywhere in Bagan without finding at least some. As we rode around Bagan we discovered that beautiful temples and pagodas could be found with more frequency than pubs in Northern England. Seriously, there was one around every corner and sometimes several along one stretch of road. It would take forever to visit all of them, so don’t feel bad about riding past the ones that don’t look that interesting – there will be another one just down the road.
Many of the temples will start to look the same after a while, but if you look closely they all have their unique differences. Some of them have incredible ornately carved facades, others have detailed paintings on the inside. Take your time and soak in the details, these really are stunning buildings and a lot of work went into making them beautiful.
I must confess, I don’t remember all of the pagodas we visited and some of them were just ones that we stumbled across that didn’t even seem to have names. However, some of the highlights that I can remember are:
This pagoda has a staircase on the outside so that you can climb up and admire the view. The panorama of pagodas stretching far as the eye can see was pretty impressive and this would be a great place to see the sunrise or sunset. Tip: climb the staircase on the side of the building away from the sun as it will be much cooler on your feet!
Built in 1105 AD by King Kyanzittha during the Pagan Dynasty, this impressive structure is known as the “Westminster Abbey of Burma”. It’s one of the biggest and most impressive, so check it out!
This temple was built in the 1200s and it is the second tallest in Bagan. It has a similar Buddha sculpture on all four sides of the temple and it is completely symmetrical, giving you a strange sense of Deja vu as you walk around it’s corridors.
What Do They Say About Mad Dogs and Englishmen?
When I was researching how to explore the pagodas of Bagan by bicycle, a website recommended getting up at the crack of dawn to watch the sunrise and cycle around in the morning while it wasn’t too hot. This would have been a good idea perhaps, but Lee really isn’t the sunrise type and by the time we got going the heat of the day had already begun. Mad dogs and Englishmen, indeed.
The Wikitravel page for Bagan describes cycling in the middle of the day during the hot season as “uncomfortable beyond sanity.” Yeah…
If you do decide to cycle around Bagan in the midday sun, make sure that you are prepared. You are going to need to drink a lot of water to keep yourself hydrated. Start out with a couple of bottles and then stock up with fresh and cold water at every chance you get.
We really took our time and went as slow as we pleased. Also, we took a long lunch break during which we sipped cold water and watermelon juice and allowed our body temperatures to cool down. By the end of the day we were so delirious that we were giggling and singing cheesy 80s songs as we pedaled down the road.
It was actually so hot that my iPod overheated and shut down, refusing to turn on again for several hours. Try to keep your electronics out of the direct sunlight and if you can, leave them in your cool hotel room. Also, make sure that you wear plenty of sunscreen, a pair of sunglasses and a hat to protect your face.
You can also get these individually packaged wipes at the local convenience stores, which are excellent for wiping the sweat and dust off your face and neck.
Remember that these are sacred sites, so make sure that you are acting in a respectful way when visiting them. Although it is very hot, wear clothing that covers your knees and shoulders whenever visiting a temple. I wore a cotton t-shirt and long loose cotton pants – lighter fabrics are much more comfortable in the heat and jeans would have been too hot. I also brought a sarong along with me in case I needed to cover my head, but it wasn’t necessary.
If you are dressed inappropriately, chances are no one will say something to you. This is because Buddhist culture is pretty non-confrontational so they are likely to keep silent rather than actually approach you. So, even if you don’t get in trouble for it, the right thing to do is to cover your shoulders and knees.
When you enter the pagodas, you will need to take your shoes and socks off. There will be signs to remind you of this and it’s hard to miss the piles of flip flops at the entrances of each temple. In the 42 degree heat, walking around on stone and tile floors can be excruciating. Be prepared to hop around as if you are dancing on hot coals – I actually had burnt skin on the bottoms of my feet.
As much as you would like to slip on your sandals or your socks to save yourself the pain – don’t do it. It would be totally inappropriate and offensive to break the no-shoes rule, so do your best to make it around barefoot. I found that lighter coloured tiles were less hot because they reflected the sunlight. Also, you can sometimes make your way around a pagoda sticking to the shaded areas where the floors are cooler.
Also, remember that any statue or depiction of Buddha is sacred so avoid taking a goofy selfie with it. It is offensive to point the bottoms of your feet toward a Buddha image, so keep that in mind if you sit down within the temples.
Hungry From All That Cycling? Here Are Our Recommendations
We stayed in the Nyaung U area of Bagan, so here are some of the places that we enjoyed:
- Weatherspoons – A little bit different than the UK pub restaurant chain of the same name, this funky cafe had great salads, Myanmar food and big juicy burgers. The staff were lovely and they give you tasty little tamarind sweets at the end of the meal.
- Aroma II – We went to this Indian restaurant mostly because the sign made us giggle, with it’s stick-figure drawings of a happy patron with a full belly being carted away in a wheelbarrow after a meal. We were not disappointed, we enjoyed a feast of home-cooked curry, rice and naan bread with a wide selection of yummy pickles, chutneys and sauces.
- Rain Restaurant – This restaurant has one of the fastest Wifi connections in town, but it also served a great steak and had very funny, charming staff.
- A Little Bit of Bagan – This is a great place to try the local cuisine – I had a Myanmar mutton curry here that rocked my world.
Where We Stayed
We stayed at the Royal Bagan Hotel. At $35 for a Superior Double or Twin room, it was a little bit more than we would usually pay. However, this price includes a breakfast buffet, with fresh fruit, toast, cooked dishes such as fried noodles and sausages and the Burmese breakfast classic Mohinga – fish noodle soup.
Plunging into the cool water of that pool after exploring temples all day on a bicycle was absolute bliss.