I count my trip to Myanmar with my good friend Izy as one of my highlights of 2014. While Yangon was fun, we were both itching to explore the Bagan pagodas, and spend some time taking it easy after a rough few months.
There are more than 2,000 pagodas in Bagan, spread out over just 16 square miles, and once we were in Old Bagan it felt like we couldn’t walk five steps without bumping into one. The best part of this area is that there are so few tourists, you’ll often find yourself wandering through the pagodas by yourself-something which would never happen in most tourist sites around the world.
We took a bumpy (and freezing!) night bus from Yangon to Bagan. You can take a train, but I would recommend sticking to local buses instead, since trains are run by the government, and we should try to keep as much money out of their corrupt hands as possible.
Eventually we arrived and checked into our guesthouse in New Bagan at 6am. After catching up on some sleep, we grabbed a taxi into Old Bagan, and went straight to The Moon restaurant, which had been recommended to us by pretty much everyone we had met since we arrived in Myanmar.
The Moon is a vegetarian restaurant, and the food is amazing. We ate there at least once, and sometimes even twice a day, since they have a decent sized menu, and the food is flavourful and fresh. Meals also range from $1-$4, which was a steal in a country that was otherwise pretty pricy.
While we were stuffing our faces on delicious food, a local guy struck up a conversation with us, introduced himself as Nyaung Oo, and entertained us with interesting information about the area. We mentioned that we had really wanted to do a hot air balloon ride over Bagan, but were worried that they were all sold out, so he took us directly to a hotel with a booking desk, translated for us, and showed us the best ATMs to use to pay.
We hired him to show us around the pagodas the next day, and he met us at our hotel nice and early so we could take a break at midday when it usually becomes sweltering.
We hired electric bikes, which is definitely the best way to get around, especially since foreigners aren’t allowed to hire scooters or motorbikes in Bagan.
The bikes were fun, and considering how hot it was, and how many clothes we had to wear (Myanmar is a conservative country and women need to cover up their shoulders and knees) I was grateful for the breeze as we rode along on the dusty roads.
Nyaung Oo knew all of the best spots for taking pictures, which pagodas would be busy at which times, and which ones had the best views. I don’t usually get a guide when I travel, (since I’m usually on a budget and I like exploring by myself) but for Bagan I highly recommend springing for a local guide.
Most of the locals who used to live in Old Bagan were kicked out, and forced to move into New Bagan when the government realised that tourists would soon be flocking to the pagodas. So hiring a guide is an excellent way to learn about the area, and contribute to the local economy.
One thing I love about the pagodas, is that they’re all so different. Some are large, grand, and topped with gold, and others are crumbling, overgrown, and in complete disrepair-but still interesting, and unmistakably old.
Bagan is a must for anyone thinking about visiting Myanmar. Sure, Yangon was ok, and I’m sure Inlet Lake is gorgeous (although I’ve heard it’s gradually being taken over by tourists), but if you visit one place in Myanmar, make it Bagan. We could easily have spent another week relaxing, exploring on our electric bikes, and enjoying the local food.
If you’re thinking about hiring a guide in Bagan, be sure to give Nyaung Oo a call. He has excellent English, and he really made the experience so much more interesting-instead of just taking photos of the pretty pagodas, we were taught all about the history of them, along with plenty of funny tidbits along the way.
Although I ended up getting sick in Bagan, and didn’t get to make it to Inlet Lake (I picked up a bug in Yangon), I’m glad we at least got to spend a few days here. After a crazy few months, with a ton of ups and downs, Bagan felt restful. I felt like I was getting back to myself. All of a sudden I was “Adventurous Stacey” again, who lived for new places and experiences, loved “roughing it”, and wasn’t stressed out all of the time.
When I think of Bagan, I’ll remember green fields, crumbling stone, and peace and quiet. I’ll remember nutritious, filling food, smiles from the locals, children chasing us on our e-bikes, dusty roads, and the smell of food cooking on the street.
Myanmar is a country that you want to visit before the rest of the world does. Get there before it becomes another Thailand.