I wake up on the night bus to a girl shaking my arm gently to tell me it’s the last stop. We arrive in Bagan at about 5am, and I’m bleary-eyed and still sleepy as I clamber off the bus to retrieve my backpack from the heap on the ground.
Almost immediately, taxi drivers are upon us, picking people off and ushering them towards cars. I find another girl in the crowd who is going to my hostel in New Bagan, about 10km from the bus station in Nyuang-U. We ask one taxi driver to take the two of us, and he quotes us 15,000 Kyat. I look at the sign nailed to a nearby pole listing taxi fares, and see that it’s 7,000 to our part of town. He tries to tell us it’s 7,000 per person, not per car, but he’ll come down to 12,000 for us. Normally I love a bit of haggling, but when the real price is literally in front of my face and I haven’t slept much, I don’t have much patience for the banter. I just keep saying 7,000 and walking towards the street. Thankfully, he doesn’t call my bluff and eventually relents, taking us to our hostel for the right fare. On the way he tries to upsell us on a trip to see sunrise, but we quit while we’re ahead and go straight to the hostel.
When we arrive at Ostello Bello – a comfortable and friendly hostel with a few branches in Myanmar – we are of course too early to check in, but they have a luggage room so we can store our bags there and head off to see sunrise. The guy behind the desk says we are cutting it fine, but that we can make it. We have no idea where we are going, but thankfully another girl who is already staying at the hostel is setting off at the same time to see sunrise too, so we decide to follow her. Right next to the hostel, there is an ebike rental place. We hesitate briefly – having never driven one of these electric mopeds, I feel a bit unsure about it – but only for about a second because the sun waits for no one. I give the woman some cash, she gives me the keys, and we are off.
This feels like the beginning of quite a special adventure. Just an hour ago I was asleep on a bus and now I am part of a three woman pre-dawn motorbike convoy, riding past sand tracks and ancient temples with the wind in my hair. I like Bagan already.
With the help of a friendly local man, we find a quiet temple, climb up the steps and onto the roof, and perch ourselves to wait for the sunrise. I had seen so many pictures of the hot air balloons rising above the ancient temples of Bagan, but nothing prepared me for how I would feel when the sun first started to move above the horizon, over the jagged skyline of the temples, as the hot air balloons moved slowly across the sky.
It was one of those moments of my trip that I’ll never forget. Afterwards, when the very nice man who showed us the way tried to then sell us some paintings of temples, I didn’t even haggle. I would have probably given him all my money at that moment I was so deliriously tired and happy!
When we returned to the hostel, we took advantage of the free coffee and guest showers and freshened up. We ate some breakfast and, making the most of the bikes and the fact we still couldn’t check in for hours, we headed out to explore some more temples. The great thing about Bagan is that while there are many temples heaving with tour groups and surrounded by stalls selling everything from paintings, to books, to elephant pants, there are also countless quiet temples with literally no one in sight. Because the tour buses can only get to the ones lining the main roads, by taking an ebike down a sand tack in search of something a bit quieter, you can discover a hidden gem and avoid the army of selfie sticks.
After exploring a bit for the afternoon, we check in and then I decide to take a break from temples and join a sunset boat trip. For 7,000 Kyat they pick you up, take you to a boat stocked with snacks and beer, bring you up the river, and then switch off the engine and float downstream as the sun sets, dropping you back to the hostel afterwards. It was a nice, relaxing end to my first day in Bagan.
The next morning, I join a free motorbike tour of the temples of Bagan, with a local guide named Christopher. It’s easily one of the best tours I’ve ever been on. Christopher is a fantastic guide and gives us lots of information about the temples and the history of Bagan.
I’m also lucky to meet a really great group of people on the tour, and we spend the next couple of days hanging out, visiting temples, checking out other parts of the town and eating meals together.
Although it doesn’t have the same charm as Old Bagan, Nyuang-U made a great day trip. Once we’re feeling ‘templed out’, we take our bikes and head that way to visit the market and had some delicious local food there. The place we eat serves up food in the Burmese sharing style, where you get a bowl of rice and a selection of side dishes to try out. We eat a lot of our meals in this way in the coming days, and it’s heaven if you’re a veggie lover!
I absolutely loved my time in Bagan. I felt so at ease and relaxed there, and everyone I met – both locals and fellow travellers – were so warm and friendly. I was particularly happy to meet so many cool, funny, strong women travelling solo. It made me feel that I’m not totally mad to be out in the world alone, and I loved swapping stories and sharing the experience with them.
By the time I’m ready to leave, I feel a bit sad that not all of the people I hung out with are going the same way. That said, I’m so excited that two of the wonderful people I met, Alex from California and Virva from Finland, have decided to travel onwards with me to Kalaw, to do a three day trek to Inle Lake together. More on that in the next post!