E-Biking Through the Temples of Bagan, Myanmar

The area of Bagan in central Myanmar is a large plain next to the Ayerawaddy River that is covered with over 3000 Buddist temples built from 11th to 13th century. After years of neglect, many of the temples have been restored and Bagan is one of the highlights of any itinerary in Myanmar. Given how many other ruins we have seen along our trip, we were especially excited to see these and compare.

Getting There

Since Bagan is such a big tourist destination, we had quite a few options to get there from Mandalay. Based on recommendations from fellow travelers, we decided to go via boat down the Ayerawaddy River. It was much more expensive than the bus would have been, and slower (even though this was the “fast” boat, it was scheduled to take 10 hours) as well, we decided to splurge and see what life was like along this wide and slow-moving river.

The boat left bright and early from the dock in Mandalay at 7 AM. We had an assigned seat in a lower-level area with airplane-style seats, but as soon as the boat pulled away from the dock we were free to roam around the three different levels. There were a few different open-air decks where we could grab a chair and look out. Unfortunately the day was overcast, so the scenery wasn’t as beautiful as it could have been. Also, there wasn’t quite as much activity on the river as we expected. Nevertheless, this meant that we had plenty of time to catch up on some reading and just relax, so we still were glad we chose this method.

Where We Stayed

The first choice one has to make when visiting Bagan is which area to stay in: Old Bagan – the easiest access to the temples but the most expensive, New Bagan – further away from the temples with midrange options, or Nyaung U – furthest away from the temples, but the biggest town and with the cheapest options. We chose to go for the midrange option in New Bagan.

We had read that booking ahead was preferable, so we used agoda.com to find a place to stay a few days in advance. Here we found the At Bagan Hostel, which seemed new and had good reviews. There were only dorm rooms available, but we figured we could rough it for a bit and booked two beds in a six-bed dorm.

Getting to the At Bagan from the boat dock proved to be a challenge for one big reason: the name on the building it is in and the name the taxi drivers know it as is NOT “At Bagan!” The building is still called the Thiri Sandar, for unknown reasons. If we hadn’t been warned about this by fellow travelers we happened to meet we would have been even more confused.

For this and other reasons, we had mixed feelings about the At Bagan. The facilities were definitely new; it almost seemed like you could smell the fresh paint drying, the beds were quite nice and the Internet was by far the fastest we have had in Myanmar. Breakfast was also nice, in a restaurant across the street, with a local fried rice option. But, the staff was a little hard to get an answer out of sometimes. They certainly weren’t mean, but there were a few times where we felt like we were slightly misled or just couldn’t communicate well with them. So we enjoyed our stay but it won’t get as strong of a recommendation as the other places that we have stayed in Myanmar.

What We Did

We took our two full days that we had in Bagan to try and fit in a good selection of the thousands of temples in the area. We decided to follow the basic path laid out in a sample itinerary in Lonely Planet, which we felt worked out pretty well.

There are a variety of ways to get around Bagan, but we had heard good things about renting an e-bike so we decided to give it a go. For $6 a day each, we were able to rent nice e-bikes from a place just across the street from At Bagan. We were expecting them to look more like bicycles, but we felt they looked and behaved more like scooters. At first we were nervous, but it was very easy to operate and pretty quickly we got used to zooming around on paved and dirt roads like pros. We would highly recommend them as a way to get around!

We could list out all of the temples we visited, but you might get “temple fatigue” just from reading about them all! So, we’ll try to stick to some highlights.

Top Choices

Our favorite was the Sulamani Pahto, which we found to be beautiful both inside and out. It was built in 1181, so it is one of the later ones built and seems to be a little more refined than some of the earlier ones. We enjoyed the stucco ornamentation on the exterior and the extensive murals found in the interior. We also kept wanting to call it the Suleiman, since the name sounded so much like that of the famous mosque we visited in Istanbul :-).

Another favorite was the mysterious Dhammayangyi Pahto. From afar, we felt like this one was reminiscent of an ancient Mayan temple since its spire at the top is no longer there. Inside, this one felt much more abandoned than the others as well. It had very high ceilings, and you could hear birds flying around between the chambers. The interior part of the temple is blocked off with bricks that were supposedly added after the king who built the temple died, as payback to dishonor his memory. All of these factors made this one a spooky one to walk through.

Others of Note

Ananda Pahto felt like the most actively used one – Della was happy that she was allowed to place gold leaf on a statue (not like in Mandalay). Thatbyinnyu Pahto looks impressive from a distance since it is the tallest in Bagan (especially from atop the old city walls which are climbable nearby) but is not very interesting inside. Nathlaung Kyaung was interesting because it is actually a Hindu temple – the people of the area have not always been Buddhists.

Shwesandaw Paya and Pythada Paya have excellent terraces for views over the temples, which mean they are great for sunset viewing – but it also means they get pretty crowded so we avoided them. The first day we saw some other people atop a small temple south of Shwesandaw, so we went to check it out. A local attendant showed us the narrow staircase up to the top. Unfortunately it was almost completely overcast so we didn’t see much and ended up leaving early. The second day we intended to watch the sunset at Dhammayazika Paya. It was a nice and serene area, but under renovation. A friendly local pointed us to a neighboring small temple with a terrace, so we went there thinking we had found a hidden gem. When the first of three tour buses pulled up we realized we were mistaken! The colors were nice but we ended up watching the last parts of the sunset from below because we couldn’t stand the crowds of tourists.

We also enjoyed a few moments where we ventured into areas with only smaller temples. Many of the popular temples felt overwhelmed with crowds of tourists, locals, and vendors, so it was nice to find some spaces to just wander around and feel like we had the place to ourselves.

Where We Ate

There was a stretch of restaurants just across the road from our hostel which we visited for a quick easy dinner on two of the nights. They were all about the same, serving your standard curries and noodle dishes. Della got her favorites fried vermicelli at both places. Eric tried the curry at one and was disappointed that it didn’t come with any sides like we thought was standard!

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One of the days we were out visiting the temples we decided to eat at a restaurant that we had been given multiple recommendations for called Be Kind to Animals the Moon (no, that is not a typo). It is a vegetarian restaurant, so a bit different from what we had been eating so far. We shared an appetizer of spring rolls, and then each got a curry with special rice: Della a coconut curry with brown sticky rice and Eric a garden vegetable curry with coconut rice.

Final Thoughts

Bagan was an interesting place to visit, but two days was probably sufficient for us at least. We definitely recommend using the e-bikes to get around, both for the amount of ground you can cover and for the fun factor! We wish the weather had been a little less gloomy while we were there, but we still were able to find a bunch of different places with great views.

Exploring the Past in Pyin Oo Lwin, Myanmar

Most people visit the town of Pyin Oo Lwin in the hills to the north of Mandalay to revisit its past history as Maymyo, a “hill station” founded by the British to escape the heat of the lower elevations and later the location of the colonial summer capital. While we were interested in visiting the sights associated with this history, we were also interested to visit because Della’s parents had visited Maymyo on their RTW trip as well. When home for the holidays, we had come across a few pictures of their time in town and wanted to try and see how they had changed in 15 years.

Getting There

On the advice of our guesthouse, we took a shared taxi to get to Pyin Oo Lwin from Mandalay. This is basically the same thing as a normal taxi, in that it picked us up at our guesthouse and dropped us off at our new one, with the only difference being that there were two other passengers that were in the car at the same time. It wasn’t too expensive ($10) so we were happy with the service. The road to Pyin Oo Lwin is narrow and windy, so we definitely held on tight as our driver passed the slower-moving trucks.

The road with no lanes, passing the slow trucks up the hill!

The road with no lanes, passing the slow trucks up the hill!

We also took a shared taxi to get back down to Mandalay after our stay was over. This time we noticed something interesting: halfway down, the driver pulled over to the side of the road and poured buckets of water over the brakes, which produced a good amount of steam. Guess the brakes were in danger of overheating!

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Can hardly see, but the driver is pouring water over the back brakes!

 

Where We Stayed

We found the Royal Flower Guest House on tripadvisor and called them from our place in Mandalay to make a booking. We got a double room with an ensuite bathroom for $30 a night (breakfast included). The room was nice, and the staff was very friendly and helpful. Also, it had a very nice patio on the roof where we could watch the sunset.

What We Did

Most of the activities we chose to do were driven by our desire to try and see how the places had changed since Della’s parents had visited them. But, these were also the most popular activities so we didn’t go too far off the beaten track.

Pwe Kauk Falls – Our first day in town we rented bicycles from our guesthouse and rode in the direction of these small waterfalls that we thought Della’s parents had visited. This was about a 5 mile ride along a highway, which was a little scary but we were able to hear big trucks coming and get over in time. We had gotten general directions from our guesthouse for the turn-off to the falls, but almost missed it because there is no English sign. If you are trying to find the falls, make sure to take this road:

Turn down here off the main road!

Turn down here off the main road!

Once there, we paid our entry fee and camera fee and then explored the different small falls. The infrastructure around the falls makes it feel like it is a nice local getaway, with different restaurants and souvenir stands, and concrete paths and bridges between the different parts. We were the only foreign tourists there for a while as well. We wandered through both the lower and upper part. We think we found the area in the upper part where Wayne swam, but aren’t sure. We also purchased some local wine: both strawberry and something we had never heard of called damson.

Candacraig Hotel – This former British guesthouse is actually where Della’s parents stayed when they visited Pyin Oo Lwin. Our guesthouse listed it more as a local attraction than as a place to find accommodations, but the Lonely Planet does say it’s possible to stay there. We again rented bikes and set out to find it and see how much it had changed. A word of warning to anyone else trying to do this: make sure you know where you are headed! We trusted a map given to us by the guesthouse, and where that map put the Candacraig was wrong and where the owner told us to go was wrong. We investigated multiple old colonial houses in the general area before finally asking a few locals who pointed us in the right direction. (Looks like the location on the Lonely Planet map is correct but we didn’t have that along…).

Finally found it! Phew!

Finally found it! Phew!

The hotel had a very mysterious and slightly abandoned air about it. There didn’t seem to be anyone else around and the garden was somewhat overgrown. It definitely feels like something that would have been built during the colonial era. We took a few pictures of the outside and then headed on.

National Kandawgyi Gardens – This large botanic gardens surrounding a lake also dates from the colonial era and is the main highlight to be seen in Pyin Oo Lwin. After finding the Candacraig, we rode our bikes down to the park and spent the rest of the day exploring the different areas and just relaxing. There are quite a few different areas to visit, so we followed the map to make sure we didn’t miss anything. The highlights included the town name spelled out in flowers, a petrified wood and fossil display, an elevated walkway through a swamp, a bamboo garden, a pine forest, an aviary, an elevated walkway through a forest, an orchid garden and a butterfly museum. There was also an observation tower, where we climbed 201 steps to an observation deck for views back over the park.

Also in the middle of the lake was an island with a pagoda which we think was in one of Della’s parents’ pictures. It doesn’t look exactly the same as before, but we think it has to be it. We were disappointed that we didn’t see anyone strolling around the lake with a parasol either like there was before.

Where We Ate

Our first night in town, we ate at a place on the main road very close to our accommodations called the Seezar Bistro. They had a huge menu so it took us a while to figure out what we wanted. Della got her standard fried noodle plate and Eric ordered a “Seezar” fried rice which ended up coming with an omelet wrapped around the fried rice – pretty neat!

Our second night in town we decided to branch out from Myanmar food and check out a South Indian restaurant called Aung Padamayar that had been recommended in the Lonely Planet. There was no menu, just a choice between chicken or mutton for a curry. The meat (we both chose chicken) in the spicy sauce came with rice, a lentil soup, curried vegetables and freshly made papadum. We were plenty full by end! It was a little more expensive than the previous night, but not so outrageous, so we were pretty annoyed to hear the tourists at the next table over loudly complaining to the waitress about “how expensive” it was (the meal cost $4 each).

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Our expensive meal!

 

Final Thoughts

Pyin Oo Lwin was a pleasant place to spend a couple of days! We had a lot of fun on our “scavenger hunt” for items from Wayne and Peggy’s trip, but even beyond that enjoyed the vibe of what this former colonial town had to offer.

 

Our First Taste of Myanmar in Mandalay

Out first stop in the country of Myanmar was the city of Mandalay. When originally planning this part of our trip, we had assumed that we would start in Yangon, but when we found out it was possible to get to Mandalay we figured it would be better to start up top and do a one-way trip down to Yangon. The guidebooks and fellow travelers didn’t rave about Mandalay itself, so we wondered a little bit if it was going to be that much fun to visit.

Getting There

The key to our decision to start in Mandalay was figuring out that there was a cheap flight from Bangkok to Mandalay every day on AirAsia (technically the same airline as the one that just crashed, but there are different subsidiaries in each country and this one on the Thai version). The flight left from Bangkok’s secondary airport, Don Mueang, which we had to take a taxi to get to. The flight itself was delayed for an hour because of a military airshow, so we were there in plenty of time and were able to enjoy a bowl of noodles at the gate.

The Mandalay airport itself was a bit small but getting in and getting our bags went smoothly. It is located 45 minutes outside of the city, but AirAsia provides a free shuttle to the city center. We caught the shuttle and then at the dropoff point were able to get a taxi to our guesthouse.

Where We Stayed

We can’t rave enough about the Yoe Yoe Lay Guesthouse. If you are going to Mandalay, you should stay there, no question. The level of service is amazing: everything is done with a smile, the provided breakfast is large and you have to fight to keep from getting extras and the facilities are nice, clean and commodious. The owner, who everyone calls “Mama,” is amazingly kind and generous, and will go out of her way to make you feel at home. Also, this place seems to attract a nice crowd of like-minded travelers, and we made a lot of fun connections just hanging out in the common area each night. Yoe Yoe Lay set a very high bar for the level of accommodations we are going to expect in Myanmar.

We ended up staying at Yoe Yoe Lay for four nights, and in three separate private rooms. We only booked two nights in advance since we weren’t sure we would like Mandalay, but almost immediately we decided we wanted one more. But by the time we asked them, our room was already spoken for, so we had to switch to a different room. The new one had a private bathroom instead of using the shared facilities, so it wasn’t too much of a sacrifice. We also stayed one more night in a different room after spending two nights in the nearby town of Pyin Oo Lwin (separate blog post coming soon).

What We Did

Ancient Cities Tour

The taxi driver who took us to the Guesthouse on the first day also told us that he would offer his services for the day to drive us around to sights in the three “ancient cities” near Mandalay: Amarapura, Sagaing and Inwa. All three were the capital of a kingdom at some point in history and have remnants left over from their glory days in addition to active Buddhist sites. The cost for the day was $35, which our host told us was reasonable, so we decided to accept.

The day started out bright and early with our driver picking us up at 8:00 AM. Our first stop was actually within the city of Mandalay: the Mahamuni Paya, the main Buddhist temple in the city. He dropped us off at one of the lesser-used entrances. We put our shoes in lockers (everyone must be barefoot within the sacred area) and walked into the complex. The main attraction is a 13-foot tall seated Buddha, made of gold and believed to be 2000 years old. Male worshippers may approach this image and apply gold leaf, but women have to sit outside or watch on one of the TV monitors. There were quite a few people visiting this image on the day we were there. In the buildings surrounding the courtyard, we also went through a gallery of paintings describing how the Buddha was moved to Mandalay and a room with some bronze figures from Angkor Wat.

The next stop on our tour was at a shop that did traditional wood carving. It was pretty interesting to watch the male workers chisel away at the pieces of teak wood. We were tempted by a smaller piece but didn’t want to have to figure out how to get it home. Inside there were some ladies working on pieces of embroidery. We did buy a smaller piece of this which had an owl on it.

We then headed onto Amarpura and into the Maha Ganayon Kyuang Monastery there. Our driver instructed us on where to stand to watch them get their lunch at 10:25. We had a little bit of time before to wander around the grounds. We made it back to the spot by the road in time for them to line up. Unfortunately, there were a ton of other tourists there, so it was kind of a strange experience, with everyone snapping pictures of all of the monks as they stood in line. It was interesting to watch the process of how they got their food: volunteers were standing just outside the dining hall, and the monks would file past and get a large serving of rice, some cake and a drink.

We got back in the car and drove on south. We paused before crossing the big Ayerarwady River on the new bridge to take in the sight of the river and our next destination: Sagaing Hill. We could see the large hill with many sparkling pagodas covering it. This was the site of a capital of a Shan kingdom in the 14th century but now is mainly known as a big site for monasteries and temples.

We were dropped off at the base of the hill and shown the path to take to get to the top, through One Lion Gate. The path up took a while – Lonely Planet says it was 350 steps. Once we reached the top, we took off our shoes and explored the Pon Nya Shin Pya, with its shiny gold stupa and a big Buddha image. The platform surrounding gave nice views of the surrounding area. We stopped and sat for a while just to relax.

We headed back down the stairs and found our driver. We drove back over the river on the old bridge (much smaller) and went to the dock to head to the dock for Inwa. We found out that the driver doesn’t actually take you there – you have to take a boat across. Inwa has been the site of a royal capital four different times from 1364 to 1841. There are a few ruins and old temples spread about. The way they expect you to see the sites is by horse cart. We weren’t sure we wanted to pay for this, so we started walking past them, declining numerous offers. We had just turned the corner when we gave in to one persistent driver and took the cart. This caused some sort of argument between him and other drivers, which left us feeling a bit awkward.

The ride in the cart down the narrow dirt/sand paths was fun but quite bumpy. After a little while we were dropped off at our first stop, Maha Aungmye Bonzan, also called the “Brick Monastery” since it was built from brick covered in stucco (in 1822). It felt quite older than the other temples that we had thus far seen. There weren’t a lot of other people around. As we were first circling, a teenage boy came up and started talking with us in English. We think he just wanted to practice, because he never asked for anything. We had to pause where a Burmese family basically insisted that we take a picture with their infant. Della held it while the rest of the family tried to make the baby look at them. We then took off our shoes and entered inside the upper level, still accompanied by our conversation friend. He followed us until we left to head back out to the horse cart.

We then stopped at Nanmyin, the “leaning tower of Inwa”. This was a watchtower for the palace of King Bagyidaw. The staircase to go up into the tower was closed for safety reasons so we just briefly walked around one side of it.

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Back on the cart, our driver cut through a banana field and took us to the Bagaya Monastery. This temple is built out of dark teak wood, and definitely had a different feel to it. This was probably our favorite of the different things we saw in Inwa. It was also the most crowded with tourists. We took our time strolling around the buildings, making sure not to damage our bare foot with any nails.

Our final stop was a small complex called the Yadana Sinme Pagoda. The highlight of this area was the ruins of an old chamber (with columns arranged like a Christian church) with three Buddha statues at one end.

Our horse cart driver then returned us back to the dock. We hopped right on a boat and returned to the other side where our driver was waiting. He drove us back to Amarapura, this time to the U-Bein Bridge. This famous bridge is made out of teak wood and is over 1 km long, making it the longest teak bridge in the world. It also seems to be quite a popular destination in the evening, with many people strolling back and forth over it. We walked all the way over to the other end of it, then returned to about halfway and waited for the sunset. Eric went down off the bridge briefly to snap some pictures of the bridge from below on an island.

As it got dark we returned to our accommodations, arriving at about 6:30 PM. Quite a long day of sightseeing!

Sandamuni Paya and Kuthodaw Paya

The next day we decided to stick to sightseeing within the city limits. We rented bikes from the guesthouse and braved the Mandalay traffic (just stick your nose out there and people generally give you a wide berth), heading in the general direction of Mandalay Hill. We rode past the large fortress walls and moat but did not go inside.

This was one of the quieter streets we rode on. Otherwise we couldn't have taken this picture!

This was one of the quitter streets we rode on. Otherwise we couldn’t have taken this picture!

Our first stop was the serene Sandamuni Paya, which contains rows upon rows of white stupas (1774 to be exact), each of which holds a marble slab inscribed with a page of writings from one of the teachings of Buddha. There were few people here, and we enjoyed relaxing and listening to the tinkling of the bells attached to the tops of the stupas. While we were wandering, a monk approached us and struck up a conversation in order to practice his English.

He directed us towards the nearby Kuthodaw Paya, which has 729 inscribed marble slabs of its own. Its temple complex was more brightly colored that Sandamuni, and there were many more people visiting, so we didn’t prefer it quite as much.

Mandalay Hill

We rode to the base of Mandalay Hill, parking our bikes in a dedicated area next to the entrance with two big stone lions. We knew this would be a long hike up, so we were sad to see that we had to take our shoes off at the base! Reluctantly we followed the rules and started hiking up the hard concrete barefoot.

After long flights of stairs, we went through a few different small pagodas and one with a large statue. We made it to a landing with a pagoda with a large golden Buddha pointing back at the city. We thought this must be the top so we stopped and gulped some water.

But then we walked around the back and saw the stairs continued upwards. We kept going, and realized that it seemed like it would never end. We passed more small pagodas, a really steep staircase that led to what felt like an abandoned warehouse, and a flashy temple with a Buddha footprint. Then, we finally reached the top! We walked around the outside railing, enjoying the views in all directions of the area below. We also sat own and rested our aching bare feet.

But we knew we couldn’t pause for too long since it was almost 4:30, and we didn’t want to be riding bikes home too long after the sun set at 5:30. We started back down the hill at 4:50. Our feet were really killing us but we pushed on as fast as we could. It took us about 20 minutes to get down. We hopped back on our bikes and rode home as fast as we could, making it back just as it started to get dark.

Where We Ate

We had heard that Myanmar food left something to be desired, so we weren’t quite sure what to expect. As it turns out, we were pleasantly surprised by the meals we received.

Our first night in Mandalay, we headed with some fellow travelers to Win-Win 35, a restaurant/beer station/live music venue within walking distance of Yoe Yoe Lay. Each of us got a variation of an “iron plate”, which turned out to be an iron skillet with a meat of choice sizzling on top (kind of like fajitas). It was very tasty and filling – we probably could have shared one between the two of us.

Iron plates at the Win-Win

Iron plates at the Win-Win

On our Ancient Cities day trip, our driver directed us for lunch to a restaurant near the Inwa ferry landing. It felt pretty touristy but was a nice introduction to some of the traditional dishes. Della tried some of the fried noodles, which she enjoyed. Eric ordered a chicken curry, in which the meat itself was definitely mildly spiced, but the best part was that curries traditionally come with multiple side dishes, including a sour vegetable soup, noodles, and a few different sauces plus vegetables for dipping.

Eric's curry came with a lot of side dishes

Eric’s curry came with a lot of side dishes

The day we rode our bikes to Mandalay Hill, we stopped for lunch at Too Too Restaurant downtown, recommended by both our guesthouse and Lonely Planet. Here we each picked a curry from a selection of trays near the front. We enjoyed eating our selected meat with the similar spread of all-you-can-eat side dishes and rice.

Lunch at Too-Too

Lunch at Too-Too

 

The day we returned from Pyin Oo Lwin, we ate lunch at a simple noodle house next door to Yoe Yoe Lay. We thought our noodles were great, but that may have been because “Mama” came over and made sure the cooks knew not to make them too oily (a common complaint from tourists)!

Our noodles, as supervised by Mama

Our noodles, as supervised by Mama

Final Thoughts

As it turns out, we are really glad that we started our trip in Mandalay. We enjoyed the sites that we saw, and we got to experience a great guesthouse. If this is a destination that some people think is skippable, we can’t wait to see what the rest of Myanmar has in store for us!