Bagan by Electric Bike: A Travel Highlight


“You ride motorbike before?” the guy asked with a concerned expression.

“Oh, yes,” I lied, clumsily stepping astride the juddering bike.

“Good,” he said, reaching out to tap my right hand. “The accelerator. And the brakes,” he flapped the paddle towards my knuckles, “and this is the charge.” He pointed to the series of green lights flashing up at me from the dashboard.

“Got it,” I nodded. I waited for him to walk back inside the guesthouse before turning to Dave. “I can’t do it,” I said. “It’s too complicated.”

“It’s easy,” he countered with a knowing smile. “And they’re electric bikes so I’m guessing their top speed is something like twenty kilometres an hour. Nice and slow.”

My eyes widened as I pictured myself crashing into a wall at high speed. “‘Kay,” I said eventually, waddling to the side of the road. “So I just twist the handle, right?”

“Twist it slowly,” he corrected me. “And don’t forget they drive on the right in Myanmar.”

With my heart pounding in my chest, I carefully turned back my hand and drifted across the road with some semblance of control. I aligned myself with the edge of the road and began to race over potholes at speeds of two kilometres an hour. A horse and carriage overtook me.

I made it a hundred metres without dying and pulled to a stop to catch my breath. I spun around to grin at Dave, eager to hear all about how talented I was.

“Babe,” he called out. “You’ve gotta go faster.”

“What do you mean? I was going fast.”

He arched an eyebrow in response.

“Wasn’t I?” I asked.

“You were being overtaken by pedestrians.”

“Oh.”

Round two. I needed to show Dave I could pick this up. I clenched my teeth and yanked back on the handle, hurtling forward at top speed.

I was out of control but refusing to admit it. Instead, I pulled back harder until I could twist the handle no more. I glanced down at my front wheel, currently zig-zagging over rocks and potholes. A motorbike overtook me with a roar and I threw myself off the road in a panic.

Use your brakes! I reminded myself but I’d forgotten where my brakes were. The dirt turned to grass and now I was careering into a ditch. My fingers found the cool metal paddles and squeezed them towards me. A loud screech filled the air but I wasn’t slowing down. Oh, that’s right, I need to take my hand off the accelerator. I let go, wrenched on the brakes, skidded through the grass, and pulled to a halt.

“Bloody hell, Lauren,” Dave groaned. “Are you sure you don’t want to take the coach tour?”

Myanmar sunset
So many pagodas, not enough time!

It took around an hour to get the hang of balancing and turning and braking and avoiding obstacles, and then we were ready to go.

The plains of Bagan are home to over 2,000 temples and we had four days to try and see as many as possible. And it can pretty overwhelming if, like us, you don’t like to plan. Fortunately, someone had left a tattered map in the basket of one of the bikes so we could pretend we were well prepared. There were maybe a couple of hundred temples marked on the map and they were scattered pretty much everywhere. What to do? What to do?

We picked a direction at random and set off to explore.

bagan bikes
The Deathmobiles

I was about to tell you to prepare for a thoroughly unhelpful guide to Bagan because I don’t know what my favourite temples were called. Or even where they were on a map. Fortunately, though, Dave has already written about our time in Bagan, so I’m stealing the names from his post.

To my surprise, my favourite temples were the tiny ones that weren’t even marked on the map. To me, the real joy in Bagan came from having my own set of wheels and being able to stop anywhere that looked interesting. This is not a place to take a tour.

dave bagan sunset
Dave snapping a photo of the sunset

By the time I had figured out how to ride an electric bike without dying, we were well into the afternoon on our first day and in danger of missing the sunset.

“So, where do you want to watch it?” I asked Dave.

“Dunno,” he shrugged.

“Want to just ride and see where we end up?”

“Okay.”

And that’s how most of our travel decisions are made. As Dave tells me, he’s not sure if it’s due to travel experience, travel fatigue, or travel apathy. Whatever it is, it turned out to be the right decision in this case. We puttered along the road towards Old Bagan, picked a random dirt track stretching out to the left of us, and followed it here.

bagan sunset temple

A gorgeous temple (or pagoda?), with shimmering reflections cast across the tiles as the sun sank lower. It wasn’t high enough for a good sunset view, though, so we jumped back on the bikes and raced the sun further down the track.

After a while, we came across Dahmayan, lined with tour buses and snorting horses. We dodged around the clusters of people, rushed inside, and pulled ourselves up a broken staircase that only had around five steps intact.

bagan sunset

We reached the top and were greeted with a narrow window ledge. I eased myself onto it, my legs dangling precariously over the edge, and waited for Dave to join me. Not even the beautiful sunset could take my mind off the fact that we’d soon have to descend the broken staircase in the darkness. And then ride back to Bagan along a busy, dusty, potholed road with no street lights.

There was lots of whimpering.

burma farmer

Day two, and we were going to spend it doing much the same as the previous day: pick a direction and see what we find. I know it makes me sound like the laziest, least prepared traveller ever but it was on this day that I discovered this was the best way to explore Bagan.

Head to the popular temples and deal with a dozen touts trying to sell you paintings and knick-knacks and water and clothes and photo frames…

Or head to a temple a hundred metres from that and wander around an equally impressive temple but be the only people there.

Or, if you’re really lucky, you’ll find yourself at a reasonably popular temple, in this case, Pya-tha-da, with some of the best views of Bagan, and manage to time your visit between tour groups, having the place to yourself.

Twenty minutes after arriving, a group of 50 people clambered up to join us, signalling that we should leave, but I’m sure if we’d waited another twenty minutes, all would be quiet again. It’s best not to be on any kind of schedule.

lauren at bagan

It was back on the bikes again and a slow, nerve-wracking ride down a sandy track in search of somewhere quieter. Of course, we then pulled up outside Ananda Temple, one of the most popular and best preserved spots in Bagan. But, amazingly, we timed our visit perfectly and came across very few people.

Ananda temple

The highlight of Ananda were four of these enormous golden Buddha statues.

looming golden buddha

Time to go Buddha hunting! I’m a hardcore lover of all Southeast Asian temples and one of my Bagan highlights was spotting Buddhas in all different shapes and sizes and colours and poses.

buddha golden head
reclining buddha
buddha sitting
buddha standing at bagan
golden buddha in bagan

Sunset time! This time, we researched and found Shwe-Leik-Too, a spot near our guesthouse that was said to be relatively quiet. That turned out to be true. Just twelve people and a pain in the ass drone. God, those things are loud.

another bagan sunset

Getting up high involved lots of barefoot scrabbling up some very narrow steps, and then perching on a ledge with our legs dangling in the air once more. And then, a spectacular sunset.

Sunset in Bagan

The rest of our time in Bagan was spent falling into routine: a few hours in the morning spent biking around a spot we chose at random on the map, a few hours in the afternoon relaxing in our guesthouse pool, and a trek out to watch the sunset in the evening. It was the perfect way to see Bagan, and I could have quite happily spent two weeks doing just that. And I still wouldn’t have seen everything.

bagan princess pool

bagan dirt track

Lauren in Bagan

Where I stayed:

I stayed at the Bagan Princess Hotel and paid $35 a night for a basic but decent enough room with a few restaurants within walking distance. Having a swimming pool to relax in after a morning spent temple hopping was wonderful. The Wi-Fi was unusable, the breakfast buffet was mediocre (head next door for a delicious bowl of steaming mohinga instead), but everything else was great. The staff were fantastic and especially helpful when I managed to leave my passport behind. We rented our electric bikes from the hotel and paid 1000 Kyat (around 1 USD) an hour for them.

Stay tuned for more from Bagan, including a bumper photo essay and some of my biggest incidents yet!

 

After five years of travel, my time spent riding an electric bike around the temples of Bagan remains one of my biggest highlights!

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75 Comments

  1. Andrea Anastasiou
    March 28, 2015
    Reply

    Bagan looks absolutely wonderful! I really hope I can make it there one day soon. Also, I think I’d have just as much difficulty on the electric bikes as you did. I’m a nightmare even with scooters – I just get so nervous, and I also regularly forget to let go of the accelerator while holding the breaks. I’m useless!

    P.s. great to have the blog posts back! :)

    • Lauren
      March 28, 2015
      Reply

      It’s great to be back! :-) Why is it so hard to just let go of the accelerator and pull on the brakes? I nearly ran over a monk because of it!

  2. Becky
    March 28, 2015
    Reply

    This sounds like a great way to get around the temples but I think I’d be way to scare to drive them! I love your sunset photos – it looks amazing!

    • Lauren
      March 28, 2015
      Reply

      It was pretty daunting at first but you get the hang of it within an hour or so. I found turning to be the trickiest part. And braking.

  3. Polly
    March 28, 2015
    Reply

    Wow, those sunsets are unreal! Oh, and I absolutely love your way of travel planning – good to know I’m not the only ‘eh, let’s head this way. why not?’ kind of traveler out there.

    • Lauren
      March 29, 2015
      Reply

      I used to meticulously plan out every aspect of my travels but barely do anything these days — I think because I know how much I change my plans that it seems pointless doing so. I think you discover more interesting things by not sticking to rigid schedule.

  4. Photo Of Two
    March 28, 2015
    Reply

    Wow, Lauren! Sunset photos are really spectacular!!
    Love the photo of Dave in the arch.
    Incredible colors!

    • Lauren
      March 28, 2015
      Reply

      Thanks so much! That’s one of my favourites, too :-)

  5. Katya
    March 28, 2015
    Reply

    I read this post first and then decided to take a peak into your travel partner’s post – this is hilarious how the two of you described your electric bikes adventure! :)) You should create a series of posts with both view points. You write a paragraph, then Dave writes a paragraph…it might be quite original! :)

    • Lauren
      March 29, 2015
      Reply

      Hahaha, well we’ve spent the last three years writing about our different views of the same activities, but a post written by both of us? It would probably be a bit disjointed: “I’m going to die!” “Lauren did something stupid again.” “I’m so scared!” “It wasn’t very scary.” etc :-)

      • Katya
        March 29, 2015
        Reply

        Disjointed yes, but hilarious and double informative at the same time! Or maybe that’s only my weird perception of things…:) I like how one and the same place/activity etc. can have such different impressions on different people – it’s like no one really will visit the same Bagan as you did, cause that was only the-Bagan-of-your-world sorta thing…which makes every experience truly unique and one of a kind…ehhh, ok, I probably should stop my ramblings now :)

        • Lauren
          March 29, 2015
          Reply

          Oh, definitely! One of my biggest worries when I was writing my book was whether how I recalled something happening was totally different to how someone else remembered it. I was forever fact checking with as many people as possible! And yeah, I remember Bagan as That Time I Nearly Died Again, whereas I’m sure Dave remembers it as That Time Lauren Panicked About Nothing Again :-)

  6. Marg
    March 28, 2015
    Reply

    Another great trip report. Loved those STUNNING photo’s, and that one of Dave in the arch way is so lovely.
    Keep up the good work ! And safe Travels..

    • Lauren
      March 28, 2015
      Reply

      Thanks, Marg! :-)

  7. Catherine
    March 29, 2015
    Reply

    Oh gosh, that sunset behind the temple!!! So gorgeous! I’ve been wanting to visit Myanmar for a while now, I really need to get onto it, it looks so beautiful!

    • Lauren
      March 29, 2015
      Reply

      It took me quite a while to finally get there and it exceeded my expectations :-)

  8. Dan B
    March 29, 2015
    Reply

    If it’s anything like anywhere else in SEA I’d balk at the idea of one of those electric bikes. But then again I am scared to go at full speed in a go-kart. I do like the idea of being in control though. I suppose the upside is you can stop at any time you like and go wherever you please. But then you also have to spend all day shitting yourself because you may crash!

    • Lauren
      March 29, 2015
      Reply

      It’s not really anything like the rest of Southeast Asia! I saw maybe five scooters and just as many cars, and the roads were pretty empty. Plus, going at such slow speeds made it less dangerous.

  9. Nikita
    March 29, 2015
    Reply

    Haha, we have the same laziness about mking plans. :)
    I prefer it that way though, unexpected discoveries are the best kinds!
    Your pictures are gorgeous. That sunset one… Wow! Sounds like an awesome adventure!

    • Lauren
      April 2, 2015
      Reply

      I’m sure I’ve missed out on some incredible things by not planning but I’ve always stumbled upon some amazing sights by not doing so.

  10. newsfromNOMADS
    March 29, 2015
    Reply

    Nice article and pictures! We’re heading to Myanmar in a month and really looking forward to it! Thanks!

    • Lauren
      March 29, 2015
      Reply

      Hope you have an amazing time! :-)

  11. Amanda
    March 30, 2015
    Reply

    Bagan looks incredible, and it definitely sounds like you explored it the right way – with no plan and just seeing what you stumbled across. Sometimes that’s the best way!

    • Lauren
      April 2, 2015
      Reply

      It’s definitely the best way at Bagan — especially if you do have three or four days to explore. Plenty of time to see the highlights and lesser known temples.

  12. Katie
    March 30, 2015
    Reply

    What a great way to explore. I haven’t ridden an electric bike before but have ridden scooters so hopefully they operate in a similar fashion. I wonder if my 65 year old Dad will be able to ride one?

    • Lauren
      April 2, 2015
      Reply

      I suspect they’d be more comfortable than the horse and carriage rides that seemed to have everyone in agony. They are quite slow and easy to pick up after an hour or so of practicing. I think he’d be fine if he’s relatively fit and active.

  13. Abid Azam
    March 30, 2015
    Reply

    You take stunning pictures. What camera do you use?

    • Lauren
      April 2, 2015
      Reply

      Thanks! I use a four year old Canon 550D with the standard kit lens. It’s a pretty basic SLR.

  14. Deasy Noel
    March 31, 2015
    Reply

    Wow, sounds like you guys had a great time! Haha about the temples. That sounds just like me and my boyfriend. I ALWAYS forget the details of things, but he remembers all the time!

    • Lauren
      April 2, 2015
      Reply

      Yes! I’m terrible with directions, too, and always rely on him to steer me back to our guesthouse :-)

  15. Atanas
    April 2, 2015
    Reply

    Gorgeous landscape! Bagan is so photogenic. Almost like out of this world. Will be waiting for the photo essay to see even more pictures.

    • Lauren
      April 2, 2015
      Reply

      It’s a fantastic spot to take photos! More coming within the next few days :-)

  16. Zascha
    April 2, 2015
    Reply

    Lauren, I really enjoy your photos and your way of writing. You always make me chuckle! :D

    • Lauren
      April 2, 2015
      Reply

      Thank you so much, Zascha! That means the world to me :-)

  17. Camille
    April 3, 2015
    Reply

    Oh, I think I was there only a week or two after you…I loved Bagan as well, but you definitely got the better shots! Your pictures are incredible!

    Re the electric bikes, the funniest thing happened to my friend (well, funny for me, not for her!): her bike ran out of battery as we made our way back from our sunset-watching spot, so she had to pedal like crazy for over 10 kms! Those things are so heavy, she was giving it her all and the bike was hardly moving!

    • Lauren
      November 26, 2015
      Reply

      Thanks so much, Camille! Ah, man, that sounds like a nightmare for your friend! Those things are not easy to pedal.

  18. Beth
    April 4, 2015
    Reply

    Good to hear you got the hang of your bikes … Bagan is truly an epic destination. Nice guesthouse … $35 seems like a good value!

    • Lauren
      November 22, 2015
      Reply

      It was much better than I was expecting for the price! :-)

  19. Jo
    April 6, 2015
    Reply

    When I read the headline, I thought “Electric bikes? I could get behind those”. Then I actually read the article and realised they’re everything I’m scared of about mopeds. I don’t blame you for being intimidated by them!

    Bagan looks so beautiful, I had no idea it was quite so big! That photo of the sunset (4th from bottom) is absolutely stunning, definitely worth the climb!

    • Lauren
      April 8, 2015
      Reply

      Hahaha, the advantage is that they’re pretty slow so you shouldn’t be able to do too much damage with them, but definitely still a little nerve-wracking!

      And Bagan was huuuuge! It suprised me, too. I assumed it was something you could see most of in a few days, but I could easily have spent several weeks there.

  20. Semi
    April 8, 2015
    Reply

    Bagan is cool, but those little electric scooters are absolutely rubbish! We rented them for two days last weekend and on both days ended up having to push them the last stretch home because they’d ran out of battery. They’re definitely not meant to be ridden through the sand (which you need to do to in order to hunt out the best deserted temples), they don’t have any back lights (important at night!), and when you drive them you feel like an elderly person on a mobility scooter. :(

    After seeing how quad bikes and scooters are a nuisance in Cappadocia, I can understand why the government/locals in Myanmar would prefer e-bikes. But they really need to sort out charging stations and bigger tires for the things!

    • Lauren
      November 26, 2015
      Reply

      Ah, well, for someone who isn’t used to scooters or moving at high speeds, they were perfect for me haha. We were fortunate in that our bikes were quite new and didn’t come close to running out of battery.

  21. Francesca
    April 9, 2015
    Reply

    Wow, I think Bagan is fast moving up to my top must visit spot. It seems like it’s really been gaining in popularity recently! Beautiful photographs too Lauren, they look like something you could proudly hang on your wall.

    • Lauren
      April 9, 2015
      Reply

      If I had a wall, I’d definitely be hanging them on it :-)

  22. Patricia
    May 13, 2015
    Reply

    Seems that driving an electric bike is not as easy as I imagined :) But it is a good way of exploring the place as you can stop wherever you want. Is it possible to also ride the bikes off-road or do you have to stay on the road?

    • Lauren
      May 14, 2015
      Reply

      Most of the “roads” around Bagan are dirt tracks and sand. It’s not hard to drive once you get the hang of it — I’m just very uncoordinated :-)

  23. Dave
    May 21, 2015
    Reply

    Hi Lauren.
    These pics are great. My wife and I visited Bagan in January this year. We are familiar with the struggle of the electric bikes, as the locals told us it was illegal to rent any scooters to foreigners. (A rule that will hopefully change in the future).

    The sunset is amazing, although everyone goes for the main pagoda. There are a few other smaller ones nearby which offer more space to take some nice snapshots.

    There’s also a nice market to check out in the evening as well.

    You also found a great deal with the hotel. We went over new years and everything was booked out, so it cost us over £95 a night, in what was mediocre quality. So my biggest tip is to book in advance if anyone wants to travel during the busy season.

    I loved your post and pictures. Hope to see more of your travels soon. :)

    • Lauren
      June 30, 2015
      Reply

      Thanks for your comment, Dave, and for the helpful advice :-). I’d love to be able to rent scooters in Bagan!

  24. Izy Berry - The Wrong Way Home
    June 9, 2015
    Reply

    Great article and pics, Lauren! The Deathmobiles are very interesting and I should try them if I visit the place. All the best with your next adventures!

    • Lauren
      June 12, 2015
      Reply

      Thanks, Izy.

  25. Kim | The Wanderlist
    August 9, 2015
    Reply

    Your photos are insane! I wish so badly my boyfriend and I had had a good lens for Bagan.

    Those battery-operated bikes though! Ours would always run out of power just after sunset, meaning we’d be completely stranded in the dark… One time, we had to hitchhike back with policemen! Got some stories about our dramas here: http://www.thewanderlist.net/myanmar/bagan-travel-guide/ – Hope you don’t mind me sharing :)

    • Lauren
      August 9, 2015
      Reply

      I was actually just shooting with the kit lens I got with my SLR. Think it was only around $100!

  26. Yuliana jong
    May 25, 2016
    Reply

    Hi Lauren,

    I found your blog when i googling ‘how if I can’t ride an e-bike in bagan’ ?. So please tell me, is it really that hard to ride an e-bike? I can’t even ride a bike. Any tips please? I will visit bagan on july ?. And only travel alone

    Thank you so much

    • Lauren
      May 27, 2016
      Reply

      I mean, an electric bike isn’t the only option. You can take a bus or a horse and carriage instead. I’d suggest trying out the bike when you arrive and seeing if you can get the hang of it — you only pay an hourly rate anyway. If you can’t do it, go for another form of transport.

  27. Adam M
    June 2, 2016
    Reply

    Thanks for sharing your experience with all .. Hiring electric bikes, which is definitely the best way to get around, especially since foreigners aren’t allowed to hire scooters or motorbikes in Bagan.

    • Lauren
      June 8, 2016
      Reply

      Yup! :-)

  28. Jhonson
    June 29, 2016
    Reply

    I discovered your online journal when i googling ‘how on the off chance that I can’t ride an e-bicycle in bagan’ ?. So please let me know, is it truly that difficult to ride an e-bicycle? I can’t ride a bicycle. Any tips please? I will visit bagan on july ?. What’s more, just travel alone

    • Lauren
      June 30, 2016
      Reply

      It can be a bit scary to start off, but I definitely got the hang of it after an hour or so of practice. I can (mostly!) ride a bike though, so I can’t speak as to what it’d be like if you’ve never been on a bicycle before. If you’re too nervous, you could take a different form of transport!

  29. Ross
    September 5, 2016
    Reply

    Hi,
    Nice write up but I couldn’t find details of where each photo was taken? Where is that shot of you at the end, green with pagodas/temples in background?
    Thanks

  30. Andrew Lynn
    June 8, 2017
    Reply

    You’re not only a writer but a great photographer! Excellent post with excellent images.
    Thanks for your nice post

    • Lauren
      June 9, 2017
      Reply

      Thank you!

  31. Nomad Biker
    July 5, 2017
    Reply

    I’m digging the “death mobiles.” I’m a little jealous, makes me want to take my bike out on a Cross Country trip.
    You really got some beautiful shots, they make me feel like I was there.

    • Lauren
      July 18, 2017
      Reply

      Thanks so much! It was a cool way to get to explore a beautiful part of the world.

  32. Bicycle Tours
    July 19, 2017
    Reply

    Hi LAUREN

    Great share,,

    Pictures are so perfect,
    Well, I am a bike tour lover and after seeing these picture I would definitely go to this place with my group on next month. Last month we had a trip for Itlay.

    Wonderful memories :) :)

    • Lauren
      July 29, 2017
      Reply

      You’ll have an amazing time there!

  33. mick salas
    October 26, 2017
    Reply

    Great read, Lauren!

    I was in Bagan earlier this year – and fell absolutely in love with it. I stayed an extra two days just riding the e-bike away – it was the definite highlight!

    If only the balloon ride wasn’t so expensive!
    Mick

    • Lauren
      October 26, 2017
      Reply

      I know! The hot air balloon ride is definitely on my list for my next visit!

  34. Rocky
    November 15, 2017
    Reply

    Excellent post! Im adding Bagan to my next destination. I just a question though about the ebike. Did they require you to have an international driver’s license? Thanks

    • Lauren
      November 15, 2017
      Reply

      Nope! I don’t have one :-)

  35. Violette
    January 13, 2018
    Reply

    Hey ! Great post :) With which company did you rent your ebike ?

    • Lauren
      January 13, 2018
      Reply

      It was just through my guesthouse I linked to in the article

  36. kubaoya
    December 14, 2018
    Reply

    It’s a good trip, but it’s really hard to ride an electric bike, haha.

    • Lauren
      January 7, 2019
      Reply

      So tough! At times I was convinced I would never get the hang of it!

  37. Christine
    January 15, 2020
    Reply

    Thanks for this! I was nervous about ebikes, but this blog post helped. Now I think I want one for home!

    • Lauren
      January 22, 2020
      Reply

      Aren’t they so much fun?! I couldn’t get enough of them.

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