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