biking bagan's back alleys
the throbbing sun beat down against my drenched back as i raced my purple beach cruiser past temple after temple, skidding and slipping on the sandy paths. sunset was fast on its way and i still hadn't found the perfect temple to climb to catch that moment when the sun blinks and sinks behind the hills, blurring bagan in dark violet and blue. it was my last night in bagan, myanmar, and i was going to be pissed as hell if i missed my moment.
bagan might actually be one of the most magical places on earth: a real-world narnia, where a seemingly endless sea of temples rises out of the mist-blanketed grassy plains. historically bagan was once the capital of the kingdom of pagan from the 9th to 13th centuries - the first kingdom that would eventually become myanmar. more than 10,000 temples and pagodas were constructed in bagan during its height, and today around 4,000 still remain. a trip to myanmar would be incomplete without a visit to bagan, and the best way to see these temples is to get up close and personal with them on the many bicycle trails that labyrinth around them.
the best way to see the temples is on two wheels. you could sign up for a guided tour (i recommend grasshopper adventures, whose tours end with a sunset cruise along the irrawaddy river), but it's a much more intimate and soul-searching journey to rent a bike and go off on your own. beach cruisers run for roughly $1 for the day. motorbikes are around $5. mounted atop your trusty steed, you are now ready to tackle the temples on your own. many hotels and shops in the area have temple maps of the archaeological zone that is old bagan, which is where most of the iconic temples are located. bagan is a very safe destination, and is relatively small, so exploring on your own is completely fine. most people speak english as well, so if you happen to get lost you will have no trouble finding your way back to your route. the peak heat in myanmar is in the afternoon, so it’s best to save your temple exploring for early in the morning or later in the afternoon. starting later in the afternoon means you will be in a prime location for the sunset
back when i was there in october 2015, many of the temples were climbable - perfect perches from where to catch the spectacular sunset colors that paint the bagan sky. today that is no longer permitted as tourism numbers to myanmar continue to skyrocket. but back in october old bagan was my personal playground, assuming i could find the temple i was looking for.
drenched in my most ladylike glow and caked with ladylike dirt, i felt a firm "fuck it" on my lips, when from around the corner a girl buzzed by on a motor scooter. she pulled out a map and asked me in her swiss german accent if i knew where i was going. i laughed and told her i was lost as fuck. we decided to join forces to find the temple of our collective dreams. she sped off with me pedaling furiously behind her.
back and forth, back and forth, we raced between the temples, each one looking more and more like the last as the sun inched closer and closer to the edge of the horizon. it became clear that this was a battle we were going to lose to bagan, so we decided to pick the next temple we saw - a petite short-stack temple with four towers and two tiers. dropping our bikes in the dirt we kicked off our shoes at the temple entrance and scrambled to the top. we snuggled up between tourists from norway, the uk, germany, and a few local children selling postcards and lighting candles. it was dead quiet, save for the hum of the stagnant heat that hung over the grassy fields. it wasn't the victory i was hoping for (that damn temple still eludes me), but sitting quietly, i watched another day end behind bagan knowing that nothing made me feel farther from reality than racing the sun down dusty paths on a rickety beach cruiser past fields of peeking pagodas. i'll take that as a win.