“It won’t stop…how do I make it STOP!” I shrieked at Andy. “Stop twisting the handle” Andy called back, laughing. Exploring Bagan by e-bike (electric bike) didn’t get off to a great start. I twisted the accelerator too fast and shot across the road, up the wrong side towards the oncoming traffic.
I’d never ridden any two-wheeler faster than a push-bike before. Not a confident driver at the best of times, I wasn’t convinced e-biking around Bagan was the best idea. I kept having flashbacks to desert quad-biking on my hen-do in Egypt. Much to the guides frustration and my friends’ amusement I crawled along at a snail’s pace behind the other girls.
Exploring Bagan’s Archaeological Zone by foot is a no-no. Other travel arrangements are necessary as it sprawls over 26 square miles and sports more than 2,000 pagodas.
There are five main modes of transport to choose from. Push-bike, e-bike, horse and cart, rented car and hot air balloon. Push-biking looked too much like hard work – hot, sweaty and dusty. The horse and carts looked to slow, bumpy and uncomfortable and a rented car was out of our budget. A hot air balloon ride had been high on my wishlist. It would give the best views of Bagan, but at over $300 (£234 GBP) per person for only a couple of hours, we just couldn’t justify it!
After considering all our options, we decided e-bikes it was! It would still be dusty just like the push-bikes but we could live with that.
You can rent e-bikes through most hotels or from several shops in Nyaung U, one of the three areas of Bagan. They cost around 5,000 kyat or $5 (£3.20 GBP) per day or for around the eight hours battery life. They are a slower, quieter, electric version of a motorbike. It’s illegal for foreigners to rent or drive motorcycles in Bagan so an e-bike is the next best thing.
Once we’d gotten over my shaky start and we had a bit of practice under our belts, I gained a bit of confidence. Soon I started to enjoy whizzing about on my little bike. Actually whizzing is quite an overstatement, pootling along is a more accurate description.
We had three days in Bagan and the plan was that there was to be no plan, this was Andy’s idea as I can’t help but plan. After India and Bangladesh, he was ready to take things at a more leisurely pace, to which I’d agreed, so there’d be no getting up at 5 am for sunrises.
Late morning on our first full day we armed ourselves with a good map bought from our hotel for 1,000 kyat (£0.64 GBP), water and sun lotion. Sporting attractive helmets we headed out in the general direction of Old Bagan to see what we’d stumble upon. We had our Archaeological Zone tickets tucked safely away. Foreigners have to buy these tickets for 25,000 kyat (£16 GBP) on arrival at the airport or bus station. They are valid for five days but if you stay longer they most likely won’t be checked.
The first pagoda we came across was Schwezigon and was actually my favourite. This impressive pagoda was gilted sandstone that glinted in the sun. Despite earthquake damage from a few months earlier, there were still fantastic photo opportunities, minus the gold dome. Definitely remember to take your camera.
Next up were some smaller pagoda’s, including Tha Kya Pone. These were reached via deep sandy dirt tracks and involved a nerve-wracking balancing act to avoid a total wipeout. Not too fast, not too slow, avoid the potholes and easy on the brakes. We had a quick look around but they were pretty damaged. Some also had bamboo scaffolding erected and workman busy restoring them. Andy seemed more interested in the scaffolding than the pagodas themselves.
Back on the bikes again we headed back towards the main road, me trailing behind as usual. I caught up with Andy at the junction where he was chatting to an English couple from Newcastle who were sharing one e-bike. A couple of minutes later we’d made rough arrangements to meet up for beers later and we were on our way again.
We came across the Golden Palace next and were in two minds whether to go in or not as at $5 per person it was quite pricey. We decided to go for it but in all honesty, it wasn’t worth the money. It’s a government reconstruction of the original aimed to attract tourists. I doubt if it shows much resemblance to the original. Soon we’d seen all there was to see and were back outside ready to set off on our e-bikes again.
We decided to ride all the way out to New Bagan, the area of Bagan that was furthest from where we were staying. There were brief stops at another couple of pagodas on the way filled with more Buddhas and weathered murals. Mainly though we just enjoyed spotting them from the road, making a mental note of which ones might be good to explore later.
Lunch at Weather Spoons
About three hours after picking the e-bikes up Andy noticed his battery was already getting low. This was pretty annoying considering they should last eight hours. We were both also getting hungry though so decided our best bet was to ride back to Nyaung U and take the e-bikes back to the shop to charge-up whilst we had lunch at Wetherspoons.
Yes, you read that right, we had lunch at Weather Spoons. Not the UK chain but a small restaurant in Nyaung U; the chap that ran it had worked in a Wetherspoons in the UK. This was a spin-off and in our opinion much better. We’d been there for a couple of beers the night before and everyone was raving about the food so we decided to give it a go. My pad thai was delicious as was Andy’s massaman curry. Service was good too and the staff friendly, we’d highly recommend it.
Another couple of hours had passed by the time we walked back into town and collected our charged e-bikes. A quick decision had to be made of what to do next. Sunset was fast approaching and the thought of riding back in the dark wasn’t filling me with glee. A quick glance at the map and we decided to head out to Bagan’s Viewing Tower. We weren’t quite ready to face the expected crowds at one of the popular sunset pagoda’s so we hoped this would give us a good view too.
Bagan Viewing Tower
There are mixed reviews on Bagan Viewing Tower and we’d agree it is an ugly blot on an otherwise beautiful skyline. However, the 11th-floor viewing platform also gave us a breathtaking 360-degree view of Bagan’s pagodas, temples, stupas and lush countryside.
We arrived just before sunset and waited with a handful of people. The sunset wasn’t anything spectacular that day, but we were still treated to a view that I suspect could only be rivalled by that from a hot air balloon. It was 6,500 kyat (£3.20 GBP) per person entry to the tower but we felt it was well worth it.
The ride back in the dark was a bit nerve-racking but we made it in one piece and dropped the e-bikes off. We were filthy, covered in dust and grit and spattered in reddish mud.
The day was finished off with an evening of drinks and food in Nyuang U with the Newcastle couple we’d met at a junction earlier. There are many restaurants, cafes and bars down and just off Thi Ri Pyitsaya 4 Street and is the busiest part of Bagan in the evenings. Everything closes by midnight though so if you’re up for a big night out, start early.
Ananda and Shwesandaw Pagodas
Our second day exploring followed pretty much the same pattern as the first. A leisurely breakfast was followed by exploring more pagodas and hundreds of Buddhas on our e-bikes. The only difference was we were rudely awoken at 5 am to awful tinny music and singing just outside our hotel. This was to continue from 5 am to midnight for the next two days. It was some sort of festival, but we couldn’t for the life of us find out what it was celebrating.
The day was a little more structured than before as I’d marked several pagodas I wanted to see on the map. Due to Andy’s flat battery the day before we hadn’t seen as many as I’d hoped.
I was much happier riding the e-bike this time and we got around much quicker and covered much more ground. It was so much fun and convenient to be able to go where we wanted without relying on a guide or public transport for once. The two pagodas that stuck in our minds most were Ananda and Shwesandaw.
Andanda Pagoda one of the most popular and can get crowded. We were quite lucky with the timing of our visit though and there weren’t too many people about. This was an excellent pagoda, with an incredible collection of Buddhas of all shapes and sizes. The highlight being the four enormous gold standing Buddhas.
Another couple of smaller pagodas later we stopped for a late lunch at Mingalarbar Food Corner in New Bagan. We both had Twelve Vegetable Soup which was excellent.
We headed to Shwesandaw Pagoda for sunset, to be honest, we weren’t sure about this one. We’d heard it was the most popular sunset spot and as a result from 4 pm onwards tour buses start to roll up and it becomes very crowded. On the same note, we didn’t want to miss it so went anyway. Arriving around 4:30 pm, it was already busy, there were a few tour buses parked up and row upon row of e-bikes and push-bikes.
The climb up the side of the pagoda was very steep and the steps were very high. It was quite a struggle for little old me and my short legs. Luckily there are metal railings both sides to help drag yourself up the steps. Tourists positioning cameras and tripods crowded into the top two or three terraces. Several perched precariously on the walls, dangling their legs over the side. They were all trying to get the perfect sunset shot. Once at the top we could see why it was so popular. The views were spectacular, on a par with, if not better than the views from Bagan Viewing Tower the day before.
We lingered until just before the sun finished setting then hot-footed it out of there. I didn’t fancy being pushed and shoved to get back down those steep steps. Getting back to our hotel proved more difficult than the day before. It was soon pitch black and with only dim lights we managed to miss a turning and went about half an hour out of our way. Thank goodness we realised our mistake before we’d gone too far, did an about turn and found our way back.
No Major Incidents
The two days we were out on the e-bikes passed without any major incidents. The worst was when I forgot to turn the bike off and accidentally twisted the accelerator whilst dismounting. It sent it careering towards a coconut stall, nearly taking out a frightened looking monk in the process.
Andy was most patient with me the whole time, often stopping to wait for me to catch-up. Partly because I was slow, but also because I kept pulling over to take photos of interesting pagodas I’d spotted. In return, he nearly gave me a heart attack on a few occasions. His balance isn’t great at the best of times and every time he turned his head to check on me he’d swerve over to the left of the road. There were several narrow misses with motos, cars, trucks, horse and carts, and ox carts.
By the end of the second day, we were pagoda’d and Buddha’d out. We decided to spend our last day in Bagan just relaxing in our hotel and at a nearby hotel with a pool.
Handicrafts and Dress Code
There are a couple of things to be aware of whilst you’re exploring Bagan. Vendors of sand paintings, lacquerware, longyis, ‘gemstones’ and other handicrafts push their wares on tourists in and around the pagodas. A firm ‘no’ should do the trick if you’re not interested in buying something. The strict, modest dress code must also be observed. Women should cover their shoulders and everyone should cover their knees and remove footwear before entering a pagoda. Be careful of the hot tiles underfoot on a sunny day.
From our experience, I honestly think that e-bike is THE best way to see Bagan, it’s such fun once you get the hang of it. It’s also so nice to have the freedom to go where you want when you want, which is something you don’t get with a guide or public transport.
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Have you been to Bagan? Did you try an e-bike and how did you find them? If you used a different mode of transport how did it go?
P.S. You can read more about our journey to Cambodia via the following links: