We took the “fast” boat from Madalay to Bagan. Fast is something of an exaggeration, because I think I could swim about as quickly as the boat was going. The boat left at 7am and arrived at 4:30 pm. The long ride was fine, because the views were beautiful. From the boat, we could see hundreds of golden temples and shrines.
Bagan is called the heart of Burma. It was the capital of the country from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries. During that time, over 4,000 Buddhist temples were constructed. What surprised me was that many of these temples were built out of brick. Numerous temples have been restored (although often in completely different styles from their original form, making many historians rage). In any case, Bagan is amazing. There are just so many temples! We rented e-bikes for the day to go exploring. Early on, I learned an important lesson about not accidentally hitting the accelerator when reaching for the brake. Added bonus- I got a colorful bruise that matches the Burmese sunsets.
It can be a bit hard to find the temple you are looking for in Bagan, since the temples are usually a bit off the main road and the signs are in Burmese. The good news is that you’ll stumble across tons of temples you didn’t intend to visit, but which are also amazing. We had a number of these all to ourselves while we were there.
Many of the temples have colorful histories. Dhammayangyi Pahto stands out in that regard. King Narathu (who sounds like a real gem) had it built in the 12th century to atone for his sins. He had smothered his father and brother to death and executed his Indian princess wife for practicing Hinduism. Luckily, he’d outgrown his cruel streak by the time that he ordered the temple built. As part of the construction, he mandated that the brickwork fit together so tightly that a pin could not pass between any two bricks. Workers who failed to meet his standards had their arms chopped off. In an ending as predictable as romcom, Narathu subsequently died by assassination in 1170. The temple was then filled with brick rubble as payback. The temple is still believed to have bad karma.
In terms of accommodation, there are three main towns in the Bagan area- Nyaung U, Old Bagan, and New Bagan. Around New Years is the busiest time of year in Burma, especially Bagan, so when we showed up with no hotel reservation, it took some hunting to find something decent. We ended up at the Golden House in Nyaung U, which was pretty good. The staff was super friendly (and much more hard working than the shower drain, which seemed to have taken a holiday from functioning). Nyaung U has lots of decent accommodation options and good restaurants. (Tip- definitely go to Black Bamboo for dinner in Nyaung U. This garden restaurant is run by a French woman and her Burmese husband. The food is good, but the homemade ice cream is amazing. Aroma 2 is also a good option for Indian food, plus I like their motto “No like, no pay.”)
South of Nyaung U, Old Bagan has some great temples to see and accommodation is primarily higher end hotels. (Bagan Thande Hotel is great. We celebrated New Years Eve there, which involved a pretty hilarious cultural show, including two men in an ornately decorated Burmese elephant costume dancing to Gangnam style. The downside was that they closed the bar at 11 P.M., which my friend Chris accurately described as "culturally insensitive.")
New Bagan is just south of Old Bagan. New Bagan was started in 1990 when the (culturally insenstive) government forcibly relocated people from Old Bagan. There are good midrange accommodation options in New Bagan. These three towns are spread out over about 12 miles of road and it is easy to get between them by e-bike, horse carriage, or taxi.
Bagan was by far my favorite place in Burma. If I ever go back, I'm going to make sure to book the sunrise hot air balloon ride, which looks amazing, but sells out well in advance.