Bagan is Myanmar’s spiritual center which was once home to 10,000 Buddhist structures stood, yet only around 2,000 survive today. The hollow temples were erected as sacred spaces for meditation, worship of Buddha, and venues for Buddhist rituals. Weary of the impacts of mass tourism in the sacred archaeological area of Bagan I was eager to explore the countless temples, produce markets, and tea stalls with the guidance of a local. I’m always searching for reputable responsible tourism operators to book experiences with when I’m traveling and was thrilled to learn about the responsible tourism operator Grasshopper Adventures. They’re dedicated to making a positive impact in all their destinations. By working with local guides and businesses they support the community but also offer travelers the most authentic experiences.
I was invited to go on a 20 km off-road mountain bike ride through the valley of temples and surrounding villages in Bagan with Grasshopper Adventures on their community-based sunrise and morning ride experiences. What could be more eco-friendly than exploring by pedal bike? Hello, zero emissions! Before heading out on the Grasshopper Adventures Bagan bicycle tours be sure to purchase a travel insurance plan from World Nomads. Confirm with a World Nomads agent about the coverage for any adventures you plan to have! As of the publication of this article both the Standard and Explorer policy plans provide coverage for incidental bike riding and cycling tours. Book comfortable AC buses around Myanmar on Baolau which allows payment with a foreign credit card!
At the time back in November many of the pagodas were still open and visitors were allowed to climb up ancient stairwells to the viewing platforms. I was uncertain of which monumental structures would be secure enough to climb but luckily my local guide Ye Ye was well informed about which shrines were safe to visit and which we couldn’t enter. By exploring Bagan with a local you can ensure that you adhere to local laws and respect the cultural heritage site that was erected eons ago in honor of Buddha.
We started the morning at his favorite place for sunrise, the Lay Myet Hna pagoda complex. It’s believed that this pagoda was built by King Kyansittho’s daughter as a caretaking monastery. It’s also one of the few temples in Bagan that tell the story of Buddha with shrines to the birthplace of his enlightenment, a dharma wheel, and the attainment of nirvana.
The sky was pitch black as I visited during the new moon and I had to use my innate senses to feel my way up the narrow brick staircase to the flat viewing platform. Ye Ye is clever about his tours and takes guests on a route that is the exact opposite of the typical Bagan trail. There wasn’t a soul in sight as we laid back against the ancient structure and watched in content silence as the sun began to spread fuschia and citrus rays across the breathtakingly beautiful pagoda-strewn plain. As if the vista couldn’t get any more beautiful just as the sun fully emerged from behind the distant mountains to the right of the horizon a fantastic occurrence began to the left.
One by one hot air balloons began to lift into the sky and glide gracefully above the peaks of the pagodas. It was an extraordinary sight that oddly mixed together ancient society with modern technology. From my perch atop that ancient structure, I pondered at just how far the human race has come in our inventions formed from our unquenchable curiosity. Mystical doesn’t begin to explain the sensation one has while watching the sunrise in Bagan.
I could have sat there in wonder all morning watching the hot air balloons float by and taking notice of the way the sun reflected off the brick of the surrounding pagodas but alas it was time to move on as we had a lot to discover! We strapped on our helmets (something I will always do, as my father owned a bicycle shop and I know the horrors bike accidents all too well) and pedaled through rough terrain a short distance to the Myin Ka Bar village.
The morning market at Myin Ka Bar was in full swing as we strolled past vendors hawking farm fresh produce, freshwater fish, flowers, and other odds and ends. The market operates every day that’s not a Buddhist holiday. Bagan is located in the desert so the climate makes it a daunting task to grow produce here. Most agricultural areas are located across the Ayeyarwaddy River where there’s slightly more moisture–there they grow corn in the sand! Other farmers in Bagan grow cotton and produce peanut and sesame oil.
Local villagers collected the necessities for their meals from local vendors. Frail women ran past me at lightning speed carrying two full buckets of water on a stick laid across their shoulders. Through what I’ve witnessed in Asia it’s always the women who partake in backbreaking labor and work in agony under the hot sun. Burmese protect their skin from the sun’s harmful UV rays and enhance their beauty by expertly painting thanaka paste on their faces. Thanaka is made from ground tree bark and is a natural sun repellent, antibacterial and antioxidant.
After perusing the local market which is surrounded by traditional bamboo homes we sat down at a traditional tea shop on the corner to nosh on samosas and fried dough that reminded me of churros in Uruguay paired with black and green loose leaf teas. In the distance, the grand Manuha temple glows in the early morning light. It dates all the way back to 1067 and is one of the few temples that still has its white limestone facade. There’s a massive reclining Buddha inside which is not to be missed!
We spent the rest of the afternoon traversing on our bicycles across fiery soil that color coordinated with the pagodas sprinkled across the Bagan plain. Burmese kings began to erect structures honoring Buddha in the Bagan valley in the 10th century. There was fierce competition to see who could build the largest structure the fastest and many workers lost their lives as they build the stupas brick by brick. One of the most notorious temples with a disturbingly bloody history is Dhammayangyi. It is the largest and widest temple in Bagan–but it’s also the most haunted. The legend goes that King Narathu would chop the arm off of any worker who didn’t perfectly affix bricks during the building of the Buddhist shrine. His murderous tendencies didn’t just lead to the killing of many of his laborers, but also his family members. He was extremely jealous and feared being overthrown. So, naturally, he killed his father, brother, and wife. He felt guilty about killing his family members though and built Buddhist statues in their honor in hopes of gaining their forgiveness before they reincarnated. Unfortunately, he didn’t live long enough to see if his homage worked. He was killed by Sri Lankans who were furious that King Narathu had killed his Sri Lankan queen.
We biked along rocky dirt roads that were quite literally off-the-beaten-path. Along the way, we went passed the tallest temple in Bagan at around 220 feet, Thatbyinnyu. There is fascinating history to be uncovered at each of the sacred spiritual sites and Ye Ye seemed to know a fact about almost each and every temple. I won’t spoil the whole route but will highlight some of my favorite pagodas that we visited.
We biked down sand paths to the impressive Ananda Temple, which traces back to the year 1105, was absolutely stunning with its real gold pagoda and massive Buddha statues. The temple was built as a cruciform with a standing 31-foot-tall teak wood and gold leaf covered Buddha statue in each of the cardinal directions. To the north faces the Kakusandha Buddha whose hands are positioned in a manner to represent Buddha’s first sermon. Facing south is the Kassapa Buddha who represents Buddha attaining nirvana with a hand placement similar to Kakusandha. The Gautama Buddha faces west with one palm facing down and the other facing up representing fearlessness. Lastly, the east-facing Koṇāgamana Buddha holds a nut in his hand which is meant to reflect the dharma philosophy as a cure for human suffering. Ye Ye told me that this is the Buddha image that travelers worship! Ye Ye also shared that the four images are meant to represent the Four Noble Truths–human suffering, determining the cause of suffering, the end of suffering, and how to end suffering. The later is known the Noble Eightfold Path, a philosophy that we could all benefit from, regardless of personal religious affiliation.
We visited a few other lesser known pagodas, but you’ll have to take the Grasshopper Adventures morning ride to learn about them! The last temple we visited was the golden Shwezigon complex with many intricate shrines and temples. The star is, of course, the massive gold-leaf stupa. Shwezigon is open late and is near the Nyuang-U area where most travelers stay, I wish I had made it back in the evening to see the pagoda illuminated under a starry sky.
My morning eco-friendly exploration of Bagan with Grasshopper Adventures came to an end at Ye Ye’s favorite tea house, Khiang Wah. The local spot is just outside the main tourist area but still easily accessible on an E-bike. Here I had the best Shan noodles I’ve ever tasted. Be sure to order the Shan Style Noodle and the Shwe Taung Noodle. Each is ridiculously cheap at just 1,000 kyats each (US 75¢!) I went here almost daily during my five days in Bagan after Ye Ye first took me.
Continue your responsible travel explorations of Bagan by visiting the Bagan outpost of the Yangon fairtrade market, Pomelo. The vibrant shop sells locally produced artisan goods from such as woven rattan baskets from MBoutik which are made by villagers who live in the nearby dry zone. Other crafts include baskets weaved from upcycled plastic by Pokokku villagers. Many handmade souvenirs other than baskets are available from various social enterprises and cooperatives from all over Myanmar.
For dinner in Bagan head to the Sanon training restaurant for disadvantaged local at-risk youth in collaboration with the Myanmar Youth Development Institute. The nonprofit boasts a fantastic menu of innovative dishes with both Burmese and western options. They also have plenty of vegetarian and vegan options and the prices are very reasonable. All funds are reinvested back into the project that aims to train 30 students per year, students split tips amongst themselves evenly as pocket money.
To learn more about local life in Bagan head out on this tour that will take you to remote Kyunkalay village. Your local guide will introduce you to the community projects led by ActionAid Myanmar that focus on improving infrastructure and living conditions within the underserved village.
Bagan became one of my favorite places in the world after my November 2017 visit and I’m already dreaming of returning. The five days I spent in Bagan was easily some of the most fascinating days I’ve spent over my three years of continuous travel. I felt a deeply spiritual connection to the sacred valley which reminded me a lot of Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Have you been to Bagan? Do you have any other responsible travel tips for Myanmar? Share with us in the comments!
Thank you Grasshoppers Adventures for hosting me. All opinions and photos are my own. This post contains affiliate links. Please read the Miss Filatelista disclosure policy for more information.