When most people think of Myanmar, they imagine a hazy, flat plain with hundreds of reddish-brown stupas poking up above the patchy tree cover. The area they are picturing is called Bagan. It lies in Myanmar’s dusty central plains on the banks of the Irrawaddy River and is characterized by not hundreds, but thousands—over 2200, to be exact—temples and stupas.
Due to its immense size and scope and the large number of religious ruins, the Bagan archaeological zone is often compared to Angkor Wat in Cambodia. While the two sites are quite different in appearance and in the surrounding landscape, they do have one thing in common: visitors have a limited number of options for getting around the sprawling sites and all of those options are far from ideal. In Bagan, there are three: taxis, bicycles, or horse carts.
Hiring a Taxi
As you might expect, taxis are by far the most expensive option ($35 for the day), but also the most comfortable. Riding around in a car keeps you out of the heat and the dust out of your lungs. It also allows you to see much more in one day.
The main drawback of taxis, apart from the price, is dealing with the drivers. No matter the country, every single time I’ve hired a local driver, that driver began the day pleasant and ended it cranky. There’s something about a lunch stop that awakens the desire to cut the day short. Sometimes that’s due to alcohol, as it was with our driver in Danba, China; other times it’s laziness or greed or whatever. More on that in the horse cart section below.
Renting a Bicycle
Are you the kind of person who enjoys exercising in a sauna (i.e. you don’t just want to sit there and melt away into a puddle of sweat like most people, but actually feel compelled to do some pushups or jump rope)? Do you enjoy eating platefuls of dirt? If you answered yes to both of those questions, the bicycle is your mode of transport.
On the plus side, bicycles are cheap ($1-$2) and they offer the freedom to go anywhere you please. Of course, you have to pedal yourself there, which is bad enough on the paved roads, but many of the temples are only accessible by dirt trail or sandy path. People with the stamina of an Olympic athlete might actually make it to a few temples and they might even enjoy getting there. Assuming they left early in the morning.
As the hours tick by and the sun climbs higher, every push of the pedal becomes pure agony, as you slowly plow your way along the soft trails while the sun bakes the earth around you and the passing taxis and horse carts shower you in a mixture of hot sand, fine dust and dried-up horse manure. If I had opted for the bicycle, I would’ve left Bagan with nothing but photos of the two blocks surrounding my guesthouse.
Hiring a Horse Cart
This is the classic way to tour the temples of Bagan. Being pulled along the dusty lanes between towering stupas, shaded from the sun in a cushioned cart behind a powerful horse evokes quite the romantic image, but that image might not last long, depending on what your horse enjoyed for breakfast. Ours had apparently dined on a trough of chili and a large brick of rotten cheese. Romantic it was not.
The horse carts are also the slowest option and only slightly less painful than a bike. The cushions give you an hour of comfort, but once that hour is up, you begin to feel every bump in the road and by the time you pull up to your guesthouse in the evening, you realize you’re going to have to eat your dinner standing up or lying down.
That said, the horse works and you don’t and that’s the key. You pay more and move slower than you would on a bike and you eat just as much dust, plus you get a front row seat to your horse’s every digestive problem, but not killing yourself for each meter of ground you cover makes all the difference and means you will actually get to enjoy the sites.
We paid just under $15 for the day (split three ways), which is definitely more than a bike, but still very inexpensive. The main problem with the horse cart is the same I mentioned for the taxi. Without fail, the driver is going to try to cut the day short. If you’re fine with that and just let him take you back when he wants, you won’t have any trouble. If not, there will be some yelling.
In our case, we told the driver in the morning to just take us around to the most impressive and important temples and we figured we’d make a few extra stops here and there as we saw or heard of new places. We also knew he would take us to an overpriced commission-paying restaurant for lunch and probably try to get us to do some shopping in commission-paying stores, but knowing that beforehand, we just accepted it.
The morning went well, but after lunch he took us to one of the larger temples and explained that this was the best spot to view the sunset. We could see that he was right and while the overcast sky didn’t promise much of a spectacle, we all agreed we’d like to come back in a few hours, just in case. That’s when he threw a fit.
Apparently, this was the end of our day. We asked him to take us to a few other temples, none of which were all that far away, but suddenly his horse was too tired and the sun too hot. Of course, if we absolutely insisted, he would do us the favor of waiting with us for the sun to set. Considering it was the early afternoon, waiting around for several hours in the hot sun while an unceasing horde of touts shoved bootlegged copies of George Orwell’s Burmese Days and overpriced postcards into our faces hardly sounded like fun.
But our driver was in the midst of an overly emotional theatrical performance, railing against the injustice we rich foreigners were trying to force on a poor innocent man who was simply trying to support his family (he had been single earlier, but I guess he had a quick wedding at lunchtime) and it was clear we had two options: head back now or wait there for the sunset and listen to his whining for several more hours, while fending off touts and baking alive.
Actually, we did have a third option. Just to see what he’d say, we offered more money and wouldn’t you know it, all of a sudden the horse got its second wind and the afternoon heat was barely noticeable.
We had him take us home anyway and hilariously, once we got back to our guest house—after spending the hour-long drive yelling at us and complaining to anyone we encountered about the unfair treatment he was being subjected to—he suddenly became our best friend again and handed us each his business card, telling us to give him a call the next day and suggesting various places he would love to take us. I swear one of the girls I was traveling with was on the verge of punching him in the face.
I mentioned a few possible reasons in the taxi section why drivers’ attitudes seem to completely change after lunch and in Bagan the answer is simple: greed. The buses from Mandalay arrive in the late afternoon and he was obviously hoping to be at the bus station to try and score another fare, despite us explicitly hiring him for the whole day.
Don’t let our experience stop you from hiring a horse cart, though. Among the three options, it is easily the best, since the hassle with the driver would be the same in a taxi.
The key, and something we didn’t do, is to specify exactly what you plan on seeing during the day and making sure the driver agrees to every point. Also hammer home the fact that you’re hiring him for the whole day. He will try to weasel out of it no matter what, but if you made everything very clear from the start, I imagine he’ll honor the deal. There’s a chance he won’t be very pleasant while doing it, though.
Despite Bagan’s historical significance, the area has so far been denied UNESCO World Heritage status due to unauthentic reconstruction efforts under the military dictatorship. This article on Time World details the controversy.
For more on visiting Bagan, check out my travel guide: https://danielmcbane.com/myanmar/bagan-temples-by-horse-cart/