It was well after 5 PM when we passed through the main city borders of Bagan.
We could scarcely believe it ourselves when the gates loomed ahead of us. It didn't seem possible that the last two and a half weeks, from the moment we left Berlin, arrived in Mae Sot, rode across the border into Burma, and went over and up through the country, were over.
What goes through your mind when you finally accomplish what you had set out to do? The months planning for the trip? The money you spend to get there? Wondering if your numb, leathery backside will ever be the same again? The beauty of each rising sun and the unknown possibilities it brings?
No, none of those things. We could think of bugger all except the fact that we were tired, dirty and HUNGRY.
Yes, that's the unromantic truth of coming to the end of an adventure like this – it can't help but be slightly anticlimactic. There's no crowd waiting to welcome you, no magnum of champagne for you to spray around. Nobody knows or cares what you've been through to get here. You have to go door to door and find a place to stay just like everybody else. Elation will have to wait.
Our last day was also the longest day we'd ever ridden over the course of this journey, and as we reached the fringes of Nyaung U, we wanted nothing more than a place to shower and somewhere to eat. We were absolutely destroyed.
Hang on - those cyclists up ahead. We know who they are!
Martin and Susanne were the pair that we had run into the morning we left Pyay, and we had timed our arrival in Nyaung U perfectly with theirs. Laughing at the good fortune of meeting up again, we exchanged names this time and talked tips about where to stay in the Bagan area as we pedalled onward. It must have been some sight for the locals - two seasoned riders gliding effortlessly along although laden down with all matter of gear and equipment, and two idiots on a black tandem that creaked incessantly and had quite frankly seen better days. We were so pleased to see them again, and wished them luck as we took separate forks in the road ahead.
As mentioned previously, Bagan is really split up into three smaller "towns":
- Nyaung U is where the last vestiges of cheap accommodation are (this is where we are staying, naturally). It's also the main centre for food and entertainment, and lies about 6km away from the old city.
- Old Bagan is a huge tourist trap and you will pay a pretty penny to stay in hotels that are catered more towards the more upmarket clientele that the government has always sought to court. Whilst you might prefer it here because of its proximity to the greatest concentration of historical monuments that you'll ever see in your life, renting a bike and staying in Nyaung U for cheaper is a smarter solution. Besides being expensive, there ain't much going on here.
- New Bagan is an in-between area that has some mid-range accommodation options if you can't find anything in Nyaung U.
We rode along Anawrahta Road into Nyaung U, past the Mani Sithu Market, and took a left onto the Bagan-Nyaung U Road (this is also the main road that gets you to Bagan proper) before stopping at the Pyinsa Rupa Guest House.
As we were locked in a congratulatory hug for reaching our ending place, the owner just so happened to step outside and, with a wide grin, exclaimed, "Did you just cycle here? Well, do I have the room for you!"
He led us through the side pathway to the back building, which encircled a covered courtyard and made the perfect spot to store Samson for the four days we'd be staying here. We walked upstairs and entered a clean room with a double bed, air conditioning, ensuite bathroom with hot water, and breakfast of toast and fried rice each morning. $30 per night.
Normally, we would have choked at that kind of price tag. But because we had kept a tight grip of the purse strings throughout the trip, we had a bit of slack in the budget. And because this was Bagan, we weren't likely to find anything cheaper with the same amenities. So we said to hell with it and threw down our bags. This was home for the next wee while.
In the last couple of years, Bagan (and Burma as a whole) has seen a large influx of tourists and backpackers reaching its vicinity. This means that the town has upped its game with regards to restaurants and bars, and you'll find most of them alongside "Restaurant Row" on Thiripyitsaya 4 Street. That's where we ate all of our major meals and you'll be spoiled for choice to an extent you simply won't find anywhere else in the country. You'll pay a bit more than what you're used to, but that shouldn't surprise you in Burma's biggest tourist attraction. And don't neglect the smaller side streets that spread out from the main drag - we found excellent food and service in a few of them, and for very reasonable prices too.
But we didn't ride all the way here for the food. We came for this:
Containing over two thousand temples across an area of about 70 square kilometers, Bagan was largely built between the 10th and 13th centuries. There's simply nothing like this on the planet, not even the admittedly stunning ruins of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. For although we were (and still are) astounded by the size and gnarled beauty of the likes of Preah Khan and Ta Prohm, Bagan is a spectacle on a different scale. The flat, arid landscape is just peppered with temples, in all directions, as far as the eye can see. Get just a little way above the plain and the sight that awaits you is without equal anywhere.
With the exception of the more popular ones, most temples remain largely undisturbed and you can hop from one to the next without seeing another soul. This is when the bike comes into its own, for you can take it at your own pace, in whatever order you like, unhindered by a guided tour that might only take you to the main attractions. There are so many that you can pick one a bit off the beaten track and have it to yourself for a while. Or just park your tandem by two trees and delight in a hammock siesta with a view you'll never forget.
There's no other word to describe this place than magic. Don't be in a hurry whilst you explore and don't rush anything. Three days should be enough to get a feel for the area, and one week if you want to see most things properly. Some people say that in order to fully immerse yourself, you'd need a better part of a year. But regardless, each moment won't be like the one before or the one after. No matter where you look, something new abounds that makes you stop and catch your breath. Such as the time when we almost blundered into a colossal wasp nest whilst Indiana Jones-ing our way through an abandoned temple. From far away, it looked like a big onyx stone protruding out from the brick wall. But unusually for a rock, the surface of this one seemed to be pulsating. And then we heard the humming.
Time to go.
Seeing the sunset is a must, and there are a number of featured viewpoints scattered throughout the site. If you choose to join every other Tom, Dick, and Harry at one of these specified temples, be forewarned that your sight might be obscured by Chinese tourists such as the ones in the photo below. They come wielding scarily expensive camera equipment to get a photo of the sunset which looks exactly like a postcard you can buy from any passing street urchin.
To be able to see utter unique spectacularity like this in our lifetime is truly a gift. And to have strained and sweated our way to this, to have seen, heard, smelled all that we did, made it all the more special. We're sure our friends with the tripods and telephotos had a wonderful time too, but for us... we earned this.