Bagan has over 2,000 temples. Not even the biggest temple geek can visit all of them. It’s overwhelming when every direction holds some alluring-looking temple in the distance. When I first rode down Bagan Nyuang U Road, I passed maybe fifty temples in five minutes, but didn’t stop at any because I had some major FOMO. What if I stop at this temple, but there is a better one farther down? Eventually, I learned to just enjoy the scenery of the temples passing by and to pick and choose which ones I would actually explore.
I was visiting in March, which is the hottest time of year. Wandering the desert of Bagan in mid-day was out of the question. I had to plan my mornings and evenings accordingly. Most important was where to view the sunrise and sunset. Most people visit the temples for a glorious sunset. I enjoyed seeing the sun disappear from atop various temples, but I soon found the sunrise is, absolutely, the best way to view all of Bagan. Sunset cannot compete.
To prepare for sunrise, I rented an e-bike for 6,000 kyat from a small travel agency in Nyung U. They told me to come pick the e-bike up at 5am. When my alarm went off at 4:30 am the next morning, it was painful, but I was excited for for the adventure. I walked from Inwa Hotel, where I was staying, to the shop and the streets were fairly empty. The shop was kickin’ though and they were preparing many bikes for other companies who were doing sunrise rides. I wasn’t given a helmet, but I rode off into the dark morning anyways.
My first mistake was not bringing a jacket. Bagan may be sizzling during the day, but on an e-bike in the early morning, my teeth were chattering. The drive out to Shwe San Daw Temple was dark and lonely. As a solo female traveler, I was afraid. I didn’t see anyone around, except for a few Burmese men walking along the road, in the dark, like ancient ghosts. I had expected there to be tons of e-bike traffic, but I was ahead of any such crowds.
I stopped under the huge floodlights of Ananda Temple to look at my map. The light gave me a sense of safety and I saw that I was close to my destination. But, I worried about going down the vacant paths to the temple without anyone else around. I decided I should wait until the sun started coming up for some safety. There was a sense of dejectedness. I hated having to give up what I wanted to do because of fear.
Just then, I heard two e-bikes approaching. They were carrying four foreigners, who turned down a pitch black, sandy road. Without thinking, I quickly followed them and saw a sign for Shwe San Daw. YES! I was going the right way and I knew that people were around, so I wouldn’t be attacked. My spirits lifted. I parked my bike in front of the temple that I could hardly see. I put on my headlamp (a must for climbing a temple before sunrise) and walked through the entrance. The keeper of the temple stood in the darkness and we quietly greeted each other. That situation would have unsettled me, if I hadn’t know there were four people up ahead of me.
You have to climb up steep stairs to reach the top of Shwe San Daw and I don’t recommend doing this without a flashlight or head lamp. There is a railing, but it would be very easy to mis-step and fall. I have a huge fear of heights and adrenaline was pumping so fast that I hardly registered the climb. Looking back, it was probably tiring.
I got to the top and clung to the pagoda wall, breathing hard. I didn’t see the other foreigners, I wasn’t totally sure where the wall keeping me from falling to my death was, and I was still coming to terms with being up so high. After catching my breath, I slowly circled the top of the temple and found the foreigners sitting quietly, on the ledge. I passed them and sat up against the wall, where I felt safe and waited for light to break through the shadows.
People began to arrive and everyone wanted to sit on the east side, as this is supposed to have the best view. Luckily, I had a front row seat on the ground in front of the low, stone wall. Not on it because I’m not that brave! The show was about to start. There was a reverence in the air or maybe it was our collective tiredness, but no one spoke. As the sky lightened and temples began to take shape in the mist, I realized why I prefer sunrise to sunset. It’s like seeing the world being painted into existence. Sunset is like seeing it all die a little death.
This particular sunrise looked like the gray mist had been slit open with a dagger and was bleeding a feathery red and orange. The silence was now broken and people murmured amongst themselves and the photos started snapping away. It actually began to get very crowded, now that it was light out, and people were getting brave enough to climb the stairs. I realized it was going to be hard to get a shot of myself without anyone else in it. A main woe of the solo traveler is getting a good picture of yourself. Luckily, a Burmese man offered to take one for me and we did a photo shoot, where he directed me into different spots and poses, without saying a word. He also did this for another solo traveling girl from France. I decided he was the patron saint of female solo travelers.
Just as I was about to head down, I looked over to the east and saw hot air balloons filling the sky! I had thought it wasn’t the season for them and so, I was wonderfully surprised and full of awe to see the already gorgeous scene outdo itself.
That ended up being my only sunrise in Bagan because my time was short and my will to get up at 430am was short-lived. Even if you are not a morning person, DO SUNRISE IN BAGAN. It will be a cherished memory, you’ll get some amazing photos, and you can go back to your hotel, eat the free breakfast, and then go back to sleep.
The temples will still be there when you wake up 🙂