Birthdays have never really been a massive deal for me. I could take them or leave them. And yet, last year when I was faced with the prospect of spending my birthday alone, I suddenly started to panic.
I was in Myanmar, and whilst it is now a place that is firmly on the travel radar, it still lacks the concentration of travellers found in neighbouring countries. That is not a bad thing. Its just that, well, I didn’t really want to spend my birthday on my own. Was I going to have to sit there eating dinner alone or spend the day wandering solo through temples? Would I even be able to get any internet connection to contact my family back home if I was feeling a bit lonely?
Looking back on it now it seems ridiculous that I was actually worried over such a trivial thing. And in case you’re wondering – yes I did meet people. An entire group of people in fact. They took me out for dinner where a Burmese waiter proceeded to sing Happy Birthday to me on his guitar (okay…so he sang it to the girl sat next to me thinking that it was her birthday. Still counts!) and drank mojitos with me until the early hours.
We were in Bagan. Chances are, if you have seen photos of Myanmar then you have seen photos of Bagan. You know those sunset photos of endless plains full of temples and hot air balloons floating above them? Well that’s Bagan. Except that this time there were no hot air balloons. June is not the season for hot air balloon rides as the weather is too changeable for the tour operators to take the risk. As it turns out, its not peak season for sunsets either. So after all those years spent dreaming of watching beautiful sunsets over the temples of Bagan and after all the effort of getting there, my dreams were shattered when just the slightest tinge of orange streaked its way across the sky.
Sunrise over the Temples of Bagan
Luckily, sunrise was another matter. Milena, the girl I was sharing a room with, got up on all three mornings that we were there to watch the sunrise. I, on the other hand, am the worst morning person you can imagine. The morning version of me is like an evil demon version of my later self. So sunrises need to be really really special for me to even consider getting out of bed.
Bagan, I felt, was a worthy subject. And given the disappointment of sunset I had to give it a go. And what better way to welcome in your birthday than to watch the sunrise over thousands of beautiful temples. So, at 5.30am we woke, jumped on our e-bikes (if you don’t know what these are then google them – they truly are special) and headed to one of the nearby temples.
And it seemed that everyone else in Bagan had the same idea. It was reminiscent of sunrise at Angkor Wat but on a much smaller scale – if you take a photo in one direction there is a beautiful view with an incredible sunset behind it but if you turn around and take a photo behind you are greeted with crowds of people all jostling to get the best angle. I even went to the lengths of clambering up to the very top of the temple to get my photo only to find I was completely unable to get back down again.
But the views really were beautiful. Bagan is immensely photogenic at the best of times but put a sunrise behind it and it becomes magical. And, I am pleased to say, definitely worth the 5.30am alarm. After we had stood a while watching the sky change colour, turning from a light pastel pink to being completely bathed in yellow, I turned to make my way back down only to be met with a line up of Milena, Hamish and Christian (the group I was currently travelling with). They all burst into an energetic rendition of Happy Birthday whilst we were stood there overlooking the temples, before we left to spend the day exploring, eating and drinking. After all that worrying, it turned out to be the perfect way to spend my birthday.
For more information on Bagan and how to get there, Wikitravel provides an excellent summary.
We chose to stay in Ostello Bello hostel in New Bagan– the most popular in town and the only one that appeared to really have any life past 8pm. We stayed in both a private room and a dorm room and both were immaculately clean and beautifully finished. Book a few days ahead (maybe even further ahead in high season) as the hostel was fully booked every night we were there.
Hotels and guest houses will provide you with guides as to which temples are the best to head to for sunrise and sunset. Ask them to recommend some of the quieter, lesser know ones. They often offer similar (or the same views) with much smaller crowds to contend with.
There are tons of restaurants and street vendors offering traditional Burmese cuisine but for tasty, cheap food (and homemade ice cream) try the Shwe Ou Food Garden. They serve a pickled tea leaf salad that is to die for (yes I know it sounds odd but it is surprisingly good).
To get around – hire an e-bike! These are sort of hybrids between a scooter and a push bike, taking the effort out of the cycling. We did see some people tackling it on a push bike – all I can say is that they were clearly insane to cycle in that ridiculous dry heat (and I speak from experience as someone who once foolishly decided to cycle to some out-of-town temples in Hue during the height of the hot season).
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