I’m not exactly sure how it happened. One minute it was 4:00pm and I had turned back to my Lonely Planet to read another chapter on exploring Myanmar and the next minute Rahim was rushing through the door exclaiming that it was 5:00pm! Oh no! We had planned to leave our hotel by 4:30pm so that we could ride our bicycles down to Old Bagan and climb Shwesandaw temple (aka – “sunset temple”) to watch the sunset and see if the Bagan sky really did look as beautiful as all those photos made it out to be. Now that we were short on time, the bicycles weren’t the best option and a taxi wasn’t going to be cheap. Our hotel clerk pointed across the street and exclaimed “Moto!”.
I’m not going to lie – I was a little scared. I mean, riding motorbikes in South East Asia was definitely on my list of things to do while here, but I wasn’t expecting to be thrown into it with the clock ticking and no clear sense of where we were headed. But, with the image of those beautiful sunsets in mind, we ran across the street, negotiated a $2 deal for each of our bikes (that’s right – 2 bikes – no way was I riding on the back of a motorbike!) and off we went….Or something like that. So the gas is on the right handle and I shouldn’t throw my feet onto the floor to brake? Quite honestly, I’m shocked that the shop owner didn’t call me back and ask me to pay a deposit as he saw me struggling with those first few moments on that bike.
Eventually we made it down the street and turned right onto the main road. Rahim had a map of Old Bagan in his hand, with a circle over the temple that we were headed towards. It’s a miracle that he could understand this map at all and I was happy to let him take the lead. Suddenly he stopped and pointed to the setting sun. We weren’t sure if we would make it all the way to “sunset temple”. We decided to make a left turn down a marked dirt road and head towards a group of temples in the distance. This is where things got fun.
Riding a motorbike for the first time on a regular road is one thing, but riding it through half a foot of sand is another! It was harder to control and easier to skid, but that actually made the drive so much more fun. Especially since we were racing against the setting sun. Rahim kept checking back to make sure that I was doing ok and I kept yelling back to just keep going! (I saw him skid a few times so I know he was worried about me, but I wasn’t going to stop now!). We passed Dhamma Yan Gyi, the largest temple in Bagan, and remembered that that morning we had gone to a pretty quiet temple around the corner from there. We made our way down the dirt road behind the temple and found ourselves headed towards North and South Guni.
When we arrived, we saw a crowd on top of North Guni, but South Guni was virtually empty. We chose to make our way up that one. Once at the top, there were a handful of others who had come to watch the sunset and all of us just sat in silence as the sun slowly made it’s way down. In that moment I felt both amazed by what we were watching, as well as thankful that we had gotten the chance. And then I thought…We made it! Now what? As soon as the sun had set, almost everyone began leaving the temple. There were six of us left on South Guni! The four backpackers with us sat on one side and were swapping travel stories. Rahim and I decided to stay and walk around the entire temple and explore the views from all sides. That’s when the sky began to turn all different shades of yellow and pink. It was just beautiful. We stayed on the top of the temple for almost an hour after sunset, until the sky became dark and there was nothing left to see. Satisfied that we had soaked in as much as we could and hopeful that we had captured some great shots on our cameras, we started to head back down. Oh crap. I guess we hadn’t thought of the fact that there are no lights in the temple.
Well, thank God for cell phones. Making our way down that steep and narrow staircase with only our cell phone light to guide us and then tip toeing through the middle of the dark temple with a giant Buddah staring down at us, I felt like we were in a scene from in Indiana Jones or Tomb Raider! (We had just come from Cambodia so those feelings were fresh in my mind). It also didn’t hurt that there were bats flying above us and the light was reflecting off of the Buddha and creating a giant, eery shadow.
We eventually made it outside, got back on our bikes and traced our path back. Three hours after we rented those bikes, we returned them back to the shop owner and told him we’d be back again the next day….but maybe a little earlier!
As a side note: We eventually did make it to Shwesandaw temple (aka – “sunset temple”) for the sunset and even though it was crowded with people (there are buses that drop people off here!), there’s a good reason why! Take a look at our Travel Guide on Myanmar to see how you can get a great view and avoid the crowds on Shwesandaw.
If you end up going, please do add your tips and stories for us to read!