I travelled to Bagan with my husband and three friends in October 2012. Even though we only spent two days exploring Bagan, I left feeling like we were able to get a real sense of the personality of this place and its local way of life and this was largely thanks to a friendly taxi driver that we met as we alighted from the airport on day 1 (more about that later).
We spent most of day 1 cycling along the roads and tracks of the Valley of Temples, which was spectacular, albeit slightly overwhelming in scale! We stopped for lunch at a very rustic local family-run restaurant and ordered a number of dishes, which, along with the service and prices, were so good that we went out of our way to return there the next evening. My favourite food was the coconut rice, which is the best I've had anywhere.
A tale of caution about the bike-riding: I actually found this day exhausting. Partly because it was hot and dusty, but mostly because my hotel-borrowed bicycle malfunctioned about as frequently as a new temple came in sight. So some tips: 1. consider hiring decent bikes 2. if you insist on using the hotel bikes, give them a test run for a good five-ten minutes before going too far... and take plenty of change with you to pay for potential road-side mechanical work. Also, come with a good sense of humour because you'll need it if you're in one of the world's most magical landscapes with face to pavement and pedal in hand, searching for a washer.
Other tips: bring plenty of water/sport drinks, sunglasses, sunscreen, raincoat/poncho and hat. Also, wear footwear that you don't mind getting wet (so that you can weather a deluge) and that is easy to take off (for walking barefoot inside temples).
Day 2 was spent with the aforementioned local taxi driver called U Aung, who showed us the sights of, and around, Bagan. I am happy to email his details on request, since his friendliness, enthusiasm and local knowledge was what made our trip to Bagan extra fantastic. U Aung took us on a full day and night tour which encompassed splendid temples and stupas, a visit to a local farmer’s home and store, a stroll through a small rural village, a walk up to stunning Popa Taung kalat monastery, a lunch-time banquet of Bagan cuisine at a real local’s lunch spot (including the famous Mohinga), and a quick visit to the lacquer store.
We visited some of the temples, including Ananda, at night time. I would really recommend doing the same, since that way you can enjoy having the whole place to yourselves!