Minibus back to Mandalay featured typical locals vomiting and a rude woman who proceeded to take up two whole seats, smashing me against the window for the winding and tumultuous 5 hour trip. The alternative would have been taking the train back, a grueling 12 hour journey we had already experienced on the way up. We spent the next day planning our trip to Bagan, doing laundry (an outrageous $8 fee, though it was done by hand and dried on the roof) and exploring the hotel’s neighborhood. Riki discovered a very hip mall, a drastic difference from the surroundings and a bakery where one of the staff followed him around “stealthily” taking his picture. Maybe they’ll put him on their next advertisement. They did give him a massive calendar featuring the shop owner’s daughter on every month. We left it as a present for the hostel.
Our 5 hour bus to Bagan left the next morning, was uneventful, but dropped us off a 15 minute walk from where it should have. Bagan is one of the four main places to see in Myanmar. It is one of the former capitals, with many temples, some dating back to the 12th century. It is the Angkor Wat of Myanmar, is on the cover of many guide books and is VERY big. It is also very hot, and dry and incredible. Riki tends to do more historical research before we arrive. I prefer to do it when we are there, as I have a hard time grasping things without seeing them first hand. So I had no idea what to expect, having only seen the picture on the front of the guide book and reading the small intro.
To sum it all up: Temples, Pagodas, Stupas and Buddhas, lots and lots of Buddhas. And then there were hot-air balloons. It was so cool (but so hot and dry). Now you can skip down to the pictures, or you can read the more detailed account of our 3 days exploring Bagan.
We rented bicycles at 5 am. $1.50 for my regular bike, $2 for Riki’s mountain bike. Woke up the poor bike shop guy while the stars were still out. Then we rode about 45 minutes to a temple not known to be very touristy, Loukaoushaung, but with a good perch for the sunrise. The stars were still visible, but we claimed spots and waited. Here is my account, as written while watching the sun climb steadily into the sky:
“Not sure we can top this. We’ve watched as the hot air balloons slowly filled with air and jostled for positions in the sky. We arrived in the dark and ascended the steep stairs, barefoot of course, with the key keeper. The mist slowly cleared and the haze emerged as the sun rose over literally thousands of monuments. I’m almost wishing we were in one of those balloons, but remembering the $300+ price tag for such a short trip. I’ll settle for watching them float majestically across the sky. They come so close that we can hear the burners. And then a loud Chinese tourist with the biggest camera attachments starts talking/yelling (and running around) and stands right in front of me. Riki, from his higher vantage point has a better view, but I felt weird climbing up the wall of the temple (and not sure my blistered feet will thank me later). The loud guys leave and take their incessant camera clicking with them, off to ruin the atmosphere for someone else.”
We stayed at the first temple for about two hours, then headed on to explore some more. There are over 2,000 monuments and we wanted to avoid the touristy ones as much as possible. We went to Shwesan Daw Pagoda, Dhammayangyi Temple, North Guni and some un-marked ones in between. I’m sure they all have names of some sort and I am probably butchering the translations. We then rode to Old Bagan, where a whole town used to exist. They kicked all the people out when they decided to make the area an official archaeological park and moved them south to New Bagan. The old walls are still present and surround a handful of monuments. We saw Thatbyinnyu Temple and Gawdawpalin from the temple next door. We made a quick stop at Bypaya to have a look at the Ayeyarwady River and then took a long lunch just outside the walls. It was incredibly hot. We lingered as long as we could at the restaurant, just ordering more and more cold water, waiting for the heat of the day to recede some before biking on.
Our next stop was the Myinkaba village, where they are known for their lacquer ware. There are workshops there where they will show you the whole process, which is really impressive. Layers and layers of lacquer over bamboo or wood and then intricately carved and painted. The end of the tour is inevitably a stop at the their shop, where we ran into two couples who had lived in New Orleans for 30 years, but were presently in Bangkok. Small world. Our tour guide had convinced them to exchange an old $100 bill (“small head money”) for him (something we weren’t comfortable with and not able to do anyway). American dollars were used more frequently in the past, but the kyat (chat) has taken over mostly and this poor guy couldn’t exchange his old bill anymore. It looked real, and he only wanted $70 or $80 for it, in new bills. Exhausted, we rode our bicycles back to our hotel for a quick nap and then a very slow dinner (we’re talking an hour wait for fried rice).
Day 2 started much like the day before, except that we got an e-bike. More electric than bike, as you can’t actually pedal these things easily. We wanted to go a bit further and the heat really drains you on a regular bicycle. They promised it would last all day, but we were skeptical after our experience with them in Angkor. I hopped on behind Riki and we set off to see the sunrise at North Guni, one of the temples we had seen the day before. And it was just as spectacular as the day before. Balloons, mist, pointy spires dotting the landscape as far as you can see. We then rode to the central plains, with me getting off frequently, as the goat paths got too sandy to safely traverse. Well that got old, so I made Riki walk sometimes and I took the bike. Because man it was hot. And there is little to no shade. Plus its hard to take pictures when you’re driving. And Riki takes a lot of pictures (I haven’t checked yet – but I am guessing there are a few thousand pictures from just Bagan).
We stopped at Sulamani Temple and Pyathada Pagoda, where we were accosted by pilgriming locals. I was sitting at the top of a large open area, with a great view, minding my own business, taking in some shade and waiting for Riki to take all his photos. An old man walks by, sees me and then beckons his granddaughter to come over. Motioning and asking to take a picture with the little girl, I oblige and even manage to smile, despite how sweaty and dirty I feel.
And that was fine. But then a whole gaggle of women, in their Sunday best see this and come over to do the same. But they don’t ask and I stand there awkwardly as five or six of them stand next to me to get their picture taken one at a time, or get really close so we can take a selfie (no selfie-sticks here). I felt bad, I must have smelled pretty terrible, but they didn’t seem to mind. I was getting annoyed until Riki came around the corner. In the middle of taking pictures with me, they spot him and run off in his direction. Yes, run. And they are giggling and yelling at each other, obviously delighted that there is another one! And this just makes my day. He didn’t see it coming. Everyone takes a photo and then I have to join and by the end, we had to get a shot with all of them as well. Pretty hilarious.
We then went to some more, you guessed it, temples. I’m pretty much done with them at this point, as most are very similar. But Riki is always up for climbing something and exploring, so we continue on. I skip some, wait in the shade and watch the goat herders go past. We visit Phya Phat Gyi, Shin Phu Shin and many in between. We leave the sandy paths and find a concrete road we discover we are across from another village, Minanthu. As we are taking a short break under a tree and looking at the map, a woman runs (yes runs) across the road and invites us to tour the village. Her English is pretty decent and we follow her across the road. She shows us some old workshops, weaving, peanut oil, cigars, silversmith. We have the obligatory tea, even though it is scorching hot and hot tea is the last thing I want. In the end, we offer her some small bills and continue on for a late lunch and long break in New Bagan. We continued to explore the central plains behind Dhamayazika and found some cool murals and a cool spot to return to for sunset the next day. We ended at the same temple we had started with the first day, but this time, with Riki’s help, I scaled the temple and had a more amazing view.
Day 3 started slowly. We opted to sleep in and skip the sunrise. We took another e-bike in the early afternoon and returned to the northern and central plains, taking goat trails and going nowhere fast. The northern plains temples were some of my favorite. We were the only ones there and some had incredible carvings, murals and oddities.
Our final stop for sunset, just behind Dhamayazika, where we had been the day before has cool paintings inside and was deserted. We hoped it would stay that way, but others saw us at the top and came up to investigate. Two girls we shared a boat with in Phong Nha were among them, and remembered us as the cookie people, as we had shared some Oreos with the group back in December. Small world.
Some general thoughts:
Bagan is really an incredible site, and sight. It’s teeming with tourists though. Big buses go to the major points, probably just spending a day or two in town. You could spend weeks here, if you are really into temples, and still not see everything. We did a really good job avoiding other people, even managed never to be asked to pay the entrance fee (which is $20, goes to the government and not to preserving any of the monuments).
We found that exploring the smaller temples was so rewarding. Seeing the key keepers living right up next to the monuments, with 100+ animals (cows, pigs, chickens, ducks, dogs, cats, etc) was really interesting. They have little bamboo huts with a single solar panel (often times half shaded by something) powering a few light bulbs and a little TV.
It is a desert, dry and very hot. We were told over 100 degrees. And it felt that hot, not the humid heat we are used to. We managed to find some Australian sunscreen (not whitening like most sunscreen here) and didn’t get burnt, except for that little line on the top of my head where my part is. Always forget about that.
No socks or shoes in temples. I could probably write a book ranting about this, and Riki is sick of me talking about it, so I will keep it short. I will cover my shoulders, wear pants, and even remove my footwear to go into temples. But its not just the temples where you take off your footwear, its the whole area around the temple, which is outside and gets extremely hot and dirty. That’s not the worst. Many of the temples are full of bats and pigeons, so you are traipsing through shit and guano in your bare feet. And then you climb the narrow stairs and there is a giant snake skin on the step. And little rocks are getting stuck in your toes and in the bottom of your feet. Then you step on the little thorns that have blown in, curse avidly right in front of Buddha (hopefully he doesn’t speak English) and hop along until you can get them out. So you leave this temple with black feet, bruised and bloodied and burnt. And if you are Riki, you are lucky enough to step on the 1 inch thorn just as you’ve put your sandals back on. It still goes through, but could have been worse. Did I mention I already had blisters on the bottom of my toes? And that was the short version.
Next stop: a more remote archaeological site near the west coast, Mrauk-U via a horrendous bus ride.