Bagan

Bagan is probably the second most visited place in Myanmar and quite rightly so. Between the 10th and the 13th century, around 13,000 temples, pagodas and stupas were built in and around the old city. After centuries of neglect, earthquakes and demolitions only around 2,000 remain. Bagan consists of three parts: Old Bagan, New Bagan and Nyuang U. The old part features some high-end resorts, ruins of the golden palace and a big archaeological museum. Also most sunset cruises depart from there. New Bagan caters for the medium budget travellers with a big range of accommodation and food places garnished with a monastery and some temples. The third place, Nyuang U offers cheap accommodation, a golden pagoda that was the blueprint for the famous ShBagan is probably the second most visited place in Myanmar and quite rightly so. Between the 10th and the 13th century, around 13,000 temples, pagodas and stupas were built in and around the old city. After centuries of neglect, earthquakes and demolitions only around 2,000 remain. Bagan consists of three parts: Old Bagan, New Bagan and Nyuang U. The old part features some high-end resorts, ruins of the golden palace and a big archaeological museum. Also most sunset cruises depart from there. New Bagan caters for the medium budget travellers with a big range of accommodation and food places garnished with a monastery and some temples. The third place, Nyuang U offers cheap accommodation, a golden pagoda that was the blueprint for the famous Shwedagon pagoda in Yangon and is has more genuine town life than the other two. It is also much closer to the transport connections in and out.

Dusty Bagan

We took the night bus with JJ Express and arrived at the highway bus station around 7am. The station sits between the train station and the airport, but 10km away from New Bagan and 7km out of Nyuang U. Fresh off the bus and still half asleep, we were swarmed by taxi drivers. We did not really feel like walking even though it was along a good road . They had obviously agreed a price between them and would not budge. Luckily we found two single travellers to share a cab and split the 12,000 Kyat bill. Every tourist has to buy an entrance ticket for the Bagan archaeological zone. There is a booth along the road into town and every driver stops there. The fee is 25,000 Kyat per person and is valid for five days.

At 8am we were obviously way too early to get into our dorm, but we still drop our bags and checked in. One of the travellers from the taxi did not have a place booked and ended up staying with us. After a coffee in the hotel we decided to rent bikes from the hotel and cycle round the temples. Our breakfast stop at Sky World was nice with good tea and freshly baked flat bread.

Not sure this slogan would encourage us to eat there…

There are two roads connecting Nyuang U with Old Bagan which make a good circular ride to start with. Branching off them are lots of dusty paths and tracks on both sides which lead to the temples. It is difficult to chose which ones to see, but even just cycling around the area between them is impressive. Religious buildings rise up every few hundred meters and create some great scenery. Some are half collapsed, while others are being repaired or have already been restored. The first temple we stopped at was locked, but our friend found the ‘gate keeper’; a woman living next door. She not only let us in but also gave us a short tour of the temple which was very nice. The first stop that was actually busy was Alodawpye Phaya. It is a group of temples, but only two or three of them seem to be actually used for worshipping Buddha. A guy offered to take us to another one of the group that we could climb up. We followed him and ended up on a small pagoda about 8m above the ground. The view was nice, but not good or open enough for a grand sunset backdrop. Back down we had our first of many sales talks about sand paintings; apparently a local speciality. Sand is glued onto canvas and then used for painting. Bagan is full of ‘painters’ lingering around temples or driving around and offering to take tourists to some secret sunset spot. We figured that most of these paintings were made en mass as they all featured the same motifs and looked suspiciously the same.

Temples as far as the eye can see

Our highlights of the day included Htilominio Temple and Ananda Phato Temple. Both were big and really impressive from the outside and very busy. Both have internal walkways that connect the four big Buddha statues on all sides. Unlike the former, Ananda Phato is surrounded by a vast courtyard and other buildings. We found a cool and shady spot under a big tree to escape the scorching sun and Matthias even had a nap.
One of the big rules in Buddhist places of worship stipulates that everybody must take off their shoes. One of the downsides to this (at least for tourists) is that the surrounding grounds can be burning hot; especially during the hot part of the year. We also found that, unlike temples in other countries, the Burmese temples tend to be pretty dirty. Places of worship are not only homes of Buddha but also bats and pigeons. The bigger the temple, the more birds live in them. It was shocking to see that the Burmese don’t care about the resulting mess on the floor. Buddha statues are regularly cleaned to look their best, but the same cannot be said about the floor. It is disgusting to walk around barefoot in pigeon shit, then put your shoes back on and repeat the same at every temple. We have not yet found out what the point of taking your shoes off outside your hotel or room if you then carry bird and bat shit in on the soles of your feet. In all other countries they manage to keep their temples clean. Sadly this can not be avoided if you want to see religious sites from the inside.

Ananda temple

After an extended siesta we fancied relocating to a nicer place with cold drinks. Outside Ananda Temple were only huts with plastic chairs so we cycled around most of Old Bagan in search for a cold tea or coffee. At last we ended up in a restaurant near Bu Paya, a very popular temple overlooking the Irrawaddy river. We spent a few hours there before heading back to the temples to find a sunset spot. There used to be many opportunities to climb temples and pagodas to get uninterrupted sunset views, but the authorities have cracked down on this in the recent past. Damaged by time and earthquakes, many of them are no longer safe to climb. We read stories of tourists dying while trying to climb up the façade when suddenly entire sections crumbled and fell off. Tempting as it was, we resisted. After trying our luck at Shwesanda Paya pagoda, we ended up at a nearby view point with two small temples but a better view. We were the only people there which was nice. The sunset was not as impressive as we had hoped for, but the quiet atmosphere made up for that. In the evening we followed the recommendation of our hotel staff and ate in a Burmese curry restaurant. As we entered the owner warned us (in very good English) that they served only Burmese curry and nothing else. She probably thought tourists were always after western food. Our choice was simple: chicken, beef or fish. The rest was all set. Soon we had our entire table covered in bowls and plates with different parts of our dinner. It tasted good and was very filling but no comparison to Thai or Indian food in respects of flavouring.

Our Burmese feast

The next day we set off after a hearty breakfast buffet for a second day of cycling. This time we turned left off the main road as soon as we left Nyuang U in order to explore this area which a room mate described as quiet and beautiful. Her description turned out to be correct but getting there included some small paths with deep loose sand so we had to push our bicycles. The whole area around Bagan is like a big sand pit and it is impressive that the local farmers manage to grow anything. Today we had a near constant breeze to take the edge off the heat but instead covered us in more dust than the previous day.

Not far from the edge of Nyuang U lies a fancy resort like a green oasis. It was built around a roughly 40m tall viewing tower. After $5 admission, visitor get a prime spot for sunset and sunrise views. On the downside this tower is too far away from all the other big temples so they will hardly recognisable in any dawn or dusk photos. Climbing up it in the middle of the day is pointless especially with all the dust and haze in the air.

Fancy pants tower

A few kilometres on better roads we stopped at Tayoke Pyay temple and the Lemyethna temple group. As we got off our bikes outside a later, a woman approached us trying to sell us Buddhist calenders, clothes and souvenirs. By this point we were pretty fed up with turning them away with a polite ‘No, thank you’, so we decided to pretend only to speak our native language. As the woman turned to one of us at a time, we told her no in English, German and French (our friend was from Lille). Quite impressively, she responded in all of these languages and we had short conversations. All being done in a not unfriendly manner, we all walked our away smiling. Quite strangely, one of the items of the temple group is an array of column feet surrounded by gravel and a low wall to which women were not admitted. There was no explanation why this such a special site. Women were still allowed into the main temple and the courtyard of the complex.

Sexism in Buddhism over some ruins

Cycling around these back streets was indeed very relaxed and there was less traffic, but as soon as we got to a popular temple or pagoda it was as busy as next to the main road. We visited the Dhammayangi and Thatbyinnyu temples which were both hugely popular and dominated the landscape with their sheer size. In our opinion these temples were a lot more impressive and photogenic from the outside even with scaffolding on. The aisles and floors inside were rather rough and again covered in bird and bat droppings.

Giant temple rising out of the sand

At this point we were getting hotter and hotter and less bothered about yet another Buddha statue (as nice as some of them are). We agreed to stop templing and instead retire to the restaurant in Old Bagan for cold tea and coffee.

Dwarfed by the huge Buddha

After yesterdays failure with finding a good sunset spot we had again turned to our hotel for advice. They recommended a viewpoint not far from our location the day before. We went there early so had enough time in case we did not like it and had to find an alternative. The ‘Amenaged view point hill’ turned out to be pretty good. Roughly 10-15m higher than the surrounding fields, the vista was great and high enough to have plenty of temple silhouettes in front of the hopefully soon to be red sky. This was also the the only place our Bagan tickets were ever checked. Being there early turned out to be a double edged sword: we had plenty of time to select our favourite spot, but it also gave all the hawkers more time to try and sell us postcards, t-shirts and other tat. We would not have minded that so much had it not been the same people trying to sell us the same thing about fifty times in two hours!

Too many tourists certainly spoil the atmosphere

This sunset was fairly disappointing. The sun went down but disappeared behind distant clouds and haze long before it reached the horizon. There as thus limited amount of red and pink clouds and the big crowd dispersed fairly quickly. It was kind of entertaining to see a coach pulling into the car park as people started leaving and driving off. This tour guide and driver surely missed out on their sunset bonus of the day.

As we arrived back in town we cycled straight to a tea house near our curry restaurant from the night before. We had found it very popular with the locals and decided to give it a try. The fruit juices turned out to be shakes and the noodles had so much oil in them that we got funny tummies afterwards. Constipation is definitely nothing travellers have to worry about in Myanmar. The local cuisine comes with so much oil that nothing can get stuck. Back in the hotel we retired to the balcony with some beer as a reward for all the cycling.

On our last day in Bagan we felt rather lazy. Two days of going around temples was definitely enough as they all looked the same in the end and we struggled to tell what the stand-out features of them were. Therefore we left the bikes behind and walked towards the centre of Nyuang U instead. This part of Bagan has ‘only’ one big golden pagoda, but it is special: it was the model/prototype for the famous Shwedagon pagoda in the capital Yangon.

Golden Ted

After some walking around were lost for things to do and ended up in a small café instead. For dinner we walked to a tiny restaurant again recommended by our helpful hotel staff. It looked a bit shabby, but comments from other travellers from all over the world graced the walls praising the quality and taste of the food. Thus convinced we settled down. The food took some time but it was totally worth it and to our great joy our dishes contained a lot less oil than the previous days.

All fuelled up we felt ready for our night bus to Inle lake. We had again booked with JJ Express and but this time in the more spacious 2+1 seater. Our receptionist had told us in the morning that they offered free pick-up; an offer we took up immediately. After a quick shower we were ready and waiting in the lobby. Our French friend stayed with us so at least we had some company. Our bus was scheduled for 10pm and pick-up for between 8 and 8.30pm. This time window closed without anybody coming for us so we started to worry. Our receptionist rang the bus office again and was assured that they would come around 9pm as things were running a bit late. Our hotel rang them every 20 or so minutes as time went by without anybody turning up. When they rang again just after 10pm phones had been turned off and they had to ring a different number to get through. They had a big argument with JJ Express and even Matthias got a shot at them before being promised a pick-up within 10 minutes and that the bus would wait. This time they were right and finally at half past then a small bus stopped outside and picked us up. Our driver then raced out of town to catch the other bus which we found waiting at the toll station just a few kilometres down the road. We were rushed across and into the bus only to find our booked front row seats occupied by two girls. We were furious. So far we had not heard a single word of apology and now they expected to sit half way down the bus. The only reason we chose these seats was Matthias’ sensitivity to windy roads and as we had to go over some mountains we wanted to avoid motion sickness at all costs. The staff on the bus did not care a single bit and it was only because the girls felt sorry for us after explaining everything and moved back that we could finally relax in our comfy seats.
wedagon pagoda in Yangon and is has more genuine town life than the other two. It is also much closer to the transport connections in and out.

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