‘Bagan wasn’t like this in 1995’, Buxton muttered as yet another huge tour group mowed him down, selfie sticks aloft. Back then, I had the ancient temples of the Kingdom of Bagan practically to myself. Now that Myanmar was firmly on the tourist circuit, we had to share this once forgotten archaeological wonder with thousands of others. I am convinced that there were more tourists climbing up the Shwesandaw Temple for sunset in 2016 than there were in all of Myanmar in January ’95!
Is it real?
The Burmese government has been renovating the temples for decades and as usual with Myanmar, this has attracted some controversy. In keeping with Buddhist traditions, it is considered disrespectful to leave temples and statues in a state of disrepair. However, most of the temples have been destroyed over the centuries by a series of devastating earthquakes and subsequent neglect. No one knows what the temples originally looked like so the Burmese have done their best to approximate their original state using the base and rubble as guides. This had led to conflict with world bodies such as UNESCO, who are loath to award World Heritage status to what amounts to modern recreations that may or may not bear much resemblance to the originals. Personally, I don’t care either way since, authentic or not, there is no denying that Bagan is a hugely impressive place.
Biggest isn’t always best
Many of the larger temples such as the Ananda, Dhammayangyi, Sulamani, and Htilominlo temples would be major tourist attractions on their own anywhere else in the world. The major temples are unmissable but, as we have often found on this trip, real gems are found in less lauded locations. My favorite spot was the tiny Paya Thonzu temple, which, unlike many of Bagan’s monuments, is decorated with extraordinary murals. Although Myanmar is vehemently a Theravada Buddhist country, this temple hints at the existence of Mahayana and Tantric strands in Burma’s medieval past. For me, it compares favorably with the famous murals at Alchi in Ladakh so it is baffling that so few people visit.
Yangon domestic airport certainly rivals Kathmandu for sheer ineptitude. It seems to me that there is a time-honored way to manage checkins and departures, but Yangon has other ideas. It certainly doesn’t help when it’s 5:00 AM and every passenger is bleary eyed from lack of sleep. After the bewildering check in process, thankfully, the flight itself was fairly uneventful and before we knew it we were at the Aung Mingalar Hotel, in Nyaung U town.
Although the early flight seemed a great idea, we were really sleepy on arrival. Even worse, we could not check in for at least three hours. We whiled away a few hours at breakfast and wandered around the nearby Shwezigon temple, but to be honest we were all a bit vacant. Bagan is a vast site so you really need to be on your tourist A-game.
In the past, I had trundled round the site on bicycle and horse carts, which are the best ways to get around the temples. However, the sun was fierce when we were there so we thought it best to hire sunrise-to-sunset taxis to avoid sunburn and dehydration. Taxis isolate you a little bit from the the overall ambience but we certainly got around efficiently. Well, for most of the day it was smooth going but there is so much traffic that you regularly hit traffic jams especially around sunset. The roads were not built to accommodate huge luxury VIP buses, the vehicle of choice for tour groups.
Even the popular sunset spots seem precarious these days, since the temples weren’t designed to have 400 tourists clambering over them attempting to get the best trout pout selfie. I am fairly convinced that most tourists don’t come to appreciate the magnificent temples anymore. They just want that all important ‘Look, I was there’ shot and off they move to their selfie-at-next-temple moment. Fools!
Sunrise and Sunset Spots
The site is so vast that for most of the day you can move around to your heart’s content and find plenty of places to contemplate the temples in peace and quiet. However, Bagan can be very hectic, or even downright unpleasant, at sunrise and sunset since there are fewer places that give you that all important elevated view.
The first full morning, we hit the Buledi Paya on the northern edge of the central plain. The taxi picked us up at 5.30am and we arrived at the pagoda around 6am. Sun up was around 6.30am. There were probably 20 people there for sunrise, which was pleasant enough for the size of the structure. Overall, we found that numbers on temples for sunrise were much much lower than sunset for all the main viewpoints. In fact, we reckon the overall atmosphere is way better in the morning. The temples rise up through the magical low-lying mist that swirls over the desert plain. It is surprisingly cold in the morning so wrap up warm. And, bring a flashlight to help you negotiate the steps and tunnels that lead to the viewpoints. The Buledi is a pretty good spot for sunset too. There were perhaps 50 people on top at sunset a few days later. The temple is surrounded by a number of similar structures that you can climb if you prefer a more exclusive spot. The Buledi, like many of the barrel-shaped pagodas, has steep steps up and the viewpoints are often very narrow so they are not for those with a weak head for heights.
For sunset on day one, we headed to the Guni temples that are close to the magnificent and massive Dhammayangyi temple. This is when we realized that tourism at Bagan is getting out of hand. There is one narrow sandy road running north-south that links a number of the main temples and famous sunset spots. Nearly every vehicle in Bagan converges on this road around 4.30pm. The road becomes jammed very quickly as drivers ignore any common sense or road etiquette in attempting to get their clients to the best spots. We got stuck for 30 minutes and eventually we had to jump out of the car and run to a temple as the sun was setting. We managed to get to the North Guni temple just in time. It was packed but not crazily so. The red brick Dhammayangyi looked incredible as the sun dropped lower. It was well worth the effort but there is no denying that sunset turns a peaceful day into an unruly scrum!
On day two, our driver picked us up at 5.30am for the 30 minute drive to the Pyathada Paya for sunrise. This was probably our favorite sunrise spot. Laura and I were on our own since Peggy and Kelsey were a little under the weather after a hectic few days. The viewing point is accessed via a couple of very narrow steep passageways. You wouldn’t want to be up top in an emergency since the escape route would be terrifying. The roof of the temple is wide and flat and there is room enough for hundreds of people. There were twenty or so folks up there this morning. Two annoyances to report. One, don’t you just hate dudes with drones? I am sure that they get great video footage but the constant droning buzz utterly ruined the peace and calm for everyone else. Two, the hot air balloons. All twenty-one of them. I have no doubt the views are incredible but they ruin the view for everyone else at one of the best times of day for photography. However, the views are good here so again, despite the gripes, it’s an unmissable spot.
Late that afternoon, we ran up the Shwesandaw Paya, the premier sunset spot at Bagan. We knew it would be packed for sunset but we thought it would be worth taking a look at the view earlier in the day. The view is truly magnificent as the stupa sits amid some of the biggest and most spectacular temples in Old Bagan. However, even three hours before sunset people were bagging their spots and setting up their tripods. We could see several other vehicles trundling their way over too. The buses whipped up a huge dust storm, and I remarked that it looked like a scene from the recent Mad Max movie!
For sunset, Kelsey and Peggy were up and about so we headed back to Pyathada Paya so that they could enjoy the view too. Sadly, the temple was absolutely swamped with tourists more than an hour before sunset. The narrow passage to the roof was rammed with people and looked claustrophobic and scary so we decided to head elsewhere. Easier said than done at sunset hour. With all roads crammed it took us an age to get to a Lonely Planet recommended spot, the Thabeik Hmauk, where we could ‘enjoy the spectacle without the crowds’. Sadly, the gate was locked so we missed out on a sunset panorama that night. Another Lonely Planet induced failure!
‘Money, money, money….Satan’ \m/
One of my favorite moments was goofing around with three kids at an unnamed temple off the main tourist tracks. Bagan is probably one of the wealthier regions of Myanmar, but on occasion you get the odd kid asking for money and selling souvenirs. They followed me around muttering ‘money, money’. The kids were cute but it got irritating after a while. So, I turned round and yelled at them ‘money, money, money…Satan!’. Childish, I know but the kids just yelled back at me ‘money, money, money…Satan!’ Which, of course, was hilarious.
I loved the idea of them jumping out at other tourists and yelling ‘Satan, money’. I figured it would be good for business too. So, I got them to repeat various configurations of ‘Satan’ and ‘Money’ while throwing the Satan sign, \m/, with their hands. And, boy did they cotton on fast. After five minutes, I only had to throw the \m/, and I got an immediate refrain of ‘Money, money, money…Satan’ hurled back. To show them that this was to their benefit, I bought some postcards off them… at an inflated rate. I can imagine them now jumping out at other tourists yelling their newly learned incantation while throwing the \m/. Even more, I hope they are rewarded for their evil ingenuity and sell lots of postcards!! Even more satanic, I would love it if all the kids in Bagan picked up on this so in the future local parents will be paying for their education with the proceeds from evil mantras!!! Long live the Dark Lord!
Bagan- The Return
I am not sure that anyone really needs to visit Bagan 4 times, but that is what Laura proposed I do after our arduous but rewarding trip out to Mrauk U (this will be our next blog post). Before we moved on elsewhere, we needed a place to chill out and eat good food. The only place that was feasible to do this was Bagan. So, we jumped on a local bus from Magwe to Bagan. This was more like it! The bus was a rickety old bus akin to the buses I rode on in 1995. It was slow, dusty, and jampacked full of people and produce. It stopped every ten minutes to take on more passengers and their sacks of rice. I saw a little smile crawl across Laura’s face at every bump, grind, and moment of discomfort. I must admit I like my aircon hotels and buses these days, but Laura prefers the more authentic moments of pain and annoyance! Thankfully, there are still a few areas of Myanmar that resemble the country I fell in love with twenty years ago so look out for subsequent blogs on Kyaing Tong and Mrauk U.
We planned to sort out a loose schedule for the next month or so, get the blog up to date, and gorge on espresso and sandwiches, which would be few and far between at our next stop, Kyaing Tong. On our last day in town, we planned to jump on bikes and explore some of the areas we missed out the first time round.
Cycling on sandy paths is hardly a breeze but it was great to go at our own pace and jump off and ferret around the smaller temples. We headed back to the Buledi for sunset and got some of our best shots from Bagan.
We made one decision, which resulted from our experiences in Bagan. We decided not to visit Inle Lake. Back in the day, it was a marvelously laid-back place with a few low key hotels and restaurants. Unlike Bagan, it does not have a gazillion things to do, meaning that the vast hordes that head over from Bagan squeeze into a smaller number of spots. All in all, it sounded bloody awful. We decided to head to Kyaing Tong to visit the villages of the Akha, Ann, Wa, and Lahu hill tribes instead.
Food in Bagan
Bagan is one of the few places in Myanmar where you can get a real variety of food. All the backpacker staples are here: muesli/fruit/curd, espresso, Indian curries, Thai soups, Tibetan momos, pizzas, and fish and chips. We particularly liked the Be Kind to Animals The Moon vegetarian restaurant for curries; Black Bamboo for tasty Thai and Burmese salads; the Aroma 2 for Indian curries and bread; the Starbeam Bistro for hummus and spicy fish baguettes; and our favorite, Weather Spoon for veggie burgers, sandwiches, and rum ginger lime cocktails. On our last day, we found an excellent and criminally under-patronized coffee shop called Friends Cafe near the Nyaung U market.
Will there be a 5th visit?
Highly unlikely! Bagan genuinely is an awe inspiring place, and like Angkor in Cambodia, it would seem daft to give it a miss. But like many multi-country travelers, we are pretty snobby, so when the holiday makers move in we move on! I am glad Laura got to see it before the Coke and Pepsi dispensers turn up in the Dhammayangyi but unlike Mrauk U and Kyaing Tong, Bagan 2016-style won’t make our travel Top Ten.