PART IX: THE ‘ANCIENT’ TEMPLES OF BAGAN
Preface: From approximately 1050 to 1290 A.D., Bagan’s kings commissioned over 4,000 temples. Over the millennia looting, erosion and earthquakes took their tool . A massive earthquake in 1975 destroyed most of what was left. What you see, and it is impressive, has been rebuilt. UNESCO refused to certify Bagan as a World Heritage Site because the restoration did not meet their standards.
It is early, 4:30 am when the bus arrives in Nyaung U. It is freezing cold outside and I shiver, even with a polartek jacket. What a change from the 105°F (40.6°C) afternoon from which I departed Yangon. Some tourists are arguing with the four or five horse cart drivers that are there offering rides into the three towns that populate the area generally known as Bagan. I feel their discordant energy waft through me like a stormy ocean swell. I sit calmly, breathing ease and serenity through the area around my heart and solar plexus, and wait. Finally, after most of them have left, one of the drivers comes to me and in fair English asks if I have a room. I say no, and we agree that for 3,000 kyat he will take me into town and help me find one.
We try four places. I am glad I have him. He knows which windows to knock on and wake the night clerk who is usually sleeping on the floor or on a bench. Each guesthouse is full up; the situation is not looking great.
At the fifth, we score. The Grand Empire Hotel looks clean. I can have a double for $35 with a BR or a single for $25 with BR down the hall. These are the only two rooms available and I can have one now…amazing! I opt for the cheaper room. It is 5:30 am now and I ask my driver if he can take me to see a nice sunrise over the temples. “Yes!” So I drop my gear and grab a camera. Fifteen minutes and we are off.
Clomp clomp clomp through the brisk night air to Old Bagan. We pull into a dirt area in front of the dim silhouette of a temple. He shows me the dark stairs and says to come down after the sunrise where he will be waiting. Headlamp on, I climb the very narrow stairs and come to a flat area near the top of the temple. There are maybe 25 tourists there waiting for the sunrise. I settle in.
After 45 minutes the sky slowly lights and I can see temple shapes on the plains. It gets lighter and suddenly everyone is snapping photos like crazy. A German woman is using her flash for everything, annoying most and of course being totally ineffective. After she flashes it right in my eyes, I let her know that is not cool and she says she is sorry. Then she continues as before…sigh.
The plain with many temples becomes more and more visible. Quite a sight to say the least! Finally, a deep red sun begins to appear on the horizon. When it is about half exposed, nine or ten huge hot air balloons appear and begin drifting across the plain making an eerie juxtaposition with the temples. Can you say photo opportunity? More snapping from each side of the temple and finally I descend and get on the horse cart. We arrive back at the hotel around 8:00 am and I crash big time for a few hours.
Sometime later, I get up, shower and grab a little bite. I walk across the street and rent a bicycle for 1500 k for the day (about US$2.00). I peddle around town, figuring I will save Old Bagan for tomorrow when Snowy and Ryan perhaps arrive. I go to the main pagoda, Shwezigon Paya. It is large and lovely.
Then I peddle some more, eventually finding the Aroma Cafe where I order a late lunch of lime juice and mutton tika. Best lime juice ever…so fresh. The curry is amazing…also the best I have had in Burma. Their sign reads, “no like, no pay.” I bet everyone pays.
I end up chatting with a NY backpacker, Lew, and two hotel managers from Sri Lanka. They each manage a hotel in Old Bagan. They came here eight years ago and both ended up marrying Burmese wives. They insist on buying us beers and we become fast friends, laughing and sharing stories.
They tell me that prices are rising rapidly, especially in the tourist areas like Bagan. I have seen a little of this already. Lots of construction is going on. By next year, they continue, there will be many more hotels and restaurants here to service the rapidly growing tourist trade.
Several hours later, we depart and I am invited to visit their hotels as well as Sri Lanka. Their three star hotel is fully booked until April. After that, it will be torn down and rebuilt as even more luxurious. One will return home in April. Who knows, maybe i will visit then.
I peddle back to the hotel and reserve the double for Ryan and Snowy who have called. They will arrive around 4:00 am. Later, I go out and find a friendly restaurant and order some tasty beef and green chilies. Around 10:00 or 11:00 pm I develop a massive case of Burma Belly (diarrhea). I am running to the toilet every hour or two through the night. I hope I don’t have dysentery
In the morning, there is a note from Snowy. They got in and are crashed. I pop some more Imodium and find a pharmacy to buy a course of Metradonazol just in case. Around 11:00 am I knock on their door and we chat a bit. Then I let them rest some more. Their little trip has been draining and they have not slept in two days. Naypyidaw, the capitol, was surrealistically weird they say. Lots of perfectly groomed roads with green mediums and big sparkly building with nobody using them. Cannot say that I am sorry to have missed it.
A bit after noon we get together and have some lunch. Then we rent a horse cart and view some temples in Old Bagan finally stopping at one for sunset. It’s a nice afternoon but the cart is very bouncy and everything feels a bit too touristy. Tomorrow we will bike. At least the diarrhea seems to have abated. I eat plain rice for dinner just to be safe and gentle on my system. I sleep incredibly deep and don’t wake until 8:00 am.
I awake and am instantly aware that I have overslept. I grab a cold shower and hurry to the restaurant where Ryan and Snowy are finishing breakfast. I order, eat and after awhile we go to rent bikes…three shiny purple cruzers.
It is a long but very satisfying day cycling everywhere with many temple stops. Some pumpkin curry is consumed for lunch at a veggie restaurant in Old Bagan. More cycling down dirt paths and discovering temples follows lunch. One temple has really old paintings all over the walls from the 12th century. This is remarkable considering that most of these building have been rebuilt since 1975 with help from UNESCO and private donors.
We witness another great sunset from atop another temple. We cycle back, mostly in the dark. We go to Weatherspoons Restaurant and Ryan and I have cheeseburgers, my first in many weeks…wow!
The following morning we meet for breakfast. Snowy’s bus picks her up shortly after 8:30 and she is off for her internship in Laos. I move into the double with Ryan for one more night. We decide we are templed out and will climb Mt. Popa today, catching a cheap minibus. Along the way we stop at a tourist trap place and of course buy nothing. About an hour later we are at Mt. Popa. It is very impressive from the bottom.
We climb a gazillion stairs spiraling up the mountain passing cheeky monkeys that are occasionally rather aggressive.
At the summit monastery we are treated to a view of the Bagan plain. We are above the smog belt and the air is much cleaner and fresher here. The views are somewhat obstructed by the underlying haze. The shrines are okay but we have seen many much nicer. We spend some time snapping some photos before descending. At the bottom we have a beer while we wait for the others and the ride back. Stopping at an outdoor mountain market along the way, we buy a few bananas.
Back at Nyaung U, we get off by the Aroma 2 and have a great curry lunch. This place definitely has the best Indian food I have seen in Myanmar and you really get filled up for a reasonable price…4,000k including the best fresh lime juice.
We walk around and collect info on bus and boat and plane schedules. After weighing options, I make a decision and decide to bus to Kalaw tomorrow and do a trek to Lake Inle from there. I consider more post-trek options. There is a flight from Inle to Mandelay for $58. I am thinking I may do that and bag the 7 hour bus trip back to Bagan and then the 10 hour boat ride up the Irriwaddy to Mandalay. It comes out to about the same price. The boat trip sounds cool but you can’t always do everything and then I will have some time to go north and do another trek.
Ryan books his boat to Mandalay for early tomorrow morning. We walk around town awhile and see a sign for Bagan Beach Club Bar and Restaurant pointing up a side road. “Farewell drink for sunset”? “Yep,” the reply. It’s two Singapore Slings, a nice end to a fun run with Derek and Snowy. We will go out for another cheeseburger later in the evening.
- The Bagan Plain consists of three towns. Nyaung U (more backpacker places; a couple with dorms hidden away), New Bagan (mostly midrange hotels) and Old Bagan (a few posh high end hotels).
- Temples are more concentrated near Old Bagan but one can easily bicycle between the different areas. Carry water, a sun hat and sunscreen. Horse carts are another popular way to get around, though I greatly preferred the freedom of a bicycle.
- From approximately 1050 to 1290 A.D., Bagan’s kings commissioned over 4,000 temples. Over the millennia looting, erosion and earthquakes took their toll . A massive earthquake in 1975 destroyed most of what was left. What you see, and it is impressive, has been rebuilt. UNESCO refused to certify Began as a World Heritage Site because the restoration did not meet their standards. Did I say it is still mightily impressive?
- Rooms are scarce and prices are rising. I found the Grand Empire Hotel, Nyaung U, (not listed in LP) to be a good value.
- Aroma Cafe in Nyaung U has incredible Indian food and the best lime juice.
- Weatherspoons, Nyaung U makes real cheeseburgers