Our first overnight bus pulled out of the bus station perfectly on time; the steward came through giving everyone clean blankets and a little hot dinner with drinks, reclining our seats and switching our lights off. There was no loud music, no tacky karaoke, no hocking or spitting, no mobile phones ringing late into the night… just quiet as the bus rolled and bounced along, Bagan bound. Something seemed strange… it was too good to be true…
Our luxury bus arrived into Bagan at 6am; the sky was just starting to show signs of light in the distance and rain was already falling. We stepped out and were immediately hit by taxi drivers and hotel touters at the ready; we’d arrived into tourist territory and again we were reminded that we absolutely underestimated this country.
We declined offers of “I’ll drive you the 6km to your guest house,” “just pay me how you like give me first customer lucky money” and “It 3km away, too far for you” and walked the 10 minutes along the road to a guest house.Taxi drivers are funny.
It was dark when we’d arrived but in minutes of walking the sky was getting lighter and lighter; we passed tea shops and small road house restaurants already brimming with people feasting on morning noodles, rice and Burmese tea.
The main road was pretty quiet; a few bicycles and motorbikes rode by, some stray dogs and the occasional woman carrying a basket on her head, but otherwise empty and silent.
Good morning Bagan.
Looking at the wet weather and feeling pretty tired from the overnight bus, we were not sure exactly what to do on our first day here in Bagan. It didn’t take too long for our guest house owner to help us out – he was straight to the point in saying that “Relax in your room today. Full moon day, no market. Everything close today. Rainy weather all day today, no clear sky. No good for temple. No good for Mt. Popa. No good for bike. Bad weather. You should be tired after bus ride. Relax today.”
Okay sir, will do…
The first day in Bagan was pretty much a nothing day; the rain continued to fall heavily all day and left the dirt roads nothing more than a flooded muddy mess. When we did attempt to explore the town on foot, large puddles forced us to walk through the muck and flowing rivers of water – our thongs acting like suction caps and flicking dirt up our legs and backs and motorbikes spraying us as they rode past.
Hoping the following day would be better weather, we planned to explore the temple area. E-bikes (electronic bikes) are everywhere for rent in Bagan and I was super keen to get my bum on one of those bad boys and zip and zoom all over this ancient city.
The next two days in Bagan offered us much better weather and an opportunity to explore the town and spectacular ancient temples and pagodas.
We started our second day by firstly paying an early visit to the large local markets which were still muddy and wet from the previous days’ rain. Within minutes mud had flicked up our legs and backs (and all over our clean clothing) and our thongs were suctioning us to the ground, causing us to near-miss falling flat on our asses in the mud. The markets were large, sprawling and smelling strongly of raw meat; that distinct smell that all Asian wet markets seem to have. People were everywhere and as we walked through the narrow alley way we dodged sick looking dogs and small playing children. Most of our concentration was taken up in an attempt to step over and around the blood that was trickling down the meat market tables and spilling out into the mix of mud, water and filth on the ground. Whilst the many bare footed customers didn’t seem to worry about the blood and animal matter that spattered on their skin as they trudged through the slop, I did.
We watched as whole animal carcases were skinned, sliced and cut open, organs and gizzards hooked and hung out for sale, blood collected and pig head skins shoved out on display. The sellers were posed squatting in their lungis, bare footed, cutting and chopping with massive knives that sliced through entire animals in one loud chop. They talked and laughed and smiled as they handled the chunks of raw meat and fish – it was gutted and prepped and weighed, then shoved into metal dishes for sale. We were once again amongst the fascinating, foul smelling action. On the other side of the alleyway, all sorts of colourful vegetables and fruits were being sold. We turned a corner, away from the pungent smells that were forcing me to cover my nose and mouth with my sleeve, and were suddenly no longer in the locals area – we were in the tourist section. Damn.
“Lady, you want lungi, looking is for free” “You need wood carving? Laquerware? Bell? Metal thingy? Useless item? T-shirt with strange English translation? Ugly wooden cat?….”
We didn’t stay much longer.
Deciding we would head out to the temples, we started walking… Why not? It was about a 4km walk to the Old Bagan area and it was nice weather.
It’s hard to explain how it appeared and felt when we began to see these ancient ruins start popping up along the sides of the roads, through the over grown jungle grass and surrounded by thousands of dragon flies, but it was pretty spectacular. These 4000-odd Buddhist temples that are dotted about a massive area of land could be compared – in their own magnificent way – to the temples of Angkor Wat, and were truly stunning.
I think you are supposedly meant to pay $15 USD for a week long general entrance ticket to the temples but there was no ticket seller around anywhere and no one checking tickets, so… awesome! I checked this later with the guest house manager and he said “no one is checking so don’t buy.” Love it.
Walking along the roads and dirt tracks, we took time to move about the little temples and structures as we chose. There are so many of these marvelous structures, it’s not hard to find one that is completely empty and it was amazing to have such an area to explore by ourselves. We found one temple that, when we climbed up the dark narrow staircase, offered us a stunning view over a large area of Old Bagan and surrounding temples. Thousands of them seem to just sprout up from the greenery to give a view that is spectacular; one that no words – or my dodgy camera – can do justice…
We spent our third and final day in Bagan zooming around on bikes and exploring the temple areas. Whilst I chose a gnarly looking e-bike (a tiny bike with a massive battery on the back that whizzes along at a surprisingly fast speed), Jake chose a pedal bicycle. I tried to get him to hire an e-bike; I wanted us both to have the opportunity to speed around on one of these bad boys, seeing as we don’t get to back home, but he was eager to stay “traditional.”
Trying to negotiate the muddy, wet, pot-holey roads and the many unorganised road users – human and animal – with an e-bike was at first a little bit daunting, but before long I was speeding along at a “medium speed”… (actually a lot faster than I was expecting).
We headed out towards the area we had visited on foot yesterday, planning on travelling much further down through Old Bagan to the area where there are lots of these stunning ancient structures (although, there seem to be lots everywhere!) but, of course, Jake’s bike tyre went flat about an hour into our explorations. We’d been to just a few temples before we were forced to turn around and walk the hour or so back into town – me pushing the bike and Jake riding my e-bike at a walking pace alongside me. “Should’ve gotten an e-bike…”
Back in town, Jake selected another bicycle from the pretty dodgy selection and again we were off. We took a different road to get to some different temples – the road that runs parallel with the main road was much quieter and in a much better condition – and we had a lot of fun zooming down the flat stretches of road. We hopped from temple to temple, walking bare foot through ancient ruins and structures with murals from hundreds of years ago covering the bricks. Again, no words to describe it.
We met a young Burmese guy who was very eager to tell us where to see the best views and what temples we should go to; he was super kind but… no, we don’t actually want to buy any paintings, sorry.
Back on our bikes, we zipped over the road and up a very muddy and wet dirt path – almost getting bogged more than once along the way – towards the Buledi Stupa. Supposedly with some of the best views over the area, we climbed the several steep stairs up to a view point that literally left me awe struck. There are just so many temples… so many. Breath taking.
We stayed up for a while just trying to take in the view and the structures that dotted around us for such a far and wide distance. Shiny golden pagodas peeped through the greenery, along with the red-coloured bricks of the ancient temples and massive structures.
As the sun was setting we took in our last views of the scenery before hopping back on our bikes to head back into town before dark… but of course, we couldn’t just have a leisurely non-eventful ride back– Jake’s bum was obviously too heavy for these Asian-made bikes and he bent the actual metal bike seat pole: it just folded all of a sudden like a piece of paper crumbling. I was riding along and heard a sudden loud noise and then “shit!”…
We arrived back into Nyaung U town at peak hour where we shared the road with all sorts of people and animals and vehicles. It was dusty and chaotic and there were roosters strutting about, children playing on the road side and water spilling out from somewhere unknown… people riding on the opposite side of the road, women carrying large baskets and dishes of goods on their heads and restaurants gearing up for the evening rush. We rolled into the bike rental shop where the faces of the staff members dropped when they saw Jake’s bike… and then changed from a state of shock to a state of laughter whilst the male staff member said “too strong” and tensed his biceps. Jake went next door to the conveniently located bike repair shop and bought a new pole for 1500kyats ($1.50c)… so, not so damaging on the wallet, thank goodness.
Since we are leaving Bagan tomorrow headed for Mandalay, we spent some of the final evening cleaning up our mess: after two nights here we’ve “somehow” managed to spread our (my) belongings across the entire room. I had done some laundry that wasn’t quite dry, so had it hanging over the furniture. As I sat there amongst the mess and drying clothing in my mud-splattered trekking pants, treating a bottle of water with the steri-pen, I thought to myself… “We’re really here. We’re true backpackers…”