Myanmar series part 3 - BAGAN
The anticipation of seeing the temples of Bagan, for the first time, was reaching a high point for me as the Air KBZ flight was making its approach to Nyaung U Airport. As the plane got closer, the temples were coming into view. They seemed to dot the entire landscape. I was looking forward to visiting this part of Myanmar more than any other. I was interested to see how these temples compared to the ones I witnessed at Angkor Wat. Bagan, previously called Pagan, seems to be one of the most photographed locations in the world especially at sunset or sunrise with the temples in the foreground. I couldn’t wait to get my photo ops.
The flight was barely an hour and pretty uneventful – just the way I like it. The ATR 72 (which most airlines use here) seats about 70 to 80 passengers and has two seats on each side of the aisle. There were about 50 passengers aboard with most being tourists. The English-speaking flight attendants were very friendly and took good care of us with beverages and even a snack during the short flight. Upon disembarking onto the tarmac, the Air KBZ shuttle was waiting to take us to the entrance of a small room in the terminal in which we waited a few minutes for our bags to be hand-carried in by the airline staff. You look for the person carrying your bag and signal them. They match your baggage ticket to the one on the bag itself. Throughout Myanmar, the airlines were pretty consistent about checking bag tickets to ensure people had the correct bag.
There are a few things going on in the terminal after getting your bag. In order to visit the Bagan Archaeological Zone, I stopped at a desk in the terminal and paid a 10 USD fee. I believe the fee has since increased to 15 USD. The fee goes to the government, which cannot be avoided if you want to visit any of the temples. As a side note, there are a number of these ‘zones’ throughout the country where a fee is required to see certain sites. Payment is required in USD. Signage indicates they will also accept Euros. In the terminal, there is a currency exchange desk, operated by one of the local banks, and a cell phone rental counter. Since your cell phone won’t work in the country, you can either rent a phone or a SIM card, which will fit certain phones.
After making my way past all the kiosks, I located my driver that Kyaw had arranged. His name was Kyaw Kyaw (cho cho). Like the other drivers or guides that I had, he spoke enough English to interact with. Of the four days I was in Bagan, this is the only day that I had a car and driver at my disposal. If you’re short on time, this is the best way to see the sites since you can get from one to the next very quickly. In Myanmar, a tour guide is more expensive than a driver because they usually speak better English and they are more knowledgeable about the sites. The driver, on the other hand, has some basic knowledge about the sites and in my situation worked out just fine. Another difference is the tour guide will accompany you throughout your walk of the site. The driver will usually provide comments about the site and then let you walk alone while they wait in the car. Occasionally, the driver accompanied me, which was nice. Similarly, when stopping to eat, the tour guide will join you and the driver will not.
Located on the Irrawaddy (aka Ayeyarwady) River, the largest in Myanmar, Bagan is located in the ‘dry zone’ of the country. As a result, it doesn’t get much rain. The brief thunderstorm we had on the first evening was the only precipitation while I was there. The lightning just lit up the dark night sky. It was over within 30 minutes and cooled the temperature nicely. Since it maintains a pretty warm climate year round, most sightseeing takes place in the morning and re-starting in the late afternoon. If someone is touring you around the area, they will most likely drop you back at your hotel around noon and return about 4 pm to pick you up again. It’s a good idea to get going early in the morning when the day is at its coolest.
The three primary towns in the Bagan area are Nyaung U, Old Bagan and New Bagan. The airport is a 10 to 15 minute drive away from the towns. In all, everything is fairly close together. The roads, connecting the three cities and the airport, form a loop that’s about 16 miles long. The roads are in fairly good condition; however, as I found out when I was bicycling one day, there are a lot of small rolling hills that you don’t seem to notice while riding in a car. There is a fairly large area in the middle of these towns that includes a number of temples. I termed this the ‘desert area’ due to the lack of trees and the dirt roads being somewhat soft and sandy – easy enough for a vehicle or a horse-pulled cart; however, can be a little tough if you’re on a bicycle. Most of the residents lived in Nyaung U, Old Bagan and the villages that were scattered throughout the area. In the 1990s, the government moved the majority of the Old Bagan residents to a new town called New Bagan due to the temple ruins throughout the Old Bagan area.
There are a number of places to stay. Without knowing the layout of the area, where the restaurants and temples were located compared to the lodging, I selected the Thiri Marlar, which is located in New Bagan. Again, I chose the location because of a high TripAdvisor rating along with a pretty good rate of under 40 USD. Since they didn’t accept credit cards, I paid in cash – USD. Like everywhere else, the notes were highly scrutinized. I was very happy with the place. Similar to many other locations in the country, the internet access was very weak. I was unable to connect with my iPad, so I used the hotel computer located in the lobby area. At times, access was available and other times it wasn’t. The staff would get a connection and then contact me that it was available. There was an hourly access fee to use this computer. The hotel didn’t have a pool, which was fine with me. The only thing I disliked was that the public spaces, such as the lobby, did not have air conditioning, which meant I had to stay in my room during the afternoon lull to stay out of the heat, which was stifling at times. Unless it’s raining, meals are served on the rooftop terrace, which provides an incredible view of the temples, which literally surround the hotel.
Breakfast is included in the rate and they do serve dinner for those who don’t want to go out. I remember sitting on the roof in the warm evening air, having a few Myanmar beers and eating dinner while watching the sunset. I relaxed while recollecting the day’s events and thinking about the world that had opened up to me over the last week. I was glad to be there. If you don’t want to eat at the hotel, it’s easy to walk to the few other restaurants or cafes nearby. In the evening, you will need a flashlight because street lighting is very poor in places. Being just a country road, from one town to the next, it’s pretty dark at night and not easy to go from one town to the next for dinner. Hiring a car and driver and extending them into the evening is an option, or you can just take a taxi. Your hotel and the restaurant will have to call a taxi for you to get to and from. New Bagan is several miles from the main temple and food areas. Old Bagan is a little more centrally located if you don’t mind the slightly higher room rates.
There are over 2,200 temples in the Bagan area. They seem to be everywhere. It’s overwhelming and simply an awesome site to see. Wiki-pedia indicates the temples fall into one of two broad architectural categories. The stupa-type is a solid temple that you can walk around but not into. The gu-type is a hollow temple that you can walk into. This type usually has four Buddha’s located in the center of the temple with each one facing outward forming four separate rooms inside the temple. Many of the larger temples are multi-level; however, can be visited on the ground floor only. The government has closed off all but a select few, of the larger temples, because they do not want people walking all over the temple ruins for preservation and safety reasons.
One of the primary sunset viewing temples is the Shwesandaw Pagoda, which has five terraces and a bell-shaped stupa on top. It’s a short climb to the upper terrace; however, the steps are somewhat narrow at a fairly steep incline. They have a guide rail up the middle of the stairway to hold onto. I watched the sun set on two different occasions from here. Each time was very relaxing while taking in the spectacular views. The storm clouds, on the first evening, created a much different sunset than my next visit to Shwesandaw. There were a number of people on the terraces; however, I was able to move around and take photos fairly easily possibly because it was the slow season. Looking out over the horizon, I felt a calm and peaceful feeling while waiting for the sun to set.
See the following photos for some of my favorite sites, which were built in the 11th to early 13th centuries. Most temples have a description sign in front in Burmese. Some have an English translation on the back.
Being the offseason or due to the secluded location, many temples did not have any visitors when I reached them. Walking around and through the temples by myself was a calming and peaceful feeling. Alone in my thoughts, I felt the solitude of the warm Bagan afternoon. That is until one of the souvenir hawkers rode up on their motorbike. This is the only place, in the country, where I ran into the typical souvenir sellers who can pester you until they finally realize that you aren’t going to buy anything. This is the one downside to being alone at a temple. Many get around on their motorbikes. As soon as they see any kind of life at a temple, they ride over to try and make a sale. At one of the larger temples, one of the sellers followed me around even to the upper level trying to act like a quasi-tour guide. Some do not take no for an answer. You just have to ignore them. Some of the bigger temples have stationary kiosks set-up for souvenir sales. At these larger ones, there are more sellers; however, once you say no a couple of times, they move on to other people who are arriving. At Shwesandaw, there are many sellers that greet you upon your arrival; however, they do not follow once you start to climb the stairs.
Other sites I enjoyed visiting were the outdoor market in Nyaung U and the Minnanthu Village. The market is similar to a farmer’s market where local residents come and sell their vegetables, fruit, meat, spice and other products. Sellers lay a cloth on the ground or set-up shop on some wooden tables. As you walk through the market, which has tarps for a roof, there is no hard sell. The sellers seem content to have people stroll through and look at their products. One of my stops, while riding on the horse cart, was Minnanthu Village, which is located on a dirt road in what I call the desert area. After getting a bite to eat at the local eatery, I took some time to walk through the village. The homes are comprised of dirt floors and thatched walls and roofs. Meals are cooked over an open fire inside the home. Many of the residents earn a living by weaving yarn into blankets, shawls, table runners, etc. Some welcome you to walk through their homes and see how they work.
Village woman smoking a cheroot
I came across an elderly lady smoking a cheroot (a type of homemade cigar). She was so friendly and offered one to me as a gift. In the end, many are hoping you will purchase something from them or leave them a tip for their hospitality.
There are several primary ways to get around the area to sightsee.
Hire a car and driver – this is the fastest, most productive and the most comfortable way to see the temples. It is also the most expensive. It will cost you $30 and up depending on whether you hire just a driver who will provide minimal guide services, a tour guide who drives themselves or a guide and driver. Mine was bundled into an overall cost so I do not know how much I paid for the car and driver. Vehicles can get to any of the sites in the area even the ones that are off road. The vehicles might or might not be air-conditioned. If this is important to you, then check when making your arrangements. If time is of the essence, this is an ideal option. My driver (Kyaw Kyaw) was a very pleasant man who lived in the local area and really knew his way around. In fact, he knew of a retailer in Old Bagan who also exchanged currency. He took me there to exchange a 100 USD note. After a little negotiating, we mutually agreed upon an exchange rate – not quite as good as the rate received in Yangon. That wasn’t surprising considering I was in a rural area. Kyaw Kyaw had a basic knowledge of many of the temples and conveyed it fairly easily to me. It worked out very well.
Hire a horse and cart with driver for the day - this was definitely the most fun option for me. The travel is slow and can be a bit bumpy; however, you can sit back, relax and take in the scenery. I really enjoyed interacting with Min Min (my driver). He, and one or two other cart drivers, would sit outside the Thiri Marlar and wait for someone wanting a ride. I remember eating breakfast on the rooftop my first morning. After spotting me, Min Min proceeded into his sales pitch from down below. Right away, I liked him. He seemed to have a nice personality and I could tell he spoke enough English to tour me around the area. Later, when I went out for my bike ride, I agreed to use his services the next day. I thoroughly enjoyed my day with Min Min. Like Kyaw Kyaw, he had basic knowledge of the various temples and he definitely knew his way around the area. There was a soft roof over the seating area so it kept the sun off of me. Min Min sat on the front of the cart facing forward and I sat on the back of the cart facing the rear. This was to balance out the weight for the horse. At times, I moved into the wagon and leaned up against the side for a little support. I could tell that he took excellent care of his horse. He stopped a couple of times, when the horse broke a shoe, to repair it. I paid Min Min 20K kyat for the day. This included the daily rental and a tip that I gave him. I came across people who indicated they paid only 15K kyat; however, I figured the 22 USD (approx.) was a fair price to pay considering that part of the amount goes to the owner of the horse and cart with the remaining amount to the driver. The extra couple of dollars didn’t impact me, but probably made a big difference to Min Min.
Rent a bicycle – it’s a daily $2 to $3 rate so it doesn’t matter if you use it for a few hours or the full day. This is the definitely the cheapest option; however, it requires the most effort. In addition, you need to be well prepared with a hat to cover as much of your head and neck as possible, sun screen (or a shirt covering your arms and long pants) and enough water. There are a number of places to purchase water so you can start out with one bottle. It’s a good idea to hydrate prior to starting out. It’s really hot out there and you’re probably going to sweat a lot. I rented a bicycle, from my hotel, and decided to ride the full loop, by myself, starting at New Bagan, riding to Old Bagan, then to Nyaung-U, down past the airport and across the desert area back to New Bagan - a distance of about 16 miles. It wasn't noticeable when driving in the area upon arrival; however, on a bike, I noticed there were a lot of rolling hills. It seemed like I was constantly going uphill. I took off about 8 AM, which was still a cool part of the day. After about a mile, I noticed one of the tires had gone flat. With only one good tire, the ride back to the hotel was pretty strenuous. I worked up a good sweat by the time I returned to switch bikes. With a new bike and fully warmed up by this time, I took off again. On the ride, I made a number of stops at the various temples, or pagodas, to look and take pictures. I stopped at Myinkaba Village, on the road to Old Bagan, early in the ride, to purchase and drink a 1-liter bottle of water. Before leaving, I got another bottle of water (same size) for the road. As the morning wore on, I had pretty good strength as I rode from temple to temple. It was nice to rest periodically; however, there’s not much shade at the sites and it got hotter as the morning wore on. The toughest part of the ride, and the least enjoyable due to the lack of sites to see, was the stretch from Nyaung U to the airport entrance. It was four lanes and a constant uphill climb for a few miles. It was late morning when I finished the bottle of water and I still had several more miles to go. I should have stopped for another bottle of water but decided to push on across the desert area. This is a hot and fairly deserted area. There’s not much here except for a number of temples, with few visitors, and a couple of villages. I made it back to my hotel in New Bagan about 12:30 in the afternoon. I was pretty tired and thirsty. I should have watched my water intake a little better and definitely felt like I should have had another bottle of water with me to finish the ride. What I didn't realize, when I took off, was that the bike, which seemed a little small for me and did not roll well, was going to require more leg effort than I would have figured. I've always been in pretty good shape; however, I need to plan a little better next time.
During my down time, I enjoyed taking walks through New Bagan – on my way to eat at a local café, visit the local market or just taking a walk to see the area. There was a school nearby the Thiri Marlar so kids were everywhere. They played soccer in the streets and were always riding their bikes around the local area. They would get such a kick out of asking me where I was from. Many of them spoke a little bit of English. It was very impressive. I really enjoyed interacting with the Myanmar people. They’re very friendly.
After four days of thoroughly enjoying Bagan, I was picked up from the hotel by a pre-arranged driver, for the transfer to the airport at Nyaung U. The flight was on Asian Wings Airways – another small Myanmar airline similar to Air KBZ. The airport arrival process was identical to Yangon. I was one of the first to board the flight. Right away, I buckled my seat belt. Wow, I was glad I did. While the last passengers were still coming down the aisle, the pilot started taxiing towards the runway. I guess they don’t waste any time here. We were still 15 minutes prior to departure. Everyone found their seats and buckled up and we were off. One thing to understand is that these airlines have a loop they run each day. They might start in Yangon, fly to Bagan, then to Mandalay, to Heho (Inle Lake) and then back to Yangon. There’s a tentative flight time for each leg; however, in reality the plane stops long enough at each airport to unload and then reload passengers. At times, it might be departing one of the intermediate stops 15 to 20 minutes early. The biggest impact to the flight schedule is the weather. Schedules are frequently adjusted to accommodate the thunderstorms that move through the country.
Next stop, Mandalay!