Monday, January 19, 2015

Bagan: Pagodas and stupas and temples: Oh My!

Overlooking the Hilo Minlo Temple, Old Bagan
Bagan is about to blow up. As a formerly forbidden beauty; its abundance of temples, reputation for a killer sunrise, and hot climate will surely make it a popular destination for expats living in Asia and touring seniors alike. While we were there, there were oodles of tour buses, mostly seniors touring from Australia, however we also encountered some Canadians and Americans in the mix. I was a little surprised at the number of families we saw. I’m always a little surprised when I see families in Asia outside of the resort portion of Phuket in Thailand. Southeast Asia has a bit of a reputation for having wild parties and loose regulations when it comes to drugs. If that’s what you’re looking for… don’t go to Bagan.

If Bagan has made it to your Myanmar “to do” list, I recommend going there first. If you have sought out cultural hot spots in any other Asian countries, you’ll know what it means to be “templed out.” There are so many Buddhist temples, pagodas and, stupas that it’s difficult to wrap your brain around what each is for (I have had it explained to me several times, and I still don’t get it). I don’t want to say that temples are all Bagan has to offer, but if you’re on a budget or pressed for time you’ll end up only doing temples. It’s worth it to note that when you enter Bagan (ie getting off the bus, at the airport, or at the boat port) you’ll pay a regional entry fee. You’ll pay something like $5 and receive a ticket that entitles you to enter many local cultural spots. We had only 2 nights and 2 full days to explore, with the added burden of a teacher’s salary budget. Mandalay and Inle Lake offered more varied options, but since we did Mandalay first and saw a lot of temples/pagodas/stupas there, by the time we arrived in Bagan we were nearly templed out.

Spectacular view of the sunrise
from the boat
We took a long boat from Mandalay down the Ayeyarwady River (nee Irrawaddy) to Bagan. The trip took about 9 hours total, but was totally worth it considering we would have lost nearly the same amount of time via bus and flying would be quick but expensive. We caught an incredible sunrise from the boat, and the undeveloped river banks with the occasional hut and livestock was like nothing I had ever seen before.

Our hotel was at the Yun Myo Thu Hotel in New Bagan: a great value and perfect for backpackers. We both expected there to be a lot more in the area where we were staying, but even finding a “convenience store” was difficult. The roads were so dark, but thankfully a friend who had been before recommended that I pack a flashlight. I recommend you pack a flashlight. We had dinner at The Green Elephant. It was fine. You don’t find the same deliciously cheap options as you do in other Southeast Asian countries, as Myanmar is still fairly new to the backpacker/tourist scene.

We opted to hire a driver for our first day. Most of the things to see and do in Bagan are spread out in such a way that walking between just doesn’t make sense. We passed loads of tourists struggling on bicycles, so we were pretty proud of our decision to have a chauffeur. We stopped at a small temple, which ended up being the most interesting place that day. A Burmese man struck up conversation as we were walking out of the temple; the typical “What’s your name? Where are you from? What is your job?” fare. We eventually got the impression that he wasn’t actively looking to sell us something, so we figure there was no harm in chatting. He ushered us to a smaller pagoda behind the temple and told us to “climb.” It took a little prodding to get me up those steep steps, but I figured that if I made it down alive, the view would be worth it and I would get a cool story out of it. It was terrifying. I’m not afraid of heights, but man those steps were steep.

It turned out that the man was a local artist. He told us that we didn’t need to buy anything, but would we please listen to the story behind the pieces. He asked us to touch the painted surface and explained that the roughness we felt was actually sand taken from the river banks and then he painted on top of the sand. He explained the Buddhist symbols in his pieces and thanked us for listening. Naturally, we both ended up buying something. The story and the image were just too interesting to pass it up.
Shwezigon Pagoda

The Shwezigon Pagoda was the most ornate place we visited in Bagan. The complex was quite large and we spent maybe 30 - 45 minutes wandering around taking in all the color and shine. It was a welcome diversion from the earth tones of all the other temples and pagodas. The gold pagoda was the centerpiece, with colored glass columns and the beautifully tiled floors in surrounding buildings.

We saw another temples and then took a break for lunch. The Moon Vegetarian Restaurant is an absolute MUST in Bagan. The staff was so friendly, the outside seating was lovely, and the post-meal treat was what got us back there again the next day. The waiter recommended the tamarind curry with coconut rice. Simply put, it was amazing. I had never encountered tamarind prior to that meal. After the meal was finished, they brought a small dish of maybe 15-20 tamarind candies that we demolished in about 5 minutes.  

After lunch, we took in a few more temples and pagodas, then headed back to the hotel. It had been a long day of walking and climbing in the heat, so we went to bed pretty early.

On day two, we took a late start, grabbed the same driver, and did one more temple. Ate lunch at The Moon, bought some of those tamarind candies, and were about to call it quits for the day (it was a really, really hot day). Our driver recommended we check out the National Museum. It was fine, a good way to waste some time. Truthfully, it was a little creepy. There weren’t hordes of people there like there are in all the other museums I have been to. We had dinner at the barely-par Green Elephant, showered and grabbed a bus for Inle Lake.
Overall, Bagan was beautiful. The landscape dotted with temples, pagodas, and stupas was beautiful. We didn’t have enough money to do one of the recommended hot air balloon rides, or enough time to catch the sunrise (we did happen to catch a good portion of the sunset on day 2). There aren’t a lot of touristy things to do other than the temples, museums, and food. If you have a lot of time and money you still probably only need about 3 days.

I recommend:
  • Traveling between Mandalay and Bagan by boat. It’ll be hot, but interesting. They serve a meal, have more food for purchase, and the best part: beer! There are a handful of interesting things to see along the river. Totally worth it!The Moon Vegetarian Restaurant. It’s in a little market area with a ton of other restaurants… but The Moon is magical. You won’t regret it.
  • Shwezigon Pagoda
  • Hilo Minlo Temple
  • The Moon Vegetarian Restaurant. It’s in a little market area with a ton of other restaurants… but The Moon is magical. You won’t regret it.

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