GUEST ARTICLE: After our first stop in Yangon we flew 500kms north to the small ancient city of Bagan located in the Mandalay region. Our little Mandalay Air airplane was stifling hot due to an unfortunately non-existent A/C system, and the small cramped quarters didn’t make for the best travelling conditions. To top it off we also had to make two stops along the way before arriving at our destination. Though I have to say I didn’t mind making the detours as it was interesting to get a look at the different countryside in each place. The alternative was a 6am direct flight from Yangon to Bagan which would have meant a 4am wakeup.
Being summer the terrain below looked terribly dry and was a patchwork of browns. We saw masses of dry riverbeds snaking throughout the landscape. I bet this place looks spectacular and lush during the rainy season.
When we arrived at Bagan’s tiny little airport (Nyaung U) we each had to pay a US$10 entrance fee towards the archaeological pagoda restoration. Yes you heard right we paid in US dollars, the dominant currency accepted at the airport and all bills must be crisp and unflawed or they won’t be accepted. Once there you can exchange for some local Kyat currency but generally most places accept both.
After grabbing our bags we hopped in a taxi and 5 minutes after traveling down a small dirt road we pulled into our hotel the Amazing Bagan Resort. It was a beautiful place, really peaceful and warmly lit. We had a welcoming reception and nice cold drinks waiting for us.
After a nice cool off we were shown to our lovely little room that only cost us US$52/night including breakfast (bonus!). That night we had dinner at our hotel and they put on a puppet show. I have to give props to the puppeteers, they do some pretty intricate moves with those digits.
The next morning our pre-booked guide (Thurah) and driver (Laht) picked us up for our first sightsee. Our guide cost us US$20 for the day and our car and driver US$42. First we drove to Old Bagan which was just a few minutes away down one of the prettiest roads I’ve ever seen. Leaves of gold flanked the sides of a quaint undulating road lined with tall willowy green trees that gracefully formed an arch over the road (that pic is definitely going on my wall).
The landscape had a hazy look to it with ancient red brick pagodas scattered amongst the honey colored countryside. We saw quite a few people riding bicycles, they seemed to be the most popular transport choice and they fit in well amongst the tranquil scenery. Horse and carriage was also common but it looked a bit bumpy and dusty for us.
It was really interesting watching the everyday goings on of the locals. As we were driving down one of the main streets we saw a large group of very hard working ladies doing roadwork. They were hauling large amounts of gravel by hand and raking it smooth. Then we saw a guy hand pouring hot tar with a giant ladle out of a bucket he was carrying – wow!
Our first stop was to see the Shwezigon Pagoda. It is a smaller version of the Golden Pagoda in Yangon. To get to the pagoda we had to walk through a little market selling all kinds of paraphernalia. The vendors weren’t at all aggressive which was nice and there were quite a few nice handicrafts to look at.
The Shwezigon Pagoda may be smaller in stature to the Golden Pagoda but it’s just as impressive. Its massive golden dome shape towered over the surrounding temples. It’s adornment of gold and jewels sparkled in the sun and worshippers surrounded its base.
Off to the side we saw a large group of men sitting in a circle emptying out pagoda donation boxes and counting masses of dollar and kyat bills. It looked like some kind of hardcore racketeering ring you might see on TV. I wonder what they do with all that dough?
Seeing these ornate spectacles is a harsh contrast to the vivid reality of how the locals live. The people are very poor and live a very meager existence like they have done so for many strained years under the government’s strict military rule. We can only hope that with the country’s recent developments in government (Aung San Syu Kii winning a seat) that things can start to change for the people.
For lunch we went to a restaurant along the Ayeyarwaddy River called The King Si Thu. The tables were set up outdoors with a magnificent view overlooking massive fields and locals commuting back and forth along the giant river. The temperature was still pretty hot but thankfully nothing like that of Yangon.
After lunch we went to see another pagoda but this one was located out in the countryside and made only out of beautiful russet red bricks. It wasn’t massive like Shwezigon but still striking. We were able to climb to the top of it and from there we got an awesome view of our surroundings. We couldn’t believe how many ancient temples and pagoda’s blanketed the area! There were so many of them that they reminded us of giant termite mounds.
It literally felt like we had taken a step back in time standing there. Thurah said that the pagodas were all built between the 11th and 13th centuries. Unfortunately in 1975 thousands of them were destroyed in a devastating earthquake and today “only” about 3,000 still stand.
Later that day for sunset we hired a longboat for US$25 for an hour’s journey up and down the Ayeyarwaddy River. The river was absolutely massive with deep dark waters. Our boat gently cut through its slow moving currents as we soaked up the exquisite tranquility of our surroundings. Every now and again we passed groups of locals and exchanged friendly waves and big smiles with everyone.
Along the banks we saw some really meager looking thatch roofed huts. Then to our surprise there was a mega-mansion looking totally out of place along the waters edge. Later we found out that this was the home of Aung San Oo brother of Aung San Suu Kyi. He is estranged from his sister and is rumored to have ties with the Burma’s junta (obviously). So yeah, unfortunately the complete opposite of his sister and grossly has no qualms about flashing his stolen wealth amongst his much less fortunate people.
Our boat ride ended just before sunset but we found the perfect spot to watch the sun set at a lovely little vacant pagoda situated along the riverbank. We’ve been to many countries and watched and marveled at many a sunset but this one was nothing short of spectacular. The light display across the sky was a myriad of rich colors, and the sun! I have never seen the sun turn into a brilliant florescent orange set against a deep dusky colored sky and then blink out after only a few minutes. We loved it!
The next morning we re-hired our driver Laht to take us to a place we’d heard was a must see called Mt. Popa. It was located about 50kms out of Bagan and took us about an hour and a half to get there. That was fine by us as we were eager to see more of the surrounding countryside.
Along the way Laht recommended we stop at a small farm on the side of the road to visit a family that specialized in harvesting palm sugar. The family kindly welcomed us in and showed us around their modest thatch roofed huts and then showed us their sugar making process.
The man of the house (who was the palm sugar collector) gave us a demo of how he retrieved the sugar. So off he went with two little black clay jars strung by twine to his waist. Before he began his ascent up a towering date palm tree he made a silent prayer and then without using any special equipment or safety lines he began to climb. Once at the top he retrieved some palm sugar sap from a traditional extractor that they had rigged up.
Our nerves were on edge as we witnessed this incredible feat. We couldn’t believe what we were seeing! What that man does everyday to sustain his family is absolutely mind boggling and extremely dangerous. We found out he climbs each of the forty trees situated around the property twice a day!
Once they’ve retrieved the sugar sap it’s handed over to the lady of the house who works with a homemade fire and 3 large metal woks going through her sugar making process. In the corner they had a little homemade liquor mechanism set up as well. It was clear and pretty potent stuff.
When we left little kids with faces done up in their traditional makeup called Thanaka were all giggling and curiously standing around waiting to get a look at us ‘foreigners.’ We gave great thanks to the family for taking the time out to show us their daily routines and parted leaving a small donation. Farmers there make a pittance for a living usually only earning about US$2/day. So for them anything is a help and we were more than happy to give.
Back on the road we saw more hard working farmers toiling hard in fields and ladies carrying giant bundles of wooden sticks on their heads. We passed overflowing public minibuses carrying passengers packed in like sardines and some riding the roof or hanging precariously off the back. We also we went through more road works where the workers had weather beaten faces and hard calloused hands toiling with vigor to get the job done. It was blatantly evident how hard the living conditions were.
As we neared our destination the terrain became more rugged and the landscape greener. As we entered the town of Popa we soon saw why this place was such a popular tourist destination. Mt. Popa was a remarkable sight. It was a single lone narrow mountain that towered above its surroundings at almost 5,000ft. A staircase wound its way up the side of it to a magnificent golden temple perched at the top. We couldn’t wait to climb up!
On the first part of the giant staircase we passed through a heap of food hawkers and little markets selling all kinds of handicrafts. Before climbing the main staircase leading up to the temple everyone had to remove their shoes out of respect. Luckily they had lockers to put them in for just a small donation.
Another reason Mt. Popa is popular is because it’s also inhabited by a mass of monkeys. The drive to see the top outweighed any gross thoughts we had of tramping through monkey doo but that wasn’t the case for all and some people refused to walk up. We couldn’t comprehend how someone could possibly come all that way and get detoured just because of that?!
We braced ourselves for the 700 stairs before us and slowly headed up. It wasn’t actually that hard going and the monkey biz wasn’t as bad as you’d think. It also helped that along the way there were a handful of people cleaning the steps with rags and water all the while asking for small donations. The monkeys were also pretty cool and had such unique little faces, some nice and some on the grumpy side.
Once at the top we got a fantastic panoramic view of the valley around us. The golden temple at the top was nice and had some great places to sit back and relax. We didn’t end up staying too long after accidentally picking the wrong seat next to a really grumpy monkey that showed us some pretty nasty canines. Yikes!!
By the time we got back down it was lunchtime so Laht took us to a really nice place called the Popa Resort that was located on an adjacent mountain. That was a beautiful spot and we had a lovely lunch on their veranda overlooking the vast landscape and Mt. Popa in the distance.
After lunch we headed back home for a much needed rest. Being our last night in Bagan we went for one last sightsee to a few more pagodas in the countryside. The ones we went to were massive and their ancient architecture impressive. Inside we walked down great cobblestone hallways decorated in ancient old paintings. Giant golden Buddha statues dominated rooms with softly lit candles and sweet smelling incense.
For sunset we went to a popular pagoda called Pyathada Paya where we joined about a hundred other tourists. We all climbed narrow stone staircases to the top of the pagoda. There were different levels to choose from and plenty of places to sit and watch the sunset.
We had to pinch ourselves as we took in our surreal surroundings. The sight before us was a picture of absolute beauty. Pagodas blanketed the smoky landscape for as far as the eye could see. The air was deliciously warm against our skin as we sat in the tranquil ambience that embraced us.
This was a magic moment and one I know we will reminisce upon for years to come. The feeling of sitting upon an ancient pagoda in the middle of Burma while watching one of the best sunsets in the world was priceless. We loved our trip to Bagan, the people, the sights, the culture – all were incredible and definitely worth the visit. This place is like no other and a must be seen to be believed! (I predict an explosion in tourism).
This travel diary has been written by Machalle Gower, a friend who enjoys taking the road less traveled!