After getting up at 3:30am to catch our 6:30am flight from Yangon, we arrived in Bagan, Myanmar just before 8:00am excited to explore the town we’d heard so much about. Before we exited the airport, we stopped at the ticket counter to purchase the $10 pass to the Bagan Archeological Site that would grant us admission to all of the temples during our stay.
Angela (who had thankfully taken on the task of arranging most of our Myanmar accommodations) had selected our hotel primarily based on its #1 ranking on Trip Advisor and when we arrived at the Blue Bird Hotel in the New Bagan area it was just as lovely as advertised. They were even kind enough to check us in when we arrived at the early hour of 9am. Our room was bright and spacious and the air conditioner was pumping out chilled air with an impressing efficiency despite the already oppressive morning heat. There was also a secluded infinity pool surrounded by a lush, Eden-like garden. It was heaven with wifi and a mere $75 a night.
After settling in, we headed back to the reception desk to decide what to do with our day since it was still just 9am. The helpful woman at reception spread out a map and went over a few of our transportation options for seeing the area’s many, many temples. You could hire an air-conditioned car for a half or full day, a half day was just $25. Or you could take one of the hotel’s free bicycles and head off to see the temples the slow and athletic way (or, in this heat, the masochistic way).
A final option was what she kept referring to as a “haas kaht.” With her thick accent, I couldn’t quite make out what this was but I was moderately alarmed she was saying “house cat.” Luckily, thanks to Angela’s astute ear she was able to translate this option to me as the far more sensible “horse cart.” And thank goodness because saddling up a house cat to see the temples seemed impractical, at best.
Exploring New Bagan
Since the weather was good, we decided to book a car for an afternoon tour of Old Bagan and spend the morning exploring the town of New Bagan. Morning tours run from 8am – 1pm and afternoon tours from 2pm until after sunset.
We set off on foot from the hotel which seemed to alarm the locals, a variety of whom followed us at regular intervals offering all methods of possible transportation: bicycle, scooter, taxi, house cat (ok, horse cart, but it still sounded like house cat). Mystified by our desire to actually walk the mile or two around town, they eventually abandoned us and went in search of other tourists.
Bagan is a sleepy little town where the locals eagerly return your smile as you pass by and turn on lights and little-used air-conditioners when you enter their shop. We stopped in a few shops and I bought a necklace and a pair of earrings from a lovely woman whose sister actually teaches at a university in the US. We also popped in a few lacquerware stores to check out Bagan’s most famous traditional handicraft which is beautifully made into bowls, cups, tables, jewelry and anything else you can think of.
As we walked between stores, we were continuously approached by local children begging for money. They would come up to us and genially ask where we were from and what our names were but they really just wanted to “sell” us postcards, typically for 1,000 kyat (an absurd amount by local standards). They were adorable and friendly at first but were aggressively persistent, even waiting patiently for us to exit a shop to continue following us down the street.
This was a struggle for us as the children were adorable (until they started aggressively asking for money) and we enjoyed chatting with them and were impressed with their excellent English skills. I’d read that most of the beggars were part of larger begging syndicates just after easy money and that tourists should remember that the poor can always obtain food from the local monastery and that most Burmese earn just $40 a month so giving US $1 to a beggar is considered overly generous.
Even though we had succumbed to the cute little boy in Yangon selling postcards on the street, we now had plenty of postcards (not that we needed any in the first place) so we politely declined the repeated requests for money. In the end I decided that I’d much rather give my money to local shop owners, guides and family-run restaurants who were providing a service than to hand it out to persistent children on the street, no matter how cute.
We eventually reached the banks of the Ayeyarwaddy River and (thank God) there was a modern-looking restaurant with a perfect view of the river and the golden-domed Lawkananda Pagoda. We were sweaty and tired and it was the perfect time to stop for an early lunch break and get out of the heat for a while. We sat down and ordered two Mandalay beers at 10:30am but since we’d been up since 3:30am it definitely seemed like lunch time. This is vacation, folks.
Refueled by our lunch break, we started the walk back to the Blue Bird. By the time we made it back we even had time for a dip in their lovely pool before climbing into our air-conditioned van for an afternoon temple tour.
Temple-hop ’til you drop…
Marco Polo once described Bagan as a “gilded city alive with tinkling bells and the swishing sounds of monks’ robes” and in the mid-9th century it was a central powerhouse under King Anawratha. As many as 13,000 temples and stupas may have once stood on this windy plain stretching 26 square miles.
Bagan’s reign of power ended in 1287 when the Kingdom was invaded and partially destroyed by the Mongols. Today, just 2,200 temples remain in various states of preservation. Some are large and still retain much of their grandeur from long ago, while others are tiny and crumbling in overgrown grass. With so many temples to choose from around Bagan, you really have to be selective to maximize your time. Like most visitors, we elected to visit the largest and best-preserved of the bunch and end our day with Bagan’s top attraction – sunset from the Shwe-san-daw Pagoda.
We began at Bagan’s most revered temple, the Shwe Zigon Pagoda. Built in 1087, the gourd-stupaed golden pagoda was the first one built in the traditional Myanmar style and was the design inspiration for thousands more throughout the country, including the astounding Shwedagon Pagoda we’d marveled at in Yangon.
Next we visited Htilominlo, Ananda, Thatbyinyu, Dhammayangyi and at least a dozen others, each with its own unique design and character as we temple-hopped around Old Bagan. We visited some of the most revered Buddhist sites and took in a lot of local culture along the way. It was a marvelous afternoon marred only slightly by the aggressive selling techniques of the local souvenir hawkers. Unlike Yangon, it seems the opportunistic entrepreneurs of Bagan have quickly caught on to the obnoxious sales tactics employed at many of the world’s other famous monuments.
I cannot tell you how depressing this was to me. Just when you think you’ve discovered someplace totally untouched, someone has already found a way to cheapen the experience. I understand they need to make a living and in most cases I am totally happy to look in their shops and to buy things to support the local economy (in fact, I already had that day), but it is such an incredible turn-off to be harassed incessantly.
I always refuse to buy anything from people who solicit that aggressively and the hawkers in Bagan were absolutely relentless, attaching themselves to us as we entered each temple and following our every step displaying their wares until we left. We finally got to the point that we couldn’t bear to walk into another temple.
The most frustrating part is that we really wanted to talk to the locals. The people we’d met so far in Yangon had been amazing; as had everyone in our Bagan hotel and in the shops we’d visited earlier in the day. And at first it was difficult to tell if someone was just trying to be nice and was sincerely interested in talking to you (as in Yangon) or if they were only interested in what you might buy from them.
But at the temples it was pretty obvious the locals were only interested in our money, which was heart-breakingly disappointing. (Note to the Bagan tourism officials: Please get a handle on this. Visitors want to come see your beautiful city and they want to spend their money on local products and support the economy. They don’t want to be relentlessly harassed. Keep the shops, change the sales tactics. There’s a better way.)
With more than an hour to go before sunset, we couldn’t stomach another temple sales pitch so we decided to wander across the street and watch the local football match that seemed to have the whole town’s attention. That was a much better experience than the temples and gave us an opportunity to interact with locals that were just happy to return our smiles. That is what Myanmar’s really all about…not the sweeping commercialism that threatens to turn this incredible town into something it needn’t be.
With our joy of interacting with the locals revitalized after our football match experience, it was finally time to head over to the Shwe-san-daw Pagoda for the sunset finale of our day. Despite having our archeological site ticket available throughout the day, it was never checked until we arrived at Shwe-san-daw for sunset. Which makes perfect sense, can you imagine staffing ticket takers at each of 2,200 temples? Why not just hedge your bets on the one tourist sure-thing, the prime sunset spot. Genius.
Foreign and Burmese tourists alike make the steep climb up the large steps of Shwe-san-daw to gather at the small top of the “sunset temple” each night. The climb is worth the vertigo-inducing effort for a panoramic view of thousands of temples as they burn orange with the sun’s setting rays creating one of the most memorable sunsets I’ve ever seen.
It was nice to escape the souvenir hawkers below and enjoy the beauty and tranquility of an epic Bagan sunset. It was also nice to see that there were actually other tourists here in Bagan since we’d hardly seen a one since arriving in Yangon. That’s a unique experience for me, visiting a place where you can go hours without seeing another tourist. Considering that, it seemed the ratio of souvenir hawkers to tourists was severely unbalanced and I wondered how any of them ever sold anything at all. Perhaps that’s why they are so aggressive. Of course, we were visiting during the less popular monsoon season so perhaps there are far more visitors in the dry season.
Exhausted from our full day of sightseeing, we decided to forgo another foray into town in the darkness and try out the Blue Bird’s restaurant for dinner. It was a good decision and a great meal and with much of Bagan’s best sights knocked out in a day we were looking forward to sleeping in well past 3:30am the next day.
The Bliss of the Blue Bird
For our last day in Bagan we were far less ambitious. The lure of relaxing by the Blue Bird’s secluded oasis of a swimming pool was just too strong to ignore. Plus I was in need of a work catch-up day. So we slept in until a reasonable hour, had breakfast and then parked ourselves at the pool for much of the day. It was glorious. In fact, we had it all to ourselves until mid-afternoon when some of the morning temple-hoppers began to return.
It was a great way to spend our final day in Bagan. We had planned on taking in another sunset from atop a different temple on our last night but the weather didn’t cooperate so instead we wandered into town and found a terrific family-owned restaurant for dinner.
I really enjoyed our brief stay in Bagan despite the persistent hawkers. It’s incredible just how much there is to see in Myanmar and Bagan is ground-zero for archeological wonders. It was equally as impressive as fellow Asian superstar sights like Cambodia’s Angkor Wat or China’s Great Wall. I suspect tourism will flourish here in the near future and I feel fortunate that I saw this place at a time when there was rarely another tourist to be found.
Next, we’re on to the final stop on our Myanmar tour, the royal city of Mandalay.