We woke up at 4:30 am and our flight to Bagan with Air Bagan was scheduled at 6:30.
Flying is certainly the fastest way to travel but also the less ethical, as most airlines are linked with the government and it’s very difficult to know exactly its implication. It’s also difficult to know with certainty which airlines are blacklisted for security reasons.
An interesting fact is that, at the moment, Myanmar counts 8 airlines but only 40 aircrafts. Each plane makes a rotation, the most common being Yangon – Bagan – Mandalay – Inle Lake – (Ngapali) – Yangon.
Yangon domestic airport was not very big and modern as you can imagine. We were given a sticker from Air Bagan to put on our tee-shirt, as well as a boarding pass. We then waited in a big room with all the other passengers having a flight around the same time than us. There were only a small number of boarding gates and no screens or loudspeakers to announce where to go. Instead, there was a man shouting and, fortunately, also carrying a sign with the flight number. I still wasn’t full awake but I paid double attention not to miss our flight!
The flight itself took a bit more than 1 hour and the aerial view was stunning with an uncountable number of temples and the Irrawaddy or Ayeyarwady river, which was quite dry in that season.
The flight was very pleasant. The aircraft didn’t seem too old, the flight attendants were gorgeous and nice and we were served a good breakfast and refreshments.
In Bagan, we first went to the Bagan Archaeological Park’s selling counter to buy our admission tickets, which was an obligation for foreigners. The price was $10 per person and the money went directly to the government but there was no choice.
Then, we headed to the hotel counter. The lady proposed us a hotel for $400/night!!! Way too much! Our budget was more around $50 (thanks to the guidebooks which announced good accommodations available for about $10 !!!!!). Then, she managed to find another hotel for about $80/night. It could be conceivable if we reduced our accommodation expenses at our next destination (Mandalay). We wanted to visit the place before deciding so we grabbed a taxi. The taxi driver was a great guy who told us that this hotel was run by the government (in fact, all the hotels proposed at the counter were) and asked us in we were interested in a brand new guesthouse in Nyaung-U for half of the price. My first question, after our experience in Yangon, was to ask if it was clean. We knew the taxi driver would get a commission if he brought guest so we decided to have a look. It was a very nice place indeed with a convenient location, not too far from Nyaung-U market and with lovely tenants. The room was small with twin beds covered with a kitsch flowered blanket that Burmese love so much, a balcony, a bathroom with hot water and a heating and A/C. system (very useful, as we would learn that Bagan could be very hot during the day but also chilly during the night).
I had great expectations about Bagan and its thousands of temples as I’m a huge fan of Buddha frescoes, carvings and statues, to my boyfriend’s great despair!
The Bagan Archaeological Zone is a 13 x 8 km area centered around Old Bagan, Nyaung U in the north and New Bagan in the south that counts 2200 temples, stupas and pagodas and is home to the highest density of Buddhist architecture anywhere in the world.
Bagan (formerly known as Pagan) was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan from the 9th to the 13th centuries. This kingdom was the first to unify the area that is now Myanmar, establishing the Burmese culture and ethnicity, as well as Theravada Buddhism, in the region. Over this period of rule, as the city and kingdom grew in influence and stature, over 10,000 temples were built. After Mongol invasions eventually led to the fall of the Kingdom of Pagan, the city was reduced to a small settlement, never to recover its former glories. The area did, however, remain a destination for Buddhist pilgrimage. A few hundred temples were added between the 13th and 21th centuries until the government halted building work in 2010 to focus on preserving the existing temples.
The huge amount of earthquakes over the years means that only 2200 temples remain, in varying states of repair.
Many of these damaged temples underwent restorations in the 1990s by the government, which sought to make Bagan an international tourist destination. However, the restoration efforts instead drew widespread condemnation from art historians and preservationists worldwide because the restorations paid little attention to original architectural styles and used modern materials.
The Myanmar government nominated Bagan in 1996 to be listed as an UNESCO World Heritage Site, believing that the ancient capital’s hundreds of (unrestored) temples and large corpus of stone inscriptions were more than sufficient to win the designation.
Yet for almost 20 years, Bagan’s application to be listed as a World Heritage Site has lain dormant, allegedly mainly on account of the restorations.
I personally think that it’s very sad because we can’t really blame people for not having the financial means and the sufficient knowledge to restore such a big site. This site is amazing and it’s a crime not to protect it against potential further damages.
Every one of the 2200 plus temples, stupas and pagodas has its own unique story to tell, and many can be freely explored – inside and out. Some are locked, but even if you are wandering around without a guide, you can most of the times find a friendly local « gate keeper » nearby to open them for you against some « tea-money ».
Of course no tourist can have the pretention to visit them all. This is why I recommend to select the most important you really want to see. For the rest, just wander around following the pathways and you inner instinct. There is no good choice or bad choice, as each temple is a wonder.
We had decided to stay 4 full days in Bagan when most of the people only spent two. We don’t like to move everyday when we travel and to be in a continual rush. On the contrary, we prefer to stay several days at the same place to take our time, become acquainted with the area and develop habits.
Once we were settled, it was finally time to go on exploration. It was already too hot to visit any temple so we decided to go to the market which was very lively and colorful.
Then we adventured further until the river. We were the only tourists there, people staying only two days don’t have the time to get off the beaten track. And it is a shame because the river plays an important role in Bagan’s daily life.We witnessed people washing their clothes, fishing, playing…
It was a very hot day and this tour took us longer than expected so when we went back to the guesthouse, we discovered that we had turned into rednecks!
After a well-deserved nap, it was finally time to choose a temple to see the sunset.
The most common means of transport in Bagan is to rent a bicycle. Normally, my boyfriend loves to bicycle and I don’t. But for once, I was delighted by the idea… but my boyfriend wasn’t… Let’s just say that it wasn’t his clever idea as distances are quite long. Anyway… we went walking under the still hot sun.
We decided to go to Buledi temple and we weren’t disappointed. It’s a quite small but nice temple and there weren’t too many people. Our first sunset in Bagan was magical.
We were surrounded by temples, and their colours kept changing while the light was slowly fading away. We stayed until the end of the “show”, which means when it was pitch dark.
We did well to have taken with us a jacket and a torch. The way back seemed never-ending.
On the second day, we woke up at 5:00 am to see the sunrise from Shwe-san-daw pagoda. The stairs are quite deep and there are only a few handrails, so if you suffer from vertigo, it might not be the best place.
Otherwise, it’s one of the best and therefore very popular spot. Even with a jacket, I was a bit cold. I think it’s because we had to remove our shoes before climbing the temple and as I already mentioned, if my feet are cold, my whole body is cold.
The sunrise also was a breathtaking moment. We discovered little by little, with the light growing and the fog slowly dissipating, the many temples that surrounded us.
We stayed until our stomach reminded us that it was time for breakfast.
After breakfast, we went back to the market. We really like markets, there is always something new to discover. Then, we wandered in the temples around Nyaung U, the biggest being Shwezagon Pagoda.
After our afternoon rest, we went to see the sunset at Pyathada Pagoda. The least we can say is that we weren’t alone.
It’s one of the most popular places with an easy access for coaches and cars.
We managed to find a good place but were a bit disappointed not to have found the same tranquilly than yesterday. The “show” was as amazing as the day before. However, the surroundings seemed a bit “poorer”, if we can say.
On the third day, we took a half day excursion to Mount Popa. The driver picked us up at 9:00 am, so we could sleep a little longer, which was very pleasant. It’s only 50 km from Bagan but as the road isn’t in very good conditions, it looks further. On the way, the driver stopped us to see how we make palm liquor (toddy) and palm sweets. It was very interesting: we saw how people climb on coconut trees, how they collect the sap, how they process to the distillation and make the sweets and we had a free tasting. The sweets were good so we bought a pack.
Then, we finally arrived to Mount Popa.
Mount Popa is an extinct volcano on the slopes of which can be found the sacred Popa Taungkalat monastery, perched dramatically atop a huge rocky outcrop. The monastery is entirely surrounded by sheer cliff faces and offers stunning views of the surrounding plains and Mount Popa itself.
But you have to deserved the view: there are 777 steps leading to the monastery.
Monkeys are constantly watching you to see if they can steal you something.
Even if many people spend their time cleaning the stairs, it’s better to remain careful and check where you put your bare feet to avoid monkey’s poos.
Once at the top, we took the time to enjoy the view.
I was desperately looking for a slow moving Yeti monk but didn’t have the chance to even glimpse one.
We came back to Nyaung U around 02:00 pm, just on time for our daily nap.
Then, we went back to Buledi temple to see the sunset. It wasn’t too far from our guesthouse and the view was excellent, so we didn’t want to take the risk to be disappointed a second time.
The only difference with the first day is that we came back to the guesthouse in a horse cart. The experience was nice but not very comfortable!
On the fourth and last day,we went back to Shwe-san-daw Pagoda to see the sunrise.
But this time, instead of going back to the guesthouse for breakfast, we explored the many temples around and first Shwe-san-daw Pagoda itself.
At its base, there is a room with a nice sleeping Buddha not to be missed.
Then, we headed in the direction of one temple we had particularly noticed. It was a huge temple and we were the only visitors. We felt like in an Indiana Jones movie.
We wanted to come back to the guesthouse with a pick up but couldn’t stop one so we finally went back walking, quite a distance! We were so exhausted that we had a big nap and missed the last sunset. But, we were on holiday to relax and had already enjoyed a lot.
We spent our last evening packing and planning what we would be doing in Mandalay.
Some tips for Bagan:
-Where to sleep: It depends of your budget. Generally, Nyaung-U offers budget accommodations, New Bagan midrange accommodations and Old Bagan upmarket accommodations.
-Where to eat: In a Burmese restaurant of course! Most of them also propose Occidental dishes of good quality such as salads, pizzas, pastas, a real treat from time to time.
Be careful if you want to try very small restaurants that don’t seem to be touristic. We tried one and the choice was very limited: tea leaf salad and rice with fried egg. I ordered only the rice as I don’t like the tea leaf salad but my boyfriend ordered the combo. I told him that the rice had a taste of mud but he didn’t believe me. I’m pretty sure they cooked it in water taken from the river. Which meant that they also certainly washed the salad with the same water… And don’t forget that one of the most important rule when traveling in South-East Asia is to never eat nourriture that was in contact with tap/river water.
If you’re after a sweet, go to Thante Bakery in Nyaung U. They have a good selection of freshly baked cakes.
-What to wear when visiting temples: Shoulders and knees should be covered at all times. As it was very hot, I opted for a pashmina that I could easily wear and remove. For the shoes, keep in mind that you’ll have to remove them before entering a temple. I wore flip flops because it was the most convenient and I didn’t have to care about my dirty feet. But my boyfriend opted for Converses to be more comfortable. He had to do and undo his laces every time but also to clean his feet with wipes.
So choose your option, but if you opt for flip flops, my advice will be to bring some plasters with you!