Penne Cole's thoughts on food, travel and more
Located on the banks of the Irrawaddy River, Bagan was my favourite place in Myanmar. It is the spiritual centre of the country – once home to more than 13,000 Buddhist temples pagodas and stupas, now just 2,200 remain. But when they are all packed together in 40 square kilometres, the overall effect packs a punch.
Tourism is still relatively new to Bagan. None of the usual tourist infrastructure is available in the tiny town centred on its one main street. The guest houses are basic (and prone to blackouts), and the food is still mostly local. Pigs sniff about in the bushes by the side of the road, and barefoot children play freely outside their houses. While big tourist buses do visit from the main cities of Mandalay and Yangon, it’s easy to avoid them and get your own taste of Bagan. And that’s what makes it so magical.
The best way to get around is to hire one of the many electric scooters – usually 10,000 Kyat or just under USD10 per day. Two-seaters are available for slightly more, but the second person usually just perches on the back of the same scooter they rent out for one person. Make sure they are fully charged and try to stick to the hard packed trails – if you find yourself fighting your way through lots of soft sand, your battery is unlikely to last the day, as we found out the hard way.
We get a rudimentary map (available at any hotel), and head off to explore the temples. The terrain is dry and dusty, with scrub lining both sides of the trail. Before too long, we spot our first temple. And then another, and yet another. Most, scoured with wind and sand since they were built in the 11th and 12th centuries, have been stripped of their white plaster coating, leaving them in bare red brick. They are all different shapes and sizes, some in a better state of repair than others. Some are empty, long since stripped of their gold leaf and praying mantels. Others are still functioning temples, with gigantic golden Buddha statues and throngs of devotees. While some of the larger temples are surrounded by the usual tourist trappings of market stalls selling cheap trinkets, Bagan is still untouched enough that I feel the wonder of exploration rather than vague dirtiness of exploitation.
The best part about Bagan is finding a temple that you can climb, preferably away from the tourist throngs, and watch the sunset. Stay away from the Shwesandaw or Shwegugyi Temples – these have hit the “mainstream” and are far too crowded to properly enjoy a tranquil sunset. We chanced upon the Shwe Leik Too temple just before sunset – it is the perfect spot, and even comes with a set of narrow stairs for easy access to the top of the temple. The temple has multiple tiers, each accessible by increasingly steep stairs. We find a narrow ledge to perch on (just big enough for my butt!), all the while reflecting that only here would we be able to do this. OH&S be damned! We settle in on to wait for the shades of pink, rose and tangerine slowly colour the sky.
The mood is quiet and reflective; everyone is either silent or talking in whispers as we savour the tranquility and the beauty of the moment.
This post was inspired by the Weekly Photo Challenge: Narrow.
Keep in mind that these Buddhist temples, pagodas and stupas are considered sacred ground. Pay your respects by removing your shoes and covering your knees and shoulders. If you didn’t bring anything suitable, sarongs or long-yis (guys wear them too!) are readily available.
The best way to access Bagan is by plane from Yangon or Bagan to Nyaung-U airport. If you have a little more time on your hands, you can also get here via a ferry from Mandalay. Be warned – they told us it would take 10 hours. We only arrived 14 hours later.
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