There is only one reason to visit Bagan; temples. Just a few of them.
We were picked up from the hotel in Mandalay by our complimentary pick up service. Emma got lucky and bagged the front seat and Marie bundled into the back for another taxi sandwich. Again the shared taxi was basically a ute type vehicle. The journey didn’t take long which was good as they turned up at 7:50am not 7:30 like we were told. The bus left at 8:30.
The bus was a rickety old Japanese thing which once upon a time would have had all the gadgets working – aircon, reclining seats, reading lights, headphone inputs and volume control – now it is a shadow of its former self. The two people in front of us couldn’t even lean on their seats at all as they just kept reclining and reclining and reclining, we were just grateful not to have got those. The bus did have air-con, kind of. We got quite warm and fortunately some of the time it just made us sleepy. After 3 hours of bumpy but straight road and a sweaty stuffy hot bus we stopped for a 30 minute lunch. Emma got herself some roadside cafe slop. Marie decided she wasn’t hungry.
It was very hot outside, much warmer than anywhere we have been so far and you could tell it is much drier because the air is dusty and the sides of the road are covered in a thick layer of dust. The 30 minute stop turned out to be much longer as the even cheaper shed of a bus next to us was having engine issues which caught the interest of our bus boy and driver. We felt good our bus was ‘sponsored’ by Lucky Water – breaking down in this weather out on the open road would be a very sweaty affair. It didn’t look like the breakdown of the other bus would be fixed permanently but the engine was running which meant we could truck on. The very weak aircon just about kept us alive but we slept a decent amount after lunch to try and cope with it, not waking until much before the ticket booth to buy the $10 entry ticket to the archaeological zone. Again this was a hand over of some immaculate US$ and our passports in exchange for a small paper ticket. The ticket gets you almost everywhere in the area except the archaeological museum and the palace where you pay more to get in. Despite our prolonged lunch we arrived in Nyuang U at the bus station early and were scooped up by our hotel pick up, which was a horse and cart. Although only about 1.3k from the station we were grateful for the lift and the relief of flowing air.
Nyuang U is a river town and is basically the budget end of Bagan as it is a little further from the big temples. Our accommodation was somewhere between the market and the bus station and a short walk from the river and a horse and cart or bicycle ride to the temples. Having arrived earlier than anticipated we decided to make the most of the afternoon and got a horse and cart to take us out to a few temple highlights and a place for sunset – Pyathada Paya. This temple has a large terrace at the top where people flock to take photos.
Bagan sits in the ‘dry zone’ meaning it is hot and at this time of year a little bit steamy too. Its not arid, there are plenty of green vegetation but the landscape is clay red, vast and flat. Perfect for making and building with brick. The temples break the horizon with a good scattering of stubby trees and palms. It was once known as the copper land which is a really good description.
Dating back to the 11th century many of the temples are crumbling or leaning but a surprising number have been ‘restored’ in some cases very haphazardly with concrete and new bricks. There are the vast plains and there is Old Bagan which is contained by a substantial brick wall that you can see from many elevated positions. The sunset was pretty weak -imagine hazy clouds with no colour but the elevated view gave us a chance to understand the scale of the place and give us a taste of where we wanted to explore. Our horseman Myoso and horse Susu were great company so we arranged to meet them the next afternoon figuring it would be too hot at lunchtime and we wouldn’t want to be out all day looking at temples so it would give us the morning to explore on foot.
The next day we walked to Shwezigon Paya – the most visited temple by the locals, significantly holding 37 pre-Buddhist Nat statues but we got distracted by the 4 large Buddhas and the sudden burst of sun. We decided that a short venture to a nearby cave temple would probably be enough for us. Built into a cliff face the cave has frescoes dating back 700 years. It wasn’t a cave in the traditional sense but more of a series of short dark tunnels in a grid pattern with small rooms off it. It was really interesting as it was nothing like what we have seen elsewhere here. We dragged ourselves back into the sun and back to the hotel collapsing into a chilly 36 degrees of aircon goodness (actually 26 is a bit too chilly these days).
The afternoon was spent with Dimton (Myoso’s cousin) whose horse was a bit more old and knackered. He took us around some of the other large temples with the odd one or two made with stone or decorated with plaster instead of brick. Some have resident bats and pushy sales people, others are buzzing with domestic tour groups, other eerily silent and dark. The large temples are interesting because of their scale, unusual Buddha images and frescoes, others look way more interesting from the outside. After another climb this time up some very steep steps Marie took a few more elevated shots of the plains and beyond whilst Emma clung to the brickwork like a gecko.
The next day we braved bicyles figuring that once off the main road it was easy to get around and see some of the smaller temples we had been passing by. It was fantastic just to be able to turn off here and there and to discover small temples hiding pristine gold Buddhas and have complete peace and quiet. Discovering offerings at the most random places was just as interesting to us as the interiors of the large temples. We wonder how people with so much choice decide which temple to come to. We had plenty of places to ourselves and were pretty smug as we headed back for dinner.
The final day we were going to play by ear thinking if we had the relative cool of yesterday we would go for the bikes again. Turned out to be a blue sky scorcher so we actually had a really lazy day in Nyaung U instead, having a brief wander down the backstreets and getting hijacked by 3 children and their 2 mothers with sandalwood being smeared all over our faces to much laughter then being asked for food to feed the other 7 children back home…
- Dogs love ganging up on and chasing blue lizards, but the lizard usually wins.
- Despite first impressions not everyone here will give you the hard sell – some people just love the interaction, just like us.
- Horse and cart is no tourist novelty here it is a mainstream form of transport.
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