I’m Baganning to Like it Here

Posted by on Feb 6, 2012 in General Travel, Myanmar (Burma) | 3 Comments

I must admit that I haven’t completely fallen in love with Burma. There have been plenty of awe-inspiring moments and a few truly bizarre experiences here and there, but for every cool conversation with monks on a bridge there’s a dumb-ass bus or taxi driver that I want to strangle with my bare hands. It’s been both a rewarding and deeply frustrating experience so far.

After our stay in the hills of Hsipaw, we headed back to Mandalay via bus. To then travel from Mandalay to Bagan, we boarded a boat just west of the city, on the Ayeyarwady’s (aka the Irrawaddy) eastern bank. As the boat’s crew busily loaded the last few passengers and their luggage, I watched a middle-aged woman squat near the river and proceed to brush her teeth with river water – the same river that upstream villages use as a sewer. If anything can make you truly appreciate the conveniences of the western world, it’s watching something like this.

Fruit vendors try to sell food along the shore

Fruit vendors try to sell food along the shore. Similar vendors greeted our boat each time it docked along the way to Bagan. The women are wearing thanaka on their faces (the ubiquitous Burmese sunscreen).

The 9-hour ride downstream was mostly peaceful and uneventful, except for a brief altercation with a couple of older French tourists who apparently thought it was OK to toss banana peels into the river. The husband actually argued that they were biodegradable! Well, yes, but would you like to brush your teeth with banana water? Would you toss them into the Mediterranean? Sigh… We approached Bagan just in time to see the sun set over a couple of temples lining the river.

That's me, sitting in a chair on the deck.

That's me, sitting in a chair on the deck. "Banana Boy" is looking upset, because I just chewed him out (in French) for tossing banana peels into the river. Newsflash for Banana Boy: everything's biodegradable if you wait long enough!

The sun sets as we approach Bagan.

The sun sets as we approach Bagan. These were the first temples we saw.

When we reached shore at Nyaung U, the busiest of 3 villages that make up the Bagan “zone,” we found a couple of taxis and a half dozen horse carts parked at the top of the river bank. The taxis were asking 7000 kyats for the ride to our hotel. The horse carts were… also 7000 kyats. This is the type of illogical experience that drives me a little crazy in this country. The mode of transportation rarely affects the price. You want a top-of-the-line air-conditioned bus with comfy seats? 7000 kyats. A rickety minibus packed with bags of rice and people riding on the roof? 7000 kyats. A cycle rickshaw? Yeah, that’s right, 7000 kyats.

We balked at the taxi rate and walked to the horse carts, and in the process lost the chance to hire one of the 2 cars; they were quickly filled with smarter people. We piled our luggage and ourselves into a horse cart, which maxed out at about 9 miles per hour. 5 minutes outside of town, our driver announced that it was too far for him to take us by horse cart, so he paid a pickup truck “taxi” to drive us the rest of the way. The pickup reeked of diesel fuel and, even though it was completely open in the back, smoked enough to make us nauseous. Our driver sped through the streets of Old Bagan at 120 km/h, completely oblivious to the fact that he had two screaming passengers hanging on for dear life in the pickup’s bed, especially since he hadn’t bothered to even close the tailgate. When we arrived at our hotel, Robin told the driver that he drove like a crazy person. He took it as a compliment.

Our hotel was in a prime location, on the fringes of New Bagan and steps away from some ancient temples. It offered bikes for $4 a day, so we mapped out a route that covered all of the temples that we deemed worth visiting, ate our standard-issue government-approved breakfast (Tang-like “OJ”, 2 slices of toast, 2 eggs, coffee or tea, and margarine paired with strawberry jam on a little plate), and hit the road:

One of Old Bagan's more generic temples.

One of Old Bagan's more generic temples. This one was cool because no one was in it!

Bagan's crown jewel: Ananda Temple

Bagan's crown jewel: Ananda Pahto.

Vendors in Bagan have established trinket camps outside the most impressive temples, so it’s possible to use them as a proxy for the archaeological value of the structures. More vendors = a more impressive temple. No vendors = something rather generic. The exceptions are temples that are farthest from the main roads and hardest to reach. While the vendors aren’t terribly annoying, it’s sometimes possible to bypass them by using a different temple entrance.

One of the cool frescoes in Ape-ya-da-na

One of the cool frescoes in Ape-ya-da-na.

At lunchtime we rode into Old Bagan and stopped at Be Kind to Animals the Moon, a (strangely-named) vegetarian restaurant that was recommended by guidebooks and TripAdvisor. It was one of the best meals that we’ve had in Burma, and a phenomenal value!

Be Kind to Animals The Moon, you sure make some tasty food!

Be Kind to Animals the Moon, you sure make some tasty food! Our waiter was a little surprised by the number of dishes that we ordered.

We also made a quick stop at the local National League for Democracy booth on the side of the road. I spent a few kyats buying some stickers to help fund their cause:

Aung San Suu Kyi stickers

Aung San Suu Kyi stickers. 6 months ago, this would have gotten some people in serious trouble.

We spent the remainder of the afternoon visiting some of the more spectacular temples, many of which are located in the northeast plain between Old Bagan and New Bagan.  The temples were all built over a period of about 200+ years, starting in 1057 AD. Long story short, King Anawrahta (a Bamar) converted to Buddhism and decided to start building temples befitting his new religion. Subsequent kings kept up the temple building and, at its peak, it’s now estimated that construction began on 1 new temple every two weeks! In 1287, the Mongols overran Bagan and chased away the Bamars. I’m no historian, but my guess is that the Bamar kings squandered their empire’s resources to build monuments to their own greatness and eventually paid the price. It’s not a stretch to imagine that their people were not particularly well cared for during the construction phase, much the way Burma’s people are not currently provided with basic necessities while the military government builds itself a new $4 billion capital.

The country’s current leaders have also not exhibited much strategic thinking when it comes to Bagan’s ruins. They hastily reconstructed many of the temples that had been damaged by a series of earthquakes (the biggest in 1975), and haven’t bothered to use historically-accurate architecture and construction methods for the remaining restoration projects. UNESCO has rejected the government’s application for World Heritage status because of the shoddy work. For a major tourist destination that provides much-needed economic benefit to the region, the government has shown itself to be horribly shortsighted.

The largest of Bagan's temples: Dhamma-yan-gyi Pahto

The largest of Bagan's temples: Dhamma-yan-gyi Pahto. It is constructed of bricks with only paper-thin layers of mortar.

The view from Shwe-san-daw Paya

The view from Shwe-san-daw Paya, looking south.

An example of shoddy restoration

An example of shoddy restoration at Bupaya temple. I'm pretty sure that the original temple did not include this statue of (what appears to be) Humpty Dumpty. Sometimes, you just can't put something back together again. Nor should you try.

We ended the day by riding down dusty dirt trails to Pyathada Paya, a large temple with a huge terrace on its top level. Once considered a bit of a secret location to watch the sun set over Bagan’s plains, it’s now been discovered by tour groups and the horse cart / ox cart drivers, but it still offered a great view and a rather small crowd of visitors. While awaiting the sunset, I was lucky enough to attract the attention of a young Burmese man who offered to sell me some black market emeralds and rubies, all of which were incredibly large and perfectly clear… pieces of polished glass. I told him that I didn’t have a job and couldn’t possibly afford such amazing stones, so he offered to trade them for my camera! Hmmm… a $400 camera for stones that, if real, would fetch tens of thousands of dollars? I had to think about it for a bit. Well, not really. I let him move on to scam other tourists and watched the goat herders tend to their flocks while the sun dipped behind the hills on the horizon:

The sun begins to set over the plains of Bagan

The sun begins to set over the plains of Bagan...

The goat herders take their flocks home for the night

The goat herders take their flocks home for the night...

And the sun disappears behind the hills

And the sun disappears behind the hills.

The following day, we stayed closer to home and wandered the dusty streets of New Bagan. We really loved the feel of the village, which is very residential and very low key. A few nice restaurants are interspersed between lacquerware workshops, schools, mini-marts and houses, and large trees offer much-needed shade to the people walking the streets. There are also plenty of animals roaming around – we went for a run one morning and were almost mowed down by a horse that had decided to take itself out for a gallop! It would have plowed into us had we not stopped. Maybe it thought it would be fun to join us on our trot? In any event, the town is a fantastic alternative to tourist-centric Old Bagan and the hectic bustle of Nyaung U.

Bagan turned out to be a great place to chill and let go of many of the frustrations that had started to get on my nerves since our arrival in Burma. As we watched another sunset over a mix of spectacular authentic temples and their poorly-restored cousins, it became clear that there are problems that can be resolved, and problems that can’t. Some have their origins in the past and simply can no longer be changed. Others are caused by the government and (at least in Burma) are mostly beyond our control. But a few, like banana-flinging tourists and lead-footed taxi drivers, can be rectified. As visitors to a developing country hungry for tourism, we can opt for the safer vehicle and the better driver; we can admonish our fellow travelers when they do something disrespectful; we can choose to spend our money with honest merchants instead of government-run tour operators; and we can learn to let go of things that only lead to frustration and that may only improve with time. Bagan made it clear that humans make plenty of stupid mistakes (many repeatedly) and that things rarely ever turn out the way they were intended to.

The next morning we boarded yet another bus to reach Meiktila, a small town of no great significance (it does have a cool temple shaped like a Karaweik – see below), but one that allowed us to break up the 11-hour voyage to Inle Lake. This bus was quite a bit different than the plush highway coaches that we’d taken since our arrival in Burma. That became clear once they loaded the motorbike in the aisle:

Meiktila's Karaweik temple

Meiktila's Karaweik temple. A Karaweik is a mythical bird, according to Burmese lore.

The motorbike in the bus

The motorbike in the bus. I don't ask too many questions on Burmese buses anymore.

More to come…


  1. Greg Wong
    February 6, 2012

    Now I want to brush up on my high school French so that I can listen to you yell at someone about bananas in French.!!!

  2. Ed
    February 6, 2012

    The detail in your journal at this part of your journey is interesting–reflective of a country that does not really have a decent tourist industry and you see it for what it is. Frustrating but real. Travelers rather than tourists.

    • Pierre
      February 6, 2012

      For sure, and definitely memorable. Despite my complaining, I would hate to see it turn into Thailand. Can the country keep its authenticity while catering to more visitors? Hard to say…


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