It’s amazing how different things can change in a year. Since my last post, I finished up my teaching duties in Myanmar, moved back to Canada, and am now the proud father of a 6-month old. The time off has also given me some time to pore through my photos from the past two years abroad and let some ideas percolate in my head. There is much to share, so let’s get on with it.
Today I take you to Bagan, the ancient capital of Myanmar. It is a desert-like plain dotted with thousands of temples, stupas, and pagodas that’s about an 8-hour bus ride from the main city of Yangon. The temples vary in size, and they’re spread throughout the plains. The best metaphor I’ve heard about Bagan when compared to Angkor Wat in Cambodia: Angkor Wat is like an elegant steak dinner, whereas Bagan is like Spanish-style tapas. There are myriad temples to explore, over 2000 of them. Many have been around since the 1300s. You won’t find this on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list, though. The reason going around is that in over their 700-plus years of existence, many of the temples succumbed to the wear that comes with being built on a windy, sandy area, and the repairs weren’t true to the original style in which they were built. Regardless, it’s still a sight to behold when you’re on the ground, watching the sun set from the top of a temple, or from the air in a hot-air balloon ride.
To get there, you need to take one of the overnight buses that leaves from Yangon (unless you’d like to take the bumpy route, like Anthony Bourdain did). My bus left at around 8 PM, and arrived at 3:30 in the morning. There were taxi drivers already waiting, and it was about a $14 ride to our accommodation in New Bagan. Whether you stay in New Bagan, Old Bagan, or Nyaung U, it’s about the same price to get there by taxi. They might try to sell you a stop at one of the temples to see the sunrise, which will of course add to the cost of your trip. It was a cold December morning, I was tired, and I was already planning to see the sun set at dusk, so I declined. When you get into the town, you’ll have to pay an “archaeological fee” to be allowed in, something around $20 US a person. Unless, of course, you were a local, then it’s free. Definitely one of the biggest turnoffs about that side of the world – foreigner pricing. Even more of a pet peeve since I was living and working there, and therefore paying local taxes. If you can get over this, $20 is a small fee to pay to see one of the world’s greatest wonders. Just make sure to keep the ticket with you. On my last day, as a handful of tourists watched the sun set on top of one of the temples, the police came and checked everyone’s ticket. They really know when to get you.
Once you’ve checked in, it’s just a matter of how to get around. Taxis aren’t as common as they are in Yangon, so your best bet is to rent a bike, an e-bike, or a motorcycle from one of the many rental places within the vicinity of your hotel. Try to negotiate a lower rate if you’re renting it for the day, but overall it is very inexpensive. Hop on and get lost as you explore any temple of your choosing, many you can even climb. Chances are you will be the only one at your own personal temple. My favourite wasn’t even on the map! Another option is to take a horse-drawn carriage, but it’ll eat up your time. Good for the local economy though.
Make sure to bring some change as there are temple gate keepers that will let you in for a small donation. I believe some of the bigger temples also charge you to get in. And if you have some cash to burn, a hot-air balloon ride is an experience you’d remember for the rest of your life.
Bagan is so picturesque, it almost feels like cheating in photography. Without a doubt, the best time to shoot is during Golden Hour. The sun imparts a romantic hue of gold onto the orange bricks that make up most of the temples. The sandy ground also means you get lots of dust in the air along the roads, which makes for great shots of the sun’s rays filtering through. I suggest taking some shots on the ground, then racing to get to the top of a temple to catch the sunset. The popular viewing spots can get crowded, and this is where you bear the fruits of your legwork during the day: you would’ve scouted a nice, secluded temple away from the tourists that you can enjoy all to yourself!
Bagan is also home to Myanmar’s famous lacquerware industry. They have a much wider selection and range of pricing than the markets in Yangon. The quality varies, but my experience is that the more expensive stores really do have nicer products.
Riding along the only road that connects Old and New Bagan, I was able to point out where a Hilton could be built within the next 10 years. Go now if you can!