I arrived in Bagan on an overnight bus that was not really overnight. Expecting to get in around 4:30am and go for sunrise and save myself that night’s accommodation, I was really disappointed to arrive at 2am at a bus stop outside of the city with taxi drivers swarming the bus with double or triple rates. Without much choice, I got in a taxi with 3 others going to the same place and the driver laughed about how lucky he was to be overcharging us.
We got stopped on the way to pay a 25,000 Bagan entrance fee (which is really only checked at some of the major pagodas at peak times). Strangely, some friends that came in during the day got around paying for this, but I guess they take the time to catch night bus passengers I guess. I would say I have learned my lesson not to take night buses in Myanmar but still 2 more after Bagan!
Too tired to argue more, we made it to Winner Hotel for 16,000 kyat total (which is more than I paid for my trip from the Yangon airport to Thabarwa which took over an hour) and were “lucky” to find out we still had to pay the full rate for that half-night of sleep. They had a shared room for the four of us for $30 – Only it turned out to be 2 beds, but being cheapies we just went with it and shared amongst our newly-made bus and taxi friends.
In the (later) morning, I bumped into a girl Jessie we had met on the bus to Hsipaw and she invited me to join her and two friends for Bagan exploring. We rented some e-bikes for 7,000 kyat and went on our way!
I thought it was going to be e-bikes like the ones I had used in Madrid where you pedal and a little motor cruises you along, but these were electric scooters! You could have put two people on one to make it cheaper but we thought it was best not to be responsible for each other’s well-being. This proved to be the right choice because down the road, a bus cut me off and I crashed in the sand. Later in the day, all the other girls crashed at different points so we were even. Or I guess e-bikes: 4, us: 0.
Bagan was what I expected and more. A city of countless pagodas and stupas as well as souvenir stalls, but you can find your way to some hidden ones “off the beaten trail”. That was our goal so we managed to bike some sandy trails back to a village and eventually down to the river. We saw a pagoda on the hill overlooking the river and made it our goal to get there. We left the bikes and walked through some mint and other herb fields to the bottom of its wall. How to get up there? Climb the wall and a tree of course!! We eventually figured out this secret pagoda was called #2624 (not even a name on the map). On the way out we took a different path which only took about 30 seconds to get to the main road, making our longer adventure through the forest and village really roundabout but still way more inreresting.
We stopped at several others but that part might have been my favorite from day 1. We ended up at Shwesandaw Paya for sunset since we were running out of time to hunt down a different place. Shwesandaw is THE spot for sunrises and sunsets with buses bringing herds of people in amd the different levels of the pagoda covered in tripods and people taking selfies. Nevertheless, it was a gorgeous sunset. It was funny because a lot of people cleared out before the sun finished setting, and we joked about how they were missing the best part. After he sunset, we stayed a little longer and hen decided to find our way back before it got too dark. Shortly after we got back on the road, the sky turned into brilliant purple and pink colors – oh the irony.
One of my mirrors fell off on the way back (I picked it up and the rental place didn’t seem too bothered so maybe it isn’t the first time) but otherwise we made it back from a day on e-bikes in one piece!
This time I did manage to get up for sunrise! So worth it! I borrowed a bicycle from the hotel to cycle down to Law Kau Ou Shaung. On the way, my lovely dress got caught in the chain, so I had to ripped it out, and then later when I was nearly there, the bike just jammed up and I couldn’t pedal anymore!!! Walking it was… I made it to Law Kau Ou Shaung and woke up a snoozing taxi driver to make sure it was the right place, and the key holder found me and told me it was closed but I could go up neighboring Thein Mazi instead!
He led the way and I found my way up the stairs to meet a nice mini group of 4 people who had beaten me there. We figured out how to climb a little higher and by sunrise another 5 people had showed up. Still, a much more peaceful setting than busy Shwesandaw!
Sunrise itself — incredible. The sun actually rose perfectly out of the top of a pagoda and I took aprroximately 1 billion pictures between the sunrise and the hot air balloons floating in the sky. Someday I will come back not as a budget traveller and get in one of those!!!
After sunrise, the key holder kindly repaired my bike for me so I gave him a little tip, and some sunrise friends and I made our way to a restaurant for some breakfast Abu Shabu! I am cursed with a winter cold so I think I have been going back to this spicy noodle soup every other day to try to clear out of sinuses.
Back at the hotel, I found the girls again and had breakfast number 2 of fruit and coffee (why not?), and then we went for normal bikes for the day. We ended up going to a monastery, passed a local school, and went to two of the most important pagodas – Ananda and Dhamma Yan Gyi.
Outside Ananda, there was a photoshoot place, and we ended up going in for dress-up fun! They had dresses from different tribes and we also got our make-up done (bright pink eye shadow) plus accessories and ended up being a group of Wa, Chin, Kachin and Shan ladies!! The family was adorable in how they shuffled us through the process and directed us for the photos and also did u a favor by taking pictures with our own cameras too, so afterwards we had them all get us on stage together for a photo shoot of them!!!
We made it to North Guni at the end of the day for pre-sunset relaxation before getting our bus. Some cute kids tried to sell postcards and that was pretty sad, but Amalia was painting with watercolors and more kids crowded around little by little to watch and eventually ended up doing some paintings too so at least they got to do something fun and creative besides selling things and asking for money.
We went back in time for showers before getting the bus to Inle Lake (the girls) and Kalaw (me, so then I could pay to walk to Inle Lake instead of course!)
Some people said that you need several days in Bagan but it depends on whether you are really trying to go to as many pagodas as possible! I think a couple of days is fine as long as you make it to sunrise and sunset and for me, I wanted to avoid spending too much time around the souvenir vendors because I felt guilty for not buying more. My favorite was the girl who offered to trade pants for my dress haha.
Bagan was sort of the beginning of my tourist complex – I want to see these places but I am a part of ruining them with tourism. On one hand it brings in business, but there in a huge divide in how that wealth is actually shared – hotels, taxi drivers, guide agencies, the restaurants recommended by Lonely Planet, and of course the government get their share but what about the rest who live there? But I can’t really buy a bracelet or statue or bowl from everyone anyway. And then I get annoyed that my bananas are double the price or laundry soap is quadruple the price, but it’s such a small amount in the conversion really so does it matter or is it ok to get ripped off? Maybe it is just the tax for intruding their homeland. And then the pollution! So many buses and cars and motorbikes shuttling tourists around – pollution and waste management is bad here and tourism can only be making it worse! At least they had the e-bikes in Bagan…
Anyway, if this was my reaction in Myanmar where tourism is relatively new compared to other parts of Southeast Asia, maybe I will have to stick to volunteer projects and meditation centers and yoga courses more than the tourist sites or I will cry!
More on this later and the rest of my last updates from Myanmar! Now boarding my flight for Bangkok!