Oh, Bagan! …Once upon a time I received a message from my wife, asking me “what do you think about Burma?”. A simple google image search gave me all I needed to respond. “WE HAVE TO GO!!”. Within a year, we step foot on Myanmar soil. What sent us in this frenzy? Bagan.
Bagan is situated in the dusty central plains of Myanmar, and is arguably one of the worlds most mesmerising sites. In the small area of Bagan Archaeological Zone, there are approximately 2,200 temples. Yes, absolutely astonishing! Though from the 9th to 13th century when Bagan was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan. During it’s reign, the area housed over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries.
We arrived at night, so the fruits of this place were to be hidden for the time being. But here you have a choice of staying in one of three places. Old Bagan, a small village right on the edge of all the temples. New Bagan, another small developing village further south. Or Nyaung U, further north east and slightly away from the main temple action, but has restaurants, small markets, etc. We decided to stay in Nyaung U and hire a couple of bicycles every day to get around, in which you have to regardless to see Bagan, as it’s spread over several kilometres. This place was also cheaper than the others.
A celebratory beer with our recently made friends Becky and Alex, sent us to bed happy and excited for what was to come the next morning. However, our excitement was short lived. We both awoke at midnight with an acute onset of Gastro. While Kirsty got the fever, I ended up spending all night in the bathroom, very, very sick. This of course tied us to the bed for the next 3 days, with excited reports at the end of each day from the other two. Torture!
Before too long, our health had returned and our turn had come. Mounting our tarnished bikes with no breaks, we set off down the long road between Nyaung U and Old Bagan, passing temple after temple during the rising heat of the mid-morning sun. These temples rising anywhere from 10 to 50 metres, lay in their numbers, scattered throughout the sandy plain. Some you could enter, some you could climb. Every one of them was unique. Due to the sheer amount of temples, visiting even a solid portion of them was impossible, so we had to pick wisely. Traversing the hot powerful afternoon sun, scorching sand and prickles, we climbed temple after temple. Some left us hanging on tight with vertigo as we scaled the steep thin steps to reach the top. However, once securely on top of one of the many temples, Bagan comes to life. The myriad of temples, from near to far, soar above the tree line, creating one of the most enchanting sites one could see. You instantly forget about the blistering heat, the countless cuts and scratches from prickles and thorns, the sand that has invaded every nook and cranny, and just gaze upon the beauty before you. The view from on top is where Bagan’s magic lies. And if you really want to be impressed, make sure you’re at the top of one of these mammoth structures at sunset or sunrise. It’s something you won’t forget.
Thankfully, we gave ourself a couple of days to explore this incredible place, and had the chance to wander aimlessly, investigating as many temples as we possibly could. We also had the luxury of experiencing a sunrise and sunset from the top of these beautiful structures.
Leaving behind the sandy, yet mesmerising ruins of Bagan, we headed east for Inle Lake. A relatively wet sanctuary in comparrison. Inle Lake is a shallow lake in central-east of Myanmar, spanning 22km’s, and home to many tribes. Here you base yourself on the northern side of the lake, in a small town called Nyaungshwe, and hire bicycles or boats for exploring the surrounding area (with the boat trip being the ‘must-do’)! Walking the main street of Nyaungshwe up and down, it was impossible not to meet a local to take you out on their boat, as they find you. We found ours (or more like he found us), and within minutes of meeting we were in the boat speeding south down the canal towards the lake.
The moment you enter Inle Lake, you pass local fishermen roaming the shallow waters with their nets and traditional boats. Powering for 30-45 minutes south with our loud thumping motor, we eventually arrived at the west-central shore where we traversed the back streams to several village communities. The most interesting (for us) was Shwe Indein Paya, that contains 1,054 small stupas in a tight enclosed area from the 17th century. Getting lost amongst these was pretty interesting and made for some great photography.
Upon one of these stops inside a small floating village on the east bank of Inle Lake, we came across an indigenous Kayan woman (a Tibeto-Burman ethnic minority) hand producing traditional clothing and crafts. While the materials she was producing was interesting, she was the one that really fascinated me. She comes from one of the cultures which are famous for having “long necks”. She was wearing a large amount of brass rings around her neck, that would total to more than a couple of dozen. I had the opportunity to pick up a set of these rings (same size as the ones around her neck), and wow are they heavy! Kayan girls first put these rings on when they are around 5 years old, and slowly build upon the coils every couple of years. The weight of the brass eventually pushes the collar bone down, compressing the rib cage. Contrary to popular belief; the length of the neck doesn’t actually get any longer, but appears this way due to the deformed clavicle.
The hours passed and as we journeyed through the remaining floating villages, we came across their farming area where they practice floating agriculture. Literally! That definitely adds a whole new challenge to the word “farming”. But the day eventually drew to a close and we sped back from one end of Inle Lake to the other and photographed the fishermen throw their final nets out for the day as the sun set behind them.
With our mind already overwhelmed with the kindness of the people, culture and the ruins, we decided to go a little off the tourist track again. We’d heard whispers of pristine and untouched beaches on the west coast, and rumours of a cargo boat that would wind it’s way in that direction through inland rivers and rural countryside. So instead of taking the bus, we decided to investigate that option. After several hours of wandering the streets, asking questions, we found ourselves the right guy that could get us on the boat for the next day.
The catch is with these types of “off track” adventures that aren’t in the tourist “know-how”, is that you never really know what you’re going to get… Unbeknown to us, we would be spending the next 27 hours squished in the corner of an old rusted boat with over 300 other locals crammed in to an area that 300+ locals really shouldn’t be crammed in to. Finding how this would pan out the moment before the boat departed, left us no choice but to push on with it. Luckily for us, the insanely uncomfortable circumstances were overlooked due to some amazing people we met on the boat. Being the only two white people on the whole boat, we stuck out like …you know what! People were always going out of their way to ensure we’re OK. I’ve said it before, but, people from Myanmar are amongst the loveliest people on the planet! We made friends with several families on the trip, exchanged stories through broken english and hand-signs, and shared food.
Arriving at Pathein, we scoured the streets for some transport and ended up hopping in what I could only describe as an old ice cream truck with no suspension. We then battered our way down a dirt road for several hours to the Ngwe Saung coastal region. We had made it! Looking on a map, we decided to head down to an accommodation location a few kilometres down the road. So, slapping our packs on our back again, we slowed trekked our way down the dirt road to arrive at our bed in the late afternoon.
The place was nothing short of bliss! Our little hut hidden amongst the palms, metres from the beach, with golden-white sand and a beautiful breeze to cool down the humidity. I couldn’t ask for a more picture perfect setting. The next best thing about the area was the lack of tourists. All up over the next couple of days, I counted no more than 9 or 10 in the entire area. The place felt to me like it was not quite ready for tourists just yet, with it’s unscathed, yet relaxing appearance (this was a GREAT thing by the way). Here there is a an empty 11km stretch of beach, flanked by a dense line of palms, in which at low tide you can get a scooter and go as fast as you can the entire way – and that we did! Yep, bliss!
Our last few days in Myanmar were spent in the busy streets of Yangon, where we managed to find and make use of a movie theatre. An experience which turns out to be quite a bit more interesting than you’d think. For starters, going to the movies is considered a bit of a cool place to ‘hangout’ and socialise. So the actual activity of watching the movie takes a back seat, while conversations about the weekend, eating and phone calls takes the reign. Especially when the movie is in English without subtitles, and 99% of the people in the theatre don’t understand a word of English. Quite amusingly, this of course results in utter chaos and a movie you can barely hear.