In the Land of A Thousand Splendid Stupas, A Little Patience Goes A Long Way
The little Air Mandalay craft landed us safely on Bagan soil. From the air, we could already see the Stupas, spread across many many acres.
Yet, I couldn’t feel the magic.
Outside, we were told we had to pay USD10 each for the temples ticket which would get us entry into all the temples. Later, some backpackers would let on that tickets weren’t really necessary because the staff were not always vigilant. But, I felt it was only the right thing to do. After all it cost all of USD10 for as long as you were in Bagan. It’s our way of showing respect and appreciation for someone else’s heritage. And did got checked, once.
I was prepared to haggle over the taxi fare. Then found out prices were fixed. That’s quite a relief. Gere’s a sign listing the fares – pinned to a fence quite some distance away from the building exit.
We’d booked ourselves into Kumudara in New Bagan.
Now, there’s Old Bagan (nearest to places of interest), New Bagan (2nd nearest, to the south) and Nyaung U (furthest, to the north). We didn’t research, so we were puzzled when the taxi took us on a deserted road to the very secluded Kumudara. Wasn’t Bagan supposed to be a tourist hotspot? Where were the tourists? Little did we know the taxi took a short-cut via a dirt road. Later, we would appreciate the sanctuary that Kumudara offered, away from the maddening crowds.
We’d read that the best way to explore Bagan was by bicycle or horse cart or car. In that order. We did them all, and I’d have to say that this piece of advice was utter nonsense. I suppose, moving on a bike gave you flexibility to take in the sights at your own pace. But someone forgot to mention that you’d get little respite from the heat (most areas were unshaded so cover up or get sun burnt), getting lost along the sand trails occurred often and you would be so tired that you would hardly have energy left to admire the Stupas. It was not at all very clever.
Well you can try sitting on the roof of a pickup, like the locals.
The horse cart fared slightly better. It moved very very very slowly. But at least, no fear of getting lost and if your horse cart driver is good, like ours, he’d bring you to the nice Stupas and might even explain about some of them to you. A horse cart would make the perfect choice if the Stupas that you wanted to see were clustered around the same area.
Taking a car could actually be the best option. It would get you to your destination much faster, allowed you to travel in comfort and make sure you are fresh to enjoy the Stupas – which was the whole point.
We had no rules for choosing Stupas to visit. We just told our horse cart driver: bring us to those we ought to see. And he did.
Our last stop on the first day was the sunset pagoda – Shwe San Daw. Of course we didn’t know what it was called. Except we were suitably impressed because the whole town seemed to have congregated there. All the bicycles, all the horse carts and all the tourist vans in Bagan had made a pact to meet there at 5pm. In fact, hordes had beaten us to it and had booked the best seats to watch sunset. And the same horde disappeared in a jiffy, the moment the sun dipped below the horizon.
On the 2nd day, I decided we would cycle to Nyaung U – which didn’t look so far on the map. It started off pretty well. Until we tried to find a way to the temple I’d named the pyramid – Dhammayangyi; we attempted a route around the sunset pagoda but were foiled by the horribly sandy trails which were impossible to cycle on. We tried to take an alternative route and got lost, finally meeting an American couple who taught us a shortcut way to it.
Inside the temple, there were many huge elegant Buddhas.
After leaving the pyramid, we pressed on to Nyaung U. along the way, we overtook 2 Caucasian young men struggling on their bikes on the up slope. See! We were not the only ones struggling. After some detours (because my sense of direction was bad), we finally got into the heart of Nyaung U, extremely exhausted. So we decided to splurge on ice cold beer at the hippest establishment in town – the Bagan Beach Bar. There, we had the loveliest club sandwich and then after that, we adjourned to the Black Bamboo.
On the long long ride back to New Bagan (to beat nightfall), we saw the sun setting and scrambled to catch it (but alas, we were too slow with our cameras). After that we had to scramble to cycle back to Kumudara before it got too dark.
The 3rd and final day in Bagan would turn out to be the loveliest. we booked a taxi to bring us to see the sunrise pagoda – Dhammayazika. At 530 am, we left the hotel and by 545 am, we were there. We weren’t the earliest but it was not crowded like the sunset pagoda so there was a lot of room for us to walk around. And I believe, we got some of our best shots here.
As dawn broke, we saw the Bagan balloons rising one by one in the distance. We knew the balloons were heading our way. Everyone on the pagoda waited for the balloons to come closer.
And here come the balloons.
The morning light cast a beautiful hue on the Stupa’s golden dome.
The balloons came so close we could see the people inside and everyone waved madly. It was fun!
In hindsight, I was glad we couldn’t book the balloons (it was overbooked). That shaved USD 300 off our budget. And we still got to see them and photograph them. In fact, it was infinitely more fun taking snapshots of the balloons from the Stupas against a very beautiful backdrop. We left sunrise pagoda only after 730 am.
After breakfast, we went to Old Bagan to see some of the key temple sites we’d missed, starting with Ananda. There, we were mesmerized by the most beautiful Buddha statutes in Myanmar. All the Buddhas were styled distinctly and had different facial features and expressions which changed depending on where devotees were praying (from different angles, the expressions changes subtly). Such, was the artistry of the ancient people of Bagan.
While dallying outside Ananda and mulling over how to walk to the nearby Thatbyinnyu and Shwegugyi temples, we met a girl, her brother and his friend who volunteered to be our guides. Earlier, they had tried to sell us postcards but we turned them down. We were skeptical at first, because they weren’t very sure about the directions but they were so enthusiastic, we figured they were out to have some fun.
They took their responsibility seriously. They didn’t join us in the temples but would wait for us outside, even though we took a long time. They were constantly on the watch-out for us and knew immediately when we got out. While they waited, they sold all their postcards to the tourists there.
We were really very impressed because they took it upon themselves to escort us to each site and kept a lookout for us when we were crossing the road or when 1 of us lagged behind. And best of all, they didn’t ask for any treats or $; they were delirious for joy when we bought soft drinks for them (because weather was really hot).
We truly felt that they were our angels. I wished fervently that they’d stay innocent forever and not be tainted by the burgeoning tourism around them. Really, they were the best thing that happened to us in Bagan.
Our angels in Bagan. They were so hyperactive, only a few shots made it. someone was always …. blurred. But, I‘d always remember the 3 angels in Bagan.
As we move on from Bagan, we overheard some travellers exchanging notes about Stupa # XX @ so-and-so place which had beautiful frescoes and or others bragging about how many they’d covered/discovered (eg 30 in 3 days). Oh! were we too carefree?!?? Most of the time, we didn’t know which Stupa we had explored until after we returned to the hotel and tallied with our map or hotel staff. And because we didn’t care about what we’d missed, we didn’t miss it or was it the other way round? All we did was to give each temple it’s due time, and appreciate its unique beauty and serenity. And those that we couldn’t go, well, they were not meant to be. After all I suppose, in the land of Buddhas, if you leave it in the good hands of fate, fate will always deal you the good hand.
And that’s how, we arrived not knowing Bagan, but left, amazed at how majestic the plains of Bagan used to be.
Visited 9-11 November 2012