I departed Yangon on a turboprop operated by Yangon Airways, whose slogan is “You’re safe with us”. According to Wikipedia, Americans were prohibited from flying on the airline in 2008 after it was acquired by “notorious drug traffickers of the United Wa State Army”. The overlapping mountains of Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos are in the Golden Triangle, a major opium-producing region, and Myanmar is the world’s second largest producer of opium after Afghanistan. Yangon Airways has a sketchy history, but true to their slogan, they flew me to Bagan safely.
The area known as Bagan is a 26-square-mile archaeological zone with 2000+ Buddhist temples, pagodas, and stupas dating as far back as the 11th and 12th centuries. Bagan is an archaeological wonder rivaling Angkor Wat, but with a fraction of the visitors. Countless temples rise above the canopy of the plains for as far as the eye can see. Excited to see the temples, I dropped off my backpack at my hotel in Nyaung U and immediately joined a guided tour.
The first stop was the Nanda Pyinnyar Cave monastery and nearby temples. Next up was Paya Thone Zu, located on the outskirts of Minnanthu Village. Then on to the ဖွားစော အုတ်ကျောင်း monastery, Temple 863, and temples that will forever remain nameless in my travel journal after losing the geotagged photos on my phone. I tried matching the temples in my photos with captioned photos on the web, but many of the temples look similar to my untrained eye.
We breaked for lunch at a restaurant overlooking the Irrawaddy River before visiting the Bagan House Lacquerware Shop, which has been producing lacquerware since British colonial times. I watched the skilled artisans performing various stages of a six-month process that originated in Bagan in the 11th century. I don’t buy souvenirs and didn’t leave the shop with any lacquerware products, but I enjoyed learning about this traditional art.
After the lacquerware demonstration we continued temple hopping. We visited the Sulamani and Dhammayangyi temples, and then climbed to the top of the Taung Guni Temple to watch the sunset. The sunset was breathtaking, with the nearby pagodas ablaze in beautiful shades of gold. Only whispers could be heard as our group quietly watched the sunset.
The silence was broken by a young woman determined to sell me a t-shirt. I repeatedly said “no thank you”, but she wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. She tugged on my old, ratty t-shirt and said “This t-shirt is old, you need a new t-shirt.” The crowd was laughing and I was also amused, but I don’t like being the center of attention. I relented and bought an extra large t-shirt printed with the Burmese alphabet for 8000 kyat (~6 USD). As is the case with every t-shirt I’ve bought in Southeast Asia, after the first wash it was too small to wear.
We concluded the evening at Nyaung U’s “Restaurant Row” (Yar Kinn Thar Hotel Road), where we enjoyed dinner, drinks, and lively conversation before calling it a night.
The next day I continued with temple hopping, but this time on a bicycle. “You never forget how to ride a bike”, but this was my first time riding a bike in a longyi. The temples in Bagan are considered sacred by Buddhists, requiring modest dress and bare feet. Riding my bike in a longyi was awkward at first, but felt natural after a few miles.
Bicycling on the dirt roads and sandy paths connecting the temples is a superb way of taking in the atmosphere of Bagan–it was a highlight of the trip. I saw large temples such as Shwezigon Paya and Ananda Temple, as well as some smaller hidden gems. I climbed the stairs of the tall temples to take in the views, which may not be allowed in the future. According to recent news reports, the authorities will ban climbing to protect the ancient buildings and people, which is a pre-requisite to qualify as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Watching the sunset from the top of a temple was a majestic experience, but protecting the monuments is the right thing to do.
An alternative sunset experience is the Irrawaddy River Sunset Cruise. Chips, nuts, and plenty of Myanmar Beer was included, resulting in a party atmosphere. The captain was embarrassed after grounding the boat on a sandbank, but none of the passengers seemed to mind. I joined a couple of other passengers in pushing the boat free before watching the sunset. Was the sunset as good as the one from the top of the pagoda? Not even close. After the sunset cruise we headed to Restaurant Row for dinner and drinks well into the evening.
On my last day in Bagan, I awoke at 4:30am to watch the sunrise from the tallest pagoda near my hotel. Bagan sunrises are iconic, with a morning mist rising over the plain, silhouettes of temples rising from the canopy, and hot air balloons drifting over the horizon. A young Burmese woman with thick, black rimmed glasses and a contagious smile showed me the best vantage points for taking photos. She hung out and chatted with me for nearly an hour. It wasn’t until the sun was well above the horizon and I was leaving that she politely asked if I wanted to buy a t-shirt. How could I turn her down?
By my third day in Bagan I was templed-out, so I elected to go on a day trip to Mount Popa for hiking. Mount Popa is an extinct volcano covered in lush forests in the protected Popa Mountain Park. Hiking trails provide access to numerous temples for nat worship. We arrived to the trailhead by mid-morning. The hike began in a dense forest, and before long our guide was taking us on off-trail shortcuts. I became covered in stickers and scratched by the thick vegetation, but I didn’t mind–I was enjoying the adventure. Fortunately everyone in the group was reasonably fit and agile, having no problems scrambling up the steep mountainside shortcuts that our guide was leading us up. As we gained elevation, the trees became less dense and we had our first view of the Myingyan Plain and Popa Taung Kalat, a volcanic plug with a Buddhist monastery on top. We continued to the summit of Mount Popa, which was a bit of a letdown. The views were better on the way up, and a telecommunications tower was attached to the small stupa on top of the mountain. For this trek, the journey was the reward. According to a member of our group with a GPS watch, the one-way distance was 11km. After eating lunch on the summit of Mount Popa, we returned the same way we came and were back in Nyaung U before sunset.
What is my final impression of Bagan? Myanmar’s Bagan is Cambodia’s Angkor. It’s a destination that should be on the bucket list of any adventurous traveler. Visit before the giant tour buses and crowds arrive!