A must-stop destination on any traveller to Myanmar’s itinerary, I wondered as we got off our 12-hour overnight bus ride if Bagan could possibly live up to the hype. It does.
The Bagan Archeological Zone is a collection of over 3,000 individual archeological sites in a relatively small area. These buildings (and more) were built over a two-and-a-half century period from the 11th to the 13th century. During this time, Bagan’s kings commissioned over 4000 Buddhist temples, including many wooden buildings that are long gone. What’s left has been ravaged by time and earthquakes, but it’s amazing how much there still is to see thanks in part to recent restoration attempts.
However, restoration of the sites has been controversial for its speed and craftsmanship. It has moved at a breakneck pace. Between 1995 and 2008, at least 1299 Buddhist temples (payas), monasteries, and stupas had been rebuilt from what were essentially mounds of rubble and another 688 damaged buildings had been repaired. Many of these repairs use techniques not available when the structures were originally built and result in buildings with historically inaccurate styles. I think a quote from our Lonely Planet guidebook sums it up well:
Putting this into perspective, [Dr. Bob] Hudson notes that construction appears to have begun on new monuments every two weeks between 1200 and 1280. Down history these hastily built structures have been patched up, repaired and rebuilt. “It’s the ancestors of the same dodgy contractors who are doing the work today,” he quips.
There was a fairly sizable earthquake (6.8 magnitude) centered near Bagan in August 2016 that caused significant damage to at least a couple hundred of the temples. We noticed that the tops of many of the payas were covered in scaffolding and there was a lot of construction work underway during our visit. I’m not sure how much of this was earthquake related, but I’m sure that at least a portion of it was given how important the site is to the local and national economy.
Exploring the Bagan Archeological Zone
We opted to explore the Bagan Archeological Zone both on foot and via e-bike. After recovering from our bus ride for a couple hours at our hostel in New Bagan, we set off our first day to wander around the payas of Old Bagan on foot. Our hostel told us that we’d either have to take a taxi or rent an e-bike to get to Old Bagan so, ignoring their advice, we walked to the main road and quickly flagged down a truck headed in the right direction (2000 kyat total instead of 8000 kyat taxi!). Yeah, we may have had to wait a bit to find more riders before it set off, but oh well. Walking around to the various payas of Old Bagan, we quickly learned why e-bikes are so popular. Even in a relatively walkable area with lots of payas, the heat quickly becomes oppressive.
The next morning we were up early (think 4am) in order to rent e-bikes and be off in time to see the sunrise from the legendary Shwesandaw Paya. When I first heard that e-bikes were the method of choice for exploring the archeological zone (it is illegal for foreigners to rent motorcycles in Bagan), thoughts of my horrible experience with an electric bicycle in Slovenia instantly came to mind. Turns out, the term “e-bike” in Bagan refers to electric scooters (the motorcycle’s weak, but environmentally conscious, younger sibling). For 5,000 kyat each ($4) we rented our e-bikes and were off in the dark to find the Shwesandaw Paya.
Apparently we weren’t the only ones with that idea. This was the only time that our ticket to the archeological zone was checked (we were forced to purchase it on the taxi ride from the bus station to our hostel) and also the only time that we noticed a local policing people’s conduct on the paya to keep them from climbing up and damaging the structure. We were greeted at the top of the paya by a bunch of people already in place and waiting for the sun to rise.
Small rant now. Look, I get why people want to take pictures to capture the moment when they are on vacation. I do it too. But really??? There were so many gigantic cameras present for what was honestly a mediocre sunrise (it was cloudy, that’s life). These people can’t all be professional photographers out to make their living with those pictures (like I said, I expect that most of the pros wouldn’t have bothered that morning). So why can’t we all just chill and just enjoy the sunrise, maybe snapping a few pictures along the way? Instead people with their big camera setups block the small walkways and give the evil eye to short people like me that try to sneak in so that I have a chance of seeing anything. So what if I have a small little point-and-click, I’m just there for the experience! Sunrise and sunset is a big deal in Myanmar generally, and in Bagan in particular. Unfortunately, these crowded scenes just aren’t really our cup of tea. Ok, rant over.
[Michael’s Note: At least there weren’t many selfie sticks. But I agree 100%.]
With the heavy cloud cover, there wasn’t a clear “sunrise” moment. That said, the views were lovely and I actually did manage to block out the camera chaos going on around me to enjoy the moment. The only thing that seemed to be missing from our view was the iconic hot air balloons that often fill the sky at sunrise. We figured the weather must have prevented them from going up that morning.
As we headed back to our hostel for breakfast, we were finally able to see about a dozen or more hot air balloons in the distance. We took off in the direction that they were heading and found ourselves in the middle of the crews in trucks that were also racing off to meet the landing balloons! Mud and truck traffic prevented us from actually heading out to the fields where the balloons landed, but it was a fun, unexpected (and relatively tourist free) side trip.
We spent the rest of the day with a map in hand (and maps.me on our phones) exploring the paya-filled countryside.
It’d heard that the views from the Pyathada Paya were supposed to be amazing, so we headed off in its direction. There were two problems (at least) with this plan. First, it was raining off and on, forcing us to take cover in the various payas along the way and causing the dirt tracks to be rather (very) muddy. Second, Pyathada Paya is not near one of the main roads. I found a dirt track route to get there on maps.me that would take us north from Dhammayazika Paya, but that didn’t exactly work out. I’m not sure if the dirt tracks actually existed, because my phone said that we were on the track, but looking around it appeared that we were in the middle of a field.
We made the typical mistake of lost people everywhere and kept pushing ahead until we were basically riding our e-bikes around in the mud in the middle of nowhere. In a last ditch effort, we attempted to follow what appeared to be a small dirt track through some bushes. It took a few moments to grasp what a horrible idea this was — those innocent-looking bushes had thorns!! Turns out that my premonition about e-bikes might not have been so far off (although my bloodshed this time was a lot more tame and limited to a few bloody scrapes along my arm).
After finally backtracking and emerging on an actual dirt road, we declared defeat (for now) and headed back toward Dhammayazika Paya. One look at us when we passed back through, and a concerned shopkeeper insisted that we use their water to wash all the mud off of us. We continued on, admiring the various payas along the way.
We accidentally stumbled across Thit Sa Wadi Paya, which boasted what I thought were the best views in Bagan. And they were basically tourist-free — there was only one other person on the top while we were there!!
Biking along the dirt paths just off from the main road, it was amazing how many payas there are. We didn’t attempt to visit each one, since very few of them can actually be entered or climbed, but there was something magical about riding down the road and seeing payas pass by on either side of us.
When we could enter the payas, they were filled with various sculptures of Buddhas and the occasional bats. Because the payas are still considered sacred temples, each time we crossed a paya’s threshold we would take off our sandals to walk through the grounds barefoot (sandals are really a must here because of this). Shorts are also a no no, so we did most of our visits wearing traditional longyi (Michael had to purchase one in Yangon because he was wearing shorts when we visited Shwedagon Paya and I picked up a not-quite-as-traditional wrap around skirt).
Still determined to see Pyathada Paya, we made a second attempt to reach it via a dirt track heading north from West Paw-Saw Village. This time the dirt track actually existed, but we quickly discovered that it was too muddy and water logged for us to make it all the way to the paya. Having spent hours battling the mud trying to get to Pyathada Paya, and with no success, we were exhausted and our poor batteries on our e-bikes were starting to fade. We headed back to our hostel in New Bagan and enjoyed the more peaceful sunset setting, if not quite as view-filled, at the nearby Lawkananda Paya along the riverfront.
Of course, we’re both fairly stubborn people and Michael in particular was on a mission at this point — we were not going to be defeated by the Payathada Paya! In the afternoon following our village cooking class and tour (below), we headed out again on e-bikes with a new plan of attack. Heading along the more popular northern road (we had previously done the southern one) we passed by a few of the more popular paya sites in search of a northern approach to Payathada Paya.
It turns out that the northern approach to the Payathada Paya was a breeze, with only a couple large puddles that had to be avoided. It was so easy, that there were tour buses full of people already waiting for the sunset at the paya and more pulled up as we waited. The view from the top was nice, but honestly, all that we could think about was how we had spent hours trying to get here when it turned out to be not-so-hard after all. Oh well, it’s all about the journey, right?
If I’d actually read my guidebook, I would have already known that this was a popular sunset spot. We stuck around for awhile to admire the views and then headed back before the sun actually set to avoid navigating the puddles (and lots of exiting traffic) in the dark.
On our first evening in Bagan, we decided to join our hostel’s sunset boat cruise. It was 5,000 kyat ($4) per person very well spent.
We hopped on the boat, were each handed our free beer, and then headed up the river. The next couple hours were super chill as we watched the many payas along the shore bask in the golden light from the setting sun. Not much more to it than that. I think that sometimes the boat may turn into a bit of a party boat, but the complimentary bottles of rum and gin went virtually untouched by our group.
In a place where sunrises and sunsets often mean competing for a good spot atop a paya, we much preferred hopping on a boat instead.
Village cooking class and tour
Aside from biking around the archeological zone, the highlight of our time in Bagan was a village cooking class and tour that we randomly learned about from a tourist information booth in Old Bagan. The class was part of a pilot program aimed at bringing people into one of the local villages (West Pwa-Saw Village) and providing employment for the local women. We were joined by a couple volunteer guides who spoke English and who really added to our experience with their personal anecdotes.
The class started at the local market, where we followed one of the women around from vendor to vendor as she picked out the produce for the day’s meal. I got the sense that she had a favorite vendor for each type of vegetable — this was not a one-stop shopping kind of venture!
After our shopping trip, we loaded into the back of a pickup truck and headed on to the village. Under the direction of several local women, we started to peel, chop, and cook our dishes.
And of course, we had to wear funny chefs hats, even though that’s not really a thing in Myanmar. I guess they figured that those funny foreigners always wear hats when the cook?
After we tried our hand at cooking, we were whisked away to tour the village while the women finished the cooking. But first, we had to try out some thanaka on our faces. Thanaka is a traditional facial creme made from ground tree bark and used for various beauty and sun-protection purposes by most women in Myanmar. One of our guides explained that thanaka is often also used on young boys and by some men — he recalled wearing thanaka as a boy until he went to school and the other boys made fun of him. Ah, looks like peer pressure exists even in Myanmar!
Properly made up with our thanaka paste, we went out to tour the village. Michael and I had already driven our e-bikes through the village the day before on our grand (and unsuccessful) Pyathada Temple adventure, so it was nice to see it at a slower pace and gain some insights on village life. Several of the yards that we passed were filled with women making laquerware products that were similar to those that we’d seen being hawked at the various payas.
Back from our village tour, we were greeted by lots of little dishes to enjoy along with our main chicken and fish courses. I particularly enjoyed the tomato salad with peanut dressing.
Following our delicious meal, we joined in a little local dancing before being dropped back off at our hostel. For anyone planning to visit Bagan, I would highly recommend seeing if they are running any tours while you are there (the tourism board’s facebook page is here; you can also email email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org — we emailed about booking the evening before and got a really speedy response). The pricing seems to be in flux as they work out the details, but we spent about $20 each for the half-day class/tour (which sure beats the cost of most cooking classes).
Mr. Popa day trip
During our visit to Bagan, we kept hearing from people about how much they enjoyed their day-trip to nearby Mt. Popa. After hearing this for the nth time, we decided to extend our time in Bagan (again) so that we could visit Mt. Popa as well. For 8,000 kyat each (~$6) we got seats in a minivan to transport us the 2+ hours each way.
What is popularly referred to as “Mt. Popa” is actually a volcanic plug just southwest of the actual volcanic mountain bearing the name. On top of the volcanic plug is a Buddhist monastery that has become a pilgrimage site for nat worship. The nats are a type of spirit that is worshiped in Myanmar, with each type of nat worshiped for a different reason. Needless to say the site is very popular with locals, who far outnumber the foreign tourists.
To get up the mountain, we walked up a covered staircase, crowded with visitors and vendors hawking their wares. Thank god the staircase was covered, because when we arrived at about 11am, it was already super hot and humid.
Walking up towards the monastery, one can’t help but notice the hoards of monkeys who eagerly await the visitors (and more specifically, their food). Vendors sold little paper tubes with seeds, but we saw a couple monkeys who didn’t play by the rules and instead violently grabbed a bag of corn on the cob that a tourist was carrying and claimed it for itself. Turns out, I’m not really a huge fan of monkeys that associate humans with food. They’re just mean. Also, as with basically all sites in Myanmar, we had to walk up the stairs and around the monastery barefoot. I don’t think that all those brown lumps were dirt… 😦
At the top of the mountain, we were greeted by lovely views of the surrounding countryside. The monastery itself was nice, but isn’t particularly unique among the many that we visited in Myanmar (or if it was, it wasn’t obvious to me). One aspect that was interesting was that there were boards listing “large” donations that had recently been made. For as little as 10,000 kyat ($8), you could be listed as a sponsor of the monastery! The boards included the names of lots of people from the US, among other foreign countries. More interesting for us was the permanent plaque for Burma Super Star in San Francisco, which is where we were first introduced to Burmese food!
Mt. Popa was an interesting side trip, if only to see the spectacle of people that visit. If I had limited time, I’m not sure that I would bother. It also took us forever to leave — the heavy traffic on the tiny road up to the base of the mountain meant that even though our minibus didn’t drop us right at the base, we still had to wait about 45 minutes before we could even start moving back down the mountain because traffic was at a standstill!
[This post describes our visit to Bagan, Myanmar on November 10-13, 2016.]