A town of temples.

Wednesday, August 03, 2016
Bagan, Myanmar
After our 20 hour train ride, an extortionately priced taxi ride, avoiding the 25,000 Kyatt fare into the archaeological park and arriving at our expensive digs in Bagan (£16 a night the most we have paid on this trip so far due to the fact we missed out out on booking our preferred place by a matter of minutes on Agoda) I was dismayed to wander out of our digs, across the road and asked to pay double what we were paying in Yangon for a packet of cigarettes. I was so excited ahead of arriving in Bagan as it's one of the places I've really wanted to visit. Probably due to tiredness and a large amount of grumpiness as a result I was not in the mood to be ripped of any more and was starting to feel a little down about the whole place already. How wrong I was to be.

We had planned on grabbing some rest and a lazy first day as we felt ruined from the past 24 hours but with only 3 weeks to explore Myanmar we showered up, rented an E-Bike (due to a tourist accident they wont let tourists ride petrol bikes around these parts so everyone rents out these electric scooters instead) and headed out of old Bagan and along the road past the archaeological site and towards what is known as New Bagan to grab some well earned food .

After a tasty burger at 'Weather spoons' (the owner is a local who worked in London for a couple of years so you can see the connection!) we spent a couple of hours having a quick spin around the temples to get a feel for what they are like. We were absolutely stunned. We have seen many many photos of the site and yes they do look amazing but in the flesh it is a site to behold. Bagan (formerly Pagan) was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan. This is the Kingdom that unified the various regions around it and formed what is now known as the country Myanmar. At it's peak between the 11th and 13th Centuries there were over 10,000 temples here....10,000!! Nowadays around 2,200 temples remain so there is still plenty to see and explore in a relatively small area. Everywhere you go there is a temple, Pagoda or a Monastery. The site itself is not quite what I expected. When I had looked at the photos on-line they all generally show long distance shots of many temple tops nestled amongst trees and I thought the site was one massive grassy tree covered plain with temples dotted about . In reality it is a bit more dusty with sandy trails snaking around everywhere between the temples with trees and fields and small hut type homes interspersed amongst the them. And this makes it great fun to explore on your E-Bike. Pop and see a temple, hop back on the bike and go explore until you find the next one that you like the look of. There really are that many that you ride past a whole bunch before you come across one that you both go "yeah, this one looks interesting, let's go see what it's like" After a small taster we headed back to grab some well earned rest happy with what we had seen and also the fact that the next day we would check out and move on to our preferred digs for the next two nights.

The following day we packed up and left our digs and wandered down the road to grab some transport for the short few miles down the road to New Bagan. We tried hitching at first as we didn't want to shell out what we expected would be a cray price for a taxi but nobody would stop, to be fair it's quiet round here so not that many people passed anyway and eventually the 'double price cigarette lady' popped up saying she could sort a taxi for 12,000 Ks ....12,000! we got from Yangon to here for 6,000, grief what was this woman on, no wonder she didn't get many customers at this price. Eventually we got a slightly more reasonable price of 5,000 from a passing taxi and hopped in.

Ten minutes later we were at Shwe Nadi Guesthouse...and what an interesting sight it was. As we grabbed our back packs out of the car and wandered in we were intrigued to see that just 10 yards past the place the entire street as far as the eye could see was flooded. A whole bunch of locals, kids and adults alike were out playing in it. Everything from rubber rings and inflatables to full on long tail style boats with engines. It was all going on out the front of our new place. Interesting. As we checked in the woman at the desk went through her routine that she must repeat several times a day with us in a semi surly fashion....this is the map....this is where this is....that is...breakfast...an E-bike costs this much etc etc The place was fairly basic, but clean and with a certain character about it . Having dropped our bags off in our room and haggling over the price of our bike we headed out to do more exploring, and great exploring it was as well.

This entry probably has more photos attached than any other entry I've ever done, and can I tell you the names of the temples we have visited? No of course not, there are far too many to remember. We sped around the quiet little dusty tracks all over the place. After a while you start to get more particular about the ones you stop off at. You maybe pass 20 or 30 before you spot one that you think 'Oooh that looks interesting, let's check it out' When there are over 2,000 you can afford to be more picky I guess and given the number of temples and the fact it's quiet season, 9 times out of 10 you end with the place to yourself to go explore aside from the bigger more popular ones. Before we knew it time was getting on and we headed to one of the more popular ones to enjoy sunset. Unfortunately being rainy season the sunset was non existent and as we left with it being one of the most popular the government fee ninjas were parked outside and asked if we had our passes . 'Crap!!' a quick blag of 'we left it in the hotel' and a false hotel name and we were safely on our way back to Shwe Nadi. When we returned the water level had risen even further and instead of being a bit further down the road it was now creeping towards the entrance of our digs. After cleaning ourselves up we headed out to find we had to plodge through a few inches of water to get out of the place and onto our bike.

Thankfully we found a great local tea room just round the corner serving tasty local Shan noodles for only 45p each so we tucked into a great meal and grabbed a bottle of £2 Myanmar whiskey to head back with. Still tired and not fully caught up on sleep we drifted off at around 8pm which wasn't really a bad thing as our alarms were set for 4:30am to get up and head out for sunrise over the temples the following morning.

As the alarm went off and we woke up in the pitch black we felt like utter crap. But we still dragged ourselves out of bed, onto our bike and sped off into the darkness over the bumpy roads towards the temples . The sunrise was great to see, not particularly special as far as sunrises go, but with the temples lighting up around us it was still worthwhile making the effort. The rest of the day just disappeared around us. Temple after temple, exploring wherever we wanted to go. Through random small local villages where farmers were trundling around with their Ox and carts, a beautiful thing to see in this day and age still. Surprisingly we didn't grow tired of this one dimensional activity of riding...temple....riding....temple as there was always something different to see or experience despite the common theme. As sunset drew in we were going to head back to one of our favorites so far only for the dark rain clouds to close in so we headed back and sorted ourselves for food again.

By now the lady at the guesthouse had started to warm to us given her earlier surly style and was much more chatty as were most of the locals around where we were staying. They really are friendly folk here in Myanmar and it's good to enjoy a laugh with them . The water level had risen again and now the outside shower and toilet block was starting to flood with some gang planks put out to help us navigate around the place. At this point we decided to extend our stay by an extra night, for some reason it was easy to get drawn into the routine of tootling around on our bike, having a laugh and exploring the area. We had a bit of a later night but were determined again to be up for sunrise the next day, so after only 4 hours sleep we were back off again into the morning darkness to await the first light of the sun.

The day was a repeat of the previous one but with different temples, different locals along the way and different villages and houses to pass by. Strangely compared to other places we were not becoming 'templed out' and I think that is due to the sheer number of them here and the great satisfaction of heading off on the bike to go and explore. You start to get your favorite temples after a while. Yes I know that sounds strange but it's true, you do . We were going to head back for a little break and some food but got distracted by one particular temple by the road side that has a small hand written sign saying that it was good for sunset. We pulled over and headed towards it and parked up. As we did a young girl of 15 came over and started chatting. She started to follow us round and was pleasant enough and she soon explained she had the keys to a gate to let us up onto the top of the temple. Some temples you can climb up in to the top outside and others you can't. We had read that there are a handful of temples that are looked after by families who keep them locked up and have the keys to let you in. We had hoped to find one and this was our lucky day. She opened up and we clambered up the tight low stairs and outside onto the top. It looked great for a sunset and we agreed to come back later. As we left there was a donation box and we asked if the money went to the family or the government. She told us it was for the temple upkeep which basically means the government so we slipped a very small amount into the box and gave more to the girl . She was lovely. So innocent and genuine. She ran back to the small bamboo hut she lived in with her family and came back with a small selection of postcards. We asked how much and her only reply was 'I don't know, what do you think...what would you like to pay?' This girl really was sweet. We kept asking what her price was and she genuinely didn't know. Her postcards weren't the best, a bit shabby and she would have taken anything for them so we grabbed a few and slipped yet more money into her hand and said we would come back to see her for sunset.

After another great day out it was back again to find the water had risen yet again. The locals seemed to just enjoy it more and more and partied harder in the flood the higher it swelled. Kids splashing about, men rowing around and sitting floating in the water drinking whiskey and beer, what a sight it was becoming. People seemed to be arriving from other villages to take a look and join in. It was becoming quite the spectacle out the front of our guesthouse now, changing almost every minute as the water kept creeping higher . We rode in on our bike but had to wade back out knee deep to pop to the shop over the road for water. As evening drew in it looked uncertain if there would be any sunset to see and the lady at the guesthouse kept asking if we wanted to go on a boat ride around the flooded village. We really wanted to pop back to see the girl and enjoy sunset at her very quiet temple but it wasn't looking good. The woman kept pestering us to the point where she said she had already paid the small amount the local lads were charging for a tour round and that it was free for us so we gave in and waded out to the small boat.

As we were ferried round it quickly became apparent how bad the flooding really was. Some houses you could just say see the very tip of the roof and I'm sure there were many more that were completely under water. There was so much more of the village that we had been unable to see so far. Amongst it all there were locals floating around on rafts made out of plastic bottles, rubber inner tubes, anything they could float on really . And every single one of them was smiling away laughing and generally having a good time. Men stood in water up to their shoulders, swigging rum and holding their phone aloft with music playing. Kids doing back flips off roofs submerged out of sight, it was surreal. If this was back home it would have been some major disaster and these people who had no home to go who I learned later were now sleeping at the local monastery were out having a party. I had thought that it was just a small section of street flooded due to the daily heavy rain that usually came overnight (the days were beautifully sunny) but no. As our boat headed out towards the river it became apparent that the entire river was swelling so much that the village was starting to disappear beneath it. The river looked impossibly wide as we left the village. Maybe two miles to the other side? We were told that this was the worst it has ever been. How these people were partying away was beyond me, unbelievable. Everyone we passed was full of smiles and waves, shouts of hello were all around . Very special people indeed. As our trip ended we slipped the lads a few extra notes and sorted ourselves out for our last meal.

Our last bite to eat was up at another local tea house and to my grinning enjoyment was spent sat at a table with a monk watching Myanmar v Vietnam in some kind of sub Asian cup. 3-3 at full time and penalties after no goals in extra time unfortunately saw the local team go out. I was willing them to win but alas not. The place emptied immediately and we headed back to get an early night ready to head off to Mandalay the next morning. I really warmed to Bagan and the people there and was sad to leave. We could have stayed so much longer. When we woke the next morning the water level was higher yet again and I only hope it the rains ease and it starts to drop soon for them. That said I am sure they will be fine with the help of the monastery the monks and each other. They are amazing people who still crack a smile and see the positive side to the most adverse of times. I can't believe 4 nights have passed by already, next stop Mandalay.

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