BAGAN | BURMA
250 MILES NORTH OF RANGOON IN THE IRRAWADDY PLAINS LIES AN ANCIENT CITY OF SUPERLATIVES. CAPITAL OF THE ANCIENT KINDGOM OF PAGAN WHICH ENCOMPASSED MOST OF BURMA IT IS HOME TO OVER 2000 TEMPLES. MORE IMPORTANTLY IT WAS ALSO MY FAVOURITE PICTURE ON THE TRAVEL CALENDAR WE HAD AT WORK A FEW YEARS BACK.
So, I found myself at Bagan bus station just as dawn had risen. After a lot of persuasion, and a crowbar, I was finally convinced to vacate the Best Bus Ever(tm). A chatty local guy on a bike had persuaded me to hitch a ride with him. I sat back and breathed in the fresh morning air. Then his friend came behind us in a motorbike and pushed us the rest of the way into town. My head snapped back like a cartoon character who had attached rockets to his wooden wheelbarrow. You gotta love asia.
Before entering New Bagan we stopped to purchase my ticket for the archaeological site. It’s valid for three days which is good news as this is a large site you’re not gonna breeze through in a few hours. Bracing myself against whiplash we continued into town.
After some breakfast I set about securing some transport for myself. The old town of Bagan was only a few miles down the road so decided on a bicycle. Feeling secure enough in my manliness I jumped on my purple push bike (complete WITH bell – for safety) and peddled down towards the temples.
It doesn’t take long before they begin appearing over the hills and pretty soon you’re surrounded. Imagine a zombie apocalypse, except instead of ancient decaying people it’s ancient decaying temples that hem you in on all sides. Where is Miley Cyrus’s wrecking ball when you need it? There is a main road which dissects the site, and soon it leads to a roundabout which will take you to the musuem or to the further reaches of the archaeological site. It’s definitely a place that you’ll want your own transport. There are a myriad of little paths and dirt roads leading off to half hidden and obscure temples. Despite the influx of tourists in recent years, the site is so large, and the pagodas so numerous that it doesn’t take long until you’ll discover a small patch of Bagan to call your very own. Away from the tourists and the touts, you look up at these crumbling overgrown temples and can’t help but feel like an explorer, stumbling upon these ancient ruins for the first time. It helps if you’ve bought a fedora in readiness for this moment. You’re gonna want to tip it before you slip inside.
After exploring the nearest section of Old Bagan, and with my legs having turned to jelly after a day peddling through loose sand like an idiot, I headed back. But not before dropping into a shady bar halfway there for a cool beer. Burma loves it’s beers. And I love Burma.
The next morning I felt like an upgrade. I wanted to reach the further sections of the city. And for that I’d need to take a leaf out of Jeremy Clarkson’s book and plump for POWER ( seriously read that in his voice. It works) My best bet with no driving license was an electric scooter, or what an electric scooter would look like if it had been attacked by a flesh eating disease. Basically it was a bike with a battery strapped to its ass, but compared to yesterday I felt like I was riding a concorde. “So long suckers!” I yelled as I powered through the pack of push biked loosers, the wind streaming through my hair, bugs splattering my teeth like disease carrying paintballs.
Then it cut out.
But I got it going again. The electric bikes rented here are well known for their unreliability. I had heard from people in the hostel of folks spending their entire day chugging back and forth to the shop getting replacement bikes after theirs had died an embarrassingly lazy death. In the end I was quite lucky with my picks, you only had to listen to the battery and adjust your speed accordingly. After a while I was thundering through the site on my gleaming red sex magnet. Guys wanted to be me and girls wanted to know where I got it.
Once you reach the temples they’re a real treat. Firstly you must take your shoes off, so it’s advisable to wear sandals, or anything you can easily slip on and off. Then you must run the gauntlet of hawkers selling paintings that they have hand-painted themselves, even though you’ve seen the exact same painting twenty times with twenty different guys. Inside many are quite small, while others are surprisingly large. The temples here are divided into two types – the stupa temples and the gu or hollow temples. Stupas usually contain relics while the hollow temples are used for meditation and rituals.
Despite boasting over 2000 temples there are still a few celebrity temples here that most people like to tick off their itinerary. The white Ananda temple is considered by many to be the most beautiful, but I wasn’t really feeling it. I preferred the red wind blasted look of the others such as the Dhammayangyi Temple. This structure almost looks like a meso-american pyramid, it’s prominent place among the smaller temples indicative of a watchful parent keeping an eye over it’s kids. At 61 meters high the Thatbyinnyu Temple is the tallest in Bagan. It struck me as being strangely gothic in style and you can see it from most places in Bagan.
Controversially Bagan isn’t included on the UNESCO list of world heritage sites. Very odd. Apparently the blame lies with the Myanmar government (those guys again!) who ,in their rush to develop the site for tourism, recreated a lot of the temples disregarding their original style and construction methods. I’m pretty sure I came across one of these temples. It was painted in a thick layer of garish purple and looked more like an over-sized lego piece than a treasured ruin. Or then again maybe UNESCO just don’t like the mustache twirling villains in the Burmese government, and are content to shake their fists and write strongly worded letters to them from their Parisian offices.
What I like about the majority (ie non lego) temples are their rawness. Bagan lies in the Irrawaddy plains smack in the middle of Burma’s “dry zone”. From a vantage point on top of a temple, as you gaze around the dry scrub and brush you could be forgiven for thinking a bunch of Asian temples had migrated to Africa. The wind kicks up the swirling sand and dust and over the centuries has relentlessly battered the outside of these structures, effectively sandblasting them down to their raw brick exteriors. Inside though, sheltered from the storms, survive beautiful frescoes and religious paintings. In some temples these paintings are well preserved and, although faded naturally, cover entire walls and corridors. These have survived through the ages from Bagan’s beginnings in the 9th century through its decline as a spot of pilgrimage in the 15th and even after earthquakes in recent years.
If you’re looking to recreate the iconic sunrise or sunset shots then you’re best bet is the Shwesandaw Pagoda. It has many levels and is pretty steep but the views are unparalleled. I left the crowded top level and climbed down to the one below. I was treated to views just as good but with far fewer people. Bus loads of people turn up here, so make sure you arrive in plenty of time. I’d stumbled upon the temple earlier in the day. I didn’t know it was earmarked as the sunset temple, I just found myself thinking that I’d come back later. Word of advice. Don’t climb to the top of these temples in your bare feet at midday. Not unless you wanna recreate the title of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Although in Burma maybe they should rechristen it Kyat on a Hot Tin Roof!
I’ll let myself out.
Before I left Bagan I bought a hat. The lady at the stall assured me I’d look “sexy” and “cool”. I looked like Indiana Jones meets The Village People. She lied.
Next time: Still looking like an asshole (but not knowing it) I head to Indonesia. I encounter Asia’s worst public transport, and then I surgically inspect a volcano.