After our 17 hour train journey from Yangon we arrived in Bagan; supposedly one of Burmas most spectacular locations. Getting into town was once again the usual haggling with taxi drivers with us looking for the cheapest option. With a fee of 8000 Kyats we headed towards the outskirts of Old Bagan where we found what was one of the cheapest accommodations. New Bagan was another option for accommodation however it is known to be more expensive. Mandatory to all foreigners, there is a $20 fee per person into Bagan as it is one of the worlds UNESCO sites, however it then covered us to enter all sites except for the Palace and Museum which had additional charges.
Once settled in, we had a wonder around the area along to Shwezigon Paya Pagoda, one of the more noticeably modern temples of worship. Despite being slightly smaller, the layout and detail was very similar to that of the one found in Yangon, Shwedagon Paya Pagoda. Apart from this pagoda, there was not very much to see in the area with there only being one main road with a couple of side streets, lined mainly with hostels, restaurants, travel agents and a couple of shops. Despite this ‘main road’ being the main route to Old Bagan from this area of hostels, it was far from your average main road. As if the road with no markings and just about wide enough for a lane in either direction was not basic enough, the bichiman road was far from smooth with many cracks and potholes as well as being extremely dusty from the large plains of surrounding dry land. From our small wonder around the area it was evident as to how underdeveloped Bagan actually is.
With it not being possible to rent your average motorbikes, the main modes of transport to get around the area were either E-bikes or your very old-fashioned horse and cart. Renting an e-bike in comparison to motorbikes else where in SE Asia was expensive and less flexible with them all having to be returned by 8pm each day, however was definitely the most convenient way in visiting the entirety of Bagan.
Finally, having rented an E-bike, our very eagerly anticipated wait to see Myanmar’s greatest attraction was over as we headed towards the main sites of what was some amazing old Pagodas. Once having left the town area towards Old Bagan, the narrow road was just surrounded by large expanses of dry, barren land with very little apart from many Palm trees and the occasional cluster of small red brick pagodas.
As we ventured further towards Old Bagan the frequency of pagodas increased as well as their size. It wasn’t too long along this open road till we came to this huge, amazing red brick pagoda, Htilominlo Pagoda, rising well above its surrounding opposite numbers and palm trees. Upon entry we were faced with this extremely detailed large brick structure which rose up, tapering off at different levels and finally reaching a single point. Considering its vast size, it was unfortunate that we were unable to climb to the higher levels but rather only follow a single, narrow corridor on the ground level when inside. Despite this, the internal pathway led us through the impressively thick brick walls to four large golden buddah statues, one at every point of entry on each face. Surrounding the pagoda were many small stalls, run by locals selling some of their traditional paintings and Laquerware. These particular paintings, which are apparently characteristic to Bagan, are sand paintings and were predominantly pictures of Bagan, Monks and their weekly or annual calendar. Made from a layer of sand set onto a thin canvas and then painted over, it is a simple form of painting, but it’s attractive style and unique picture is what led us to buying one.
With there being a ridiculous number of pagodas scattered throughout the region, we initially singled out on a map the main pagodas to visit but then left it free for us to stop along the way at any which we particularly liked. Just after the Htilominlo Pagoda, a large cluster of small pagodas in very good condition caught our eye and became our first of many spontaneous stops. With such fine detail still in tact on the dark red brick pagodas and the random manner in which they were set out with such a dry baron backdrop meant it was a really beautiful site which was further enhanced with the lack of tourists. Whilst we were having a look around, we soon found ourselves being shown around by this 8 year old girl called Zuzu. Despite not knowing much English we were still able to communicate as she tried selling us her hand drawn postcards whilst she showed us up into the small pagodas.
Just before entering the grand walls of Old Bagan we stopped at one of the major pagodas, Ananda, which was impressive in terms of the scale but was partially under renovation on the outside. When inside the square shaped pagoda, the four main walls on each side, which were all connected by internal corridors, were each guarded by huge golden Buddhas which were clearly main statues of worship. Infornt of these statues were many donation boxes filled with kyat bank notes which was apparently all used for any renovation works needed on that particular pagoda.
After such a hassle free morning visiting these impressive structures, we found our E-bike with a flat tyre. If communicating wasn’t hard enough at times, we then had to find someone to fix our tyre. With the tyre having more of a slit than a hole, a couple of boys went in search of a new inner tube where they weren’t quite so successful and so patching it up became the second best option.
After an hours wait, we moved onto Shwegugyi Pagoda, just inside the walls of Old Bagan and opposite the spectacular Royal Palace. This next pagoda was again similar to the previous one in both size and design but had the additional advantage whereby we could climb up it to its upper external walkways which provided for an impressive vantage point. From heights clearing the tops of the Palm trees, we were able to walk the entire way around the pagoda giving us views in every direction of all the surrounding pagodas scattered in the area.
Ready to carry on and visit a few more of these unique pagodas, we found ourselves with a flat tyre AGAIN, but this time we called the rental service for them to sort it out. In no time at all we had a new free inner tube put on the bike and we were ready to set off. Making the phone call in the first place would have definitely saved us some time.
Having seen the area from a raised level, we were able to locate a couple more specific pagodas that we wanted to see before sunset. Not too far away, set slightly away from the road along a narrow dust track, we came to a couple of intermediate sized red brick pagodas of which one was a Hindu temple.
Set off the beaten track meant it was quiet and relaxing as there where few tourists around but rather large numbers of cattle and goats grazing on the dry grass and a couple of local women in the shade selling some drinks. Here I was able to climb the steep face of this conically shaped pagoda which provided for an impressive 360 degree view of hundreds of these pagodas which each enclosed a stupa and gradually tapered through the trees. Lou however chose to wait at the bottom where she sat and spoke to the locals who spoke good English and funnily enough some Spanish.
Getting close to sunset we drove the short distance to Shwe San Daw Pagoda which we were able to climb its face, almost reaching it’s heights the point. The views from the top were breathtaking and it is understandable why most tourists head there for either sunrise or sunset. Being able to walk along all four sides of the pagoda from this incredible vantage point we were able to look across the dry planes scattered with palms and hundreds of pagodas of all sizes.
Whilst watching the sunset behind the mountains which was across the river, we were able to really enjoy such a fascinating view in a completely underdeveloped region of Myanmar
Having seen quite a number of pagodas, we then wanted to see how they made some of their traditional Laquerware. These crafts, ranging from small simple plates up to large chest of drawers, were made over a 6 month period from the combination of either bamboo or horse hair with tree sap. Once each of the individual crafts had been shaped and the oxidation process of the sap had taken place, this black sticky paste of the sap was applied throughout the entire shape of the object. With each individual piece covered, it was then placed in an underground cellar which had the required levels of humidity and kept there for a week. This process of applying a layer of sap onto the craft was repeated between 12 and 18 times dependent on the level of quality required but was sanded down to smoothen the surface between each layer. For four of the sap layers applied after the first couple of layers, a different natural product was added each time; these included ground cattle bone, stone and sawdust which were all a requirement in order to provide the crafts with their characteristic high strength and resistance to heat. Once all the layers have been applied, it is time to give the craft its own unique design which is created by etching out thousands of small grooves in order to apply a color. This tequnique allows for the object to be submerged in a particular colour with it only sticking to the many small grooves that have been made. In order to apply further colors, the same process of etching away at the surface is carried out and then submerged in the required color. Only one color at a time is added followed by a fine resin coating in order to avoid the color being washed off or altered by a secondary color.
On one of our drives through Myinkaba Village, between old and new Bagan, we were luckily enough to find Family Lacquerware Workshop, a tourist free workshop set back off the road where the very helpful and friendly owner showed us all the processes and talked us through it all. Despite the very impressively thorough and detailed work in this particular workshop, due to the arduous process and intricate detail, all of these products are relatively expensive in comparison to the lacquerware found being sold at stalls outside many of the pagodas. This was the case in all of the workshops in the area. Despite the owners of the workshops explaining that those sold at the pagodas were not made properly, we could not justify paying four times the price in the workshop and so we bought one at the pagoda which seemed to be very strong and had a very attractive detailed design.
Wanting a slightly more relaxed day, after having been to Myinkaba Village we went to meet Dennis and Barbara, our Australian friends, at their Zefretti hotel. Here we had a drink by the pool where both Lou and Dennis had a little swim as we were at a temperature of 40*C. For dinner we went to this small local restaurant, Weather Spoons Restaurant on Thi Ri Pyitsaya 4 street which served us this Myanmar beef curry which was amazing!!! To finish off a great meal we also got some tamarin flakes for the first time which were really tasty.
For our final day in Bagan, we met up with Dennis and Barbara to go and visit Minnanthu Village, one of the main traditional local villages just a short 20 minute e-bike ride away. Before getting to the village we stopped at a relatively large pagoda which was one of a kind in the area. This pagoda had been plastered like some of the others but was painted white and had been maintained extremely white, without a single stain on it. The extremely bright white color of the pagoda along with the bright sunlight meant that the glare coming off it made it difficult to look at. From here we met this young twelve year old girl who’s English was nothing short of perfect, which was extremely surprising as such fluent English from a local was hard to come by. This young girl who lived in Minnanthu Village was off school for three months during the hot season break and so she showed us to one of the larger homes in the area and gave us a brief insight into life in the village.
This particular village is made up of 120 homes and 600 residents with an average salary of five dollars a day but considerably more when able to con the tourists into paying high prices for their woven cotton garments and bags. When considering the low incomes throughout a village like this, it is scary to think that a family of twelve would spend around eight dollars a day on food and then have a large bill of fifty dollars a month for each child in secondary education despite primary being for free.
With the cotton sourced locally, the women’s main form of work was weaving using old fashioned techniques as well as sorting the thousands of nuts which they also grew and was then ground into oil, used for cooking.
Here we met the eldest women in the community, a 91 year old mother and granny who was still at the wheel converting the raw cotton into reels of thread ready to be used in weaving. As well as working on her wheel, she has also spent the last seventy years smoking strong homemade cigarettes which is a combination of Tabacco and finely chopped palm branches rolled in corn leaf. It was fascinating to watch this old women working the cotton with such ease whilst smoking her fat cigarette.
From one of the local areas to the next, we visited the river bank in Old Bagan where we watched many of the locals crossing the strong river in both directions on local wooden boats. In the distance, beyond the wide sand planes towards the mountains on the opposite side of the river, we could see some small villages and so we would assume that this commute across the river was to come and trade with both the tourists and locals.