We’d read that exploring Myanmar often feels like you’re in a living edition of the National Geographic. This certainly felt true upon our arrival in Bagan, an ancient city located in the region of Mandalay. Bagan feels completely mythical. It stands on the banks of the Ayeyarwady River and is known for the Archaeological Area where more than 3000 sacred Buddhist monuments tower over the green plains.
Bagan was the capital as well as the political, economic and cultural center of the Pagan Empire from 1044 – 1287. Over the course of 250 years, Bagan’s rulers constructed the religious monuments that we visited, in an area of 104 square kilometres. But the Pagan Empire collapsed in 1287 due to Mongolian invasions. The city was reduced to a small town, ceasing to be the capital, however all of the temples remained intact. Today, Bagan is still cherished as a demonstration of Buddhist devotion.
It was freezing cold and pitch black when we pulled up at 5am to a gaggle of taxi drivers, urging us to follow them to watch the sun rising from behind the sea of stupas, pagodas and temples. We followed the crowd, climbing Shwesandaw Pagoda, one of the few that allows the privilege of gaining some height over the impressive backdrop. After a patient wait, we finally saw a sliver of the flaming sun creeping up from behind the vast concentration of silhouetted temples. It was a pretty breathtaking view, looking somewhat like a scene from the Jungle Book. It was made even more impressive as a flock of hot air balloons gently drifted up from the morning mist.
We managed to avoid most of the other tourists during the daytime and found ourselves to be the only ones exploring some of Bagan’s temples. We hired e-bikes in order to see as much as we could of the vast plains. There was an option to hire bicycles, but it was much more fun rocketing from one pagoda to the next without breaking a sweat, leaving red clouds of dust in our wake. Our clothes, faces and feet were coated in dirt after a full day of riding around the arid landscape.
Many of the locals (particularly the women) wear Thanakha, a traditional Myanmar make up that doubles as a sunscreen. This yellow, powdery paste is made from ground tree bark. It has been used for over 2000 years in Myanmar and is applied to the face in attractive designs, the most common being a circular patch on each cheek.
We stayed in Nyaung U, the area’s most active town in Bagan, enjoying meals both here and on the outskirts of the walls of Old Bagan’s temple zone. The food in Myanmar has been delicious so far, consisting of lots of rich curries and rice-based dishes. Ben and Eden are vegetarians and were unsure how easy it would be to find variety in their meals here, but we were all spoilt for choice. Naomi and Lawrence ended up eating 90% veggie food on the trip, as the vegetarian curries were some of the most tasty we’d tried. The Burmese curries are oilier and mainly tomato based; very different in comparison to the creamy coconut curries typical to South East Asia. The food seems more Indian than South East Asian to us, although it’s a real fusion. We’re enjoying the intensity of the spices that have been lacking in the light, noodle based Vietnamese food we’ve grown accustomed too. The chapattis that accompany each dish as well as the fresh salads are also a highlight. Tea Leaf Salad is a classic dish in Myanmar, comprising of an eclectic mix of flavours and textures. It includes soft, pickled tealeaves, roasted peanuts and other crunchy beans, toasted sesame seeds and fried garlic.
On our final day in Bagan we took a taxi to Mt. Popa, a volcano standing 1518 meters above sea level. A sacred monastery is perched dramatically atop the huge rocky outcrop. It is best known as a pilgrimage site with numerous temples and relic sites on the top of the mountain. We climbed 777 steps to the summit and were rewarded with panoramic views of the vast landscape. Monkeys are in abundance surrounding the temple, and although they appear charming at first, they proved a real nuisance. The cheeky hoard of macaques made a beeline for cameras, sunglasses, water bottles and anything resembling food. They took no prisoners so we kept a wide berth, especially after seeing one bite an innocent tourist’s leg. They were a little too bold for our liking.
The journey to and from Mt Popa was an unpleasant experience, due to the winding roads, uneven tarmac and the speed in which our driver hurtled through the countryside. We passed a herd of goats, some small villages and rogue animals on our way. Unfortunately one family of chickens, including their chicks, didn’t make it to the other side. We made sure not to look behind us when we heard the soft thud of chick bones hit the wheels of the taxi.
But one more pleasant pit stop along the way involved trying some locally brewed alcohol and sweet treats. We visited a ‘Toddy Tapper’ village (also known as a ‘Jaggery’), where we observed the manufacture of Palm Wine. This beverage is made using the fermented flower sap of palm trees. The palm oil is also used to make a sweet candy, similar to Scottish tablet. The sugar is heated and mixed with different flavours including shredded coconut and sesame seeds. We made sure to purchase both a bottle of liquor and some sesame sugar cubes.
It was an early night on our final evening in Bagan as we were up at 6:30am to catch the 8 hour minibus to Kalaw.