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Land of a thousand temples.

sunny 35 °C

Arriving into Bagan along the Irrewady river as the sun started to drop we got our first glimpses of a number of temples along the riverbank. We were excited.

Our first glimpse of a Bagan temple from the river.

We clambered up the sandy riverbank and were surrounded by hordes of taxi drivers. We were happy to see our name on a placard, held up above the bobbing masses. However I was bit surprised to see a different hotel than expected written on the placard. I suspect the hotel in Bagan dialed the wrong number. So far on our trip we had been booking through the Internet (not an option here) or waiting till we got to our destination. Here the hotels seem to be permanently busy so we have been booking ahead. This is done by asking your current hotel to ring them up, on answering the receiver is thrust at you and down a crackly line in pidgin English you book you next hotel room. So I wasn’t too surprised, just a little anxious at the cost and quality.

We got in the pickup and drove 30 yards before stopping and being told to buy our government ticket to enter the Bagan area. There was no way around this one and we coughed up. Behind us in the queue a couple were receiving an ear bashing from another couple as it transpired they had booked into a government hotel. I missed this conversation (as I was form filling) but a Canadian lady sharing our taxi tried to calm the situation. Later the Canadian lady sat down to proudly announce she had just bought Burmese days by George Orwell from the ticket office. I almost started to explain she had just given money to the government, before Lynne cut me off. As we drove away a hawker offered her the same book. In saying she had just bought it for 8000kyat she inadvertently bartered it down to 2000kyat. Justice done.

Happily enough the New Park Hotel was clean and comfortable, the price was as high as with all the other hotels. We have been a bit shocked by the price of Burma. We had budgeted double what the LP said for a comfortable living standard with emergency money, but have found everything has doubled or more than doubled in price over the last nine months. This meant Lynne got her accounting head on and started to rein in the spending. The reason seems unclear for this but the inflation is very apparent. One guide told us it was because there were now more tourists bringing more dollars since Aung San Suu Kyi had given the green light. He didn’t seem bothered by it though despite his cigarettes going up in price day to day by 100kyat.

Our first morning in Bagan and the planned horse cart ride was scrapped, as it was deemed too expensive by the lady with a new tight grip on the purse strings. Instead two days of pedal power awaited. So with a map and a couple of litres of water we headed off onto the Bagan plain. The enormity of the place soon dawned on us as we walked up a small passage in the first small temple complex we came across. Hundred of spires and massive temples rise up in every direction.

Our first glance of the Bagan plain.

Bagan rivals Angkor as the jewel of SE Asia but I have to admit I had never heard of it until looking into traveling to Burma. Founded in 1044 by a King who unified the country and embraced Theravada Buddhism. Soon a building spree started and over the next 200 years 4400 temples were built in the area. These temples often sit in groups with similar styles but the variety is stunning from classic pagodas, to gothic looking spire studded cathedral like structures and even a massive pyramid to top it all off. The plain they all sit on is relatively flat with little vegetation. This means that the view in every direction is stunning and always changing depending on which temple you have made it to the top of.

A lot of temples. Some fantastic sights!

Over our stay in Bagan we found two absolute gems of restaurants. Neither in the Phony Planet! Bibo was a tiny restaurant on the main strip in Nyaung U. Run by the sweetest husband and wife team the traditional Myanmar food was the best we have had in Burma. Just off the main eating strip on Anawratha Road is Weatherspoon (which had had an s attached at the end to every menu and sign). When in Weatherspoons eat the Weatherspoons burger! The best in SE so far! Oh and it was cheap with the best Internet in Burma (when the power was on!).

Food at Bebo.

Two full days in Bagan was enough, especially in the sweltering heat. However a journey from hell was looming over us. The 16 hour bus journey to Inle lake. We were told by other travellers if we could avoid any journey in SE Asia then this was the one. But the money was too low to get a flight to Inle and then a flight to Yangon (and I really didn’t fancy that 20 hour bus journey with a flight and train to catch the next day). And so it was at the “fresh” time of 04:30 we were picked up by the rainbow bus and our trip started.

It is difficult to describe the range of emotions, sensations and sights that one is subjected to during a bus trip like this one. I knew we were in trouble the moment I sat down and my knees were a full foot from fitting behind the seat in front. The prospect of spending the whole bus journey sat at 45 degrees was a pretty grim one, especially as the plastic stools were laid down the central aisle to get a few more on the bus. Luckily the bus conductor took pity on me and moved me to the front row. This meant I could keep back and legs straight. It meant I had to stay very still though as two grannies were resting their heads on my knees while they slept.

The bus was full of paan spitting locals. It had chickens in bags. The roof was soon used for seating when the seats inside were full. Progress was slow, especially up hills when the conductor had to jump off and stick a giant wooden triangle under the front wheel to stop the bus rolling backwards when the driver couldn’t find gear (which was a lot). The speedometer only showed 0, or -5 when going up hill. The rev counter was shot and a red light flashed from the moment we left Bagan.

Half way up a big mountain range we stopped to cool the engine. A hose was sprayed into the engine and water started pouring from around the dials, buttons and foot pedals. No-one seemed at all surprised by this. We passed markets, we passed campaigning groups for the government and NLD. We passed so many army bases. All in all, apart from the sweat and pain we both felt we had seen more of Myanmar in those 16 hours than in the preceding week. Painful but good.

Posted by Justin Woolley 23:07 Archived in Myanmar

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