Whoops I see my recent posts were published out of order… web access is slow and unreliable here so I have to batch our submissions, and as with adventure travel, things don’t always follow plan. The recent posting order should have been Culture Shock > One day in Bangkok > Bangkok to Mandalay > Myanmar – Mandalay Morning Ride > Road to Mandalay.
Finishing up our river tour… I was first on deck Friday morning, enjoying the sunrise and our reliably delicious Katha Pandaw breakfast. We berthed early in temple-rich Bagan, lashing up to a sister ship and crossing it to the beach, where we were quickly assessed a 100,000k ($75) “Archelogical Site” fee for the privilege of touring the area. Our taxi whisked us off to another comfortable spot… the Zfreeti hotel located in the tourist town of Nyaung U.
Used to be folks stayed in Old Bagan, but the military government unceremoniously moved the entire village population from there to New Bagan, we think to promote tourism among the temples. Our rooms weren’t quite ready, so Sue and I parked the boys with their journals and some books and took an hour to find a working ATM (never easy here), scout the restaurants and negotiate for transport.
One of the earliest travel writers (you may have heard of him – his name was “Marco Polo”) described Bagan as “one of the finest sights in the world.” Bagan’s heyday was from the 11th to 13th centuries, and temples must have been thrown up at a furious pace because despite 800 years of earthquakes, vandalism, theft and questionable restoration, there remain hundreds of remarkable pagodas and stupas poking above the forest canopy.
We visited our first – “Shwezigon Paya” – mid day with the boys just a half mile from our hotel. Then – after buying a cane ball (used in Myanmar’s national sport Chinlone – much like hacky sack), we returned to the hotel and made a beeline for the pool, where the boys and I enjoyed playing “monkey in the middle” and some lazy sunning.
When the day cooled we rented two electric bikes for Sue and Max and a scooter for Ben and me… and set off for a self-guided tour of some of the closer temples: Htilominlo Pahto, Ananda Pahto, Sulamani Pahto and a few others. The recent Bagan earthquakes took a heavy toll and many of the temples were enshrouded in scaffolding and tarps.
I picked an empty stretch of dirt road and let the boys take a turn on the scooter. Good fun, but darkness was falling quickly and we had to get going. It was a tense ride back to our hotel, but we all arrived safely. Ben and I did a quick nighttime tour of some back streets before meeting Sue and Max at the La Pizza, where “Good taste and friendship have no borders”. We lived their slogan and enjoyed the evening together.
Saturday I rose early and caught a glimpse of the balloons floating over the plain. Ballooning seems a great way to see the temples, but it’s expensive for a family of four, and we know from our time at the Reno Balloon Races that the boys don’t love being caged in a basket for hours, so we opted for a two-phase taxi tour instead. In the morning we hit a few backroad temples and toured a village, where we learned how the locals gather cotton, spin it into thread and use a loom to weave scarves (about 1 day’s labor) and longhis (5 days). They also roll and smoke corn tobacco and process peanuts and large animal feed. Then a few more temples and back to the pool to cool.
In the late afternoon our driver took us to a less known temple; we felt like tomb raiders climbing through the narrow, dark, winding stairwell up to the roof, where a few other tourists awaited the sunset. The ~40’ temple rose above the tree canopy and offered a good view of hundreds of other stupas poking above the treetops; the smoky plain lent a nice amber sunset tint.