Minagalbar!! That’s Hello in Burmese, the only word you need accompanied with a smile to manoeuvre through the stretch of this beautiful piece of land called Myanmar!
Myanmar is changing, from the political upheaval to the state of tourism. This beautiful country is now tucked in the list of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam as one of the must-visit countries in South East Asia. With some regions still restricted for the need of special permits, Myanmar houses a kaleidoscope of visual delight. May it be the buzzing capital of Yangon, the city on a lake at Inle, the beaches of Thandwe, the busy Mandalay or the festivals that light up the horizon. The star of the list undoubtedly is Bagan, housing more than 2000 pagodas and hot air balloons speckling the skyline.
Of 2000 Pagodas
Bagan lies on the eastern side of the Ayeyarwady (popularly known as the Irrawaddy) river and is a famous for its breath-taking archaeological wonder with more than 2000 pagodas lying sprawled over here. Owing to the popular reception of Bagan on the tourist circuit, it has often been compared to Angkor Wat. For the traveller, Bagan is geographically divided into Old Bagan (luxury), New Bagan (affordable) and NyaungU (backpacker friendly and budget), but not strictly so.
For a relaxed stay, choose ‘The Hotel at Tharabar Gate’, a crowd favourite or ‘Bagan Thande’, both being comfortable and offering marvellous views and yet fitting in medium budgets. If you are on a shoestring wallet, there are numerous hostels thronged by backpackers from world over. Ostello Bagan and Lux Pillow are the favourites. For a taste of luxury, look no further from Aureum Palace Hotel and Resort, right in the middle of the archaeology zone and housing its own private lake. Beat that.
Bagan is filled to the brim with explorers; you will see tourists everywhere, more so than locals. Each corner you ride into, there is an unexplored piece of land, a lesser known pagoda, green fields and abundant shade. There is a piece for everyone at Bagan, a piece to explore, discover and revel in.
Of Sunrises and Sunsets
With the audible whirr of the e-bikes for company, Bagan reminds one of the more famous, Angkor Wat. To take in the beauty of this marvellous land, waking up early is mandatory. Watching the sun rise on the Irrawaddy River and lighting up the silhouette of thousands of pagodas is one off the bucket list. Perched on a hot air balloon which can cost upto 400 USD for a ride is a luxurious option to rejoice the beauty of Bagan. For the backpackers though, climbing up the ruins of pagodas to stand atop the monuments breathing in the cold air and first rays of the sun is an experience, unparalleled. Though in 2018, climbing on some pagodas have been banned. Sunsets are as magical too, followed by some taste bud celebration.
Bagan is punctuated with restaurants which offer the traditional Burmese fare of seafood broth, tea leaf salad and many more delicacies. Salads and curries at Bibo, steamed fish at 7 Sisters’, original and local at The Moon’s and lip smacking pumpkin ravioli at La Terraza, the choices are endless.
There are plenty to fit your bill from street food to a candlelight dinner. Italian to Indian, all cuisines find a place here. Pick a burger, dig into a wrap or sip from the broth, this place caters to all taste buds and pockets, alike.
Local Buses and Rickety Trains
Since tourism in Mynamar opened up less than a couple of years ago, modes of transport are still restricted to what locals use. Buses, boat rides and a rickety but absolutely marvellous train take the travellers to different points on the circuit.Bagan is accessible by buses from the capital city Yangon and other tourist cities like Inle. Boat rides from Mandalay are available too. There are some luxury buses that run the route too where you are provided everything from a toothbrush to food for your overnight needs. But it’s the regular buses with the locals and their baskets of fruits, goodies and stories that win over, anytime.
Chugging away on E-bikes
Getting around Bagan is preferred on an e-bike, environment friendly and not as tedious in the heat as the bicycle. Bikes are available easily, from roadside shops and of course from the accommodation, you are staying in. Pickthem up on a consolidated rate for two days (bargain hard, they like the fact that you are here for a couple of days) and kick-start the amazing ride that’s Bagan. Being used to a scooter helps but if you know to pedal a bicycle, that’s all you need. Get the battery charged overnight so that you don’t need e-fuel during your daytime rendezvous.
Gorgeous Locals, Thanakha and Longyis.
Locals are gorgeous in Myanmar, while riding around you end up meeting more than one who willapply the thanakha (it’s the paste of a bark which is used extensively in Myanmar by men and women alike, as sunscreen.) on your face and share stories, aplenty. You will also meet little girls around the pagodas selling the famous Burmese Longyis. It’s a traditional wrap around skirt that the beautiful ladies of Myanamar wear. Pick some, they are rarely overpriced and are a great fashion plus comfort statement.
Head to Mount Popa
You can also climb atop Mount Popa, if you are in Bagan. Popa is around 45 minutes drive from the centre of Bagan and you can also stay in a couple of amazing resorts there. Popa Mountain Resort wins hands down when it comes to accommodation. Situated on the side of the hill and offering an unbeatable view of the opulent landscape, the food is here is delectable. Trekking up to a monastery situated on a dormant volcano is certainly not an everyday affair. All this, bare-foot. There are 777 steps and a friendly crowd of monkeys to welcome you, all the way up. Waking up atop Mount Popa and swimming in one of the infinity pools at the luxurious resort could be the climax of your fantastic Bagan trip.
Tips of Magic
- Take a map but don’t strictly follow it, take those mud roads through paddy fields and you will end up on the steps of dozens of beautiful structures with spellbinding architecture, that have no mark on the map. Some of them have named but thousands are unnamed and equally or more spellbinding.
- The sunrise and sunset are incredible and even if you don’t choose to take the expensive balloon ride, you still can see them floating above in all their magnificence from one of the pagodas. The most famous of these pagodas are Ananda, Dhammayangyi, Buledi, Thebeik Hmauk and Shwezigon to name a few. All of them are many centuries old.
- Horse carts taking people around is quite a nice way to make the local connection and at a leisurely pace. Please do check on the horses before you choose a cart, it makes a lot of difference to know that you aren’t supporting anything cruel.
- You will also meet dozens of warm and intelligent young men who sell sand painting samples, most of them are middlemen and aren’t the real artists. So, just be careful, although sometimes it’s alright to be taken for a ride.
- Since development is on an override at the moment, new roads were being re-laid and there is a lot of rubble and dust. One does wonder on how Bagan would be, few years down the line. People to the brim, tourism overdone? Sometimes we do wish that cities preserve their local flavour than go on overdrive to make it ‘comfortable’ for visitors. If the law is in place and the locals hospitable, other factors don’t need much validation. Do your bit by keeping the place clean and helping the locals by eating with them and buying from them.
- There is an entry fee to the city of Bagan for the upkeep of the historical architecture, if you miss it on entry via a taxi or bus, do take time out to pay up before you leave the city.
- Most of the temples are uninhabited though some still follow rituals, it’s respectful to take off your footwear while stepping into the sanctum of any of the pagodas.
- Last but not the least, carry ample amount of sunblock. At Bagan, you step out early and stay out late and your only enemy is the sun.
Keep yourself well hydrated and covered and get,set,go on a once in a lifetime ride in and around this city of pagodas, hot air balloons, smiling faces, gorgeous locals and mouth-watering food. A postcard of picture perfect travelling.