It was Bagan that firmly set Myanmar on the itinerary. Bagan, with its magical temples stretching into the distance. Its sunrises, sunsets and twenty five thousand kyat entrance fee.
We chose New Bagan as our base for no real reason other than liking Bagan Central Hotel. And for good reason – it’s beautiful.
Nearby we found a place to eat for the night, a quiet restaurant north of the popular and pricey 7 Sisters. The service is great, with the young waiter asking how everything is every few minutes.
Like all our first days, we explored. We hired an e-bike – one bike between two costed 10,000 which felt like a con because one bike for one person was 6,000.
We opened Maps.Me and Travelfish, marking out a few interesting sites with the plan to explore on the way. Within minutes the slowness of the bike put Alessio in a mood. Then, busybody tourists who told him to remove his shoes whilst he was removing them further annoyed him.
“I’m trying with these wholesome thoughts, baby – but these people fucking bother me.” He said, referencing his latest read on calm minds and nirvana.
A modern temple with loud, jarring music and a reclining Buddha failed to calm him. Touts had set up there and a mere glance at some hippie pants had them chasing you to your e-bike with a pair, yelling “good price for you!”
“Keep a calm mind.” I reminded him.
We headed to more temples just outside New Bagan. They were certainly beautiful, but the treat was being able to find ones where there was no one else. Not even someone selling a ubiquitous elephant painting. Or a kind tour guide who showed you around… then for the honour, tried to get you into his lacquerware store.
“I wondered why you were ignoring him.” Ale said, once we finally shook him off. “I just thought he was kind.”
“No one’s just kind.”
A few meters up the road, we took a steep climb up a stupa. Finally, we had found the Bagan we came for. Our irritations melted away, and the magic unfolded before us.
Free of irritation and unwholesome thoughts, Alessio took the e-bike off-road. We shuddered down the sandy road, painful plants scratching our legs until the bike coughed us up by the river.
Our e-bike promptly flicked down to 30%. The more we battled the sand, the lower the power went, and by the time we fought our way back to a sealed road, the bike was flicking between 0-10%. Still, we deluded ourselves that we could make it to the Shwezigon Pagoda. I wanted to see the Berlin style architecture of the entrance.
What I didn’t realise is how many “helpful” guides there were, offering to show us the way in.
“Where are you going? The entrance is here!” Alessio yelled, as I kept walking.
“Trust me.” I said, ignoring everyone showing us the way in.
Soon, he understood.
No one is just kind. Those entrances were lined with shops, where you’d be hassled to buy. Find the nearest way in to the pagoda to avoid the souvenir sellers.
The pagoda itself is fine. The majesty of the ruins are more impressive, and my experience in Myanmar pagodas is constantly tainted by people who want to take pictures of me. One couple were giggling and following me, until the guy stuck his selfie stick in my face. I replied no thank you, and walked off. It’s about the principle, and he had a selfie stick.
Another thing to note about these pagodas is there are usually four entrances and exits. For whatever reason, the entrances and exits are always what Ale wants to “explore”. Hmmmm…
Our bike managed to get us all the way to the other base for tourist Nyaung U. We took a lunch there, where I cemented my love for the complementary nuts. The food was edible, and the Lazio dish amatriciana makes its way to many menus in Bagan under various names – Maticiana, Matriciana and more.
When we left, we realised the bike was slowing to a stop. We had at least six kilometres left to go, but the power was so near death that bicycles and pedestrians were speeding past.
“It’d be easier without your weight.” Alessio said. I chose to take this without offense, and gracefully climbed off the bike. Even I was walking faster than the bike. Even with my weight.
“When we get back, I’m going to ask for the money back for this piece of shit! They said eight hours, forty kilometres but we didn’t manage that at all! I hate e-bikes. I’m going to say something. I bet they do this to con us. I will never rent another e-bike. I’d rather walk. I’m going to ask for the money back.” Alessio ranted. He paused, then added. “Probably when they ask, I’ll say ‘yes, everything was great, thanks!”
The route is mostly downhill, and with a brief stop at the old city gate to walk around and let the bike recover, we managed to make it home.
“Everything fine?” The woman asked, as we returned the key.
“Yes!” We replied. “Do you rent for the sunrise tomorrow?”
The famous Bagan sunrise. It required a bit of subterfuge on our part. We hired one bike for one person, and set the alarms at 4am. I sneaked out the hotel first and waited in the dark on a corner. The cockerels were crowing, a monk was chanting, and the air was freezing. Finally, Alessio arrived with the bike ready to go, and we rode to Lawkaoushang Pagoda. If the night air wasn’t already cold enough, we had to remove our shoes and socks before the climb up to the highest platform of the pagoda. A little orienteering showed us where the sun would rise, and photographers had already set their tripods ready. One small coach group joined us, then we had to wait.
An hour passed and the sky was just as dark. More people joined the platform until it was impossibly full – when people began filtering on to platforms below and the blocked off platforms above.
After over two hours, the skies began to change. The magical Bagan skyline lay out in front of us, with the changing colours above. With the passing minutes, the colours became richer and richer.
Then the money shot – the famous hot air balloons began to rise. At first two.
It felt like a concession. I had expected none. Cynical and British, I thought the very day I’d choose to see a Bagan sunrise would be the day no one would take a balloon ride. Therefore two made me smile.
Suddenly, more began to burst upwards until the skies were full of balloons.
The red sun poked from behind the horizon, stretching upwards into the sky. The balloons floated towards it like a magnet, and the crowds cheered. It was truly magical.
Once the balloons had mostly passed, we climbed back down and the hawkers were at the ready, and unwilling to take no for an answer.
“Where are you from?” A street book seller asked
“Italy.” Alessio replied.
Without missing a single beat, she whipped out a book – Giorni In Burmania. It was almost as if she had a book at the ready for any language you threw at her. The street hawkers here really do hear ‘no’ as a challenge.
This time our bike got us back to the hostel where we rested until our taxi to Mount Popa. Mostly we chose it as something to do, although it did seem beautiful.
I left my phone at the hotel, meaning the 700+ steps to the top of the mountain wouldn’t get counted on my Pacer pedometer app. I also took no photos on my phone. From afar, the mount seems magical, but close it resembles any temple with many steps.
You also must do war with the macaques, the hungry, thirsty, thieving monkeys local to the temple. They tend to pee and crap all the way up the steps, and the cleaners will request a donation for the cleaning but aren’t very persistent. Scared of the monkeys after one scratched me as it tried to remove my skirt, we didn’t stay at the top for long. Maybe if we had taken the rabies jab we would be more willing! The sunset from the peak did seem very beautiful, and the Alto-Aldige Italians (who we mistook for Dutch or Germans!) told us it was stunning.
Instead we stayed by the village and watched village life. The macaques did battle with local stray dogs and stole bananas from fruit sellers, fruit sellers gossiped and chatted, older women complained about the rice they had just bought, and the babies fed the macaques.
In the evening, we walked a little further to the popular Natheinka restaurant – a French and Burmese fusion. It was supposed to be New Bagan’s underrated star, with a trained chef to shout about. When we arrived it didn’t seem promising: dirty table cloths and nearly an hour wait. Nearby, a table of international backpackers probably from Ostello Bello bored us with their proclamations.
“You get SO MUCH input when you travel, how could a relationship ever compare to this?”
“Yes! I would never love a man as much as I love travel.”
My cold and sore throat symptoms brought on by the pollution worsened as I listened.
“When I went to a Japanese restaurant in Portugal, I was so surprised they didn’t speak any English! It’s so weird.”
My food arrived before I could use my fork for other purposes.
I ordered fish, and Alessio took the popular honey and coriander pork. Our doubts were assuaged. The fish was delicious and succulent, but the honey coriander pork is probably up there with Bagan’s best dishes. After we cleaned the plate of the sweet, peppery sauce, the chef came to apologise for the wait. However unpromising the restaurant looks, the food is more than worth it.
The meal neatly completed our time in Bagan. It is Myanmar’s biggest selling point and the ruins and sunrises speak for themselves. Going with too high an expectation will leave you disappointed, but it is magic not to be missed. Although the locals are friendly, tourism has made way for pushy, scammy touts. You’ll be ripped off, but keep your wits about you and you can minimise it.
Bagan is as beautiful and fantastic as it seems. There is the potential to be underwhelmed, but if you explore with no agenda and no expectations, you’ll leave feeling more than satisfied.