Two days in Old Bagan


The overnight coach from Yangon brought us into Bagan around 6am. By the 10th hour the coach air-con had reached Baltic levels, and we were both quaking under our over perfumed complimentary travel blankets.

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A failed attempt at haggling with the taxi drivers, meant we paid over the odds for the 20 minute ride to our hotel, The Thande in Old Bagan. But we were too tired to care and the fare was still only about £7. Really not worth stressing about, and there was no other option anyway.

The Thande Hotel☑ is lovely. A complex of individual bungalows, by the Irrawaddy river, and shaded by beautifully mottled Arcacia trees. It was a sight for our red raw eyes, but it was 6am. Check in was not until 2pm. A slightly desperate wave of “I need a shower and a sleep so badly I might have to have a little cry” came over me.

Feelings like this can only be quashed by an egg based breakfast and a coffee. After which we were ready for battle again. We gave ourselves a shake, hired a couple of scooters and spent some hours exploring the wonderful landscape of Bagan.

Anyone who knows me will be aware of my affinity with a scooter. Having owned (and lost) at least three in London, I am a huge advocate of the freedom two wheels provides. Especially in foreign lands where adventure and exploration are key. These ones we hired in Bagan were electric. Top speed 50kph, and virtually silent. Stealth scooters. Perfect for zooming about dusty pathways, and weaving between the endless temples. We were in our element.

The temples of Bagan ☑ range from the 10th to 13th century. Originally there were over 10,000 built on these plains, now over 2000 still remain. They are all unique to each other, some relatively tiny, some as big as a pyramid, but all house a perfectly preserved golden Buddha, sitting peacefully ensconced within red brick jewel shaped jackets.

Myanmar, having only recently been accessible to travellers, is still blissfully unscarred by tourism and all the red tape that is so often enforced in order to manage large numbers of human traffic moving amongst these ancient relics, is yet to be apparent. This means that it is possible to freely scooter around this landscape, stopping to explore each temple, even to clamber up them to get a birds eye view. It is a wonderfully unrestricted privilege which may not always be the case in order to protect these fragile buildings.

Looking out over the multiples of pinnacles, dotted across the green plains, knowing inside every single one sits an often outsized Buddha, alone, smiling down benignly, waiting to be discovered, to be worshiped; it’s a little eerie and strangely melancholic. One huge temple had no entrance. The Sitanagyi Hpaya ☑  It’s square based and trimmed with hundreds of elephant sculptures around the edges. The local “sentry” for the building suggested we crawl in through a tiny window, the only entrance to the whole structure, to see what was inside. This temple had been ransacked by the Japanese in WW2, and all that remains inside is a headless Buddha, at the end of a series of unlit tunnels.

My inner Indiana Jones kicked in and I left Px outside as I clambered through this tiny space. The stench of ammonia hit me like a ton of bricks. My guide confirmed it was the bats…”beautiful bats”, it was pitch black except for his torch light, and we walked for about 50yards. He pointed his torch at another tiny gap in the brick work, high up, basically the entrance to the bat cave. That was the next doorway. No way. It would take another 20minutes of clambering through this putrid darkness to find the poor old Buddha, missing his head, and tombed inside. I copped out and clambered back into daylight again. Indiana can keep his job.

Religion is a funny old thing isn’t it? Why does it have to be so hard?

The main feature to our time amongst the temples was to be a sunrise hot air balloon ride, operated by Balloons Over Bagan ☑ After a 4.30am meeting outside the hotel we were told by the pilot that the flight had been cancelled due to windy weather. We are at the end of the rainy season, so we knew it would be a risk. Hugely disappointed and slightly narked at the alarm call, we snuck back to bed for some more shut eye. Px secretly relieved as his fear of heights was on red alert!

We spent the day on the bikes, exploring more temples and the town of Nyaung U ☑  A dusty Western style outpost with bustling activity. In the thick of it on our scooters, hooting our horns like the locals, waving and grinning at kids held in the arms of their families on the back of bikes. Pairs of immaculately dressed girls neatly propped side saddle on scooters, fearlessly relaxed behind their drivers, passed effortlessly in front of us.

Saturday night in Nyaung U, we were up for a large one and we found it. Dinner was at the social enterprise restaurant Sanon ☑ where a large open kitchen is the training ground for local, disadvantage youth. Simple food with a great drive behind it to improve peoples lives, this always makes the food taste even better, and the chili Margarita was pretty spectacular! Amongst the main stretch of restaurants and bars, we couldn’t resist one drink at the infamous Weatherspoons (correct spelling)☑  We then stumbled across Bagan Zay  ☑ an unassuming little bar which called us in with its promise of Negronis on the cocktail menu.

Run by French, ex chef, manager Jimmy who had only been there 3weeks, and was already making his mark on the place. His selection of home infused rums were excellent and he delivered on the Negroni front so we were happy.

We were soon lured into a lively game of Jenga, as we joined a table populated by a group of hot air balloon pilots and local bar owners. The pilots were all from the UK and with that vibe of not having been home for a long time, and due to the weather, not been up the air for a while either, so were in that mode of “nothing else to do but drink” . The bar’s “chandelier” was made entirely from empty Bombay Sapphire bottles, as consumed by the pilots during the rainy season, it was a bold testament to British gin consumption and it made us so proud! They were welcoming and fun, and drank like drains.

We were relieved to hear they were not flying the following morning.

Next up: Sunday morning. Major league hangover, 6hr bumpy bus ride to Mandalay.

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