The next morning our flight left Yangon at 6:05 am; another 4:15 am wakeup and another early morning flight. The weather outside was 60 and it was funny to see all the guys outside our hotel dressed in hats, gloves and coats while I walked around in my short sleeve shirt and thin hiking pants. The usual confusion at the airport when you arrive and your not quite sure what to do. Which line to stand in, where to go.
The domestic airports in Myanmar are a throwback to the way travel must have happened in the 1950s. They are small. There were consistent experiences at each of our domestic airports.
- There is no real difference between checkins and the gates. You entered one big room where there were small desks for ticket counters. No boarding pass had departure time, seat assignments or gate numbers.
- After getting your boarding passes each party member received a sticker on their shoulder with the three letter airport code of your destination
- Your checked bags where tagged and then piled in the middle of the floor. Some people seemed disconcerted about this because since their bags hadn’t disappeared from view on a luggage escalator they were less confident they’d get on board. Eventually they’d be thrown onto wheeled carts and pushed out to the planes by attendants.
- You had to go through immigration before departure and your boarding passes had to be stamped. Upon arrive you had to go through immigration again and have your passports recorded.
- There is virtual no security; your bags are scanned. You didn’t have to take out your laptops. Didn’t matter if you had water in your carry on or if you had things in your pockets. You walked through the metal detector which always beeped, you just showed the security attendant you pockets contents and they spent 2 seconds waving the wand over your chest and pants.
- Transition to the “gate” was just another large open room waiting area. If there were flights that were departing in close proximity to one another an attendant would come wandering through the waiting room holding a sign with the airline, destination and flight numb. You then walk out on the tarmac passing the passengers who have just arrived, one engine on the far side of the plane is still running and the smell of fuel washes over you.
- Once on board the plane its free seating and the only requirement is that you put on your seatbelt; you can use your laptop, iPad and iPhone the entire time, taking off and landing. Depending on the length of your flight you’ll climb to your cruising altitude which for us was never higher than 16,000 feet and one time was only 5000 feet.
We arrived in Bagan to find our guide Kyi Soe, pronounced Gee Sue and our driver Mr. Kai waiting for us. We cleared immigration, loaded our bags in the van and made the short drive to our hotel : The Amazing Bagan, which used to be the Bagan Golf Course resort. The grounds are nice, the pool is great, the rooms (we stayed in the suites) were separate buildings. After checking in and throwing our bags in our room we set out to explore the temples.
Bagan is one of those magical places where when you see photos you can’t believe such a place exists and when your there in person its almost overwhelming how amazing the place is. Myanmar sits between India, Thailand and China and Buddhism was introduced during the 11th century and from then through 13th century the kings in the kingdom of Pagan went on a building spree like no other. Constructing over 5000 temples at its height, now a days there is somewhere between 2700 to 4000. The entire land is dotted with temples, many of them are small stupa a couple of stories high and 30 meters square, but there are over three or four dozen large imposing massive temples that are 70 or more meters high.
Our first stop was at the Shwezigon Pagoda, this is Bagan’s best preserved temple. Shwezigon is a smaller version of Shewedagon with its zedi‘s spire covered in gilded paint. The ground are full of pigeons, and other small shrines. You can walk around and in one area where pilgrims kneel to pray you as you prostrate you can see the top of the stupa reflected in a small pool of water cut into the stone.
Kyi Soe then took us to a very traditional Myanmar restaurant which consisted of many small dishes. The main dishes were curried meat, which was mostly very tough and was 80% oil with a little bit of sauce. There were other dishes like chickpeas and other curried vegetables that weren’t as oily. Other meals in Bagan were at Sarabha, which had Chinese dishes as well as other curry’s that were a bit more creamy and more palatable to foreigners. Afterwards we went back to hotel to relax and swim before heading out for the sunset. We also ate one night at the Thiripyitsaya Resort which overlooks the Irrawaddy River, it was your usual expensive good western/westernized food. After our lunch we returned to the hotel where we let the kids swim and play in the pool and relaxed for the afternoon.
That evening we set out with Kyi Soe to see a couple more temples and the sunset. First we visited Ananda Pahto – super high ceilings and amazing Bhudda’s that up close seem sad and as you back away from them a smile emerges. Most everywhere went the people were fascinated with our children, Miles and Sofi for their hair, Miles in tight nappy curls and Sofi in her braids and Finn and Eli for their fair skin blond hair. We chatted with a group from villiage outisde Bagan that were visiting Ananda Pahto, there was a young girl with a baby on her hip and three others running around her. She seriously looked 14, we had Kyi Soe ask her age, she replied that only the baby was her child and she was 24! We were amazed at how youthful the people all looked. For the sunset I wanted to go somewhere that wasn’t crowded with tourists, so Kyi Soe took us to Shwenan Tintaw a smaller less well known temple with a platform. The steps were crazy narrow, steep and tall. There was an attendant with a flash light at the top of the stairs as you turned the corner to guide you up the steps. They were so narrow I had a hard time squeezing through with my backpack on and the camera bag hanging off to one side and Stac felt a bit claustrophobic. On the top plaza there were sweeping views of the temples and only a Japanese TV crew filming the sunset. The views of the sunset were nice but there was nothing really photo worthy, no good light on any close temples and no decent silhouettes to speak of. There is a difference between watching a sunset and photographing a sunset. Thus my first sunset while gorgeous ended with me being disappointed in the sunset photographs I’d captured.
Balloons over Bagan
In the process of doing my research I had booked a balloon flight with Balloons over Bagan, a once in a life time opportunity to view the amazing temple complex from the air. I’d first flown in a balloon as a teenager for a scouting activity and loved the experience. My flight was at sunrise. I woke at 5:30 am and got on the Balloon over Bagan bus which drove us to our launch point for the day, the soccer fields in Nyaung U. They fed us some tea/coffee and cookies, and after a brief introduction divided us into our groups. We gathered at the basket and balloons for a safety briefing. As we wandered out they were filling the balloons with cold air using the fans and I was so entrance by their billowing forms that I followed the wrong group until I was retrieved by one of the crew. We were instructed by our pilot on how to climb in, what was ok to touch and not to; how to assume the landing position (everything put away, sitting down on the seat, holding onto two handles). Then our pilot had us step back as he fired the gas jets and the balloon rose, we climbed in and were off. Soaring up over the city with the Irrawaddy River stretching out before us. Smoke from morning fires to keep warm hung in the trees and blew among the temples as the sun just started cresting and shining over the temple complex. Flying by a balloon is a surreal sensation, once your aloft and the burners are off your just floating so quiet and peacefully. And the speed is as slow as the wind blows, drifting along you can really soak in the views below.
The pilot basically controls only the ascent and descent and is searching for the right level where the currents are blowing in the right direction. Our goal was to fly over the temple zone and land somewhere after an hour or so. In order to catch the right winds we had to ascend up to 700 feet and then as we blew toward the temple zone we began a fairly fast descent. The Balloon over Bagan bus and other employees chased us on motorcycles. We landed in a field next to Pyathada Paya temple where we were served a nice breakfast of fruit, banana bread and champagne or juice. While hanging out chatting an elderly gentleman with an Australian accent was talking about a few films he’d made as a director. He mentioned that he’d directed Galipoli and folks asked him about working with Mel Gibson. Afterwards I had a chance to chat with him 1-1. I asked him what his most recent film, he said : “The Long Way Home which sadly not to many people saw.” I told him that I had just watched this, an epic escape tale of Russian prisoners who hiked out of Siberia, over the desert through the Himilayas to India and freedom, though I warned him it was probably a pirated copy in China and he probably didn’t get any money for it. I then asked him what his most famous film was and he said Master and Commander of the Farside of the World, Dead Poets Society and Witness. Suddenly I knew he was one of my favorite directors but couldn’t think of his name, so I asked him : Peter Weir. Miles and I love Master and Commander and have watched it many times. Finally back on the bus they dropped us back at our hotel.
Horse and Buggys
I rushed in and grabbed some breakfast with the kids and grabbed my bag and at 9:30 while Miles stayed with Stac to hang out at the pool, the Sheppards and Sofi and I joined Kyi Soe and three horse and buggies to do more touring temples. Bagan is a fairly quiet place. There is three very small towns of Nyaung U, Old Bagan and New Bagan. Old Bagan was vacated of most people to New Bagan to make way for tourism. There are temples scattered through out the two towns but especially Old Bagan. Old Bagan sits adjacent to a huge open plain where the majority of the temples are situated. There are many very large temples, and hundreds and hundreds of smaller ones. There are far too many large ones to even visit in a few days let alone the small ones. There are several basic ways to see the temples. You could walk but this would be for a very long day, for example from our hotel it was a 9 mile round trip to Old Bagan. You can ride bikes, which can be rented cheaply or gratis at your hotel. There is very little traffic on the roads and the plain is all dirt roads. Riding bikes across these is fairly easy except for the sandy parts and you must be careful to avoid the bushes which have 2 inch spikes, they’ll easily poke a hole in you let alone your bikes tires. You can also take a rented car, or a taxi or sadly a big huge tour bus. (If I was the mayor of Bagan the first thing I’d do would be to outlaw these big tour buses. We didn’t see too many of them, but you could see how they could get out of hand if tourism picks up) The last and perhaps the best way to see the temples is to rent a horse and buggy. There are over 200 of these horses in Bagan. The buggy has two wheels with a bench seat directly behind the horse where the driver sits and can also fit one passenger. The rear section is a day bed of sorts with cushion on the bottom and sides where two or three people can recline. The horses take you along the dirt roads from temple to temple, the pace is nice and you get a chance to really take in the scenery.
The size and scale of some of the temples is at time almost overwhelming. The first one our list was the Dhammayangyi Pahto the largest of them all. This massive structure had ceilings on the first level so high they disappeared into the dark. The upper levels were closed and the top has actually collapsed during the 1975 earthquake that shook the region. It is believed Dhammayangyi is haunted by ghosts as the king who had it built was so cruel if the quality of the workmanship was not up to his standards he had the worker killed.
From there we rode around to several others for our sunset Kyi Soe took us to another one that didn’t get many tourists, for the life of me even though I took a video of him pronouncing the name, I can’t translate it and find the name. But this place was gorgeous. The light in Bagan is amazing. The dusty clay colored plains, the temples in red brick and all the gold. The domes of many stupa and temples are covered in gold. Most Buddha are covered in gold. You can even buy gold leaf at the temple and add to a statue. as we arrived for sunset the light was simply amazing; everything glowed in an almost magical way. The top of the stupa was covered in red brick, the dome was gilded with cracking red showing underneath and everything glowed the most deep rich colors in the late evening light. I was overwhelmed by how beautiful the colors were. I took some portraits of Sofi and the Sheppards. We watched until the sun went down and then walked out along the rode among the bushes to get some shots of the spires in the afterglow before heading back home to bed.
Sunday morning I woke at 5:15 am and got my gear ready for the day. I wore a pair of shorts and a long sleeve shirt. I got on my complimentary bike from the hotel at 6:05 and headed down the dirt road leaving the hotel before I turned onto the blacktop road lined with Nim trees. The sky was still pitch black and my headlamp shone a meager pool of light on the road in-between the big fluorescent lights set every 100 meters or so. Turning onto the main road I wheeled along in the dark. My right pedal slowly began to come undone, falling off piece by piece until I was left with just a round slippery spoke of the pedal. My goal was the Mingalar Zedi temple, but when I got to the cross roads the sky was beginning to show and I was hurrying and turned left instead of right. I doubled back and turned off on a dirt road and found three small stupa. There was no staircase but I was able to climb up between two of them and perch on the corner of one.
Not an amazing sunset in terms of color, but I was all alone and everything was quiet as I watched the light come up. After the sunrise, I climbed down, mounted my bike and rode off the dirt roads heading north in the basic direction of my hotel. The roads are very sandy and are inter-mixed between some harder pack and deep sections of loose sand. When you hit these loose sections your tires loose all grip and you slide out, best is to get enough speed to plow through them.
I stopped at the small nearby Lawkahteikpan temple and watched the Balloons over Bagan start to float across the temple zone and descend. Back on my bike a large steep and tall white pagoda dominated the scene ahead (Shwesandaw) and I rode my bike across the very bumpy furrows of a field and parked my bike at the base of a very steep stair case. I climbed to the top to find myself all alone with amazing panoramic views stretching in all directions. The low haze from the morning fires still drifted through the valley and the balloons were drifting over the temples. I sat taking photos while I watched the balloons drift and descend among the fields and temples. As a large tour bus pulled up and a group of tourists ascended the steps I packed up my stuff and pedaled away on my bike. Back home we relaxed again by the pool with the kids. The night before Lesley had gotten the stomach bug and had spent all evening throwing up, she hobbled around bent over in pain. One down and what would be several more to come, but more on that later.
That afternoon I arranged for three more buggies to take us out through the temples. Our destination was some of the lesser visited temples. Despite the huge number of temples, each has some basic similarities. Each temple typically has four sides to it, one for each incarnation of the Buddha. Statue after statue of Buddha. Christendom might have created icons of Jesus on the cross but clearly they have nothing on the symbol of Buddha. Most temples have a bare minimum four, many have multiple levels with 4 Buddha on each side and some have inlets in the corridors that are inset with hundred of more statues. And they come in array of positions, reclining, meditating, touching the ground, traveling (touching his robes), raised arm. One of the temples we went to see was Thaebeik Hmauk. There are no vendors outside and when we pulled up there was a family that was dirt poor and looked to be living the hard life. The grandfather seemed a bit kooky, the grandmother and her grandson were teeny and there was a “special” brother who was laying outside on a pillow and appeared to be drunk or just plain wrong in the head. As we approached he yelled MOOOONNNNEEEEY in a very odd fashion. The temple interior and upper levels were gorgeous but the people gave Stacey the creeps and we left after not to long. We quickly visited Sulamani Phato before attempting to find a temple roof to watch our last sunset, we quickly ran up one temple to see the sun descend below the horizon and then rode the buggys into Old Bagan to have dinner.
That night as we packed our bags we were ready to move on to a new location I was still amazed to reflect on what a mystical place Bagan is. All the ancient temples that dot the land, overwhelming in their sheer number, let alone the size and beauty. I really can’t wait to go back and explore some more, there is so much more to see. I would guess you could spend months there and not see it all.