Ancient city of kings

Trip Start May 01, 2010
Trip End Apr 30, 2011

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Where I stayed
Aung Kaday

Flag of Myanmar  , Mandalay,
Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Bagan is a wondrous 26 square mile plain filled with over 2000 ancient temples, flanked on one side by the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) river. To get here, we took a bus from Hsipaw to Mandalay which was adequately comfortable, followed by a bus from Mandalay to Bagan which was 7 hours of hell! There was enough leg room for a dwarf and the supposed air-con was barely noticeable as we sat squished in a puddle of sweat along very bumpy roads. At least we had seats and weren’t one of the people sitting in the aisle.

We chose the Aung Kaday Hotel on recommendation from a member of staff at the hotel in Mandalay who said it was $18 and included a swimming pool. We thought this sounded too good to be true especially when we arrived at a lovely looking place that looked well over our budget. We mentioned the recommendation to the receptionist expecting her to say that it was double the price and so were more than pleased when she agreed to $18. After the bus journey, an evening spent wallowing around in a palm fringed pool complete with mini waterfall was gorgeous.

We wanted to make the most of the early morning light and cool temperatures so woke early and hired a horse and cart for the day to show us around some of the many temples. The horse looked well fed and looked after and our driver, although he spoke no English, knew the area intimately. With the sun already blazing hot by 9am, the shaded, breezy cart was the perfect way to get around.

Bagan is one of Burma’s main draws and it is easy to see why. It rivals Angkor Wat, Machu Picchu and the Pyramids in terms of scale and wow factor yet so few people have heard of it. Built by kings who brought Theravada Buddhism to the area, the temples date from 1057 to 1287, when the area was overrun by Kublai Khan. Considering their age and the fact that a huge earthquake destroyed many temples in 1975, the remaining structures are well preserved, helped by an ongoing effort by Unesco to restore damaged buildings. Most of the temples are built of dark red brick and the large ones are topped with golden pinnacles. Parts are also covered in stone, elaborately carved into Buddhist, Hindu and local Nat (spirit) images. The temples vary in size from small stupas to massive temples which tower over the plain below. The bigger temples attract small groups of tourists but we discovered many smaller, quieter ones hidden away among overgrown vegetation, which had a definite aura of mystery about them. Visitors are allowed to climb on some of the larger ones, providing amazing views all around, especially in the golden light of dusk and dawn. Inside each temple are enormous golden or stone Buddhas. Some also contain original wall paintings which, though faded, still show images of Buddhas, animals and so on. Next to one of the temples, stood a four-sided stone pillar with inscriptions in four different languages – Pyu, Mon, Old Burmese and Pali.

The only negative thing about Bagan is the huge number of very persistent hawkers who sit outside each temple trying to sell you paintings and laquerware, or children who insist on guiding you around (‘beautiful lady what is your name, where you fro’?’) for a fee. The average wage in Burma is tiny and they are trying to earn enough to just about get by but after a while it becomes very tiring and guilt inducing to keep saying no, although we did cave in a few times. We also chatted to lots of Burmese people who are very interested in you and where you come from and of course the political situation in their country.

After such a busy first day, we decided to take it easy the next day, venturing out only at dawn and dusk on bicycles, spending the sweltering middle part of the day in the pool. I also treated myself to a traditional Burmese massage which was an experience with the girl walking up and down on my back and manoeuvring me into all sorts of weird positions as she pummelled me with her hands and feet!

After our nightmare journey to Bagan, we decided to shell out a bit on a flight to our next destination, Inle Lake. I am scared of flying but even a small prop plane had to be better than the dreaded bus. Well we have arrived in Inle Lake safe and sound with just a few small yelps from me!

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