No matter how you got here, the best Road from Mandalay is by riverboat.
We left our hotel around 5:00 in the morning and headed down to the Ayeyarwaddy River for our journey to Bagan. It’s certainly not glamorous — no waving throngs bidding you adieu! Matter of fact, we had to walk through a number of boats before we could get to ours. Aung helped us on with the bags, we claimed a row of seats inside and a couple of rattan chairs on deck, and soon we were setting off for the 11-hour journey. (Jim was under the impression that we had booked the “fast” boat, which takes a little over eight hours, but he was sorely mistaken.)
It’s a slow beautiful ride down the river with glimpses into river life: Children running along the riverbank waving, women laying their washed laundry on the banks to dry, old men working the small patches of vegetable gardens. The daylong journey gave us plenty of time to talk, read, sleep, and generally catch our breath after the noise and dust of Mandalay.
This is not a tourist boat, but, rather, local transportation, and the bathrooms are rough by Western standards. Poor Jim was still not feeling well (the Burmese food was getting its revenge for all the mean things he’d been saying about it) and he didn’t get to enjoy the ride. (Another good reason to bring a huge supply of facial tissues everywhere you go!) It’s a long, slow journey for very young children, too, so games and books are critical to everyone’s enjoyment. Yao Yao enjoyed the boat experience — particularly the sunset from on deck, and the little café inside. Actually, it was a bit of a respite for all of us after the bustle of Mandalay.
The scene on arrival in Bagan is like that of a dusty frontier town from a previous century, with donkey- and horse-driven carts vying for passengers and pole position on the dusty race to the various hotels and guesthouses. It was sheer chaos, with everyone meeting and greeting, unloading and loading, and we were happy we had arranged for someone to pick us up and take us to our hotel. Our local guide, Aung, was Yao Yao’s favorite of all our guides on this trip. (Okay, is every man in Myanmar named Aung? We were beginning to think so!) This Aung was very knowledgeable and spoke the best English of all the guides we encountered. He also had a wicked sense of humor.
Bagan (you will also see it spelled Pagan) sits along the banks of the Ayeyarwady River, also spelled Irrawaddy or Irawati. (Hey, Myanmar, pick a spelling and stick with it!) And believe me, nothing prepares you for the splendor of this amazing part of the country.
The arid countryside is filled with stupas, pagodas, temples, and ruins, dating back to as early as the 11th century — thought to be the largest collection of ancient Buddhist structures and ruins in the world. From the 11th to the 13th century, more than 4,000 of these structures were built in the open countryside of Bagan. Often families have their own stupas and tend to them daily. (Owning and caring for a stupa is another way of making merit, and though I thought about it, Jim was not a big supporter!)
Unfortunately, Bagan sits in an earthquake zone. Between the earthquakes, lack of funds to maintain structures, and the centuries of adverse environmental conditions, many of the stupas and temples have become ruins, or are in poor and sometimes crumbling condition. In the 1990s, the military government began the restoration of many of the structures. There has been harsh criticism (in my opinion, richly deserved) by historians, archeologists, and architectural preservationists about the lack of attention to the original structures, material, and style. Because of these poor restoration efforts, Bagan has not been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is a blow to Myanmar, and it has infuriated the military government. Even with all the destruction, more than 2,000 stupas, temples, and pagodas are still standing in Bagan. And they’re not to be missed.
Unfortunately, the mismanagement of this unbelievable treasure continues apace, with the government constructing a paved highway and unsightly watchtower that sticks out like something from outer space. We were told they are building a tourist center in the next few years. It’s akin to putting a Dunkin’ Donuts in Pompeii.
Despite the sketchy restoration of the crumbling stupas, you still get the feeling in Bagan that not everything is cleaned up and sanitized for tourists’ consumption. You can navigate the lovely plains and little towns by bicycle, donkey cart, balloon, or car. (Now where else do you get those kinds of choices?) I am not a big fan of the Balloon Extravaganza — in Africa, where it’s usually on offer, it’s touristy, very expensive, and I am always worried that it scares the animals. But something told me this was going to different.
Boy, am I glad I listened to my inner Oz!
Now, truth be told, my spouse thinks I have a magical way of increasing the cost of any trip. (Patently untrue: I am always willing to eat street food or at a local dive, fly coach, and so on.) There are just a few things I need: A nice hotel and a place where Yao Yao can get away from the fray. (Long gone are the days of a funky hotel with bathrooms down the hall or dim sketchy linens or thin walls.) And I need a fluffy white robe. And I like a pool to refresh myself in. And who among us doesn’t like a massage after bouncing around on a wooden donkey cart all day? (But I digress.)
Anyway, we took another look at the hot air balloon information and Yao Yao, Jim, and I decided to go for it! It’s not cheap — about $1,000 for the three of us — but it was worth every penny. The birds-eye view it provided us of the stunning countryside was priceless. You arrive to the ballooning grounds in World War II-era buses with wooden flooring, you’re served hot tea and butter cookies, and watching the process of heating and filling the balloons is fascinating — and once you’re airborne, the only thing that breaks the silent hush is the hissing of the gas and whoosh of the fires. As we looked down a line of monks began their mindful walks to one of the monasteries. Other than that, there is nothing moving below — and the “skyline” of Old Bagan is simply breathtaking.
Landing is also a ton of fun with lots of drama, shouting, and hoopla, and finally a coveted glass of champagne. Would we go again? You bet.
We got up at 4:30 for an eleven hour boat ride to Bagan. Most of the time I read, ate (surprisingly good food for a boat), and worked on this journal. We were on the boat when the sun went down, it was beautiful. We saw a few farmers and other people, but mostly it was just the green of all the trees and plains (some were more brownish-yellow than green though).
We met our guide named Aung, pronounced Om. I think he was the best of our guides. He took care in his English (our other guides were harder to understand). He also gave the right amount of information. (One of our other guides gave so much info that I was sure my head was going to explode.)
We were in Bagan for four days. We went to the Nyaung Market, Shwezigon Pagoda, Htilominlo Temple, Ayeyarwaddy River, a lacquer workshop, a Burmese festival, the Shwesandaw Pagoda, and many other temples. They all had their own history and/or myths that were really interesting. There were some sights I liked better than others. One I didn’t like was the marketplace, it was partially because I had a bad stomach. There was a really strong smell of horse dung, and it made me want to throw up. Dad and I decided to stay outside the market. (Eventually I did throw up, and it was not pleasant.) I did like the Shwesandaw Pagoda and the balloon ride. The Shwesandaw Pagoda is where we had to climb really narrow, steep, closed in, and tight staircase. I thought it was really fun while my mom and dad didn’t love it, and almost bumped their heads, it was so claustrophobic (for them). We got to climb up more stairs to get to the top of the stupa and watch the beautiful sunset. There were kids with flashlights that shined on the stairs so we didn’t fall or trip. Some people climbed to the very top, which didn’t have stairs. I would’ve done it but Mom obviously said no.
One of the best things we did was take a balloon ride over the temples of Bagan. We had to get up really early (4:45) to get up in the air before sunrise. A special bus came to pick us up. It was very old-fashioned. It was red and white, had a low ceiling, wood floors, and had Balloons Over Bagan stenciled on the top. We got to the field that we were going to take off in, and got tea or coffee and shortbread cookies shaped in hearts. I only ate the shortbread cookies because I don’t like tea or coffee. We sat in directors’ chairs in a circle while the pilots gave us directions. The basket was separated into five sections. One middle strip for the pilot and four other sections for the passengers. It was a tight fit with all the people in each section, and sometimes you couldn’t see on the other side because of the way the sections were set up.
I liked how the crew of the hot air balloon blasted cold air into the balloon (while it was lying on its side) then pulled it upright by blowing fire into the balloon. I loved the sensation of being lifted up into the air, and watching the fire lighting up our balloon. The sight of all of the trees, temples/stupas, fog, and sun made the scene seem almost perfect. Almost. The only problem was that I was kind of squished between mom and the pilot section of the basket.
There was also a ferris wheel at the festival we went to. It was like a normal ferris wheel, with a wheel and axle, lights, and seats. The only difference was the seats didn’t have seat-belts or anything to keep you on but a bar in the middle. Oh, and it was powered by people. Young men would climb up to the top then use their weight to pull the wheel down. They would do this until the wheel started turning on its own. The whole thing was just really unsafe, I would never do it.
The day after that we visited many other temples and stupas. They were all just a little different, but all of them were Buddhist and got our feet really dirty because we had to take off our shoes. (I’m really glad I wore crocs, easy to take on and off.)