Bagan: Brand New Old Pagodas

After 3 days of hiking our first long-distance bus ride in Myanmar was scheduled. Well shaken we eventually reached one of the most celebrated tourist attractions of Myanmar: the ancient city of Bagan, the city of thousands of pagodas. We were getting really anxious to finally see the pagodas, however we had to go through one thing first, before we were allowed to see that constructions originally from the 11th through 13th centuries: pay 15 US$ entrance fee to the archeological site. Following a lengthy search for accommodation, we could enjoy the beautiful sites from close up the next day. Once again it was interesting to observe how differently visitors approach such site: while we chose to explore by bicycle, others opted for the more convenient e-bike or horse cart and yet others let themselves drive in large air-conditioned tour buses to the biggest pagodas and miss all the rest.

Since the bus was only due to leave Kalaw at 9am, Lenka and I decided to hit the market beforehand just fill-up our reserves on food and drinks for the next day. At a quarter to nine, we sat in front of the office where we had bought the bus tickets to spend the next almost one and a half hours waiting there for the bus. Finally the bus arrived just after ten and we took our seats in the last two rows in the bus. We were curious how the bus ride would, since we had read a lot about very bumpy and winded roads. First we saw no issue, however once outside of Kalaw we realized why they had attached a small brown bag to each of the seats. It didn’t take long until the first people had to make use of these bags… apparently they weren’t riding the bus often and so were not used to the rocking motions.

Morning mist in Bagan

Morning mist in Bagan

After an extended lunch break somewhere in central Myanmar and a second stop about an hour before reaching Nyaung Oo, we eventually arrived there in the late afternoon. While Sibylle and Klemens had already booked their hotel, we had yet to find a place to sleep. Since their hotel was conveniently located, we decided to try to find a place to sleep there. Unfortunately the hotel was fully booked so we started roaming the streets of Nyaung Oo to find a bed. Apparently most of the individual travelers reach Bagan in the early morning taking the overnight bus, all the guesthouses and hotels were fully booked. Lenka came up with the idea to ask for a room the following two nights first, which was successful at the first place we asked. So we just had to solve the problem of finding accommodation for our first night in Bagan. Eventually we ended up at the Aung Mingalar Hotel again and the hotel manager was kind enough to gives us one room of a late arriving group which had reserved three rooms. He hadn’t heard from them, so he did not expect them anymore. Later we learned where stranded travelers typically find a place to sleep, even if everything is sold out: the lobby of the many guesthouses and hotels.
Convenient mode of transport around Bagan: Bicycles

Convenient mode of transport around Bagan: Bicycles

The next morning we already left the hotel at 7am on bicycle to experience the pagodas of Bagan in the morning mist. On shaky and way too small bikes we made our way through the sandy paths of Bagan. Fortunately we didn’t have to push our bikes too often during the day, the paths were rather hard and provided a decent ground for cycling. We roughly followed what was considered the must-see pagodas with detours in between to discover more than just the main sites. This way we found two pagodas which could be climbed and where people had already been enjoying the sunrise. It was an amazing sight from above onto the plain of Bagan.
Counting donated money in Bagan

Counting donated money in Bagan


The amazing view from the pagodas has to be earned hard...

The amazing view from the pagodas has to be earned hard…

As expected the huge plain of Bagan is dotted with pagodas large and small, filled in with fields and palm trees in between. Very soon we realized why the site was not part of the UNESCO world heritage sites though: all the pagodas were heavily restored, none of the over-grown and sometimes destroyed pagodas we expected. Almost every piece of weed had been removed and the pagodas were reconstructed using red bricks. Mind you, the site still is amazing to see, however it is not as wild as one hears from other sites around Southe-East Asia.
Common mode of transport in Bagan: horse carriage

Common mode of transport in Bagan: horse carriage

We reached the turning point of our bicycle tour at the Manuha Pagoda in New Bagan. After we had seen many, many painters selling the same motives on their art work over and over again, one painter actually had quite a different painting to offer, The background was made of gold sand (or at least so it seemed) and he had a beautiful scene of Bagan depicted. Once I had started to negotiate the price, I knew that I was going to buy my second souvenir of Myanmar after the little Golden pagoda we had bought in Yangon.
Bagan in the hot sun...

Bagan in the hot sun…


Bagan during the afternoon

Bagan during the afternoon

The sun in the meantime got so strong that we decided to opt for a siesta instead of cycling. We found a restaurant which offered a small selection of local food and lots of tea. A great opportunity to re-fill our water reserves… While we spent the morning mostly far away from the large tourist magnets, we hit a few of them in the afternoon in Old Bagan. Traders of course also became much more insistent, like for example the one family of which we first had to deal with the father, followed by the mother and finally it was their young son warning us in German to watch our heads around the pagoda.
Bagan in the late afternoon

Bagan in the late afternoon

We had decided that we wanted to wait for the sunset on the same pagoda where we had enjoyed our first view across Bagan. Unfortunately we had to realize that the sun would set right behind the pagoda in front of ours, so we reluctantly chose to put on our shoes one more time before taking them off to climb the other pagoda. It was interesting to observe the mix of people from all around the world on the pagoda waiting for the sunrise. Finally everyone had their eyes fixed on the beautiful sunset behind the pagodas of Bagan.
Golden Buddha status in Old Bagan

Golden Buddha status in Old Bagan


Buddha statue in one of the pagodas of Bagan

Buddha statue in one of the pagodas of Bagan

Since we had seen our share of pagodas in Bagan we decided to spend the next day to discover the monastery of Mt. Popa, about a 90-minute drive from Nyuang Oo. However the drive was extended due to the fact that the driver of our shared taxi had to pick up a few more tourists in New Bagan, so it was almost a full hour until we left the touristic area for Mt. Popa. Of course the driver also had to stop for us to see how the locals produced various products from coconuts and peanuts. While there was little to see, there were a few things to buy… On the hike up to the monastery we learned that the monkeys were not quite as aggressive as our various sources had described. Partially this was due to the locals who kept feeding and chasing the monkeys away. Since the monkeys however made quite a mess on the stairs leading up to the monastery, every so often there was a person cleaning the stairs, or more correctly pretending to be cleaning the stairs, as they started wiping the two steps around them whenever someone approached. Of course they were also asking for small donations. While we considered the monastery to be interesting we were also interested in what it looked like from below. Since the building with the Golden roof was set high on a cone of volcanic rook, it made a rather curious sight. We walked below the monastery and into a pagoda forest. When we decided to return to our shared taxi at the appointed time, the resident monk wanted to show us a sacred statue and most likely also ask for a donation. Since we were a little bit short on time, we had a good excuse and went on back to our meeting point.
Posing in front of the Mt. Popa monastery

Posing in front of the Mt. Popa monastery

Back in Nyaung Oo we first headed to the bus station to organize a couple of tickets to Monywa for the next morning. The town lies about 4 hours by bus North of Bagan on the river Chindwin. After asking around we got two tickets for the bus at 8:30am the next morning and headed on to the Shwezigon Pagoda. The idea was to have another experience of a Golden pagoda during and after sunset. Since all the other tourist were sitting on other pagodas around Bagan, Shwezigon was very quiet and besides a few locals and a couple of other tourists we were the only ones.
Shwezigon Paya in Nyaung Oo after sunset

Shwezigon Paya in Nyaung Oo after sunset

The dinner that night was another nice surprise. We had been looking for a restaurant which looked more local than most of the polished place obviously catering to tourists only. We found a nice place just off the main road and ordered fish- and chicken-curry. We were surprised to get only a couple of pieces of each, however were served an additional 10 dishes of vegetables and a large pot of rice. Including tea for Lenka and Myanmar beer for myself we spent just over 4 dollars on the meal!
Back in our room at the guesthouse, we prepared our backpacks for the next morning, such that we didn’t have to run to the bus station in order to catch the bus to Monywa…