Everywhere you look there is a picture. Really, everywhere. I want a camera in my eyes so that each time I blink I can snap a photo. You wish you could capture what you see but can’t – what you see also has feeling, inspiration, and yearning. You don’t keep snapping away, because even if you had all the gear, the lens you wish you had, the tripod, it wouldn’t be anywhere near the same.
We enter the main road and pass 10+ horse and buggies awaiting business. The horses themselves look like they were ready to retire years ago. Turn right. A long hallway invites you into a pagoda temple at the far end. Go straight. Two women in round straw hats, squat Asian style, while their beautiful white cows feed on the grass. Go through the gate. Monks draped in brick red gowns, some tied down to their waists put plaster onto part of their monastery as they repeat the conversation above with you, except this time there is laughter with every question. Turn left. A neighborhood. Six men in a circle juggling a small ball made out of woven bamboo. A small child runs out of the house to yell “hello!” as you pass by. Her mother, cheeks painted with a pastel yellow paste made from the bark of a Theneke (pronounced Ta-nica) tree, waves at you and smiles. You feel as though you’ve intruded, gone out of the “tourist zone” and into the village; yet all that greats you are smiles and a “Mingalaba” in return.
Straight, then left. More families, houses on stilts, fences that are thatched, some looking stronger than others. A lucky horse whose owner is finished for the day attempts to fatten himself on what little grass there is around him. A small stand selling water and drinks. Several houses entirely thatched and even on stilts. You hope that this rainy season won’t affect these people too badly. Arrive at main road again. Turn right. No, wait for motorbike and bicycle with mother, father, and baby to pass you, then turn right. Temples, pagodas and stupas as far as the eye can see. Some white, some topped with gold, some falling apart, some white, small, square, round, short, and tall.
This is Bagan. An archaeological zone in the middle of the country that is home to more than 1,100 temples. Which means that it would take an incredibly long time to visit each and every one of them. And since we have no plan, no schedule, and aren’t even sure what day of the week it is, we ride on. Past the horse and buggies on the road and the field workers piling their day’s hard work high onto their cart. We stop when we feel like it, knowing that the minute we slow down there will be someone wanting to sell us sand paintings, lacquerware, and other handicrafts. We politely refuse as we remove our shoes and walk into the temple to admire the handiwork, and hardwork, of people who lived here in the 11th century. “New,” pagodas, people say with sincere and non-joking faces, were built in the 18th century. We have no guidebook and no way of knowing much history here, but if Borobudur was a project of generations, Bagan is the project of a lifetime.
** Traveler’s Tip: Arriving by bus, plane, or ferry, all tourists, no matter how evasive, must pay the $10 archaeological fee in perfect U$D. Keep the record card because your guest house will require it for check in. New Park Hotel, $15/night for a double (perfect U$D only) w/breakfast will pick you up at your arrival point for free. Bikes for the day can be rented for 1,500 RY, but check the main road first (not for lower price) but for very cushy bike seats that make ALL the difference.
We don’t have a guide book, but restaurants that advertise as Lonely Planet ‘Best of,’ spots are pretty accurate. In Old Bagan, eat at New Moon for lunch – food, price, people, and travelers, all make it excellent. Be sure to change enough Ryat in bigger cities as the exchange rate in Bagan was 680RY as opposed to the usual 720-780RY.
IMPORTANT: If you wish to take the ferry from Mandalay to Bagan or vice versa be sure to check the schedule in advance. The ferry is dependent on river levels and only departs on certain days. People we met took it from Mandalay down, but it was not available back up. We heard it was beautiful scenery.