When it comes to night buses in Myanmar the whole experience hasn’t been thought through very well. Or, at all. In fact, if you choose to travel in this way be prepared to be dropped off in the middle of nowhere in, literally, the middle of the night. When possible we always travel overnight as, naturally, it’s the cheaper option due to the fact we save on a nights accommodation. Thailand gets it. Laos gets it. Myanmar… is still learning.
We arrived into the Bagan area at 4:30am and were left with our bags at the mercy of close to 20 trishaw drivers – most of whom smelt subtly like they’d come straight from the pub. Our transportation options were: individual trishaws (literally a bicycle with a sidecar) so, you know, pedal power; or a horse drawn carriage – a bit fancy for 4:30 in the morning, non? We reluctantly agreed to the trishaws. Nothing like sitting next to a man who could be your granddad, puffing and panting and struggling to pedal your weight down the road on a gearless bike to make you feel good about your place in the world. But at least you’re giving him a job, right?
And, if this wasn’t bad enough, we employed their services further by getting them to pedal us all the way back (once we’d found a guesthouse and dropped our bags off) so we could watch the sunrise over the valley of temple ruins. The effort proved too much for Angelo’s driver who tag-teamed out with a younger, fitter, and more sober comrade. After spending time in Thailand and Laos and seeing how respectful the people are around temples I was a little shocked to be told I could climb all over the ruins, more so because they were just that – ruins. But, on a mission to get the perfect valley-at-dawn photos I willingly obliged, and not long after was greeted by a moderate number of other eager photographers, perched alongside me on the centuries-old temple seven odd metres above the ground.
Thanks to the clouds, we were treated to a less than spectacular sunrise over the valley, and as it turned out, this would be the only morning that the rain held off while we were here – so it was lucky we came. Nevertheless, the view was fairly impressive. The plains of the valley stretched out as far as the eye could see, and once the sun broke through the clouds the red brick spires caught the rays and lit up, one by one, contrasting to the green farmland that surrounds them. That is, all the temples that hadn’t been part of the military regime’s ‘restoration’ during the 90’s that covered them in gold and plaster effectively rendering them unauthentic and unable to be considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Well done, Junta. You did good.
The valley itself still has remnants of over 2000 temples. At it’s height there were over 13,000 dotted across the land and the city was known far and wide as a religious centre, attracting monks and students from across Asia to study there. As the usual story goes in Asia, someone came and ransacked the place – in this case it was the Mongols – and the city along with it’s inhabitants diminished greatly. Apart from a handful of temples that continued to be frequented, the vast majority fell into disrepair at the hands of time, erosion and natural disasters.
Before hiring bicycles for the day to explore the ruins on our own, we tucked into our (not so hearty, but free – at least) breakfast. Having renounced coffee on my arrival into Thailand due to an unlikely ability to maintain my expensive and quite snobbish habit I was quite excited to see that coffee was extremely popular here in Myanmar. I soon realised though, that the coffee promised was merely sachets of instant – pre-combined and packaged with milk and sugar – whether you like it or not. Urgh. In my head, instant is only for getting through 12 hour shifts at a winery, or visiting my grandparents. But as happens when on budget (or incredibly desperate), such things become a luxury and I soon found myself asking for that little sachet… Somebody slap me!
Sorry, what was I talking about again? Oh right, old temples. Bicycles. Extremely HOT weather.
We thought we’d start with the biggest temple we could see close by. We locked up our bikes, walked to the entrance, and were asked for our ‘Bagan Area Entrance Tickets’. You see, tourists are supposed to pay US$15 on arrival here to gain this entry ticket, and all buses will stop at the ticket office outside town and march the tourists off so they buy this ticket. All buses, that is, except for our one that arrived far before the ticket office was open. As our hotel didn’t ask us to pay it, we simply didn’t – I mean, $30 is a whole day’s budget. Or – if you count like we do – 30 padthais! Outrageous.
As we had just paid for our bus tickets we didn’t have any money on us to buy the ticket at the gate. The soldiers on guard there clearly didn’t believe us and demanded us to pay. I virtually emptied out my bag and wallet to show them I had no money and then his intimidation tactics kicked in. He demanded to know where we were staying, which room, which country we were from and we answered him sheepishly and then left mumbling promises about going back to our hostel to get more money. Bumping into a tourist outside the gate who had been forced to buy the ticket, she told us no-one had asked to see it until now, so we decided to stick to the smaller temples and try our luck at not being caught. Although, that slightly worrying thought that we might get a visit from the military later, kept us on our toes.
Most of the temples were in a pretty bad state, but in a weird way that’s what made them more alluring to me. As there were no pilgrims or tourists poking their heads in at these small, unworthy, temples it almost made me feel like I was the one to discover them. There was no ‘dressing up’ for the tourists. These were simply not impressive enough to warrant a restoration, and frankly, that was their appeal.
There is an incredible red on green colour contrast between the old rusting, weather beaten bricks, and the tremendously lush green of the surrounding agricultural plots. Standing on the back of the plow, a farmer quietly guides his two bullocks around the ruins, using his own weight to dig into, and churn the earth for the next seed sow. A woman, bent double over amongst the vegetation takes a break from harvesting to watch me cycle past. They make a living amongst the ruins.
Others that make a living here are not so humble. We were approached by a young man on a bicycle who wanted to practise his English, we obliged, of course and the conversation quickly turned to how he was a university student and how expensive it is to study in Myanmar. His story further progressed to how he comes home in the holidays and sells his paintings to fund his studies and if would we mind if he showed them to us. Starting off at US$10 for a small one we politely turned down the offer as it was a lot of money for us to spend on a souvenir. Asking us just to point to one that we liked so he could know, we did, and still declined to buy. Things quickly turned sour and he yelled at us for effectively leading him on without any intention of buying. Unfortunately, this sort of attitude towards tourists is what tarnished Bagan’s shine for me. The attitude that we are obliged to buy something from them just because we have more money than them. He even suggested that we skip one meal a day to justify buying from him – we already eat just twice a day to keep it cheaper!
That was about enough sightseeing for us.