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South-East Asia

Travel Report: Bagan, Myanmar

by Soe Irwin

Bagan is one of Myanmar’s main archeological sites and a key attraction in Central Myanmar. It was the capital of the first Myanmar Empire, and the place where Theravada Buddhism was first endorsed and promulgated by the Burmese Kings. There are thousands of ancient pagodas or stupas of various sizes scattered across the plain.

When we knew we were going to be travelling from Yangon to Mandalay, we decided to take a detour through Bagan. Not knowing the area, we asked MandalayTours4U for help.They organized accommodation and local transport, and we arranged the bus to and from Bagan.

Travel

There are a number of bus companies that leave from Aung Mingalar, Yangon’s northern bus station, for Bagan. As it is a less frequented route, the buses are not quite as nice as the ones on the Yangon to Mandalay route. All the same, they were quite adequate. When booking a bus from Yangon it pays to book in advance, especially if you want a particular seat.Don’t be confused by the signage which seems to indicate there is a bus stop at Naung-U and then Bagan – there is in fact only one bus stop for both locations.

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There are only three bus companies that run from Bagan to Mandalay. There were a variety of departure times, but if you want an air-conditioned bus, they leave either very early or very late. One bus company seemed to have the best reputation so we decided on their night bus. Travelling at night would also save us one night of hotel costs. Buying a ticket was not a problem as the bus was only half full. However, while it was supposed to be an air-conditioned bus it was not at all cool, and the level of service was minimal. If travelling with children, you may find you are expected to provide for them. For instance, on this bus, only adults were provided with bottles of water.

Accomodation

We stayed at a hotel that seemed to have a bit of an identity crises. It is variously called Bagan Umbra or Golden Express depending on where you looked. Rooms were clean, tidy and adequate with air-conditioning and hot water. They didn’t have any family rooms, so we ended up with two rooms and a better sleep.

While they advertise a swimming pool, we found it was much greener than most foreigners would like to swim in.

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Breakfast, when the weather is fine, is served outdoors, and there is a wide choice of traditional Myanmar and Western food. They have two water coolers which visitors can use to refill water bottles.

The hotel was situated right on the outskirts of Naung-U, as close to old Bagan as you can get. Near the hotel there were affordable restaurants, horse carts and a little further towards Naung-U were various craft shops.

What to see

MandalyTours4U had arranged a horse cart to meet us at the bus. We used it for our whole time there as the driver was friendly and reliable, and also flexible when we changed our plans. He also helped us to arrange a trip to Mount Popa.

A good part of each day was spent exploring the many pagodas. There are all sorts of sizes and of differing age and architecture. Some are very popular; others have few visitors. We spent our evenings trying to photograph and draw the Bagan sunset. However, the weather was not on our side this time, the sun disappearing into the clouds. There is of course a degree of luck in any choice of dates. The most popular sight for watching the sunset was from Shwesandaw Pagoda ($10 Archeological zone ticket required). However, views from Nan Myint Tower (nearer Naung-U) (K5000 entrance fee) or Shwekunchar Pagoda (on the bank of the river beside Old Bagan) were also impressive.

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As well as the pagodas, there are a few other things to see. There is a replica royal palace as well as the original palace ruins in Old Bagan. Crafts include lacquer ware, umbrellas, paintings, wood carving and replicas of antique paraphernalia.

We visited at the start of July. There was cloud cover and a little rain on the first day so the temperatures were not too hot.

Local crafts

Bagan is known for its lacquer ware. There are a number of shops and stalls selling it, and in some places you can even watch the workers making the various products. We did notice however that prices (at the places we went to) seemed to be very high and aimed at the tourist market. You should be able to find similar products cheaper at somewhere like Maha Myat MuniPagoda in Mandalay or even at Boygoke Market in Yangon.

At every pagoda there are sellers of ‘sand paintings’ and ‘antiques’. At the first pagoda we visited, we were convinced by the seller’s tale that the paintings were his deceased father’s original unique designs. At every pagoda thereafter we saw identical ‘unique’ paintings. Be cautious of ‘antiques’. If buying a genuine antique, make sure you are familiar with both the Myanmar customs regulations, and your own country’s regulations

We often found at pagodas, that some friendly local would sidle up to us and give an explanation of what we saw. They always turned out to be a local stall holder who would want us to buy something before we left. These people were always courteous and we often bought something small from them. The exception was at Shwezigone Pagoda where we were accosted by a small group of ladies who insisted we buy from them, even grabbing our arms, or taking our things to prevent us leaving without a purchase.

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Tips

If you go as a family, don’t overestimate how much you can get done. Take a rest in the heat of the day, and vary your activities. Have a go on a horse cart, hire bikes, take a boat trip, visit craft shops. Take a half day off to visit Mt Popa, and the Toddy/Palm Sugar stalls.

The sun is hot, and the air is dry. Ensure you drink plenty of water, and use an umbrella or sunscreen. Especially, make sure the kids are protected. If you’re sick of water, try some fruit juice. However, some of the tropical fruit juices are what Asian’s term ‘heaty’ and are not as refreshing. We find one of the best options is fresh lime juice with some sugar and sometimes a bit of salt (to help with rehydration) – give it a try, it is way better than the artificial lime flavor back home.

Take a camera – and make sure you’re familiar with its controls. You may want a tripod for taking photos inside darkened pagodas (flash shouldn’t be used). Bagan is famous for its sunsets, so be sure to know how to capture them with your camera.

Start early in the day before it gets hot!

For more from Soe’s exceptional blog go to www.mandalaytours4u.com/travel-articles.html