Now. Leaving Sittwe was like rejoining the real world. This feeling started basically as soon as we got on the airplane, where there were copies of the Global New Light of Myanmar so we could catch up on what happened in our absence. After taking a break to catch up with the internet at the Yangon airport, we went to the Yangon bus depot to catch our overnight bus to Bagan.
If we had done better planning, we probably would have reserved flights from Yangon to Bagan. But: we did basically no planning for this trip! So all the flights to Bagan were gone by the time we could figure out how to reserve flights. Everyone said good things about the bus; still, we figured that a nine-hour bus ride would basically be terrible. This was kind of the case, as it was a nine-hour bus ride. However: the buses in Myanmar are fancy. They have three seats a row and everything is spaced out so you can recline your seat all the way back. Everyone gets blankets and pillows and toiletry kits. Two hours after the bus left at eight, it stopped for dinner, which we didn’t want; after that, we were all given cans of Coca-Cola and mooncakes. Until well after midnight, Burmese music videos were quietly playing on the enormous screen behind the driver. There are elements of this that seemed not particularly well-thought-out, but it was all well-intentioned. So we arrived at Nyaung U, the town next to Bagan, at five in the morning; a thirty-minute taxi ride later, we were at our hotel, which helpfully let us check in very early. Kim had a nap; Harriet and I went to wander around the pagodas in the dark.
We had done basically no reading about Bagan before we arrived there, and wandering around just before dawn was one of the most pleasantly surprising experiences of the trip. Right across the street from our hotel were a couple of pagodas; by the time we came back to the hotel for breakfast, around seven, we’d probably visited about twenty of them. There are a lot of pagodas in Bagan, and seeing them with only a flashlight (or a phone serving as such) and no one else around is kind of fantastic. My phone functions abysmally in low light, but here are some pictures:
Just before seven, an enormous number of hot air balloons took off to the north of us:
Then we went back to have breakfast and eventually to wake up Kim who was still happily sleeping off the bus ride: Harriet had yet to learn that if you don’t sleep in your own seat in the bus you will be eaten by the Ghost Pig. Harriet was excited because we hired another horse cart to take us around. And so we set off to wander around Bagan.
Bagan is full of pagodas: there are somewhere over 1300 in the area, and when you’re up high the horizon is full of them. What one doesn’t immediately realize is that the vast majority of the pagodas are not actually ancient: they’ve been reconstructed in the last twenty years. Bagan certainly used to have a lot of pagodas; but as they were made of brick, the vast majority didn’t survive a thousand years. So it’s full of ruins of pagodas; and anywhere that ruins of a pagoda was found, a pagoda was reconstructed, according to the architectural whims of whoever was reconstructing it. There are a couple of reasons for this: first, the pagodas are part of an ongoing religious tradition, and building (or reconstructing) a pagoda gains merit for the builders. Most of the pagodas are functioning religious structures with a Buddha image. Another reason for the reconstruction is that it’s a tourist attraction: people want to see pagodas, and the Burmese are happy to comply. There’s also an element of national pride. It ends up feeling – in a way that Mrauk U had entirely failed to prepare us for – a bit like Disneyland.
The other thing that’s different about Bagan is that it’s full of tourists, much more so than any other part of Myanmar that we visited. There’s a whole tourism infrastructure: souvenirs, restaurants, even very mild-mannered touts who guide you among the ruins before trying meekly to sell you their paintings. It’s not overwhelming, but it is very different.
There are a handful of major pagodas that are “authentic,” whatever that means in the context of Bagan: in all of them, it can be difficult to tell what’s original and what’s reconstruction.
It is clear that the profusion of forms was there from the beginning.
It is extremely pleasant having dinner on the banks of the Irawaddy:
Our second day in Bagan we went off to Mt. Popa, but I’ll maybe write something separate about that because that would be confusing here. Our horse-cart driver tried to hard-sell us on more horse-carting (this is something else that would not have happened in Mrauk U where the horse-cart driver seemed rather shocked that someone wanted a horse-cart and probably did something else most of the time) but we declined and decided that we would do what everyone else in Bagan was doing, which was to ride electric bicycles. These do not exist in Mrauk U because the electricity isn’t quite developed enough; but they are everywhere in Bagan. They don’t go very fast; there’s a seat in the back with handles and Harriet wanted to try it. So we let her. An action shot:
They are ridiculous vehicles. I should have said something about my foot-troubles. So we went to the terrible beach at Sittwe, and I ended up carrying Harriet most of the way back to town. But I managed to get a lot of sharp sand between the terrible pair of flip-flops I’d bought just before leaving Bangkok – my good pair had unexpectedly broken & I bought an emergency pair on the street – but as these were poorly designed flip-flops, water made the fabric straps rub the sand into the top part of my feet creating enormous blisters. Then! on top of that I was stung by some sort of ant-bee on the bottom of one of my feet. Here is what happened. We were taken to the ruins of the one Hindu temple in Bagan, which was reasonably interesting but which was populated by some extremely involved touts who wanted to show us everything including where to get the best pictures. It was, really, a bit too much. The one thing they noted before we went into the temple was “watch out for the bees” as there were some kind of bees seemingly living on the floor of the temple near the entrance. They looked rather like termites, and I thought there might have been some sort of translation issue, but no, they stung me on one of my toes on the way out, and the touts agreed that they were bees. The reason I was stingable was because, of course, you have to take shoes off before going into a pagoda; because of my flip-flop woes, I was wearing regular shoes, which are basically terrible for that as you’re constantly taking them on and off. Had there not been touts guarding the temple, I would probably have been irreligious, worn my shoes, and not been stung. But no. You might also think that if the touts were so devoted to having people visit their temple they might move the bees out (or even quietly kill them) rather than having to constantly warn people of the danger of bees. So my toes swelled up and the blisters on the top part of my feet popped and it was a good thing that Bagan was so dusty because the dirt disguised how unfit for human sight my feet were. But new sandals seemed like the best option and so I bought a part of new sandals ($5, I think) that fit slightly differently and everything was much better in the world of my feet.
But then! We took our electric bicycles and went to the Bagan Archaeological Museum, which is kind of fantastic even though it doesn’t allow photographs inside:
(That fountain shows one of the kings of Bagan who saved the city from six deadly animals, one of which was a flying squirrel, which you can see rearing up on the right, and another of which was a wild boar, which seems reasonable, but then between them one of the other deadly animals was a gourd. I don’t understand, but that’s what it said.) Back to shoe trouble. No sooner had we arrived at the Archaeological Museum on our fine electric bicycles than one of my new sandals broke. It was a disaster. In the pagodas, it might not have mattered if I didn’t have shoes, but the museum could possibly have been the one building in Bagan that required shoes. So I attempted to fix my shoe with one of the rubber bands Harriet was using as a hair fastener; but disaster struck again, and the rubber band went flying into a grate. We spent a while with sticks trying to get the rubber band out of the grate; a workman came over and indicated that he could, with great exertion, pull up all of the grating. But we thought that we were looking too dumb even for tourists and we told him no. Kim went off to see if she could find me shoes & I wandered around the museum gardens while all the school children of Myanmar felt sorry for me as I only had one shoe. Things did turn around though! Kim came back with a new pair of flip-flops ($6 model) and they fit perfectly and they are still working.
So we wandered through the museum, which you should visit if you are ever in the vicinity and you have shoes. Then we took our electric bicycles and went all over the place, looking at the major pagodas that we hadn’t seen. You can’t possibly see all the pagodas at Bagan, which is kind of reassuring. Harriet made friends with the local youth:
And we saw a dizzying array of pagodas old, new, or both:
When we got to the last pagoda, an immense structure not particularly close to anything, one of the electric bicycles started to give out; with some coaxing, I could make it go about half the time, but the battery was clearly dying. What you’re supposed to be able to do with an electric bicycle is to peddle if the battery is dead; however, some previous used had clearly ran into something and bent one of the peddles to the point of unusability. So I ended up pushing the bike most of the way back to the hotel, when there weren’t hills to coast down. We did make it back in time to catch our bus back to Yangon.
But that’s enough about Bagan. I have so many bad pictures of pagodas. Count yourself lucky I didn’t put more in here. What am I going to do with so many bad pictures of pagodas?