Staying in Yangon for a few days was a nice change of pace after essentially racing there from Bangkok. But it wasn’t long until I wanted to get moving again. I had heard that the temple city of Bagan was worth a visit, so I got on a night bus heading that way.
Later I found out that Bagan arguably constituted the root of modern Myanmar around the 12th century. Today, the area houses more than 2,000 pagodas and temples and is quite the sight to behold. Fittingly, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2019.
But during the bus ride, I knew none of that. As is tradition, I neither booked a place to stay in advance nor checked up on the place at all. So, when the bus arrived in Bagan early in the morning, I was lucky that I just happened to have exactly enough cash on me for the culture tax you have to pay (which finances restoration and maintenance), as well as a cab away from the bus station.
It was also lucky that I had started talking to a guy from Chile during the bus ride. He said that he had spent some time in Germany (he understood German, too), working in Berlin’s film industry. More importantly for me at the time, he offered to take me to the hotel he had booked, to see if they still had any vacancies. They did not, but since we got along well, we decided to just make it easy and share a room.
Despite not having slept much on the bus, we just dropped our bags, rented a scooter each, and set out to explore Bagan. The area proved super easy to navigate, and we pretty much saw the entire place in just one day.
Most of Bagan is essentially an open-air museum. You can enter almost every single temple and pagoda there, and you can even climb some of them. The more popular ones feature souvenir markets, too. Open areas are used for agriculture, and a smaller part is where people live, including a small-ish food market and some restaurants (with tea in thermos flasks on every table, of course).
We scootered up and down the place all day, sometimes getting stuck at half-flooded roads, but generally getting through really well. We had lunch at one of the restaurants and enjoyed some tea on the side. In the evening, we climbed one of the temples designated for sunset-viewing, to watch the sunset with hundreds of other people.
The sunset turned out to be underwhelming because it had turned overcast, although the sight of the temples and pagodas everywhere around us was awe-inspiring nonetheless. I also remember talking to a Burmese teenager, who was there with his entire class and told me that he was studying to become a tourist guide. His English was quite good, and he really wanted to take a photo with me. I later sent it to him on Facebook.
After the sunset, we had a beer at a bar next to our hotel and later hung out at the hotel pool where we talked to other travelers. My Chilean friend was a bit annoyed because he had pre-booked a two-night stay at the hotel, but now we had already seen everything in one day.
I asked him where he wanted to go next, and he said that he wanted to head towards Kalaw to go hiking. I said that sounded good and what he would think about joining forces for that, too. We ended up agreeing that I would take the first bus the next day to scout ahead, find a hostel and figure out the hiking, while he would stay in Bagan for his second night and join me a day later.
On the next day, we briefly returned to the sunset-temple from the previous night, to watch the sunrise. Fortunately, our scooter rental was good for 24h. The crowd was much less dense, and instead, we were joined by a friendly dog who had also climbed the temple – so we stayed and watched the sunrise together while listening to the sound of chanting monks in the distance.
Bagan is one of the tourist hotspots in Myanmar and it shows. Not only because of the afore-mentioned culture tax or the soon-to-be tourist guide. The hotels are different, too – very modern-looking, but full of Burmese art and imagery. I mention this because now it was time for breakfast back at the hotel.
To this day, I remember this breakfast as one of the best ones I had ever had up until that point. Perhaps I was just too used to eating the cheapest food I could find, but they would prepare eggs to order, had a massive selection of vegetables, fruit, and even bread, and I ate so much I could hardly walk after. We also met some people to have breakfast with. If I remember correctly, one was from the US, another one from Singapore and one from Malaysia – not entirely sure anymore, though.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to walk much, because I just went to grab my bag, returned to the bus station, and set off towards Kalaw. It was going to be a worthy conclusion to my Burma adventure!