French Marion suggested that we stop in Bagan for my 30th birthday and I was more than thrilled. Bagan is an area famous for its stunning temple-blanketed plains. It has been a dream of mine to visit the area for about a decade after I came across a picture of the temples while fantasizing about exotic future adventures.
We took a boat ride southwest to Bagan from Mandalay early in the morning. I thought it was going to be a four-hour ride, and was startled when ten hours later we finally pulled up to the port. We got off of the boat with a simple two-logged plank to a shore full of eager taxi drivers.
After much haggling, we got ourselves into a cab and drove to our hotel in New Bagan (as an FYI, New Bagan is the new settlement for the people who formerly lived in Old Bagan, where the main temples are, and were booted out by the government for preservation purposes). On our way to the hotel, we were already impressed with the spiky horizon riddled with stupas….and we weren’t even going through the Old Bagan area.
Bagan definitely lived up to what I had hoped for; for a few days, Marion and I were awe-inspired as we wandered, gazing at hundreds (thousands?) of beautifully old temples. The golden sandy ground complemented the majestic sights only more.
I was surprised that we seemed to be permitted to climb up and sit on top of most temples we visited. Throughout our visit, we would enter barefoot through the dusty archways of each temple and be greeted by a temple keeper who invited us up a small hidden staircase up to the top of the structure. I am not exactly sure how (or why) we are allowed to use the temples as our own personal jungle gyms when they have claimed efforts towards preservation. In any case, it gave us some impressive views.
People and guidebooks warned about hoards of tourists showing up in Bagan, but usually, it felt like we were the only people in the area, save a handful of other francophones roaming a ruin here or there. Only one night did we end up with all of the other tourists, and that was during a full moon sunset on top of a temple with the most photogenic skyline imaginable. We had arrived at the temple and saw the top edge of the temple completely lined with tripods. It was the only time there I genuinely felt claustrophobic and anxious about being on a roof with too many people.
In New Bagan, there was not much more to report other than we slept and had a few meals there. It was a dusty town geared towards tourists in some places and recent resettlement in others. We ate passable French food. It was hard to get around the area at night because street lights have not really been introduced yet, so our dinner adventures included stumbling in the dusty darkness with a flashlight towards better-lit restaurants.
My birthday included walking through (and climbing) an uncountable amount of temples as we explored the Old Bagan area. In the evening, we socialized with a young Burmese man who was extremely dedicated to selling us paintings. We had a deal – he had to show us his favorite sunset spot in the area in exchange for a few art sales to us. The area has more art peddlers than tourists by a lot (everyone you meet wants to sell you something in this country), but we agreed and were pleasantly surprised to find the guy’s sunset spot was a genuinely great experience. He also answered some of my questions about the country five years ago, before the borders were opened; he asked us some very amusing questions about the romantic lives of westerners.
We ended my birthday with a traditional marionette puppet show at our hotel, and I drank far too many Shirley Temples and felt a sugar high for hours. The puppet show was fun – the puppeteers manipulated a slew of strings and made the puppets seem alive and dancing, even if we don’t actually know what the storyline was about. After the show, they allowed us to try out the puppets for ourselves, where we discovered that we would never get far in the world of puppetry.
The next day we rented a moped so we could speed around the temples faster and get to a nearby temple for sunrise early without hassle (there are not a lot of cabs there). In the dark, we fumbled through the old staircases of a quiet temple off the road and found ourselves sharing the sunrise with a handful of other people on the top of the tower. The sunrise was nice, as the morning mist laced through the temples below. What really made the experience memorable, though, was when 21 hot air balloons slowly rose into the air in the distance and made their way through the temple plains towards us. They bobbed up and down until they glided over our heads and our temple’s top, making their way to a plain further south. I cannot full express how lovely the experience was.
The rest of the day included endless more temples; a lot of the temples we saw were interesting outside, but inside had magnificent and intricate thousand-year-old paintings scattered on the walls and ceilings. I think I will not need to see a temple for a long time after this trip because we saw so many awesome ancient temples. We also discovered that mopeds in the sandy terrain are horrible; we continuously (and infuriatingly) got stuck or lost control in a pit of sand, and would have to slowly make our way to a more stable road.
I took our last day in Bagan to rest, feeling a bit templed-out and needing to work some on my research. Then, we hopped into a little plane and made our way to the big tourist area called Inle Lake.