Day 3: Bagan is a small UNESCO heritage district spread over 42 sq km. The ruins of about 2200 temples, stupas, and monasteries (originally over 4000 but many destroyed in an earthquake a few years ago) dot this small area, described by the ancient explorer Marco Polo as one of the finest sights in the world. Bagan city is now full of resorts and lodges owned by rich hoteliers and military generals and the real estate prices are as high as in Tokyo. A small plot of land - 80 ft x 60 ft can cost 1 million USD. A used car until a few years ago cost over 100,000 USD!! (this information courtesy our guide Ko).
We arrived in Bagan in a small plane, landing at a tiny airport where there is still no luggage belt and they hand over your checked baggage to you in person. Our guide Ko, who never learnt English formally, is one of the most articulate people I have ever met who can jabber nonstop for hours using an extensive vocabulary. He picked up the language from tourists because the city has had intrepid travellers showing up to explore the temple ruins ever since he can remember. Many of them have stayed on and some of them now pilot the hot air balloons that stud Bagan’s morning skies. We’ve seen plenty of European tourists since we got here but hardly any Americans, and definitely not Indians. A few people I met in Yangon were of Indian origin from Canada and the UK, but none from India itself.
Ko took us to a festival taking place at the famous Ananda temple where hundreds of monks were lining up to receive donations from the sea of pilgrims that had shown up from all over the country. Offering donations to monks is supposed to earn good karma. Many of the novice monks were very young, some only four years old! They are usually orphans from the war, we learnt, who are sent by the people to the monasteries so they can be properly clothed and fed.
Our hotel is a lovely lodge and all guests are housed in private villas. I really like ours except for the big tree with hammocks outside that has several locally made puppets hanging from the branches. A little creepy?
The afternoon was spent exploring temple ruins on a horse cart (like an Indian tonga) because cars cannot travel on many of the dirt tracks between the ruins. We were surprised that Bagan hasn’t been used by Hollywood to make an Indiana Jones kind of adventure movie as yet. The setting is so perfect!
And finally we arrived at a sunset point with an almost ethereal dreamlike view of the temples. Got some good photos.
Dinner was at a vegetarian restaurant called The Moon. It was nice but I’m still looking for that authentic Burmese food experience.
The next day was incredible. This is what I wrote in my diary: Another way of viewing the temples of Bagan is to lift off, literally. Wake up at an unearthly hour. Get picked up by a rattling bus that takes you on a bumpy ride to the golf course from where hot air balloons are launched. Drink coffee in the dark with strangers from all over the world who will soon be sharing a huge basket with you....while your balloon is inflated. Clamber aboard and lift off for the adventure of a lifetime.
Day 4: After the hot air balloon adventure, it was nice to do something as basic and earthy as walking in the Bagan vegetable market and watching the locals haggling over prices. The vendors still use stones of different sizes and old batteries to weigh the produce instead of the kilo iron weights. I committed a faux pax by striking a bargain over a pair of bamboo slippers for 5000 kyat and then backing out of the deal. Our guide had to defuse the situation by pacifying the angry vendor. We stopped at the “paan” shop on the way out for M to try the betel leaf.
Next, a visit to another tea shop. Beginning to love these relaxed stops where the guides get out of guide mode and let their hair down - talk about their families, the state of affairs in the country, Chinese tourists, and a whole host of other things. Burmese tea, black with condensed milk, is not exactly to my liking but luckily they serve lots of complimentary green tea along with it too. No one rushes you, you can chill for however long you like at your table and sometimes people at the adjoining tables spontaneously join the conversation. There is a lot of curiosity about us as Indian tourists because we don’t quite fit the mould of the European, South American and Chinese tourists they are used to seeing. They are thrilled to see us, super friendly and welcoming, and grateful for the help extended by India on projects such as the restoration of old temples. This is a welcome change from how Indian tourists are stereotyped and treated in most countries. Here, it is the Chinese who suffer from the stereotyping.
Lunch was in the compound of a village home, overlooking temple ruins. Simple meal of chicken and gourd curry, and some braised eggplant, with steamed rice. Accompanied by a lemon, honey and ginger drink.
Saw another hoarding supporting Aung San Suu Kyi. She is referred to simply as “the lady” by most people.
The evening was spent doing a sunset cruise down the Irrawaddy river. The souvenir sellers on the beach were all kids, ranging in age from 6 to 15. Loved their confidence in dealing with tourists...one boy had made a business out of asking tourists for their currency, as souvenirs for himself. He later exchanged the money he had collected for kyats to other tourists he met from the same countries. We were totally floored by his street smarts!!
Dinner was again at The Moon, a vegetarian restaurant. Loved the pineapple curry in coconut milk and the tamarind leaf salad. Plan to try out the tea leaves salad another time, a local favourite. Heading to Mandalay next.
So beautifully written! Loved reading this and the photographs too.????