Thursday, 29 December 2016

Sunset no.1, Sunrise no.1, kids and Temples-galore!

Bagan, oh sweet Bagan. I loved this place and it will hold a special place in my heart, I think this plus my trekking will always be the highlights of Myanmar.

We (me and Cat) arrived at 1pm after a bumpy, packed minibus ride, trying some more snack foods at the stop-off like quails eggs and chili mango.

So Bagan is different to other places and because it is a heritage area, it has 3 main townships around the archaeological zone/plains. Every tourist upon entering the main township of Nyaung-U (pronounced Nung-oo) has to pay a 25,000 kyat fee ($20) for 5 days to be able to access the area. There is no way around it unless someone from outside the area gives you their card which isn't out of date, and you just say you left and came back. But they can still make you pay again. It's supposed to be going towards UNESCO to maintain the area, but no-one knows where it actually goes with the government of Myanmar, but hey-ho, you have to pay so cough up!

So Cat was staying in New Bagan, which is a new township created when the government decided to kick out all the residents from around the old bagan area. It has less character but it's where all the mid-range guesthouses/hostels are. Old Bagan, is where most of the main temples are by the river, but also makes way for the exclusive, expensive resorts, as it's the gateway to most of the temples and close to the central plains. I was staying just outside of Nyaung-U, which was the main centre, for all the transport, markets and local life, close to the central plains, plus had the famous Restaurant Street which was like a non-nightlife version of Pub Street in Siem Reap, Cambodia. It was around a 20min e-bike or taxi ride away from Cat, but we made plans to stay in contact - I would use her for the social aspect of her hostel and she would use me for the lazy days at the pool! Yes, for $20 a night, I had a 5-bed dorm in a 4* hotel, Royal Hotel Bagan, with a swimming pool and a buffet all-you-can-eat breakfast - score! I would definitely recommend it, for the amazing staff alone. Ostello bello where Cat was staying, wanted $44 a night for a 4-bed dorm or $36 for a 6-bed dorm, no pool!

The first day was settling in, I had lunch at a cute little restaurant next door where I struck up a little friendship with the staff and went back to again and again on my 5 night stay. Put some laundry in and then Cat had signed me up to the Sunset Boat Cruise with the hostel. So at 3.30pm I took a taxi (7000 kyat, ouch) over there and she had a beer waiting bless her! We were then loaded onto a shared taxi and carted over to old bagan where the boats awaited. We tried out some local river-market food too, mostly all deep fried things like corn, okra, potatoes, chili, and I got some prawns. Then we made sure to pick out the boat with the toilet! Haha.

The trip included a free beer and then we were surprised with also free deep fried snacks and...a free bottle of Gin and Rum plus coke and sprite...time to get on it! for 7000kyat ($6) it was well worth it. We then set sail for the middle of the river where we joined some other sunset-seekers and settled into our snacks and drinks while watching a beautiful sunset! It was a great introductory to Bagan and a good first night.

After we got back to the hostel, the little group that we met went out to a vegetarian restaurant in new bagan for a meal and then it was time to get my taxi back. The others had all signed up for sunrise and a bagan tour on ebikes, but because I wasn't keen on them, I was planning on getting a taxi for sunrise and a bicycle around the temples. So most people chose an E-Bike as the government of Myanmar don't allow tourists to hire Mopeds or Motorbikes, just because of the accidents, which personally, i think most south east asian countries should adopt unless you have a license for one. Especially around Bagan, as most of the temples are on very sandy dirt tracks and even with E-bikes and bicycles its dangerous!

So an E-Bike is basically a scooter, just not motorised (it's run by electricity) so it packs less power and less speed which makes it slightly safer. My track record with these things though is poor after many accidents in Thailand, so I took one look and said, nah, something was telling me not to do it so I listened to my gut instinct. And it was made even more solid when I met Shaun, a Singaporian, that night, while trying to book a taxi for sunrise. He had fallen off his ebike that morning (in-fact, drove it into an electricity pole) and had scraped himself up pretty bad. So he asked if I would like to share a taxi, as he was getting one for cheaper than what the hotel was offering, so of course I said yes - anything to make it cheaper and it meant some good company. So we chatted for a while, he gave me his new hotel address which was just down the road, and then I went up to bed, we were aiming to meet at 5.30am! When in the dorm I then met Netta, a Kiwi, who in the morning got up for sunrise and asked how I was getting there, so i said come join our taxi ride! So then there was 3 of us which worked out roughly 3000 kyat each return ($2-3).

So that morning at 5.30am we trundled half asleep down to Golden Bagan Hotel where we met Shaun and he showed us a temple he had heard was pretty good for sunrise and less popular than the main sunrise temple. Basically, any temple in Bagan was good for sunrise, so long as it was facing east, had a view over the central plains and had at least 2 levels to be able to climb up and see out. However, this temple was definitely my favourite out of the two temples I viewed sunrise from. It was Low Ka Oushang Pagoda, just off to the side of the main Sunrise temple, Shwesandaw. It was supposed to be less touristy but I guess the internet did it's thing and has made it more popular now, but it was still good and you could get your own slice of space. We paid the family who wake up early to open up the pagoda and we headed up those well-known steep pitch-black temple stairs to the top level. And then we waited; for what was probably one of the most incredible sunrises I've ever seen. Bagan is known for it's amazing sunrises over a plain of ancient Temples and Pagoda's shrouded in early morning mist, as far as the eye can see. And when the sun begins to come up, around 20 hot air balloons grace the sky over temples, making it super iconic. Those pictures advertising Myanmar - yep, that's basically what you get and it's every bit as spectacular in person as it is in the pictures - in fact, it's so pretty and mystical and inspiring, you almost want to cry. However, maybe that's also to do with the hour you're up at! We also counted the amount of USD in the sky - with around 20 something balloons, each with 12 people paying $350 each for just half an hours ride, it was around $90,000 usd - wowsa!

A little history of Bagan;
From the 9th to 13th centuries, the city was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan, the first kingdom to unify the regions that would later constitute modern Myanmar. During the kingdom's height between the 11th and 13th centuries, over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were constructed in the Bagan plains alone. However, Bagan is also a major earthquake zone, and so because of this, only 2200 temples survived to present day, there are lots of ruins around. In August 2016, there was another earthquake which badly damaged 400 temples and pagodas, so Unesco as well as local donations (the locals pay SO much into their temples and pagodas and also help with the restorations voluntarily, along with Monks) are trying to restore these.

The central plains really are a sight to behold and I would go so far as saying, it's better than Angkor Wat. You can cycle for days and not even see half of them, the main temples are stunning in themselves however what really makes it is cycling down little dirt tracks to deserted tiny temples where you will find no-one else. It simply is magical and I urge anyone wanting to go, to visit now before tourism booms beyond recognition - which I think will A. ruin the atmosphere and B. ruin the temples and nature around them.

So we then headed back to the hotel once the sun and the area was well and truly awake, had our amazing buffet breakfast (there was the usual; toast, fruit etc, then there were rice, noodle, stir-fry and soup dishes with some ACTUAL REAL COFFEE). And I decided as I was up and caffeinated, I would do a day around the temples. So I went and found myself a bicycle hired by the hotel ($2 for the whole day), which was a major mission as no-where had a bike in my size and so when I found one, I made sure I grabbed it! And then it was onto the chaotic roads, which actually wasn't too bad - the only bad thing was all the honking to let you know they were overtaking, the buses almost knocked me off with their horns! I headed first down to some of the main temples and then veered off towards the river to some of the lesser-known and more deserted temples, which was amazing. One temple found me cycling down a tiny dirt track through a corn-field, no-one else in sight, I loved it!

I then stumbled upon a temple behind a pumpkin field. It was here that I had the best experience ever and I met Tim. Tim was with the local children (children tend to hover around the temples trying to sell you things - namely postcards), and he was sorting out some rope. I was super curious so asked what he was doing. Turns out he had come by yesterday and ended up breaking their tyre swing! so he had bought some rope and promised he would come back to fix it today. Seeing what a big mission it was I offered some help and turns out he required some braiding skills to make the rope stronger. So for the next hour or two, I helped braid the rope together, while the children (Ayeaye, Kankan, Poepoe, & Susu) helped me hold it together and we chatted and played. Once we had got the swing up and operational, plus able to take the weight, the kids were overjoyed! We also played some skipping games with the leftover rope. Then they noticed our cameras and wanted lots of selfies taken and then they decided that wasn't enough and they wanted to take photo's so they took both Tim's phone and my Camera and went snap-tastic. Looking back over them I had hundreds of random but cute pictures of pumpkins, flowers, them playing, of me, of us altogether and of trees and the temple. It was the best morning ever!

It was then time for us to leave as Tim had to go meet a friend and I needed to go grab some lunch. Before we left they also offered us some Myanmar snacks to say thank you. I'm not sure what they were but they described them as 'pancakes', all I know was they were lovely and sweet!

Riding into Old Bagan I met Netta who was also cycling around before her trip to Mt Popa that afternoon so we did a temple together before she had to be back. I then spent the afternoon around Old Bagan and cycled into the Central plains, where I saw more temples than I've ever seen in my life before! I stopped for some delicious local noodles outside Shwesandaw temple, and after climbed it's 4 levels of steep steps to take in the most amazing view. I went to the Sulameni temple which had been badly destroyed in the August Earthquake and witnessed the locals all helping to carry down bricks and help restore it. I loved the Sulameni, even in it's semi-destroyed state, it was beautiful!

I visited some other temples big, small and deserted, along the way to the 'Sunset' temple where I planned to watch sunset, however I totally didn't estimate how far away it was from my hotel, and I wouldn't have made it back before dark (and Bagan is completely dark so it would have been impossible and unsafe). While there though I met Simon, a french guy, who I later had dinner with that evening. And after climbing the most busiest steps ever - you had to que to get up them - it was a very popular temple. I decided not to chance it and went back to my bike to make the long dusty journey back - as some of it i had to walk as there was too much thick sand to cycle in!

The only good thing about this though, was getting to see the sun set behind some amazing temples accross the plain, which may have actually been prettier than watching it set over them, and with no crowd in sight. I managed to make it back just as it was getting dark and then freshened up and went out for a local meal along 'Restaurant Street' with Simon. I then booked another taxi for tomorrow morning to view another sunrise, this time from shwesandaw - as they say you should do at least one there, and I was gonna make the most of my $20 fee! I met at the dorm an American girl who had just arrived and also Netta was keen for another sunrise, so it was three to share again and some more great company! It was then early to bed again...for sunrise numero dos! I had had an amazing day and couldn't wait for day number two!

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