Every traveler to Myanmar plans a visit to Bagan. It is an essential stop and unforgettable.
We arrived on the early morning flight from Yangon. I had imagined that we would need to take a cab to our hotel, but in fact they had sent a van for us which was waiting outside the very small airport. Our hotel, the Bagan Princess, was neither in the Old Bagan area where the top end hotels are, nor in Nyaung U where most guesthouses can be found. Rather, it was in between the two, with a few restaurants and an internet cafe nearby, and about 2km from Nyaung U town. We were amazed by our hotel – very reasonably priced, it offered all the comforts that we would expect from a 3* hotel in North America and in fact, from many 4* hotels as well.
There are various ways to tour Bagan: you can rent bikes or go in a van, but we chose to tour by horse cart. There are around 250 horse cart drivers in Bagan, and we had learned about Min through our extensive research prior to our trip. He’s be our guide for the next three days. Our time with Min turned out to be one of the highlights of our entire Myanmar experience! After we had freshened up, Min was waiting outside the hotel with his horse cart, and he had brought along a friend and his horse and cart as well, as the five of us could not fit in one cart. The Bagan region is quiet, and the temples are mainly connected by dirt roads. In our horse carts we could appreciate the silence, we could hear the birds singing and we could imagine, just a little bit, how life must have been like before the modern world arrived to rush everyone along so much. The carts were really comfortable too.
Brash commercialism has not reared its (ugly) head in Myanmar yet in the tourist space, but locals have woken up to the fact that tourists do buy stuff. As we were clip clopping along, I was pursued by a girl on a motorbike wanting to sell us books. Finally, to reward her persistence, I bought a pirated copy of George Orwell’s Burma Days, which I wanted to read anyway. I later learned that this is the only Orwell book allowed in Burma.
We asked Min not only to show us his personal favourite spots, but also places where he thought the kids would have the most fun. Bagan is so immense that it really isn’t necessary to go “by the book” ie the Lonely Planet guide. It is all incredible. Min, who has a university degree, had it all planned out and he gave us a running commentary in excellent English. The kids loved him, and he let them take the reins from time to time as well.
Bagan is so different from Angkor Wat, to which it is often compared. At Bagan, shepherds herd their flocks in between the temples, and you can explore secret tunnels inside and staircases outside. Some have murals, some have giant Buddhas, and some are just so isolated that they are incredibly romantic. Angkor these days is one of the busiest tourist spots in the world – there is just no comparison.
For lunch, we stopped at a local Myanmar restaurant mentioned in the Lonely Planet. We were served ten different dishes – vegetables, curries, rice…but the kids hated it. They decided there and then that they would not eat Myanmar food for the rest of our trip. Luckily, one can find Chinese food throughout the country, but I was disappointed that as a family we could no longer explore the local cuisine!
We went back to our hotel after lunch to relax – it was extremely hot and Bagan is in the “dry zone” so that despite it being the wet season in Myanmar, we saw no rain at all in Bagan. Luckily our hotel had a pool that the kids could enjoy.
In the late afternoon we continued our explorations, and for sunset we went to one of the well known temples where tourists go – and we must have seen at least 5o other travelers – the most we had seen all day. Bagan is so widely spread out that you can easily find yourself alone if you choose to do so.
That evening, we went to a restaurant that had a puppet show – touristy yes, but it was a lot of fun, and Myanmar is famous for its long tradition of puppetry.
(PS: I am now custom-designing trips to Myanmar. Click here for more details).