Bagan is a sight to behold. During ancient times over 10,000 temples and pagodas were constructed here. Today, in what known as Ancient Bagan City, over 2,000 of these remain in various states of disrepair. During the 1990s a lot of local residents were forcibly removed from here and into the New Bagan area. They were inadequately compensated, an issue that still rankles today. What was left is a huge archaeological site that covers something like 30 square miles. In the hot temperatures the best way to explore Bagan is by bike. E-bikes seem popular with tourists. These are essentially an electric scooter. You have to watch out for them when crossing the street as they are silent, yet still motor along at over 30mph. I opted for an old-fashioned push bike as these looked slightly less lethal than the electric option.
Intrepid offer guided bike tours of Bagan for $59. Considering bike hire is widely available for $2 and the average daily wage in Myanmar is $7, this price seems a bit steep. For $20 you can hire a local guide who will cycle around the same places, albeit without an included lunch. Our tour guide was That (pronounced like fat but with the “th” sound). He explained that many people in Myanmar are named after their day of birth. Whichever day he appeared on required a name to start with “Tha”.
That started off by taking us to the main market. He pointed out some of the local exotic fruit and veg, as well as a few quirky items on sale, albeit nothing too freaky or exciting. Then it was onto the temples themselves. That went through some of the basic principles of Buddhism. One of the striking aspects that I noticed at the temples was how generous people were in terms of financial donations. There are large donation boxes full of cash all over the place. Granted, a lot of the notes are low value, but Myanmar is a poor country. I remember seeing a report about which places give the most money to charity, relative to their income, and a lot of the Buddhist countries are near the top of the generosity league table.
Obviously you can’t visit all of the temples and pagodas so we had a look at a few highlights such as the biggest, tallest and most popular. They exist in a huge range of shapes and sizes. Physical condition varies quite a bit from lavish temples that are well looked after to pagodas that are little more than rubble. Flooding from the nearby river has caused a lot of damage, as has general deterioration from the fact that the buildings are well over 1000 years old. Earthquake damage has also affected many of the temples and it’s not uncommon to see scaffolding holding up buildings.
Some of the larger temples have a few visitors but at many of the sites you have the place to yourself. It’s certainly a far cry from the Pyramids, Taj Mahal or Angkor What and their throngs of tourists. While there quite a few foreign tourists around Bagan it still maintains the aura of an undiscovered gem. Overseas visitors are still seen as a bit of a novelty judging by the number of selfie requests from curious locals!
A really nice day exploring the miles of paths and roads in Ancient Bagan was finished off with a terrific curry in the Aroma (2) Indian restaurant. It’s has a great sign outside bigging up its virtues. The restaurant has a “No good – No pay policy.” Aroma (2) was spot on though. Bagan has a little bit of nightlife although it’s hardly Ibiza. At around 10pm you’ll be asked if you want another 80p draft beer. Obviously we did so were ushered into the outside seats and could finish up at our leisure as the bar closed and everyone else went home around us. By half past ten we were pretty much the last people out on the main street. That was fine though as tomorrow I’d be getting up at 5.30am to witness what has been billed as the spectacular Bagan sunrise.