I’m already pretty bad at keeping up to date, aren’t I? I’m in Chiang Mai, Thailand now and loving every minute of it, but realized I haven’t written about my trip to Bagan yet. I’ve definitely got my travel mojo back now, largely thanks to the wonderful time I had and the friends I made in Bagan.
I have a friend back home who had been to Bagan and once he told me about it and showed me pictures, I knew I needed to make time for it in my trip. It’s about 620km
north of Yangon, where I’d been staying. I’d also seen an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown” where he took the slow train up to Bagan from Yangon. In the show it looks like an awesome experience – it’s an overnight train that takes you through tons of Burmese villages and nature at a slow pace (it took about 18 hours) that allows you to take it all in. It stops in various villages along the way and people will get on the train to sell food (fruits, cooked meats, rice, quail eggs, etc.) and then hop off at the next village.
I booked my train weeks in advance for only about $12 roundtrip, thinking I’d booked myself a bed. Once I boarded the train though, I found myself in a small second-class
compartment with a Burmese family with minimal room to move, let alone sleep. The family didn’t speak English, so it was a bit uncomfortable at first, but I guess over the course of 18 hours on a train, you can befriend anyone. There was a sweet, sweet little old lady who would gesture to communicate with me, and insisted on feeding me and making me comfortable. I absolutely fell in love with her when she made me a spot to sleep, and considering the bumpiness and loudness of the train, and the constant stream of bugs flying through the window and landing on me, I was able to get a bit of sleep after all. The family got off the train about an hour before me, and after I helped them carry their stuff off, they all gave me big hugs and smiles. I got to Bagan about 11am the next morning and while I’m really thankful I experienced the slow train, I knew there was no way I’d be spending another 18 hours on a train back 2 days later. View a few more pictures I took on the train ride here.
When I got to the train station, a local guy immediately approached me and asked me if I wanted to buy drugs. I told him “no” and kept walking, looking for a taxi, but he followed me asking me where I was staying, where I was going, etc. I completely ignored him after my first “no” and kept walking, but couldn’t find a taxi. He was starting to piss me off, so I went up to a policeman to ask where I could find a taxi, hoping the guy would go away when I went up to a policeman. The policeman, though, just pointed to the guy and told me he was a taxi driver. Great.
I was exhausted from the train ride, so I didn’t even care that the driver was really ripping me off [$20 for a 5 mile drive in Myanmar is really really absurd]. Driving through Old Bagan was breathtaking, even with this driver sitting there telling me I’m beautiful and asking if I was there alone (I told him my boyfriend was in Thailand and was meeting me there). The Bagan plains have over 2,000 buddhist temples from as early as the 11th century – ugly beautiful at its finest. The Burmese government has actually made the area an official archaeological site, so upon entry, foreigners have to pay a 25,000 kyat fee. My driver offered to skip the checkpoint so I didn’t have to pay, but I wasn’t taking any favors from him and said I’d prefer to pay.
The hostel I stayed at was fantastic. It had a much better atmosphere than the ones I’d stayed at in Bangkok and Yangon – everyone was welcoming and social and excited to meet other travelers. The hostel staff organized free daily tours of the temples at sunrise and sunset, but I didn’t know until I got there that I would have to ride a motorbike on these tours. I was nervous about that idea, and also exhausted, so I decided to skip the sunset tour and planned to do the sunrise tour the next morning. The hostel had a nice common area outside where they served food and drinks, so I posted up out there with my book and just enjoyed some cheap beers.
After everyone got back from the sunset tour, I met a few Dutch guys who taught me to play Myanmar blackjack (pretty sure they made it up). One of them had his arm in a sling, having broken his collarbone on a motorbike. His friend told me later that this had happened months ago and he didn’t actually need the sling anymore, but was wearing it for the attention and easy conversation starter. I giggled to myself the rest of the night watching him tell everyone about his fake injury, while using his arm completely normally without realizing it. I decided to go to bed a little early, but as soon as I laid down, a group of Irish girls came into my dorm and invited me to play Uno with them – thankful to be in a place where people actually want to socialize with each other, I got back out of bed and stayed up another few hours with them.
One of the Irish girls planned to get up at 4am to see the sunrise from a temple that a local had recommended for her. Despite staying up until 1am, I agreed to go with her as it sounded much better than going with a big tour group. So, at 4am she woke me up and we rented our motorbikes for the day (only about $2 to have the bike for the full day). The bikes were more like scooters, and much easier to use than I expected – they’re
totally automatic, so I didn’t have to worry about a clutch haha. My favorite part of the old temples is that there are so many that there’s a good chance you won’t run into other people at the temple you choose. There’s also no supervision whatsoever, and you can actually go inside these old temples and climb to the top of them for a good view over the plains.
The sunrise was everything you could hope for, absolutely gorgeous and peaceful. Climbing the temple was slightly terrifying for a clumsy person like me – after going inside, some stairs take you about halfway up the temple, and if you want the good view you have to climb up the outside of the temple yourself. Going up, no problem. Coming down? Wanted to cry and be air lifted out. I enjoyed the sunrise so much that I didn’t actually manage many pictures, and the pictures I do have don’t do it justice, but you can see them here.
After the sunrise, we went back to sleep for a few hours. The Irish girls were going to India after Myanmar and were having trouble applying for their visas with the hostel’s spotty wifi, so we took our motorbikes to a Burmese restaurant about 30 minutes away that had air con and wifi. I went simply because it was such a long way away and I really enjoyed riding the motorbike. The food was absolutely amazing – I had a pumpkin curry with a tea leaf salad. I was skeptical about trying the tea leaf salad, it honestly sounds awful to me, but the Irish girls insisted and I’m so glad they did. I’ll definitely be missing tea leaf salas now that I’ve left Myanmar.
The girls were successful getting their visas, so we took our motorbikes around to explore some more temples. On the way back to the hostel for some dinner, one of the girls’ bikes broke down, but a nice local guy was nice enough to call the company we rented it from and they brought her a replacement.
I had booked an overnight bus back to Yangon for that night, leaving around 7pm. The girls planned to take the motorbikes back out for sunset (which would be around 6:45), and I couldn’t pass up the extra chance to ride my bike and watch the sunset. I decided to risk missing my bus – worst case scenario, I would stay an extra night and catch the bus the following night. I’m SO glad I went – we found a temple really far off the beaten track right in the middle of a thunder storm. After getting our bikes stuck in the mud, we were able to climb a really tall temple for a great view and just watched the storm pass overhead. Covered in mud, I managed to make it back to my hostel, return my bike, wash the mud off my feet, and catch my bus with 4 minutes to spare. More pictures from the sunset here.
The difference between the slow train and the overnight bus that I took back to Yangon was night and day. The bus had big, comfy seats (I didn’t even have to sit next to anyone), air con, blankets and pillows, etc. I slept the WHOLE way, which was wonderful. Back in Yangon, I still had my room (I’d left all of my stuff there instead of having to cart it around Bagan), and used my last day to relax and make some plans for my next stop, Chiang Mai.