Well we have well and truly hit the tourist trail now! This isn’t overall a terrible thing. Where we’re staying in Nyaung Oo there are restaurants set up that serve Western food and staff that understand the differing needs. After 7 weeks of eating local food I was over the moon to have a BLT and fries placed in front of me one day and an avocado salad the next. The best thing was the non sweetened bread!
Of course with the good comes the annoying. Being set up for tourists, this area attracts a lot more of the non thinking, herded, package tour variety of tourist. The kind of tourist that does no research on culture and talks back to locals when they’re told off for wearing their shoes on the pagodas. “Well you should clean your steps,” one Brit shouted. Equally, it brings in droves opportunists and scammers who seek to capitalise off uneducated tourists. It’s frustrating to have to fend off these, sometimes aggressive, would be scammers at every tiny temple in the middle of nowhere.
The most difficult thing is that there is no information about how to behave. Some larger pagodas have signs about what you should wear, but for the most part there’s nothing there. In some situations there are even locals telling you that you can do things that I’m pretty sure are not OK. For example, there was one small site where someone told us we could climb up and pointed us to a bent and broken gate that had obviously been forced open…
As with all things in Myanmar, our Bagan experience began with a bus ride. This was only about 4 hours, during which the man next to us managed to spit about a litre of liquid into a clear plastic bag which hung in front of him swaying along with the movements of the bus.
After a brief stop to pay our $15 foreigner archaeological zone tax (oddly enough it’s either $15USD or 15 euro) and being massively overcharged for a taxi we arrived at our guest house. I think maybe it was last cleaned when British occupation ended but it sufficed.
Bagan itself has been absolutely amazing. We spent 2 days in the archaeological zone wandering among ancient structures, marvelling at how they’ve been crafted and stood the test of time. Some have narrow little stair passageways you can climb to get amazing views over Bagan and many have beautiful murals painted on the inside, faded but somewhat intact. Our favourite thing was that in many of the smaller sites, we were the only people there. Wandering alone with a torch through the dark walkways, marvelling at the untouched murals, it was easy to feel like an explorer discovering 11th and 12th century ruins for the first time.
At one locked pagoda a woman came and let us in. Her family look after this pagoda and she and her two young children showed us around. The children hid in darkened corners and jumped out to scare us, squealing with laughter. We were a little worried that we’d be asked for ‘tea money’ but this woman was happy just to show us around – we put a small note into the donation box though. She said she gets about 3 tourists per day.
We tried a couple of different transport methods. Day 1 we hired a horse and cart and started by watching the sunrise. Day 2 we hired e-bikes and ended by watching the sunset. This would have been so much better if it weren’t for the group of American college kids having loud inane conversations from their perches atop the pagoda. One even climbed up a wall, shoes on, and some of the bricks crumbled under his feet. He was much more worried about whether he had scratched his watch than the 1000 year old wall he was wrecking. *sigh*
The e-bikes were an experience. Essentially glorified granny scooters they hit a max speed of 40km/hr. They’re a great way to get around but are no match for soft sand – as I proved when I fell off!! The great thing about using these was that we were able to go where buses and horse carts can’t. At times we found ourselves amidst the pagodas with not another person in sight.
We’ve taken today to just chill out, have a few beers and start work on planning the Cambodia and Vietnam leg of our journey.
The inconsiderate minority aside it’s been a truly magical experience and I would recommend those that are happy with minimal comfort to visit now. It surely won’t be long before you can visit only certain pagodas and be herded around them.