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Nestled in the Mandalay region of central Myanmar, the ancient city of Bagan has become an increasingly popular tourist location in recent years, drawing people from all over the world who wish to see and experience the endless plains of pagodas and the people who build and maintain them.
Some of these pagodas are ancient, others have been newly built or restored with varying degrees of quality and integrity. Regardless of which pagoda you are standing on or driving by, the landscape is simply stunning and very much worth the journey.
At one time, the locals lived amidst these temples and stupas, though today the population resides in Old or New Bagan after a mandatory military government move a number of years ago. Our guide drily informed us that his family and others were offered 500 kyats – about .50 cents – in compensation for the move as he points out his old water wank at the foot of an old pagoda as we drive past.
Today, much of the trials and tribulations that mark a turbulent and violent Burmese history seem to be giving way to a growing economy and vibrant tourism. However, the current ethnic cleansing of the Rodinghya people in the North is far from the public eye, with general local perspective largely controlled by the military and government, and ignored or grossly misinformed or misinterpreted (in our observations and conversations) by the locals. Fighting among locals is also still prevalent in other regions of the country but kept quiet by keeping these areas completely closed off from tourists.
Once we exchange our curiosity and global awareness for the blissful ignorance that the government makes so easy for tourists, it is not at all difficult to fall in love the beauty, mystique and endlessly interesting culture and sights of Myanmar.
Our first day in Bagan was New Years Eve, and I couldn’t think of a more spectacular way to spend it than by exploring Bagan. The best way to see the unbelievably extensive network of pagodas is by e-bike, an electric moped used by tourists who (it was responsibly decided) can do much less damage to themselves and others with these than with traditional motorbikes.
We rented a couple of bikes had a wonderful time zipping around the stupas and temples, which are all connected not only by main roads but sparsely populated side trails and backroads. For those wondering about the difference between pagoda, stupa, and temple: a stupa is a mostly solid structure often containing some kind of spiritually significant relic inside; a temple contains an “image” (aka a Buddha) with a place in to meditate, worship or walk around; a pagoda can be used to describe either a pagoda or stupa.
Suffice it to say, it was definitely one of my favourite New Years. After a day of exploration and adventure we had dinner with some new friends we met at our hostel and counted down to the New Year on the rooftop surrounded by fireworks, music and great company.
The next two days, as it happens, it rained – and poured. Therefore January 1st was spent relaxing, and the following day we ignored the rain and did an excursion to Mt. Popa.
Mt. Popa is a monastery at the top of a mountain, reached by climbing over 800 steps. On a nice day, the experience would consist of a moderate healthy climb and a beautiful view from the top, with friendly monkeys to meet on the way up. On a rainy day, it’s a slippery and hazardous climb, with almost no view from the cold windy top, made less fun by the fact that it has to be done barefoot on wet stairs covered with soggy monkey excrement. Suffice it to say, we climbed, we looked, and we carefully clamoured back down as quickly as we could.
Regardless of the weather, we had a great time in Bagan exploring, eating delicious and affordable local food and meeting fascinating people. We now continue our journey onward to the city of Mandalay, a twelve-hour journey we will make by boat, floating down the Irrawaddy River towards our next port of adventure.