Myanmar: Bagan

We’re heading to Bagan, one of Myanmar’s top three must sees.  One, Shwedagon Pagoda, I had already skipped out of laziness, cheapness, jadedness, and all the other cycle tourist vices.  One, Inle Lake, was too far out of the way and impossible for us to get to given our time constraints.  Would I ever forgive myself if I didn’t stop at this historic, nay, mythic, expanse of 4000-some temples peppering the plains of northern Myanmar?  Actually, yeah, I probably would.  But they were on the way, and they’re popular with tourists, meaning there must be hotels with wifi.  Oh god please let there be wifi!  And A/C!

But first…a farmer stops us along the road.  “Try my toddy.  Sweet.  Sweet!”  Something very creepy in the ambiance – perhaps it’s his betel-stained teeth or his Jackson 5 hairdo – but we follow him into the forest anyway.

2014-05-18 to Bagan 005b

Some scenery that had been mystifying me for several hundred kilometers: palm trees not bearing coconuts, spread out amongst endless fields of soil dry but perfectly tilled.

2014-05-18 to Bagan 009

Secured to the top of each tree, a ladder.  Movable between each of the trees, another ladder.  Farmer man puts on his belt, attaches his knife and a few clay bowls, and up he goes.  No safety mechanisms at all except for six cyclotourists grinding their teeth below.

 2014-05-18 to Bagan 013

After making the transition from one ladder to another, he gets down to business swapping out the pottery pots.  The ones that are sitting up there now have been collecting the sap dripping out of the gashes he’s made in the palmyra palm vines.

Myanmar from Katya 009

Boil that sap long enough and you’re left with

Myanmar from Katya 013

jaggery (right)!  AKA Pam sugar.  Ahh, so that’s how it’s made.

Or, just leave it to ferment and you’ve got palmyra toddy, a sweet, pungent alcoholic concoction that would probably have been pretty pleasant had Mr. Farmer dude at least used a cheesecloth or something to keep the ants and other bugs out.  I guess they don’t bother him so much?

2014-05-18 to Bagan 017

2014-05-18 to Bagan 019

Crazy dude’s more normal-looking (but equally death-defying) younger brother.

 2014-05-18 to Bagan 024

 2014-05-18 to Bagan 032

A little further down the road, “Tai” and his mother selling a variety of jaggery-based sweets and drinks.  Palm wine, palm wine with medicinal herbs for massage, hunks of sugar, hungks of sugar with shredded coconut, etc.

2014-05-18 to Bagan 033

Tai spoke much better English than Toddy Man (“My toddy…sweeee, sweeee!”) and explained to us that  just before the rains came the fallow fields would be planted with sesame and peanuts, both of which are key ingredients in Myanmar’s most kickass salad, La Pe Tok (see upcoming food post). They also grind the peanuts for oil; 4kg yields 1 liter.

 2014-05-18 to Bagan 034

Rainy season’s not too far off.

 2014-05-18 to Bagan 035

“Tai’s Shop.”  Maybe.

2014-05-19 Bagan 066

And then we made it to Bagan, perhaps the most templed-out fifty square kilometers in the universe.  You’ll have to look up the who, where, when, and why by yourself.  Check below for the what.

2014-05-19 Bagan 026


2014-05-19 Bagan 029

Climb up one stupa, spot fifty more.

2014-05-19 Bagan 004

  2014-05-20 Bagan 050

Good thing we’ve got bicycles.

2014-05-20 Bagan 034

Though renting an oxcart might also be an option.

On a more serious note, one of our companions, Daniela, had been to Bagan just a few years previous; she said that when she last visited, there were hardly any paved roads and that the only way to get around was to rent a horse taxi.  Now, only three years later, tourists can rent bicycles and scooters and zip around the main temples on smooth asphalt.

 2014-05-20 Bagan 037

The scooters don’t exactly do much for the ambiance, but the better infrasctructure probably makes for more tourists, more income, and more funds to rebuild the temples, hardly any of which are originals.  Like so many other religious monuments out here, the temples at Bagan have been ravaged and rebuilt over and over again.

 2014-05-20 Bagan 041

Looks good though.

2014-05-19 Bagan 042

Inside the temples, one finds such goodies as big Buddhas,

2014-05-19 Bagan 008

Smaller Buddhas

 2014-05-20 Bagan 055

and drawings of Buddhas.

 2014-05-19 Bagan 046

 2014-05-19 Bagan 048

2014-05-19 Bagan 097b

If you’re lucky, you may even cross paths with a Mirko.

2014-05-19 Bagan 062

Buddha says: cling not, all things are impermanent.

Bright Eyes sings: “I’ve made peace with the fallen leaves / See their same fate in my own body / Someday I’ll be awoken from this dream / and returned to that which gave birth to me.”

2014-05-19 Bagan 055

A couple of the larger temples are still active.

Note: Burmese monks, allowed to handle cash and accept donations.  Giving a Thai monk money is almost an insult.

 2014-05-19 Bagan 064

Also around the temples: hungry hawkers, always hoping for a tourist to buy some “handmade” paintings.  The next guy will tell you that this guy’s a liar.

 2014-05-20 Bagan 020

While the foreign tourists climb all over all the ancient holy sites, the Burmese come to a more contemporary one.  We passed by about five of these golden rock stupas during our travels there.

 2014-05-20 Bagan 024

A bit of local life in the village located between the northern and southern temple clusters.

 2014-05-20 Bagan 026

 2014-05-20 Bagan 027

 2014-05-19 Bagan 078

  2014-05-19 Bagan 099

 2014-05-20 Bagan 018

I suppose if I had to pick my favorite thing about Bagan, it would be that for the most part you’re free to climb around the deserted temples on your own.  You can go out to catch sunrises and sunsets, to take afternoon naps, to explore nooks and crannies, and to find your own secret spot.  Or share one with friends.

 2014-05-20 Bagan 014


Photo by Chris Buchman

2014-05-19 Bagan 096

Shaky squad, unite!

This entry was posted in Myanmar, Southeast Asia, The Road and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Myanmar: Bagan

  1. Frank says:

    Hi I hope to cycle Burma in Oct- Nov ,did you have trouble finding budget Hostels or were you on a tour ? any help would be welcome as I will cycle in from Mae Sot border.

    • Michael Roy says:

      Hi Frank,

      I was in a group of six, but we were traveling independently – no help from tour operators, etc. We managed to find hotels every 70-100km between Myawaddy and Monywa, with prices ranging from $3 to $11 for person, usually somewhere in between. Not as cheap as the rest of Southeast Asia, but not as expensive as I had expected. However, if you’re traveling solo, you may have to spend $15 or more since just about every room is a double.

      Then again, if you’re solo, camping will be a little easier.

      More good news: the food is super cheap. You can find great Indian breakfasts and Burmese lunch buffets for as little as $0.50.

      My friends Jan and Karina added an excellent post to WarmShowers here: