We arrived in Bagan early in the morning. It was around 5 am, when we got off our VIP bus. A bunch of taxi drivers were ready to trap tourists in their vans. From 12000 kyats we bargained the price down to 8000 kyats. I believe it still was too much, but it was 5 am and we had not slept much.
I knew that we had to pay a “tourist entrance fee” to visit the Bagan area, but I was not ready for the new pricing they had introduced recently. In some of the blogs about Myanmar I had read that the fee is 10 US dollars. Since then the price has doubled. It is 20 US dollars per person now. A bit down setting price. They accepted also euros and kyats. As we were short with kyats and wanted to save our dollars for worst times, we paid with euros.
It was a short ride to our hotel. That made us even more upset about the taxi price. Usually I am the one giving mean and sarcastic comments about the price, but this time I was already in the lobby of the hotel, while Stijn was still expressing his disappointment about the unfair price. By that time I had already got to know Willem and Andrea – a Dutch-Austrian couple, who knew Mechelen very well. Chatting with people in hotel lobbies is not very characteristic to me, but it happened. It was not possible to check in the hotel before 2pm. Within next 30 minutes all 4 of us decided to rent bicycles to explore the near by temples, but it turned out differently.
It was already getting light, the sun was about to rise. We had a map, but had no particular plan. We drove direction Old Bagan, but on the way we spotted a smaller temple and people climbing on it to see the sun rise. It did’t take long to decided to do the same. We first tried to get past the temple, to make a shortcut to get closer to the balloons in the distance, but we ended up driving through bushes. We decided to go smart – turn our bicycles around and climb the pagoda.
We were slightly late for the sun rise itself, but it was still very beautiful view. We saw the fog (probably also smoke from locals burning their garbage) lifting over the fields. Old and new pagodas in the background. Climbing the narrow and high steps to end up on a tiny platform was a little bit thrilling. We had to press our backs to the roof construction. Passing each other required performing acrobatic tricks. Morning was unexpectedly cold and we had removed our shoes to respect the local tradition. Our feet were freezing, but the view was worth the climb.
As we returned to our bicycles we set our direction to Old Bagan, in hope to find some breakfast there. Once we had passed the wall of Old Bagan we ended up in a small square, that had few local cafes. Few busses were parked there, some bikes. There were slightly more local people and men offering us boat rides. We went into one of the cafes, found a place on a wooden terrace, but soon we decided to leave. The smell of the place was horrible. It felt like we had entered a storage room where tons of smelly cat food was kept. It was probably the smell of dried or cooking fish (widely used in Myanmar cuisine). We decided to search breakfast elsewhere. Our next try was a near by resort, that looked very nice from outside. BUT the price of menu was 35 USD per person! Thanks, but, no, thanks!
We hoped to find something more suitable for our pocket in the direction of New Bagan. We had already been driving around for a while. The sun was quite high up, it was getting hot. I had not slept munch on the bus. Sounds like a perfect combination for getting desperate and hopeless. (Note by Stijn: not to mention ‘grumpy’) We still had to search a good place for a while, but we ended up in quite nice café with an open terrace. We had fresh fruit juices, eggs, bread and it did not cost us the whole day’s budget. Hallelujah!
The plan after breakfast was to slowly head back to the direction of hotel and visit few pagodas on the way. In broad lines it was what happened. We stopped by few places, paid a visit to some pagodas, passed by one of the villages, that we decided to visit the next day… And then somewhere, in the middle of nowhere, the map we got from hotel did not match the reality anymore.
It was noon. Sun full power. We are on some sandy path trying to find a way around a fenced golf court. It is not possible to ride the bicycles anymore, there is too much sand on the path. At some point the path just ends in field. We had already made it quite far on the sandy road, going back did not seem like a very appealing idea. What next? Try to cross one of the fields? The road we were looking for shouldn’t be far, but we could not spot it. After discussing pros and cons, we all agreed to cross the fields. We actually used a side of field, not to ruin the field it self. I was exhausted, tired, baking in the sun with no water left. It was hard to push the bike through the deep sand. It was nothing I had in my mind for Bagan. I think boys secretly adored this adventure. For Stijn and Willem it was like a regular cycling weekend in Belgium or Netherlands. Finally some real nature challenges… Arrrrr! (Note by Stijn: Elize forgot to mention that in order to prevent mental melt-down and grumpy Elize for the rest of the day, I did push two bikes at once through the hot sand) (Note by Elize: only a part of it!;) )
Once we got on something like a road, we thought we are saved, but we still had to overcome few barriers of branches. I assume the locals had made these road blocks to prevent smarties like us from taking the road. Or maybe it was made for cows… Who knows. We had to find our way around few of those barriers, but eventually we managed. We still had to drive for few kilometres on the main roads to get back to the hotel.
We had left the hotel before 7 am. When we returned it was after 1 pm. More than 6 hours on a bicycle – that must be a personal record of mine! As we got in our room, I felt into the bed and stayed there motionless and unconscious for next couple of hours.
It was hard to wake up, but when we did, it was already time for dinner. We had a place in our minds that we had read about. It was not far from our hotel – a perfect match. When we arrived the place was full. No free tables left. But it turned out that our morning bicycle adventure companions had chosen the same place to eat. We got extra chairs and enjoyed dinner together. Willem and Stijn have not only similar Flemish/Dutch background, but their professional interests are closely related – they had a lot to share. It was one of those evenings with big topics on the table. Politics, religion and long distance relationship and many more. It was a nice change for us, who tend to close down and avoid too much of social contact. We both were very happy that we met Willem and Andrea.
We agreed to continue exploring Bagan the next day together. This time we rented electric motorbikes. The goal of the morning was to leave at 5:15 am. Drive to a bigger pagoda, that can be climbed, and watch the sun rise from there. It was a half an hour drive, but when we arrived, we had no doubt, if we had reached the right destination. Unlike the day before, when there were only few people on the pagoda, this time e-bikes, taxis and horse carts indicated the location. It was a much bigger place and there were lots of people there. When we arrived it was still dark. We could find a good spot on the second highest platform, while the top one was already getting crowded. We still had an hour before the sun rise. We could observe the light slowly pushing through over the skies covering the ancient pagodas. Just before the sun came, we spotted few hot air balloons getting up in the air on the North-East side of Bagan. Besides sneaking around and in the temples, there are two main attractions in Bagan: taking a ride in the hot air ballon over the old site or watching the balloons flying over the temples. We chose the more picturesque and budget friendly activity – balloon watching.
It was the morning of 24th December – the best place to be on Christmas. We both agreed that the smaller pagoda from day before had more special atmosphere, but we did not see the balloons then. It was worth getting up and freezing to witness the morning magic of Bagan. And Stijn had a chance to “Click” some great scenes.
We returned back to hotel for breakfast. It was one of the best breakfast we had so far. There were both Western and local dishes. Fresh fruit, eggs, rice, meat, croissants, white and dark (!) bread and small, thick pancakes with a good quality strawberry jam (Stijn is a jam gourmet). Non of us could stop eating. We just kept on going for another and another portion.
Later on we decided to go to a large round watch tower, that we spotted the day before, close to the area where we got lost. It took a while to find the right road that would take us to the tower, as it turned out to be a part of a resort. The resort was asking a fee of 5 USD per person to take an elevator up to the tower. While our companions chose have a look, we decided to say on the ground. It seemed like we had paid enough money for attractions in Bagan. Mean while we explored the grounds of resort and took some selfies with a funny snowman that was being made as a decoration for the resort. With its cotton coat and little wintery house it seemed completely out of context. It was +30 degrees C.
We made our way to a nearby traditional village, where a local woman offered us to show around. Within first minutes it was clear that the excursion was more about taking us from one shop to another, but at least we were not pushed to buy stuff we did not need. First it were decorated bamboo boxes, then bamboo photo frames, followed by shawls and towels, but in the end we were taken to a silver shop, where among other things, one could buy earrings in a shape of Eiffel Tower. The village was a strange mix of old and new, basic and luxurious. While houses were mostly made of bamboo and harvest of sesame was collected in old fashioned way, the houses were equipped with flat screen TV and big sound systems. A bit confusing. We were not really asked money for the tour, but we still gave some for the effort.
After the awkward village visit we drove through some sandy roads, that were leading us between smaller and bigger pagodas. This time we didn’t go for too many adventures off road, but still enjoyed the ride in the sunny country side.
We went back to the Weatherspoon (the restaurant we went the night before) for a late lunch/early dinner, as our friends were leaving with a bus the same evening. The rest of our Christmas eve we spent in our small hotel room. It did not really feel like Christmas without having family and friends around. We shared a bottle of Myanmar beer and watched a questionable quality French movie that was on TV. We went to bed early, as we had decided to take a boat to Mandalay the next morning. The boat was leaving at 5:30 am.