The 9th Century capital of Burma ; now a UNESCO World Heritage site.
23.11.2006 - 26.11.2006 32 °C
It was with great excitement that I set out from Mandalay on the boat trip to Bagan, the old capital from the 9th Century ; going to this place has been a goal of mine for years.
A one way ticket was $25 for the 14 hour journey. I was a bit apprehensive after my terrible experience with the boat in Cambodia last year, but the Shwe Keinnery was a nice boat with two decks. a small restaurant and very comfortable assigned seats. It seems that all 130 seats were taken because many large tour groups were using the service. They really took over the place so I avoided the restaurant until late afternoon. The Irrawaddy is a broad muddy river, quite unlike the dramatic Mekong that I enjoyed so much in Laos. Also, it is a half the length of the Mekong (2000 km vs 4600 km). But I love rivers and the landscape was pleasing, so I enjoyed the trip. Arrival was a real hassle. It was dark and we arrived at a earthen bank (no jetty as such) which was lit by spotlights from the boat which keep moving around, so one minute you had light and the next you were in total darkness. Luckily a porter helped with my bag and also guided me up the hill to the table where each foreigner had to pay $10 for a pass to the Old Bagan Archeological site. That was chaos, but I pushed my way in, bought my permit and picked one of the drivers out of the mass of shouting arguing drivers of taxis, pedicabs, and horse-carts. I was soon in a battered taxi going through clouds of dust to my hotel.
It was late by the time I showered and had dinner but first impression was good and the next day revealed that the Bagan Thande Hotel is really a find. It is one of the oldest in the area (described as ‘riverside bungalows”) 1950s vintage. Suites with a river view go for $200 a night but I had one half of a small cabin set in the landscaped gardens for $24 a night (including breakfast). Air con, telly and a clean comfortable bed .. hot water here was hot (in the Pacific Hotel it was tepid). The front porch had two chairs ; great for sipping beers and watching birds in the gardens surrounding the hotel. There were lovely ferns, palm trees, acacia trees, flowering plants with several nearby pagodas providing a dramatic backdrop. Add a fine breakfast with European or Asian choices (a choice of 5 or 6 lovely fruits) on the buffet and I loved it. The restaurant is situated under huge acacia trees next to the river. The food here was very good and not wildly expensive. Their curry was not as spicy as an Indian or Thai one, but very good and had large chucks of chicken (some of the places I’d eaten in had a mound of rice and little meat). The best meal was a fish fillet from the local riverfish, the butterfish.
The swimming pool was lovely and there were beautiful pagodas next to it (there are more than 2,000 pagodas on the plains around Bagan) .. it is an amazing place. The hotel was a good reward for the rigours of the trip ; I would really enjoy a much longer stay here ; nice staff and lovely landscaped grounds. The only downside was a nightly marionette show – which grew a little tedious by the third night.
Friday 24 November
On the first day I walked to several pagodas nearby and I was surprised to find that although they look very similar from a distance, they are unique. Frankly they are not quite as interesting as Thai temples because in many cases there is either no access to the interior or the interior is bare. But it is important to say that the building skills of this culture were very impressive ; the brickwork and is complex and skillfully executed. One temple is famous because the king who commissioned it 1057 (not a misprint .. …. 1057) insisted that no mortar be used and the brickwork must be so tight that not even a pin could be inserted between bricks.
Part of the charm of it all is the countryside with diverse lovely mature trees all around. Also, the Burmese do not seem to be bird killers the way Laotians are (even in remote parts of Laos I saw or heard no birds). Birds are plentiful here and really add charm to the whole experience. On my way back to the hotel, I found a travel agent and booked my return boat trip (only $14 to return to Mandalay) and spent some time with him in the adjacent restaurant .
He spoke good English and was keen to talk, but would often indicate it was not wise to say any more about a particular topic. I was asking about the effect of the ban on tourism and he said that independent travel by British and American people had nearly finished. Most visitors these days were French, German (or Japanese) and unfortunately for him, most were in tour groups with everything planned (and paid for) in advance. This provided no business for the locals. He was certainly of the opinion that people should visit and mix with the locals (and spend their money independently and not via tour groups).
Saturday 25 November
I went on a half day tour ($15) with the taxi driver who originally picked me up from the boat. He was an older guy, his taxi a bit of a shambles but he proved to know the history of the area and its ruins. Like many others I talked to there, he was bitter because he was born in the area but had to move to ‘New Bagan’ when the government cleared the archeological area of all residents in 1990.
Impressions of Bagan: This is certainly worth the trip and a fascinating place, but it does not have the high artistic skills of Angor Wat (which is roughly the same vintage). I also found it hard to enjoy the ruins because of the excessive numbers of people begging, hawking and generally bothering me. In Angor Wat, these people are confined to the fringes, but here they are in the temples .. and the temples appear (for the most part) to have little or no religious significance to the locals. Constantly having to fend these people off is weary making and as one Dutch fellow said to me , ‘It is not easy to be a responsible tourist in this place’. The problem is that there could be interesting people among those who approach you but after only a short time, my answer was NO before they finished their pitch. Luckily I did meet a nice local at the veggie bar/restaurant near the hotel. This is a basic place for locals with good cold beer at $1 for a large bottle ($3 at the hotel). This man spoke good English (he was taught by an American who was attached to a nearby monastery). He was a little more open about the fact that people did not like the government and also he thought that ‘The Lady” (no one mentions the name Aung San Sui Kyi ; the politician who is under house arrest) was wrong in telling people not to come to Burma. Like the travel agent (this fellow does freelance work as a guide), he said that independent travelers had dried up .. now there were only the tour groups and that money all went to big companies (he said that none of them can operate without giving at least part of their funds to the government).
His biggest concern was that overseas charities no longer operated in this part of the country and the standard of education was dropping each year. When I asked about the usual advice to bring pencils and paper for the people, he was a bit dismissive. He said that pencils and paper were cheap in Burma and suggested that basic medications like aspirin, bandages and disinfectants were all in short supply. He urged me to bring some if and when I return and we could visit a village and hand them to the teacher who also acted as primary medical provider.
Sunday 26 November
It was with great regret that I left the hotel early to catch the 5am boat to Mandalay; I could have easily spent a week in this delightful hotel, exploring the adjacent ruins. The return leg of the journey was a delight .. there were so few people that they did not bother to assign seats .. there were seats in all parts of the ship. It was the same view as I’d seen on the way up, but this time I had a prime seat on the top deck and had a better view. One thing that interested me was that while the farming was primitive, the logging industry was not. There were large trucks carrying the sawn logs to the river and cranes to move them onto barges. This was quite a contrast with Laos where elephants were used to move huge logs which were dumped in the river, chained together and towed downstream by barge. Logging is a government business in Burma and therefore they have invested in it. I noticed on my return to Yangon that one of the smartest new office buildings was the Ministry of Forestry -- while The Ministry of Population was in a crumbling old Victorian pile.
It was dark when I arrived in Mandalay, but the jetty there has some primitive lighting and after some haggling, I got to the Pacific Hotel for a one night stay. I had drinks and dinner at the Beer King, near the hotel .. cheap and cheerful, but with its customers spitting betel juice all the time, a far cry from the sedate hotel in old Bagan.