Beautiful, and a bit barmy-Bagan

“If you are a real Myanmar, you must have been to Bagan.”

Having brought ourselves up to temperature in Yangon, we were set to explore the most symbolic of landscapes that Myanmar has to offer-the pagoda saturated plains of Bagan.
Bagan is an ancient city located in the Mandalay Region, from the 9th to 13th centuries it was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan, and between the 11th and 13th centuries, over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were constructed here. I would wager that when most people think of Myanmar (or Burma), then the vista of temples stretching out over Bagan’s plains would be the image that comes to the fore of their mind.
Today there are over 2000 temples remaining in the area, and not surprisingly is the main tourist hotspot for all those visiting Myanmar.

Having done a little research, we opted for the night train from Yangon to Bagan, the words of the Man in Seat 61 providing some comfort about the journey ahead:

Burma’s British-built railways are less developed than others in Southeast Asia, but you’ll find the trains are a wonderful way to get around and experience the country at ground level, avoiding unnecessary domestic flights and cramped buses. The journeys are as much an adventure as the country itself.

Now I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that anyone who would like to travel to Bagan from Yangon, take a bus! For sure the train was an experience of sorts, but not the type of experience you expect outside of a roller-coaster at a theme park! The reassurance that we got from it being British built, was quickly dispelled when we realised that since the British built the railways, there has been next to no maintenance on the tracks. I kid you not when I say that the train felt like it was actually airborne at some points, and fellow travellers even experienced one of the carriages disconnecting during their journey. We had even opted for 1st class sleeper-but there was no chance of getting any sleep on this journey. While it was a giggle, and while the light lasted we were treated to some gorgeous countryside-it was also hard work, and so I would approach the journey with some caution!

Remnants of the past, graffiti as we leave Yangon

Remnants of the past, graffiti as we leave Yangon

One of the few shots which I managed to catch out of the train window!

One of the few shots which I managed to catch out of the train window!

Railway side footy

Railway side footy

Notice the ladders on the palm trees, they fix these when the trees are young so as to make accessing their harvest easier when the tree has reached maturity!

Notice the ladders on the palm trees, they fix these when the trees are young so as to make accessing their harvest easier when the tree has reached maturity!

Shaken, rattled and rolled with the all too familiar bleary eyes, we thanked the travel gods upon our safe arrival at Bagan and looked forward to what should be another epic experience. The usual kerfuffle greeted us at the station, with the locals fully capitalising on your confusion and charging premium rates for your transportation. In addition to the taxi fee, you also get hit with a tourist tax on entry to the area, but there can be little complaint about paying to see such a magnificent spectacle.
The first thing that struck us as we ventured towards the town of Nyaung Oo was that the area was a lot more desolate than we had expected-with memories of the images of Bagan bringing up lush green pastures dotted with temples; the reality is that the trees are few and far between-especially noticeable with the temperatures once again hitting 46 degrees. It is worth noting that we arrived at the peak of the dry season though, and so perhaps the desert plains are transformed once the rainy season arrives.
On arrival we wasted little time and immediately hired one of the many electric motorbikes to get on with exploring. The heat was intense, the breeze on the bike offering little respite as it was more akin to being blasted in the face by a hairdryer! Still, we were in one of the most evocative landscapes in Asia-and so we had little cause for complaint.
There’s not really much that I can say about the plains of Bagan that cannot be communicated through the photos of the area, we spent 3 days bombing round these plains and exploring-quite superb!

Pretty comfortable on scooters nowadays!!

Pretty comfortable on scooters nowadays!!

Pretty much every direction had another picture perfect shot

Pretty much every direction had another picture perfect shot

Symmetry!

Symmetry!

Making the most of a shady spot!

Making the most of a shady spot!

Big Buddha....

Big Buddha….

Little Buddha

Little Buddha

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The intense heat definitely had its impact, we would be up and out of the hotel at 8.30AM, only to return for 11AM to hide from the sun before setting out once again to find various sunset spots. Even with our attempts at avoiding the high noon heat, the temperatures faced were still above 40 degrees each day, and with the fact that you need to remove your shoes at each temple-the soles of our feet were starting to show the impact of the blistering heat. After a while you settle into a certain style of ‘scuttle’ walk, much like someone walking over hot coals-I imagine that you could make quite a funny silent film watching people and their ungainly walks around the temples of Bagan!
After our three days of exploring it was time to move on to our next adventure, as with the experiences at Angkor and Ayutthaya, you definitely reach a certain saturation point when you see temple after temple after temple. Not that it stopped me from taking a whole load more photos….If you have the stomach for it, read on-otherwise I’ll hopefully see you again in my next post-The Road to Mandalay!

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Enter mystical Myanmar – Yangon

Having had a few days in the modern wonder that is Singapore, we landed in Yangon looking forward to exploring the mysteries of Myanmar.
Yangon is the former capital of Myanmar, and remains the largest city with a population in excess of 5 million. It was originally a small fishing village called Dagon centred about the Shwedagon Pagoda. In 1755 King Alaungpaya conquered the village and renamed it Yangon, since then settlements formed around the central Dagon area eventually forming the sprawling city of today. When you visit the city now, you will notice that it is now made up of a multitude of ‘townships’, a reminder of how the city developed from it’s humble beginnings. The British seized Yangon in the Anglo-Burmese War of 1852, and subsequently transformed Yangon into the commercial and political hub of British Burma-lining the streets with colonial buildings and British influence.

We arrived at our hotel in downtown and hit the streets to do some exploring-the par for course upon arriving anywhere on our travels. Stepping out onto the street and we were met with the most intense heat that I think I have ever experienced….The street temperature was 46 degrees! We ducked, dodged and weaved our way into every spot of shade possible as we ventured towards our first tourist spot-the 2,500 year old Sule Pagoda in central downtown. Not quite what you would expect from an ancient pagoda, nowadays it serves a dual purpose, the other being that of a rather busy roundabout. Supposedly enshrined in the temple is a hair of Buddha, given to two Burmese merchant brothers by Buddha himself. More recently, during the 1988 and 2007 protests, the Sule Pagoda was a meeting point for anti-government and pro-democracy protesters.
We negotiated the Yangon traffic to enter the temple and were soon hotfooting it around the pagoda-literally! At all religious sites in Myanmar you have to remove your shoes and socks and, bearing in mind the temperatures, it felt like we were walking on the surface of the sun! This feeling was amplified by the suns’ reflection off the quite wonderful golden stupa located in the middle of the temple-and soon we found ourselves a shady spot to simply sit, and absorb.

The Sule Roudabout....I mean the Sule Pagoda!

The Sule Roudabout….I mean the Sule Pagoda!

Ready to brave the heat once again, we set off to explore the colonial architecture of the Yangon streets. It was really tough, there’s no comfort of an air conditioned MRT like you have in Bangkok & Singapore-you just have to tackle the heat and traffic, and take it slow! Soon you realise that Yangon has a three dimensional street structure. I know that sounds like a strange statement, but it’s the best way that I can describe the fact that to find offices, shops and businesses you look all around on street level, as well as up. For example, our hotel was on the seventh and eighth floor of a building, with just a little doorway and a lift giving you access to all businesses in the building.

The colonial streets of Yangon

The colonial streets of Yangon

Not only street level, you can see the many businesses in the upper levels on the left

Not only street level, you can see the many businesses in the upper levels on the left

Walking around the streets we encountered street food like no other. Sure in Bangkok and Siem Reap you have street stalls selling bugs, but in Yangon the street vendors offer something quite different, but equally as difficult for us to comprehend. The best way that I can describe it is to call it ‘entrails fondue’, basically you have a street vendor with a large vat of hot oil, and a selection of unidentifiable ‘animal parts’. Locals just take a seat around vat, pick a nugget of choice, and then cook it themselves in the oil. I have to say that the thought of actually trying this cuisine didn’t even come close to crossing my mind. There have been a number of formally questionable culinary experiences over the last seven months, but this proved to be a step too far!
We did end up discovering some local fare, albeit not as risky as the ‘fondue’-and it was done so quite by accident. Settling down for the first bottle of Myanmar Beer and a street vendor comes around serving what I thought were salted peanuts, I managed to order some of what he was selling and we were given a container of sweetcorn and beans, accompanied with an unidentified paste. Not what we were expecting, but it was absolutely delicious, we still don’t know what the paste was (we were afraid to ask!) and haven’t seen this titbit anywhere else-so if you’re in Yangon, keep your eyes pealed. Frequenting the street café located under our hotel, we sampled eating as the locals do-a few beers and a number of little side dishes. Meat balls with chilli sauce, vegetable noodles, spiced sausage and more sweetcorn and beans-spot on!

Having explored the streets and Sule Pagoda, next on the list for Yangon were the central market and the famous Shewadagon Pagoda. The market is a welcome respite from the heat of the day, and so we headed there before heading up to the temple for sunset. Yangon market has to rate as once of the best ‘gift’ markets that we have been to, a cavern of jade, jewels, clothing and art. Interesting, bustling and colourful-and, of course, out of the heat of the midday sun.

The main hall of the market, the high roof helping keep the heat of the day away

The main hall of the market, the high roof helping keep the heat of the day away

Take your pick of interesting alleyways with a myriad of trinkets

Take your pick of interesting alleyways with a myriad of trinkets

With no tuk-tuks or identifiable form of alternative transport, we grabbed a taxi and headed for Shwedagon Pagoda. Here we encountered our first ‘tourist tax’ when hit with an unexpected $8 fee for entry to the pagoda-at the time it seemed quite expensive, as Myanmar is in comparison to the rest of South East Asia, but it would prove to be worth every penny.

The imposing sight of the golden Shwedagon Pagoda

The imposing sight of the golden Shwedagon Pagoda

Golden Buddha under the Bodhi Tree, signifying the moment he reached enlightenment

Golden Buddha under the Bodhi Tree, signifying the moment he reached enlightenment

It's a pagoda!!!

It’s a pagoda!!!

Shwedagon Pagoda was constructed more than 2,600 years ago, making it the oldest Buddhist stupa in the world. It is situated on Singuttara Hill and towers above you at a height of 99 metres, overlooking the sprawling Yangon city below. It is the most sacred Buddhist pagoda in Myanmar, as it is believed to contain relics of the four previous Buddhas. The staff of Kakusandha, the water filter of Koṇāgamana, a piece of the robe of Kassapa, and eight strands of hair from the head of Gautama.
It was here that we would encounter something that we found quite funny, all of a sudden we found ourselves being the subjects of surreptitious photography. Locals would be walking by and engineering opportunities to get us in their photos, ‘check out the tourists’! It’s easy to forget that until 2012, Myanmar has been a difficult place for people to travel, and so tourists are still something of a novelty. Being a subject of so much intrigue in a heaving and populous city just seemed quite odd.
Our inflating ego’s aside, Shwedagon Pagoda proved to be absolutely breath-taking. A large complex of temples and pagodas centred on Shwedagon itself, as the sun set, the darkness drew in and the candles were lit-we both had to take a moment to come to terms with our surroundings-it really was quite overwhelming.

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Having been blown away by Shwedagon, our time in Yangon had drawn to the end and we readied ourselves for a night train to possibly the most famous of Myanmar images-the pagodas of Bagan. Our research had informed us that the train journey was a little bumpy, but well worth it for the views. Little did we know how ‘bumpy’ it would be….