Julia was scheduled to be in Vietnam for her second of three business trips from March 16th through March 19th. I decided to not travel with her after getting back from our trip in HCMC – her trip would be a couple of days in HCMC and then Hanoi in North Vietnam. I always had the option of going with her to North Vietnam on her third business trip, but I didn’t have a strong desire to go back to HCMC. If my flight and other expenses were paid for, I suppose I might have gone – but I didn’t feel like there was anything really calling me back to visit HCMC again so soon.
With a trip to Phuket starting on March 20th and lasting two weeks, I found myself suddenly realizing that we were running low on time in SEA! One place that Julia and I had talked about traveling to was Myanmar, which is perhaps best known for striking views of pagodas in the mists of Bagan. We decided against going earlier because it was much more expensive to get to Bagan than other options such as Laos or Cambodia. However, with me having a few days without Julia, I had the option of going to Myanmar for half of the cost, and I decided to jump on it!
Getting to Bagan from Chiang Mai, though they are pretty close geographically, is not so simple. The only international airports in Myanmar are in Mandalay and Yangon, and then everything else is either a bus/train ride (which I read enough horror stories about to decide against trying) or a flight on one of the several government-regulated airlines. It actually took me quite a while to book tickets between Mandalay and Bagan simply because of the fact that there are not daily flights between those airports. I finally put the puzzle pieces together and booked my flights and hotels, which was quite a lengthy process. In the end, I got a one-way ticket from Chiang Mai to Mandalay on Tuesday, and hotel in Mandalay on Tuesday night, a round trip ticket between Mandalay and Bagan from Wednesday to Saturday, a hotel in Bagan for three nights, and then a one-way ticket from Mandalay to Phuket (with a stopover in Bangkok). Phew!
On the way to the airport on Tuesday afternoon, we stopped off at a place known for delicious Khao Soi, since I wouldn’t be back in Chiang Mai for over two weeks! Julia and I parted ways as she dropped me off with the moped – other than a twenty hour period for her first business trip, we’ve basically been together for 100% of this entire vacation! I certainly miss her, but it will be fun to explore on my own for a few days (and she is going to be so busy with work that she’ll barely have any time to think about me!).
As the plane descended over Mandalay, I was reminded of scenes of the typical sci-fi movie where a biplane lands in an airport isolated in a jungle. Even in Siem Reap and Luang Prabang, the airports were in close proximity to what was clearly a relatively large metropolis. Landing in Mandalay, I think I may have seen a hut or two among the rice paddies, but nothing else but trees and farmland as far as the eye could see!
After going through immigration and customs (I had to apply for an e-Visa ahead of time, but it only took a couple of minutes to pass immigration unlike Cambodia and Vietnam), I bought a sim card and reserved a spot on an A/C bus headed to town. My flight the next morning left at 6:10am, and it was already close to 5pm, so I knew I would only have time for dinner and maybe to walk around the city for a bit before it got too dark. As I waited for the bus to fill up so we could leave, I opened Bing maps so I could get my bearings and see how far we were from town. My first reaction to seeing the “1 hr 15 min” time estimate was that my GPS didn’t know where I was, or that Bing maps was just being stupid. Once the bus started moving and the little red dot on my phone started moving with it, however, I knew the truth. It turns out that while there is an airport only ten minutes from town, that one is no longer used. “Mandalay International Airport” is quite far away from the city … or anything at all. So, the plane tickets I bought basically gave me a twelve hour layover with a hotel that was an hour from the airport. Fun stuff!
Once I finally got to my hotel, I dropped off my things and asked where I could find a good place to eat with local food. The (very friendly, of course) receptionist recommended a place only a few blocks away, so I started walking. Mandalay is an interesting city – the heart of downtown, where my hotel was, is developed pretty well, with tall office buildings, a train station, stop lights, and roads that were well-labelled and intersected each other at ninety degree angles – certainly more than anyone could say about most other cities in SEA. The roads were very wide – even with cars going both directions, there was plenty of room for me to walk without feeling like I was in anybody’s way. The way the city is set up is remarkably similar to the typical American town!
After a delicious dinner consisting of a sweet and sour prawn curry (with twelve prawns – I counted the tails afterwards) and a Myanmar beer, I walked back to the hotel to get some sleep for my early morning. On the way back, I stopped in at a store that had some clothes for sale, hoping to buy a longyi, which is basically a sarong that I saw almost every Myanmar man wearing. I looked around on the shelves without any luck, but somehow the owner of the shop knew what I was looking for without me having to even ask for anything! She unwrapped a new one, and even helped me put it on. A great souvenir, and should make for some comfortable pajama pants back home (or maybe I’ll start a new fashion trend).
I had some trouble falling asleep, as I usually do the night before an early morning, and I woke up after only an hour of sleep to a bright light suddenly appearing in my room. Tired and confused, I shielded my eyes from the source of the light, a series of bright white bulbs next to the A/C unit in my room. I stumbled out of bed to turn them off, but couldn’t figure out how to do so no matter how many switches I tried. I finally resorted to removing the room key from the holder in my room, cutting off all power to my room – which included the A/C unit. I shuffled back to bed and passed out, only to wake up two hours later to a hot bedroom. I plugged my key back in to turn on the A/C, and thankfully the mysterious spotlight didn’t turn on with it. The rest of the night was full of tossing and turning until my alarm went off at 4:20.
I got dressed and walked downstairs, and the receptionist seemed surprised to see me. They had (very nicely) arranged a cab for me to take me to the airport at 4:30, but I looked up at the clock and it was only 4:00. Huh? Well, it turns out that Myanmar is a half hour behind Thailand and the rest of SEA, so when I set my alarm on my iPad (which isn’t connected to the internet) for 4:20, I really set it for 3:50 local time. But who needs sleep, eh? Thankfully, the taxi driver arrived ten minutes early and I was off to the airport. The ride was relaxing – the driver didn’t play any music, had the A/C at just the right temperature, and never tried to start conversation with me (which I normally don’t mind, but I do at 4:30 in the morning!), and I definitely tipped a little extra for that. I walked into the airport a full hour before my flight, and started to get a little anxious when I realized that I was literally the only other traveler in the terminal. I looked up at the flight board and saw that my flight (originally scheduled for 6:10) was listed as leaving at 5:00, and cancelled. I called the agency that I booked with, and they said “oh yeah, we cancelled that flight”. Practically laughing at my series of misfortunes at this point, I asked how I was going to get to Bagan. They said not to worry, there was another flight leaving at 8:20 that morning with a different airline. I only had to present my original ticket and I would be on that flight. Go figure.
Well, I waited a few hours at the empty airport, and like they promised, I walked up to the counter of a different airline and they had my name on a list already. This seems to be par for the course when flying in Myanmar – flights are cancelled for seemingly no reason and with no notice at all, but since all of the airlines are run by the government, it is usually very simple to get a replacement flight. The flight I did get on was only half full, and only took about twenty-five minutes to get to Bagan. Since I flew domestic and didn’t check any bags, I was able to go from landing in Bagan at 8:35 to walking in to my hotel at 8:55. Pretty impressive! Amazingly, my hotel was able to check me in at nine in the morning after only a short wait, and they even had electric scooters available for rent for very cheap! I decided that I would explore Bagan as much as I could in the morning while it was still (relatively) cool, then come back to the hotel to take a nap during the hot part of the day.
I left the hotel on my little electric bike and started driving north to where all of the biggest temples are. Not two minutes after being on the road, I started seeing large pagodas off the side of the road. Excited, I pulled over and started exploring! There are over 3,000 individual monuments in the Bagan archaeological site, an area covering roughly seventeen square miles, though by some estimates there were once up to 14,000! While the vast majority of these monuments are simple pagodas only 10-15 feet tall, some of them are large buildings – once used as monasteries, libraries, or temples – and their size rivals some of the grandest monuments of Angkor.
A local woman got my attention and showed me that one of the nearby temples had stairs to climb to the top (only about twenty feet up) for a good view. I walked up, and was amazed at how much I could see. Bagan is a very flat area, so climbing up any significant height will give you a view of the entire area!
I got back on the road, resisting the urge to stop at every single temple on the side of the road, and kept driving. After a few more minutes, I came to a rather large temple called Manuha Phaya. As I would find out over the next few days, the largest temples in Bagan attract the locals – not only because they worship at the temples, but because the large temples attract tourists. Every large temple (and many small ones) had simple stands set up to sell various items, such as souvenirs, snacks, or cold drinks. The largest temples had homes, restaurants, and other shops like convenience stores and banks nearby. The whole city of Bagan was like this – rather than one concentrated area of businesses, houses, and hotels that grows less dense the further you get from the center, there are dozens of congregations like the one I stumbled on that dot the area.
I got off the bike and explored the grand temple of Manuha. Bagan seems to be a popular tourist attraction not only for Westerners, but for people of Southeast Asia as well – including Burmese (i.e. people from Myanmar) people that don’t live in Bagan. Burmese people are easy to identify – the men all wear longyi, and the women all wear sarongs, and people of both genders (though mostly women) adorn their faces with Thanaka cream. Their skin is also darker than the people from the rest of SEA. At all of the largest temples that I visited, Burmese people were the most common tourist by far. They visited temples not only to give alms and worship, but to learn about this historical place as well.
I walked around Manuha Temple, which in hindsight was one of the most ornate temples in Bagan. Inside the front of the temple was an incredibly large Golden Buddha sitting in the lotus position, and inside the back was the largest Reclining Buddha I have ever seen!
I stopped at a restaurant nearby for a quick lunch, resolving to stay out as long as I could manage. The “avocado salad” on the menu caught my eye, as I love avocados and hadn’t had many during our travels here. Well, it turns out that a Burmese avocado salad doesn’t have any lettuce or anything – it’s just avocados, peanuts, red peppers, tomatoes, and delicious dressing! There were probably two entire avocados in that salad, and it really hit the spot. I got back on the road and went a little more north, to Gawdawpalin Temple. After taking a few pictures, I could feel that I wasn’t going to last much longer. I got back on the road and headed south back to my hotel, and was glad that I didn’t wait to head home because I had to fight the urge to fall asleep – while riding a bike! Exhausted, I fell asleep only minutes after laying down on my hotel bed.
After a few hours, I woke back up and headed back out to find a good temple to watch the sunset. According to Google, the best view of the sunset over Bagan was at Bulethi temple, so I drove that way. Even with my slow electric bike, nothing in Bagan is more than twenty minutes away! Bulethi was easy to spot, not because of how tall it was, but because of the incredible amount of tourists already packed at the top! I hurriedly parked, and climbed up the steep steps to the top. Luckily, I’m taller than most Asian and Southeast Asian tourists, so I had no trouble getting a good view of the sunset. Thankfully, even though there were so many people there, everyone seemed to appreciate the reverence of Bagan, and we all watched the sunset together in relative silence. After the sun disappeared behind the smoky horizon, I headed back to town for a quick dinner and then back to the hotel – I had to rest up to make sure I had enough energy to see all I wanted!