Without a doubt, Bagan was our favourite destination during this 2-weeks adventure. Scampering up temple ruins (sometimes through tiny openings and corridors that makes one wonder about the size of the past-humans. Have we evolved that much?!) and witnessing the awakening of the Bagan plain during each sunrise are some highlights of this segment. At Bagan, it was also obvious that Myanmar is on its way to internationalisation – besides the throngs of tourists, we also came across a number of restaurants and cafes operated by foreigners.
From Mandalay to Bagan (Slow boat ride along the Ayeyarwaddy River)
We had planned to try the various modes of transportation as we travelled across Myanmar. It thus seemed logical to travel downstream the Ayeyarwaddy River, from Mandalay to Bagan. We were looking forward to a slow and exotic ride with the locals, produce, and whatever else that comes along. The slow boat operates from Mandalay every Wednesday and Sunday at 5 am, and costs US$15 per person. However, with YM’s food poisoning situation, we had to forgo the initial plan of hopping onto the junk boat.
Back at Kaung Wai Hotel in Mandalay, we had requested for the hotel receptionist to purchase the tourist boat tickets for us. We also arranged for a taxi to pick us up from the hotel at 4.30 am. We reached the RV Shwe Keinnery Jetty at 4.45 am, and were in time to see the loading of the local boat. With the aim of profiting as much as possible with each boat trip, there were no rules on maximum loading. Everyone and everything were pushed on board. It definitely would have made for an interesting adventure!
The Shwe Keinnery Vessels, on the other hand, boast comfort amenities such as backed passenger seats, sundeck equipped with sun loungers, toilet cubicles, and onboard dining facilities.
Tourist boat ride from Mandalay to Bagan – US$40/pax with complimentary breakfast. Duration – 10 hours. Bagan entrance fee – US$15/pax. Horse cart ride to hotel – US$4 for two.
Bagan Umbra Hotel
We were ‘upgraded’ from a Deluxe Room on the ground floor to a Family Room in the attic of the hotel lobby. There were a few tour groups staying in this hotel and thus was crowded during breakfast. Breakfast was held in the garden everyday, and the spread was reasonable. For the many mosquitoes and flies, the hotel made it up by employing friendly and helpful staff who were able to communicate effectively in English. Bike rentals, wifi at lobby, laundry service were available. In the vicinity of the hotel, there were a number of good local restaurants (eg. Queens) for meals as well. For a deluxe room (incl. breakfast) – US$417 for two (4 nights).
We hired a mini van to bring us around Bagan. In the comfort of the air-conditioned van, we visited a couple of temples and ruins such as the Shwe Zigon Paya and the Thatbyinnyu Temple, and the Min-nan-thu Village. We ended the day at the Ananda Pagoda. Is was quite a climb up the Pagoda, with brick steps that were less than half the width of the feet and high steps such that one needs to lunge upwards. At the top of the pagoda, one gets a 360 degrees view of the flat plains below. As you jostle with the crowd for a comfortable spot to await the sunset, do take care and not topple over!
On our way back to the hotel, we requested our driver to bring us to the coach terminal as well. We purchased tickets for the First Class Sleeper bus by JJExpress, taking a 9 hour journey from Bagan to Yangon. Read more about getting around from Bagan to Yangon here.
Taxi hire for 1 day – US$30, Guide tip at Min-nan-thu Village – US$5, Meals – $17 for two.
Sunrise at Bagan
At the ungodly hour of 4 am, we met our hired driver again. We retraced our steps back to the Ananda Pagoda. This time, to witness the sun rise. It was pitch black, and the climb up the Pagoda was even more challenging this time. Tourists were already camping out at their favourite spots. The sunrise over Bagan has been our most memorable and magical one ever. With the ever changing sky colour, silhouettes of the temple ruins emerging from the dark, gathering dust storms occurring with the warming temperatures, the emerging of the sun from the horizon, and the drifting of the hot air balloons across the Bagan plains, it was a perfect stage for the most amazing photo series.
Embarking on a 1.5 h drive, we arrived at Mount Popa. En route, we stopped by a local village where YM finally got a thanaka freshly painted onto her face! Thanaka is a local cosmetic paste that comes from a tree bark, and it is a custom for the Myanmese women and children to paint their face in various patterns. The designs can range from solid circles, to random lines, to a picture.
Mount Popa is famous for the community of wild monkeys that reside in the temple surroundings. As usual, we had to take off our shoes at the entrance of the temple. The climb was steep, and was mostly sheltered. Concrete floorings, marble floorings, brick steps, steel shaft steps, stone steps – all littered and stained with monkey wastes – we climbed and stepped on them all. There was no choice. 97% of floor area was covered. Warning for monkey-averse people: They are everywhere throughout the route, and sometimes will try to come near you for food. Some were fierce and grumpy as well. Trick: follow as closely as possible to the locals, or you could prepare a packet of nuts and leave a handful after passing by each group. You are reminded to bring along many wet wipes/tissue as well … after tramping on monkey shit, you will want to give your feet a good antibacterial wipe down!
Taxi hire for one day – US$35, Thanaka – US$1, Meals – US$29 for two.
Exploration of Bagan ruins … on foot!
Armed with a map of Bagan and its ruins, we embarked on a day of walking. It took much determination and perseverance to endure the heat, dust, sand and distance. From the Umbra Hotel (which was in between Nyaung-U and Old Bagan) we walked along the Bagan Nyaung-U Road, towards Old Bagan and passed through the Tharabar Gate. Along the way, it was exciting to sidetrack and explore the many smaller and deserted temple ruins. It was even more exhilarating each time we found one that was ‘climbable’. After making a round through Old Bagan, we returned via Anawaraht Road.
Lunch recommendation: Star Beam – US$13 for two.
Exploring Nyaung-U on foot
The walk to Nyaung-U is essentially down the same road, Bagan Nyaung-U Road, but towards the jetty. Along the way, we passed by several local provision shops. It was obvious that Nyaung-U is the town centre of the area. We finally found the restaurant that we had spotted on the first night while riding into Bagan on the horse cart – The Classroom (Lunch – US$9 for two).
We hopped on to a horse cart back to the hotel, and stopped along the way to pamper ourselves with a foot massage each (massage – US$10/pax). The Library was another fine dining restaurant that we stopped by, just for drinks. This restaurant is situated in an iconic building that cannot be missed (Drinks – US$13 for two).
After a quick dinner at Queens (US$17 for two), it was time to hop on to the pick up truck sent by JJExpress to fetch us to the bus terminal. As the truck made its rounds to the various hotels, we were all squeezed at the back of the truck with our backpacks. Finally, at the bus terminal we were provided with some fresh cold towels and drinks for freshening up, and boarded the first class sleeper bus back to Yangon.