Never was I so happy to leave Monywa. We had spent four days in a hotel that gave the word ‘dingy’ new meaning, not to mention, I had been utterly bored there. We had also been stuffed to the point of no return, by my mother’s unrelenting childhood friend and her family.
On the morning of the 29th December, we got up at about 3am and packed the last of our things. My mother’s friend and her daughter picked us up from our hotel and then drove a little way to the bus port, where we said our farewells. Our trip from Monywa to Bagan was in a mini-bus that seated 8 people. I sat in a corner seat and listened to my iPod and tried to sleep (unsuccessfully) the whole way. The bus trip was almost 3 hours, and I was still exhausted once we arrived in Bagan.
From the bus drop off spot, we got a truck to Bagan Princess Hotel in Nyaungoo, and dropped off our baggage, as well as quickly freshening up and heading out for the day. The three of us were still exhausted from waking up early, so on our first day, we only went to a few temples nearby.
The first pagoda we visited was a 15 minute walk from our hotel. With its dusty roads and historic temples, Bagan was a welcome change from the quiet riverside city of Monywa.
Bagan is a major cultural and historical site in Myanmar, and due to this, there were a ton of tourists gathered in many places. It was a marked contrast to Monywa, where I had seen literally zero tourists. Funnily enough, seeing tourists made me feel comfortable again, like I was less of an outsider.
After walking to one temple, we walked back to the hotel. In Bagan, the main forms of transport are trucks, scooters, and horse drawn carts. There are taxis, but not many, so the times that we did catch taxis, they were booked in advance and not hailed from the street.
Our first day in Bagan was quiet- after seeing a pagoda nearby our hotel, we returned to our room and rested before going to another pagoda to watch the sun set, and then went to dinner at a restaurant nearby.
I was pleased to see that our hotel in Bagan had comfortable amenities, such as a pool and free breakfasts. There was also a WiFi connection, but it was terrible, and it often didn’t work in the hotel rooms, so I would go down to the lobby to use it.
On the second morning, we woke up early and had breakfast at the hotel, before our pre-booked taxi came to pick us up at 8:30am. My parents informed the taxi driver that I wanted to see as many pagodas I could climb that day. This was the first pagoda of the day and I found this one different to the majority of the other pagodas in Bagan, as it was more ornate, and resembled the pagodas I’d seen in Mandalay and Yangon.
A section of this temple also contained a giant, reclining Buddha.
Shortly after that, we went to a pagoda which I climbed. This was the first of three that I climbed that day, and it was the only one that had a hand railing. The stairs were quite steep, and each step had the length of a very small foot- perhaps about a size 6. People with larger feet will have parts of their feet hanging off the step when they climb.
As you can see, the payoff for climbing these abysmal steps wasn’t great. I have a bad fear of heights, and cursed myself for climbing when the time came to go back down. My mother and stepfather watched me from the bottom, laughing, as they sipped on coconuts. By the time I got down, I was shaking, red-faced and sweaty.
At the pagodas that were climbable, I saw a lot of elderly tourists going up the steep, dangerous stairs and despite my deathly fear of heights, this motivated me to climb as well. This wasn’t a problem until I got to the second pagoda of the day. The first pagoda had been an easy ride in comparison to this one. The height of these stairs was actually lower in comparison to the first one, but had no railing.
Again, my fear of heights kicked in once I got to the top and looked at how high up I was. I imagined falling off, and cracking my head open at the bottom. At the top of this particular pagoda, it was very narrow, and people who were walking at the top had to squeeze in past one another. I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of this, and began wanting to go down immediately after I had taken these few pictures. As I began to descend the stairs though, I felt my deathly fear grip me again, and I began trembling as I went down. It was so bad that I had to sit on each step and inch myself down.
I was so scared that I was drawing attention to myself from passersby who were also climbing, and people at the bottom. I could hear the taxi drivers at the bottom of the pagodas talking about me, saying “Why did she bother going up if she can’t get back down?” It was a good question. I felt ashamed because I had climbed the pagoda in an attempt to get over my fear of heights, but really it had done nothing to assuage my fear.
I continued to inch myself down, a shaking, red-faced, sweaty mess. I was at the point of tears when two kind men came and helped me down. I was never so grateful for anything in my life. When I came down and saw my mother, she said I shouldn’t have climbed the pagoda if I was that scared, and it was my own fault.
Even after that terrifying experience, I still hadn’t learned my lesson. There was another smaller, climbable pagoda right across from that one, and I thought I’d climb it too.
The smaller pagoda that I climbed. The highest level of this one was already crowded with tourists, seemingly having staked out a spot for hours, waiting for sunset. I decided not to make it more crowded, and only ascended the lowest level of the pagoda, and took a few photos there.
After that, we visited some other temples. At this point, I was seriously exhausted and just wanted to go back to the hotel and rest, but we had booked the taxi for the day, so my parents wanted to get as many sights in as possible.
At this temple, I saw some little boys throwing rocks at a wasp’s nest, for want of something more exciting to do.
We had dinner at a restaurant near our hotel. I got food poisoning shortly after, but I’m not sure if it was from the restaurant I had dinner at (what I think) or because I dumped a whole bowl of chili on top of my rice for lunch (what my mum thinks). This was the first time I would get food poisoning on the trip, but not the last.
That night, my mother made sure I took some tablets that she had gotten from a doctor the week before in Mandalay. They worked, but they gave me bad stomach pains.
Bagan is a city of extreme weather. While we were there, temperatures would reach about 35 degrees (Celsius) during the day, and go down to about 20 degrees (Celsius) at night. January is dry season in Burma, so in hot season (March-late May) I’ve been told that it usually goes up to mid 40 degrees. Even with temperatures in the mid 30 degree range though, it was too hot for myself and my parents. In the days that followed after the day I climbed 3 pagodas, a lot of my time was spent swimming or relaxing by the side of the pool.
On New Year’s Day, we caught a ferry to a pagoda on top of a cliff.
That day though, they happened to be updating the gold around it, and so this was what it looked like.
Aside from that, we enjoyed the scenic view, and the company of a friendly dog.
After walking around here a little bit, we caught the ferry back and visited another historic temple, which had preserved paintings from hundreds of years ago on the walls.
There were bat droppings on the wall, and a musty odor pervaded the atmosphere as we walked through. While I was visiting this temple, a young girl pounced on me and began explaining the history of the temple to me. Out of obligation, I bought a book from her as I exited the temple.
Bagan is split into two parts: new Bagan and old Bagan. My mother told me that there is nothing in old Bagan but temple ruins, and all the homes were moved to new Bagan. We actually didn’t get a chance to explore new Bagan, as my mother dismissed it, saying that it was just a residential area.
Many hotels in Bagan are in Nyaungoo, a town bordering Bagan. Nyaungoo and Bagan are very close to each other in proximity, and there are many restaurants that cater for tourists on the main strip.
The morning of the 3rd of January, we woke up early, checked out, and boarded a bus back to Yangon. The trip took around 8 hours, with two short breaks. The WiFi connection in Bagan had been terrible, and I was looking forward to getting back to a fast Internet connection in Yangon, but sad to leave Bagan, which had been one of my favourite places on the trip.