Sunday, 7 September 2014

A quick guide to the temples of Bagan (mind the guano)

I recently spent four days in Bagan, exploring some of the thousands of temples that dot the plain. Some of them are amazing for their sheer size. Others have beautiful frescos or carvings. Others appeal more because they're out of the way and not well-known, so you have them all to yourself. Here's a quick run-down on visiting the temples.

Views from Shwegugyi
Views from Shwegugyi, as another afternoon storm rolls in (the perils of rainy season)

Old Bagan, defined by the old city walls, is the busiest area of temples. Many of the biggest and best known temples are either inside the walls (That-Byin-Nyu, Shwe-Gu-Gyi, Maha-Bodi, and Bupaya) or just outside it (Ananda Temple).

The whole area is filled with tourists in the high season, and desperate horse cart drivers in the off season ("Three days I have no fares - I give you good price!"). But don't expect a lot of development / infrastructure - there are a cluster of restaurants and cafes by Ananda and just outside of the nearby Tharaba Gate, and a few small shops outside Bupaya and That-Byin-Nyu. But most of the land between the temples is empty, except for a few big, overpriced hotels by the river.

There are pay toilets behind That-Byin-Nyu (a cheap "local" squat toilet, and a more expensive "VIP" tourist with flush toilets, soap, hot water, hand dryers and toilet paper - well worth the extra 20 cents in my opinion). There's also a squat toilet near Bupaya.

Gawdaw Palin Pahto
Gawdaw Palin Pahto, looming over the surrounding countryside. You can climb up the the terraces for fantastic views.

South of Old Bagan, you'll find the laquerware village of Myinkaba. Take your pick of the workshops that line both sides of the main street - you can see demonstrations of the technique, watch the craftsmen and women at work, and (of course) buy loads of beautiful bowls, plates, boxes and cups. Lots of restaurants are also found in this area.

A large number of quiet, small temples are easily accessible from the road that runs from Old Bagan to New Bagan, via Myinkaba, so a nice option would be to cycle or walk between Old Bagan and New Bagan, with a lunch stop in Myinkaba.

Tabatyka, a small temple just inside the Tharaba Gate, near the excavations of the ruined royal palace

Covering the dusty plains and farmland heading East of Old Bagan you'll find the second selection of well known temples. You can climb massive temples like Shew-san-daw (hugely popular for dawn and dusk viewing), watch the sunset from quieter temples like Buledi.

Buddha at Pahto Tha-Myar
Beautiful Buddha at Pahto Tha-Myar

Don't be afraid to set out on foot, or on bike, across the plains. No matter how turned around you get, you can't get seriously lost (sooner or later, you'll cross one of the main roads and find your way back to civilisation). On the way, you'll stumble across tiny, unvisited temples filled with ceramic Buddhas, or guarded by elephant statues. You'll have them all to yourself.

If you take the main road from Old Bagan to Nyaung U, you'll be in countryside most of the way, until you reach the village of Wetkyi-inn (just before you reach Nyaung U), so pack loads of water.

Elephant statue
Figures guarding one of the small temples on the North plain - an elephant and... whatever the hell that is. Monkey?

The easiest ways to move around the historic park are 1) renting a bicycle, 2) renting an e-bike, or 3) taking the pick-up truck.

Bicycles are available to rent everywhere, for about $1.50 per day. They're a practical and easily accessible way to get around the site - the land is mostly flat, has very little car traffic on the roads, and a bike also allows you to leave the roads and explore the dirt tracks that criss-cross the plains. Watch out for loose patches of sand on those dirt tracks - it's easy to lose grip on your tyres or get bogged down in them.

E-bikes are also available to rent everywhere, and have become hugely popular in the past few years as they take away all the effort of pedaling - a blessing to lazy or tired travelers. But you need to be aware of your insurance situation. They're not really electronic bikes, as they have throttles and the engine runs even when you're not pedaling, which means they're technically scooters. In order to ride one, your travel insurance will require you to have a driver's license (so your fourteen year old kid is out of luck).

Finally, you can take a pick-up to any of the towns (Old Bagan, New Bagan, Myinkaba, etc) and make your way back on foot, exploring as you wish without needing to backtrack to get back to your hotel. Pick ups leave from under the big trees near the roundabout at the eastern end of Nyaung U (near the market). Climb on board and prepare to get squished (they pack in as many people and deliveries as they can). Expect a lot of shy smiles (tourists don't use these a lot). Tell the conductor (the man who hangs off the back bumper) where you're going, and he'll drop you at the right place, and collect your money as you get off. The local fares are 200 kyat, but tourists are charged 1000 kyat. Technically, you should be able to flag the pick-up down on the main Bagan - Nyaung U road. Main stops include Tharaba gate (at the entrance to Old Bagan), Myinkaba, and then into New Bagan.

The North plains of Bagan
The North plains of Bagan, dotted with temples, farmland, and wandering goat herders.

Remember to carry lots of water (there aren't many places to get refills around the ruins - especially on the plains where there's almost no infrastructure), sunscreen and a sunhat. A torch is a good idea, for exploring inside the temples - it's frequently quite dark inside, and the floors can be uneven, damaged, or covered in bat guano.

One thing I simply cannot wrap my head around is the way the concept of unsullied ground is applied here. I know shoes are considered dirty, and the temples are considered holy, so you have to take your shoes and socks off before you enter every temple as a sign of respect, and to avoid bringing in dirt from outside....but they're hardly clean to begin with. Dogs and cats are allowed to wander about at will (regardless of whether they're new or old temples). Local people eat, drink, and smoke in the temples, dropping crumbs and cigarette ash as they go. Most of the older temples, like here in the historical park, have bats roosting in them, dropping guano all over the floor.

So I have to take my shoes off so I don't sully a holy place, and then walk barefoot through batshit? In the dark so I can't see what I'm stepping on? Are you kidding me?

I understand why the temple should be kept clean, I just don't understand why dogs, cats, bats, cigarettes and food are exempt from that rule....

But that is, I suppose, one of the great things about traveling: constantly running up against things you just don't understand, people with different attitudes and experiences. It'll fuck with your brain some days, but it's part of what makes travel so exciting.

Oh, why you should always carry baby wipes.

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