…other than temple-hopping, that is, as obviously it is THE thing to do in Bagan. So much so in fact, that I felt it warranted a separate post.
My list is, of course, based on my experience. If you have anything to add, please feel free to comment!
1. Bike / e-bike around Bagan
Biking, like walking, is always a fun way of seeing a new place. You control your itinerary, discover hidden gems, have a more intimate feel of the surroundings, and get a better chance at engaging the locals in conversation. It costs much less, too, compared with other transporation options. On the flip side, it is tiring being your own driver, especially under the sometimes-unforgiving heat of the sun.
Enter the e-bike. Forget about the agony of pedaling. All you have to do is sit, hold the handlebar, point to your intended direction, and push the handlebar forward to accelerate. Or so thought our blissfully ignorant minds. It was clear after a few failed – and frankly quite pathetic – attempts that there was a compatibility problem between the e-bike and us. It just wasn’t working, and so we had to nip it in the bud and say nah, we’re better off with them horse carts. A keen onlooker, however, would probably say that we had the handlebar death grip and so were inclined to keep on accelerating without being able to hit brake if our life depended on it, because you know, death grip. But whatever.
– Bike/e-bike are offered by most hostels. Quality can vary greatly, so rent early in the morning to get the best ones.
– You can also actually pedal the e-bike for whatever reason (bike is losing charge, or you have the death grip as well) though it might be more tiring to pedal an e-bike.
– Sunscreen, hat and water are your bestfriends.
2. Visit a lacquerware workshop
Recommended: Ever Stand Lacquerware Workshop,
between Old Bagan and Nyaung U, Wet Kyi Village, Bagan
(9651)60214 / (959) 204 2252
LOOK FOR THE MUSTACHE
I was initially indisposed to visit a lacquerware shop knowing it is in many organized travel group’s itinerary, hence could just be a tourist trap to get sales commission. But we didn’t have anything planned one afternoon, and we saw this respectable-looking shop sitting quietly across the street from where we were having late lunch. We decided to take a peek. A few rows of lacquerware merchandise later, curiosity turned into genuine interest, and we soon found ourselves drawn into the workshop, which, it turns out, is the infinitely-more interesting part, as this is where all the magic happens – because isn’t it magic when something so beautiful can be made entirely by hand?
As you can see above, it almost looks like plastic, and looks and feels sturdy. I thought it was wood covered in something like black, glossy varnish. Turns out the coat is lacquer, a tree sap very similar to rubber, initially pale yellow but turns black upon exposure to air. And to my utter awe, the body is made of bamboo, or – you’ll never be ready for this – horse hair! But enough of my blabbing, you’ll learn more if you hear it from those who live and breathe lacquerware. I truly did.
Learning from the son’s owner. Both he and his mustached father (not in photo) were extremely engaging even though they only had the two of us as audience.
3. Talk to a Karenni woman
…or exchange smiles with one, since most of them don’t speak English and most of us don’t speak Burmese. The Kayan tribe is not native to Bagan, but a few of them have relocated there, probably to earn more from the tourism in the area. I’ve been curious about those neck rings since I learned about them. Some say that in the days of yore, it was a way to make them unattractive to other tribes so that they won’t be made into slaves; and yet others say it is an accessory for them to make them attractive. Regardless of its beginnings, these days it is simply a mark of cultural identity.
Girls start wearing them as early as 5 years old, and by the time they’re 20, they have 8 kilos worth of brass coils numbering to up to 24 rings. Imagine that weight! So, while it may seem like the coils elongate their necks, the sad truth is that it is just an illusion created by their collar bones being pushed down and rib cage being compressed. It is now being discouraged, especially among the younger ones, not just for health reasons but to also give them a better chance at pursuing higher education without being ostracized.
4. Watch a puppet show while having dinner
Free at Nanda Restaurant
Bagan lacks the night life of Bangkok or Siem Reap, but they have another form of entertainment: puppet shows. There is live singing and playing of instruments with several snippets of stories by expert puppeteers – all this while you enjoy good, traditional Burmese food.
– While the show is free, the food is a bit pricier than other restaurants
– The bestseller is the traditional Burmese food set, but there are a wide array of food options available
5. Enjoy traditional Burmese food
Myanmar food is a delicious confluence of Chinese, Thai and Indian food, so you have noodles, curries, and spices – all of which I love. Dishes are served simultaneously – rice, 1-2 viands, several side dishes, and condiments – and sometimes beautifully in lacquerware.
Having said that, I have to warn you of two things:
1. If your taste buds are anything like mine, you will find that there is a certain weird-tasting and weird-smelling something in some food, particularly if you eat at eateries that seem, for lack of a better phrase, too local
2. There are some restaurants where, just by looking at it, you know have acceptable standard of cleanliness in terms of facilities, utensils, and food preparation; and then there are the others. Thankfully there are enough of the first type to keep you away from the second.
6. Enjoy Myanmar Lager
While we’re on the subject of food, why not pair it with Myanmar Lager Beer? I’m not a beer person, but I took a sip and I thought it was alright, quite like San Mig Light. Don’t take my word for it though, take it from my friend who ordered it twice or thrice. I thought that was a good sign.
7. Go crazy with thanaka designs on your cheeks
Thanaka paste sold at Thanaka Museum in Nyaung U, K1,000 per bottle
Make your cheeks a canvas to your imagination while protecting it against the sun, too! Made by grinding the bark of certain trees on a stone slab to produce a pasty product, thanaka is worn by women and some men to cool the skin, protect against the sun, and to an extent, look prettier, too. You can apply it any way you want – evenly all over the face the way you apply foundation, or in patches of circle, square, leaf design, sun, clouds – really any way you want, and no one will even ridicule you! Also, I honestly cannot recall meeting a Burmese woman with acne, so I can’t help but ask: is thanaka the secret?
– If you just want to try it, ask your hotel receptionist, she probably has one with her.
– You can experience making thanaka – tree barks and slabs and all – at the Thanaka Museum in Nyaung U, or, again, through your hotel receptionist
8. Wear longyi (men) or Hta Mein (women)
Men in Bagan, and in Myanmar in general, still wear longyi, a cloth that looks like a skirt when worn. It was amusing and refreshing seeing men off to work in their collared long sleeves, satchel bags, and… longyi! It’s like a struggle between old and new.
I had fun wearing the woman’s version of it, called the Hta Mein, while also wearing thanaka. The locals seemed to appreciate the gesture too. Incidentally, don’t forget to visit Shwezigon Paya in Nyaung U as well.
9. Buy souvenirs in support of the local economy
Be it lacquerware, longyi, thanaka cream, antique knives, key chain – buy local products if you can. And if you aren’t cash-strapped, just try to believe them when they say it’s the last price in a haggling battle. Myanmar is just opening to the world, and they could use an extra thousand kyat or two. My favorite are the sand paintings, which are really reasonably-priced. In fact, the amount I paid for framing in Manila is about 5x the cost of the sand painting itself!
10. Interact with people
Myanmar’s real magic is its soft-spoken, helpful, always-smiling, thanaka and longyi-wearing people. Sure, there’s the horse cart driver who duped us, but he is the exception, thankfully; and to be fair, he found us a new driver first before he eloped with his wealthier new conquest. In hindsight, there were many situations in which we could have easily been really cheated or made victims in ways I don’t even want to think about, but I always felt very safe. Yes we were lucky, and my prayers for a safe trip were heard, but I also believe that the Burmese are a genuinely kind and honest people. Perhaps it’s their being Buddhist (mostly). Or that fact that they have been relatively unexposed to the evils of the rest of the world. Whatever it is, I urge you to “experience” them, it will be worth your while.
There is one more thing, but I’m not 100% sure I’d like to recommend it. I’ll still write about it and then you can do more research on it if this is something you want to experience.
~2 hrs from Bagan
Shared shuttle: K10,000
Private vehicle: K35,000
Mt. Popa is home to Myanmar’s 37 nats, or spirits, who were historically so important that Kings consulted them before making important decisions. You may think of it as Burma’s Mt Olympus, and the nats the counterparts of Zeus, Hera, Poseidon and the rest of the 12 Olympians. On top of it is a gilded Buddhist temple reachable via 777 steps from the mountain’s base. I didn’t finish the 777 steps, mainly because, as in other temples, shoes and socks are not allowed, but the place is really too dirty to be walking barefoot, and there were monkeys all over the place who would sometimes steal your food. If you can, perhaps it is better to hire a guide, so that the religious importance and history of the place can be explained, and maybe then it will be worth getting your feet dirty.
HOW TO GO TO BAGAN FROM YANGON BY BUS
ETD Yangon: 8:00 PM; ETA Bagan: 5:30 – 6:00 AM the next day
JJ Express has an overnight bus leaving Yangon Highway Bus Station (aka Aung Mingalar Bus Station) at 8PM and arriving in Bagan between 5:30 to 6:00 AM the next day. You can reserve through their facebook page, fare to be paid upon arrival at the bus station. Traffic from central Yangon can be bad, so allot at least 2 hours travel time. There are a few eateries beside the JJ waiting area, but they aren’t the most appetizing, so best to bring food for dinner, although there is also a dinner stop at around 11:30 PM. Seats are 2+1, meaning 2 seats on the left side, and 1 seat on the right. Seats are reclining (I think more than 135 degrees), comfortable, and with built-in mini-table for eating or working. A blanket, water and snacks are provided. The bus left Yangon and arrived in Bagan on schedule.
WHERE TO STAY IN BAGAN
The backpacker hostels are mostly in the Nyaung Oo area, near the bus terminal; budget hotels are mostly in Old Bagan, while the more expensive ones are in the New Bagan area. We stayed in a guesthouse between Nyaung Oo and Old Bagan.
New Wave Guesthouse
K50,000 /night/room (good for 2 pax)
Between Nyaung-Oo and Old Bagan
The best thing about the hotel is its location, with nice restaurants around and very near a sunset/sunrise viewpoint, which saved us a few thousand Kyats as we were able to walk to the place. The Old Bagan area where most of the temples are can also be walked or biked from the hotel.
The room is spacious, with hot and cold shower, blow dryer, a/c, wi-fi (not the fastest) and breakfast (so-so, but won’t complain for the price paid). The staff is very helpful, especially with booking tours or arranging transportation to your next destination.