In a stroke of good luck, the once-a-week boat from Mandalay to Bagan happened to be leaving exactly when I wanted to make the trip. As we pushed off at 6am on Monday morning, a quick look at the deck made me wonder if every single tourist in Mandalay had been funneled into one spot. The boat’s popularity made sense – it was spacious and comfortable, took less time than the bus, and even offered air-conditioned interior cabins with movies playing on big TVs. At one point they showed Rambo, First Blood Part 2, and a tourist who saw the boat’s DVD menu told me it had every single Sylvester Stallone movie except one: Rambo IV, where Stallone’s character battles the Burmese military.
We glided down the cocoa-colored Ayeyarwady River and arrived in Bagan at 3pm, right on schedule. The boat ride was smooth, efficient, and comfortable – the best transportation experience I had in Myanmar. Nothing else even came close.
From the Bagan jetty I hired a tattoo-covered trishaw driver to take me to my hotel. Probably not the best choice. The fact that the driver’s English was unintelligible didn’t stop him from talking incessantly and forcefully, and it wasn’t long before he wore himself out. Halfway up the first hill I had to get out and help him push the trishaw to the top.
Bagan is one of the most impressive ancient sites in all of Southeast Asia, eclipsed only by Angkor in Cambodia. In terms of individual temples Angkor wins hands-down. But Bagan exceeds even Angkor when it comes to the sheer number of temples – across the flat Bagan plain there are more than 4,000 stupas and pagodas rising up from the jungle, most of them over 800 years old.
My hotel had a nice view of the southern edge of the Bagan plain, but there didn’t seem to be anything else around. I put my bags in my room and, armed with directions from the front-desk receptionist, started walking towards the center of New Bagan, the nearest town. I didn’t get very far before I was joined by Min-Min, a skinny nineteen-year-old local. “Where you go?” he asked.
“I’m just looking around,” I told him.
“Sure, sure,” Min-Min said, introducing me to a popular phrase in Bagan. Locals who spoke English rarely said “yes” when they could say “sure, sure” instead. Like hundreds of other young men in the area, Min-Min was trying to make money by selling paintings he made with sand from the nearby river. “I am next Picasso,” he said with a laugh. Min-Min was also trying to get a degree in English from a university in Mandalay. He said he’d eventually like to be a licensed tour guide.
The main drag didn’t offer much, so we turned back to the hotel. I asked Min-Min if he knew a spot nearby with good sunset views. “Sure, sure,” he said, pointing to a pair of temples relatively close to my hotel. “Twin Sisters.”
I grabbed my camera gear and met back up with Min-Min just before the sun went down. He led us to the Twin Sisters – a pagoda and a stupa side-by-side – and showed me a concealed interior stairway I never would have found on my own. We climbed the pagoda’s steep, narrow stairs and had a great view of the Bagan plain as the sun set over the Ayeyarwady.
Earlier at the hotel I’d bumped into Tim, a German tourist I recognized from the Mandalay boat. Tim suggested that we share a horsecart the next day, which sounded good to me. So I asked Min-Min if he could recommend a good horsecart driver for us. “Sure, sure. My uncle.” Min-Min said he and his uncle would meet us the next morning at 8:30.
My alarm went off well before dawn and I went back to the Twin Sisters for sunrise. I had the place entirely to myself. Cobwebs clung to my forehead as I felt my way up the pagoda’s steep stone stairs in the pitch black. Clouds again interfered with the morning light, but it turned out to be the best sunrise I saw during all my time in Bagan.
Min-Min and his uncle Ko San picked me and Tim up right on time and we spent the day exploring Bagan’s temples. Tim, a Berliner in his 30s, turned out to be great company. Like me, he left his job to travel for a year. He’d only been on the road for a couple months and had already been hit with some health problems – first he picked up Dengue Fever and now he thought he might have malaria. But he seemed fine and said he felt better as the day went along.
At some of the temples Min-Min acted as our informal tour guide, but usually he didn’t have a chance. Local souvenir sellers (required by the government to buy a site-specific vendor license) often used a technique where they would welcome us to the temple, insert themselves as our guides while we explored the site, and then – hoping we’d feel indebted – try to sell us something before we left. Tim and I usually held out, but the sellers were mostly young people trying to help their families and we broke down once or twice.
At one of the temples a small child in a large group of Burmese tourists waved at me and yelled hello (“Min-gala-ba!”). I said hello back, inadvertently setting off a who-can-be-the-last-one-to-say-min-gala-ba competition that left the little kid in a fit of laughter. As I walked out of the temple some of the adults ran up to me and shoved the still-laughing kid into my arms so their entire group could take photos of us. Once again the tables were turned. It happened so quickly I didn’t even get a photo of my own.
In the late afternoon we went to Shwe-san-daw Paya, one of the most popular sunset sites. Clouds blocked the horizon and most tourists left early, but it wasn’t a total bust – eventually a little bit of color appeared and several of the larger temples were lit up as darkness fell.