BAGAN HAS BUT BEATEN PATHS
I've never been much of a planner when traveling; I pick destinations based on some narrative that I've come across that gnaws at me until I must go. Then, I fly there seeking a singular experience that I let unfold, and usually, it does.
The narrative of Myanmar, for me, is one that had been cloaked in mystery for a long time. For the majority of my life, the only way I knew how to access this narrative was through the lens of some long-dead writer, often a casual supporter of the colonization of then Burma. But for a small handful of years, I had begun to come across some gorgeously shot, lens-flare-filled travel shows featuring Myanmar that I couldn't shake from my mind.
On every blog, every Instagram, every show you see discussing travel to Myanmar, you will undoubtedly see Bagan touted as an absolute, unequivocal, must-see. Travel sites are flooded with pictures of its sweeping temple plain dotted with hundreds of glittering golden stupas. With hot air balloon-filled skies that seem to defy reality. With smiling, thanaka swiped Burmese faces welcoming you to the spiritual heart of their country.
As many are, I was sold.
From Texas, I performed a quick google search proving that I, as an American citizen with a valid passport, was indeed allowed to go there provided I completed a visa application that I could fill out online. Three weeks after that google search, I took off from O'Hare, and four days after that, I landed in Yangon with a hope and a prayer and a debit card that refused to work.
I had only a finite amount of kyat that I had acquired somewhat circuitously by sending some cash to a friend in the states and having them wire it back to me. I had made it as far as Mandalay when I saw the price tag on a train journey in their wooden-seated Ordinary Class, and I promptly walked down to the train station to book my train a day in advance as it would save me several thousand kyat.
It is a route to Bagan so infrequently taken that there was some contention as to how to issue my ticket, but after being ushered into the back office, introduced to the Station Master, I was handed a warm cup of chai and while three people filled out my ticket by hand. By the time it was done, I had spent about an hour and a dollar.
I arrived at the train station the next day at 7am, twenty minutes early like they had advised, and eleven hard-seated, air-con-less hours later, we pulled onto the platform in Bagan.
Before the train had even stopped, there were taxi and motorbike and trishaw drivers sprinting along the tracks, peering in at my sweaty bespectacled face.
"Hello! Where are you going now?" they yelled through the open windows in English as my Chinese-built train rumbled to a stop along the British tracks. They pulled my bag off the train car and were shocked when I insisted I could carry it myself. I pulled out my phone and showed them where I was staying in Nyuang Oo as we ambled through the sparse colonial train station.
"Ah, yes, yes, I know this one. 10,000 kyat. Please, sit down," A taxi driver with a white, right-hand drive Toyota graciously offered. When I told him I'd sit down for half that, a motorbike driver piped up and offered to take me for my price. I hopped into his sidecar, and we took off down the highway.
Partway there, my driver said something I couldn't quite catch over the din of the two-lane highway, something about "all of Bagan" and "25,000 kyats". I was used to taxi drivers having a side hustle, this was common all over the world, and assumed he was trying to sell me some sort of tour. But soon, I saw the signs in English along the side of the highway touting the entrance fee to the "Bagan Archeological Zone." I had budgeted for this trip down to the last thousand kyat bill: even thinking about peeling 25 of them from my already diminishing stash was unthinkable.
But there, in front of the tourist office on the side of the highway confronted with the stern face of an administrator, I realized I had no other option, so I did precisely that.
I was dropped off at my hotel north of Old Bagan where I had booked a bed in a dormitory for two nights. For this bed, I handed over more than twice as much as I would have in the likes of Mandalay or Yangon, though I had chosen it because it was the cheapest bed in Bagan that I could find.
I climbed the two flights of stairs to find my dorm: four twin beds were shoved into a room made for two at most, and although I was thankful to not be in a bunk for a change, they were Tetrised into the space with the precision of a Danish Lego master leaving little room to so much as step between them. Upon perusing the ensuite bathroom, I found no hot water, and the tub, once enticing on the booking site, hadn't been cleaned in at least a week.
I am not a very picky traveler. I have slept in hammocks and tents in people's yards; I've slept in bus stations and train stations and on the floor at airports all over the world, even once in a dirty, tattered sleeping bag on the dusty ground near the Nicaraguan border. It's not like having no hot water or a stained tub are deal breakers for me, but I was moved nearly to tears by having to pay so much for the privilege.
To put it in perspective: I was paying more for a bed in Bagan than I had recently, literally a few weeks before, paid for two nights in a dorm in Chicago, a city in which I once purchased $14 avocado toast in a subway-tiled "diner" that is also a fastidiously stocked mezcal bar.
In a country where I had until then routinely eaten dinner for fifty cents, two days in Bagan felt flippant and irresponsible; the whole town started to feel like some theme-park-esque frivolity engineered to extract money from me. Fearing I'd run out of cash before catching my flight from Yangon back to Bangkok, I splashed some cold water on myself in the sparse bathroom, tried to wash my hair, smoked a cheap Burmese cigarette on their sparse deck, and went to bed without the dinner I couldn't afford anyway.
In the morning I ate the surprisingly delicious free breakfast offered on the terrace at my hotel, then left to try and capture some of that "Bagan Magic" I had seen sprawled about the internet when I was still stateside. I crossed the gravel parking lot to a little store that also rented eBikes: a small electric scooter you could rent for the day to explore the temple plain seemingly unfettered. I handed the proprietress 5000 more of my precious kyat, promising to return it within 12 hours, just after sunset. She smiled and wished me well. I straddled the slight scooter, turned the throttle, and, in fits and starts, narrowly made it out of the parking lot and onto the paved main drag.
It was just past 7am, the sun had just risen, and the highway wasn't too crowded yet. I had already spent two weeks in Myanmar and was somewhat accustomed to the carefully choreographed series of honks and replies that indicate all kinds of movements on the road like: here I come, I'm behind you, on your left. But there is also the single, long wail that can either mean "get the fuck out of my way you fucking tourist," which can be largely ignored, or "I literally cannot stop you must move to the right or get hit." For me, already a very inexperienced scooter driver, it was difficult discerning between them on the fly, and I was terrified of being incorrect. But my plan, just shy of no plan, was to get the hang of this scooter and get lost among the winding dirt roads of Old Bagan.
I turned off onto a narrow packed-dirt road, and saw six scooters, like mine but likely more expensive, parked beside a tree. "It's okay," I thought. I had come to this town to experience solitude and was already worried about the prospect of being surrounded by tourists everywhere I went.
I locked my bike, pocketed the key, and climbed the small hill to the first small pagoda. I took a look inside. Crossed the way to the next. Looked inside. Snapped a couple pictures with my iPhone. Noted the garbage and graffiti strewn about. I hung out for a few more minutes but left when I heard a small group of Americans approaching me from behind.
This continued most of the morning. Even when I thought I had gone down the narrowest, dustiest, most sand-trapped roads to temples I couldn't even begin to try and ever find again, there they were: throngs of westerners, hordes of Burmese merchants selling everything from crockery to cold bottled water, and, at one temple, a fully-fledged PA system blaring a mix of Burmese and Indian Pop music.
By noon every site started to blur together. Every pagoda began to look the same. The sun was high in the sky, and I was increasingly more uncomfortable, sweatier, dirtier. I had burrs stuck to my tennis shoes and had gotten my bike stuck in the sand more times than I could count. I had been run off the road three or four times already by grand Pullman buses filled from tip to tail with wealthy Chinese and German tourists, and I was noticing a rumbling in my stomach that refused to go away even though I had no appetite whatsoever. I was back in bed by two, kicking myself for having eaten a free meal, and, much like a British colonizer of a hundred years gone, was slowly sipping tonic water (sans gin) to try and rid myself of the stomach bug I had apparently acquired.
Every would-be travel writer I could google seemed head-over-heels for this magical town, so why was I feeling so disappointed?
What is sold to you from afar is this idea of barely controlled chaos, an ancient site ripe for exploration, this notion of ultimate freedom and adventure. But this fantasy that you'll be ambling through a thoroughly abandoned plain alone simply no longer exists. Bagan seems to only have beaten paths and refuses to let you turn from them.
The truth is that most of the once climbable, enterable pagodas are now mostly closed, that all the restaurants all have signs in English and no prices on the menu so they can charge you what they wish. Even the once charming refrain I first heard at the train station of "where are you going now?" is, in fact, a sing-song phrase memorized phonetically by every resident of the area trying to sell you something, anything, and it echoes throughout the temple plain, following you wherever you go.
And your entrance fee? One might assume that it goes somewhat directly to the preservation of Bagan, as it is the largest archeological site in the entire world. In 2015, over 240,000 tourists spent more than $4 million USD in entry fees to Bagan, yet the people charged with their preservation are still strapped to repair them, relying heavily on donations.
A little digging would prove that the best estimates are that only 2% of funds collected at its border actually reach preservation efforts. The rest is funneled back to the government.
The very same government who, for example, is behind the Rohingyan genocide, which was actively occurring just south of where I stood. At that very moment.
I had paid my precious kyat for my scooter for the day, so within a couple hours, though I was only feeling slightly better, I forced myself to return to "exploring." I had run out of tonic water, so I returned to the store where I had rented my scooter.
The proprietress, flanked by her husband, jumped up when I came around the corner. I smiled broadly and waved, I begged her not to get up while she was eating, but she refused. She motioned for me to wait, turned, and quickly prepared a small plate of Laphet Thoke, the famed Burmese fermented green tea leaf and peanut salad that I had not yet tried. She thrust it into my hands before sprinting off to grab more tonic water for me, even though I had not yet asked. When she returned with the yellow can, she asked in clipped English how my stomach was. A little better, I answered, not yet sure what to do with the plate in my hands. "Eat, eat," she said, "this is for you, this will help your stomach." She smiled and pushed the plate in my hand closer to me. I wondered how much it would cost me but took a bite anyway.
My eyes rolled into the back of my head, my stomach quieted somewhat; I had, for the first time, some glimpse of the Bagan I had imagined.
"Seven-hundred," she said to me, smiling, but I knew that was only the cost of my soda having bought two already today. I shook my head, confused.
"And for the laphet?" I asked. She laughed.
"No, no. That is for you. Feel better, okay?"
I handed over a few crumpled bills for my tonic water, unable to tell her what she had given to me.
Sunset was looming, and as I'd be leaving the following day long before dark, I figured it was something I had to see. Tourists and tour guides alike all have their favorite Bagan sunset viewing spots, but I was not among them. I had only an hour to find a place high enough to see it. I turned down an unremarkable dirt road from the highway, parked my bike, and found four or five closed temples and little else. I was just starting to pull my bike from the dense sand it was mired within when I heard the spritely honk of a real motorbike behind me.
"Hello!" I heard from the mouth of a Burmese 20-something. I was waiting for the "where are you going now?" But it never came. "Are you stuck?" He asked.
"Yes," I sighed, then rocked my head back, laughing at the heavens, "yes, I'm stuck."
"Ah yes, this sand," he remarked, quieting his motorbike and crossing the path to meet me. He took the throttle of my bike in his own hands and maneuvered it onto the narrow, packed-dirt thoroughfare. I thanked him profusely.
"Some of these," he mused, looking off into the distance, "some of them you can still climb. Would you like to? Have you found a place for sunset yet?" I shook my head no, and within minutes, I was trying desperately to keep up with his real-fuel motorbike on my tiny electric scooter down the shoddily paved highway. He turned into a monastic complex down the road, I followed him warily, noting the bright lights, the colorful signs, the way this place had, for the benefit of tourists, been turned into a veritable Disneyland of Buddhist Pagodas.
I parked my bike next to his, removed my shoes, and followed him down a cobblestone path.
"Some of these pagodas, out here in Old Bagan," he explained, gesticulating wildly, "some of these are a thousand years old. A thousand years! Some of them were built by great statesmen, like kings, almost. Some of them, like these smaller ones, were built by normal people. Can you believe it! Just regular, working people. People who wanted to leave something behind."
The sky was just beginning to pinken in the west as he guided me slowly up the steep stairs on the east side of a massive temple.
"I am a painter," he continued, leading me carefully around the circular rim of the bulbous apex of the pagoda, "I have been painting for eight years. I make these paintings of traditional scenes, Buddhist scenes, and for them, I use sand, sand from the Ayeyarwady. I mix it with the paint, it sticks with it on the canvas. I can show you if you like. You are here alone, right?" I nod. He continues. "You do not have to buy anything. But you should see something beautiful while you're here. A painting, a temple, a sunset," he said, spreading his arm wide toward the horizon, "something beautiful."
We sat down atop the pagoda and pressed our backs against enameled bricks made by hand over a thousand years before, and he opened his western-style backpack and unrolled a heap of smallish canvases. He showed them to me, explained them to me. One by one. I asked him if he had grown up here. He said he had.
The sky was turning yellow and salmon, and the peaks of temples on the plain were lit up and fiery, and so, so beautiful. Sitting there, it pained me to think of us, of all of us, us tourists with our dirty soles tromping through his homeland with all of our expectations and demands. I thought how horrible it must feel to see our grubby western hands all over these sacred places to which he must feel some ownership of; how horrifying to find graffiti painted about indiscriminately bearing the insipid musings of kids from France and New Zealand. To see temples that he, too, used to be able to peruse at his will be unceremoniously closed.
Before the sun finished setting, he bid me goodbye and took his leave. A few Australians had arrived, and a Canadian. A German dude asked me for a light, and I offered him one. The sky slowly turned from salmon to coral to a deep, dark orange surrounded by navy, and when the moon came into view, I climbed back down the temple facade and rode home under the stars.
I woke like a light at 4. I lolled around in bed for a bit, yet unwilling to believe that I was awake for the day. But wake I did, and, foregoing a cold shower, had crossed the parking lot by five. I knew my new friends at the store would already be up, ready to sell me a motorbike long before sunrise.
I rode down the empty highway in the dark of early morning, barely awake. I drove as if on autopilot to the same place where the painter had shown me, parked my bike, stowed my sandals by the entrance. It was cold. I was clad in a thick acrylic sweater, and it was still cold enough to have stowed a hoodie in my backpack. Just in case.
I climbed the temple wall as he had shown me, walked around the brim of the apex as I had done the night before. From my vantage, I could see the pathway I had taken to arrive here, and down it, in the moonlight, more people began to arrive within the hour.
Most were in couples or trios, mostly Japanese, mostly led by their Burmese tour guides. Later a few Americans rocked up, and, looking down, I saw them very clearly get just out of eyesight of anyone manning the main pagoda out front, replace their expensive running shoes back on their feet, and continue along the path.
My own feet were still bare and freezing in the breeze. It seemed the least I could do.
But then the clouds in the east shifted to something resembling blue through the black expanse; some birds began chirping in the round. The sky was brightening. The east horizon turned a bright candy pink, and hundreds of pagodas, now lit, defiantly poked through the forest that threatened to overtake them.
I had been caught up and mooning over the hot-pink sky, so I hadn't noticed them at first, the first two hot air balloons that rose into the sky from the south. But then another left the horizon, and another; every couple of minutes, a new one took flight as the previous traveled slowly, methodically, and silently, north. Soon there were 10, 15, 25 hot air balloons in the air, in all different colors, set against the canary yellow and turquoise morning sky, some directly overhead. It was breathtaking. Truly.
When the balloons stopped taking off, and the ones that had were headed up and over my head, and I figured it was time to head back for breakfast. Alone on the side of the pagoda, I walked around its perimeter to the steep stairs, descended them carefully, and, still barefoot, padded back down the path. I found my eBike and unlocked it, backed it from its parking spot, and turned the throttle gently to get back on the highway.
It was just after 7, and Began was beginning to wake up, but I noted the highway wasn't yet too busy as I came upon a slight decline in the road. I pulled the throttle a little more, watching the speedometer go from 20 to 30, 35 miles per hour. I looked in my tiny mirrors to see no one around. I flexed my wrist and pulled until the throttle stopped, my hair flying behind me, the speedometer approaching 50. Above, great bulbous balloons seemed to be racing me back to Nyaung Oo, and I hadn't felt so free since I had arrived.
I'd only booked my bike for the morning, so I headed straight for the little store without stopping first for breakfast. I hadn't yet bought a ticket out of Bagan, so I wondered if they could handle that for me too.
"Ah, yes. We have bus ticket here," The proprietress told me when I had asked, "Where are you going now?" I laughed.
"Anywhere but here," I replied, "maybe the beach?"
She wrote me out a bus ticket to depart that evening, hugged me, and wished me a safe trip. I clutched it tightly, fearing I'd be stuck there for another day should I lose it.
I didn't think it would be so expensive. I didn't think it would be so crowded. I definitely had no clue I'd be actively funding genocide. But then again, I've never been much of a planner when traveling, I just fly there seeking a singular experience that I let unfold, and usually, it does.
And at least I had seen something beautiful.