Sunset on the Irrawaddy River — Travellling Homebody — Bagan, Myanmar

What to do in Bagan, Myanmar — your 24 hour travel guide

Like Mandalay, Bagan was one of my least favourite places in Myanmar and I think being there in low season may have been the reason, although I can’t be entirely sure. With fewer tourists, and less earning capacity, money was tight, which meant we were hounded to buy, buy, buy everywhere we went. It was more than irritating — the whole experience was downright unpleasant. Almost from the minute we landed until we flew to Inle Lake, I felt that I was viewed as a walking cash machine because I was clearly foreign and therefore rich. Of course, rich is a relative term and I get that travelling makes one seem rich. Ditto that I’m perceived as wealthy because I’m white and western. From children chanting: Gimme money! to the boat driver who demanded payment up front to the: You have to pay $25! when we set foot in arrivals at Bagan Airport, it got real old, real quick. Even Indian hawkers, who are relentless in their pursuit of tourists for money, now seem tame in comparison.

#1. Getting to Bagan

We flew from Mandalay to Bagan on flights we’d booked in Hanoi. The flight was quick: it was pretty much up and down. The overhead lockers are small, so if you have large bags, you should check your luggage. I have started travelling with a Kipling duffle bag, which can be squished into small spaces, providing it’s not overpacked. Bagan is only 180 km from Mandalay, so we could have taken the bus, boat or train. Bagan Airport is small, located around 10 km from Old Bagan, and it shouldn’t cost you more than 8,000 kyat to get to New Bagan, which was where our hotel was located. Make sure you have cash on you for when you land; you’ll have to pay a foreigner tax. And don’t expect a warm welcome, unless you consider forking over US$25 a welcome. More about that later in this post (and why I resented paying it).

#2. Where to stay in Bagan

We opted to stay at the Areindmar Hotel, which is a beautiful hotel located in New Bagan, just outside the walls of the ancient city of Bagan. The hotel was lovely: landscaped, tropical garden; a swimming pool (a basic human right for the hot, Myanmar summer); and swanky rooms, decorated with Burmese artefacts, and much love and attention to detail. We were given a welcome drink on arrival, and the check-in process was smooth. While staff did speak English, there were varying levels of capability, with the reception staff struggling somewhat to understand us: a lot of repetition was necessary (more on that later). The wifi was patchy at best, so we had to book our tours through the hotel rather than Get Your Guide. We ate at the hotel (because it was much too hot to go off exploring) and the food was delicious. If you do opt to eat there, try the red and green fish curries.

**Download your FREE map of Bagan here!**

#3. What to see and do in Bagan

Buy lacquerware

Bagan has more lacquerware than you can poke a stick at. Each shop boasts that they have unique designs handed down through the generations. This may or may not be true (never let the facts get in the way of a good story, right?) but the workshop and showroom we visited had photos of the founder (now deceased) whose children were now running the show. It was a short walk there from our hotel, and it was set in cool, lush grounds. You can walk through the workshop and see the craftsmen (and women!) making lacquer goods — everything from bowls, plates and vases to jewellery and furniture. If you want, you can have a guide explain the process to you. You will also be shadowed by salespeople in the showroom, which was super irritating. I actually told them to stop following me, and that I would leave and not buy anything if they continued. They stopped.

My favourite was the eggshell technique: eggshell fragments were carefully placed onto the bowl (or whatever) with tweezers, like a delicate mosaic, and then lacquered. The end result was beautiful — and very expensive! I ended up buying a small, green bowl for around US$8 — I’m not one for knick-knacks, but I thought it would be perfect to catch the ash from the incense I burn at home in Hanoi. I received a gift with purchase — a lacquered black bracelet decorated with faint copper-coloured waves — which was a nice touch (and appreciated!).

Visit the temples of Old Bagan

The whole point of going to Bagan is to visit the temples and pagodas: there are more than 2,000 spread across the area, and some say it’s equivalent to Angkor Wat (it’s not!). It is on UNESCO’s tentative list as a World Heritage Site, which is a clear indication of its significance, particularly in terms of how the Myanmar government views its importance to the cultural heritage of the country.

There are a few ways to view the temples: electric bike, bicycle or horse and cart. Electric bikes are everywhere and are cheap to rent, and there was vendor across the road for our hotel who spoke excellent English. Unfortunately, my travel companion was not as keen as I was to whizz around Old Bagan on this mode of transport, so we opted for the horse and cart, which was organised for us by the receptionist at our hotel and was going to cost us around 12,000 kyat for three hours. The driver picked us up at the designated time that afternoon, and then the shenanigans began. We asked the driver to show us where he would take us, and he was adamant that where we wanted to go was the “full day tour”, which would have costed us more. Of course. We pointed to the map and reminded him that we had hired him for three hours, and we wanted to see as much as we could in that time. Back and forth we went, arguing the point. It was frustrating and exhausting. In the end he gave up, and took us where we wanted to go. Pester power in action.

So around the temples we went. I have to say that the area is a mess. I know that Bagan is plagued by severe earthquakes that have damaged the temples, but that does not explain the rubbish that was everywhere, and I mean everywhere. It was like rubbish tip: plastic, paper, furniture, you name it, it was dumped. Old Bagan is just one big rubbish dump. And that’s what pissed me off about the foreigner tax at the airport — I wouldn’t have minded if my money was going towards upkeep and maintenance, but it’s not. And the temples themselves (in my opinion) were neither beautiful nor interesting. We were hounded again by hawkers inside Thambula Temple: so much so that I couldn’t wait to get out of there back to the relative safety of our horse and cart to see the other, lesser temples.

A quick note about safety in this area: entry to the temples requires you remove your shoes. This would not be an issue under normal circumstances (i.e. sites that are in good repair), but the surfaces you are walking on are not the best. I stepped on a tiny piece of broken glass going up unlit stairs in one temple (to view the sunset), which was immensely painful. I haven’t been able to remove the glass and it is still in my foot to this day (and I didn’t get to see that sunset — my friend said it was meh). At another temple, we hiked up uneven, steep surfaces (after being promised a spectacular view) that was difficult to say the least (and the view was less than spectacular). Just be careful. That’s all.

Take a cooking class

I always try to take at least one cooking class while I’m travelling, because it’s fun and fascinating. There’s always a market tour, and interesting people tend to participate. Pennywort Cooking Class was also booked by the receptionist at our hotel, and it was (for me) the only highlight in Bagan. We started with a tour of the local market, where May (our instructor) explained the many and varied fruits and vegetables available. (She also explained why I couldn’t get a coconut to drink, which is usually available everywhere in Asia. It’s because in Myanmar, coconuts are used as offerings to Buddha.) Having lived in Asia, I had encountered most fruits and vegetables at the market, but I was fascinated by moringa, a new superfood I had never heard of, with edible leaves and fruit that looks like a long string bean. When the tour was almost done, May gave each pair 500 kyat to go and buy a green vegetable to be used in the cooking class. That was so much fun, and such a unique experience.

We then walked the short distance to May’s house, which is where the class was held. She led us through her house to the backyard where there were five “stoves” (buckets that were filled with hot coals) and a large table and smaller workbench. Hygiene was a priority, which pleased me greatly, so after we washed our hands, we started prepping — crushing, chopping and slicing — all the ingredients for our lunch. We cooked 12 dishes, all delicious, and all but one or two suitable for a vegetarian like me. May told us that Myanmar cuisine is heavily influenced by India, and wonderful curry flavours permeated many of the dishes we cooked. We also found out that May was a librarian, and that 20% of our fee for the class (which US$20 per person) went towards buying books, as well as other much-needed services in her community. If you do nothing else in Bagan, take a cooking class with May.

Take a boat up the Irrawaddy

Take a boat up the Irrawaddy, they said. It will be fun, they said. It sounded like a good idea, and because the wifi was so woeful, we organised it though the receptionist at our hotel. We took great pains to ascertain where the boat would take us, for how long and the cost (we had become increasingly jaded by the time we got to Bagan and sought clarification a million times on everything before we agreed to something). No problems, we were told. You’ll be picked up at 4:30PM and return at 7:00PM. Pay 10,000 kyat each, and you’ll be taken from here to there (she pointed at the locations on the map). Satisfied, we booked the boat. We arranged a tuk-tuk to take us to the port, and to stay and take us back to the hotel when the boat trip was finished.

Our boat “driver” greeted us with a You pay now, as soon as we got out of our tuk-tuk. No smile, no introduction, nothing. Ambushed, we handed over the cash, and followed him down to the wharf. The descent was a little steep and quite slippery once we made it down the steps to the river bank. We climbed a rickety ladder into the boat and sat at a small table towards the front. No drinks, no food, no smile, no hospitality. Nothing. Our driver started the engine and we made our way up the Irrawaddy, and then we stopped. And there we stayed for around 15 minutes. We were confused. This is not what we agreed to. I motioned to the driver to start the engine and keep going. He gave me a strange look, and then grudgingly complied. We went further up the river then he again stopped the boat. By this time, we were wondering what the fuck was going on. Why do we keep stopping? When are we going to turn? When were we going to the other locations we were promised?

The longer we sat there, the clearer it became that this was as far as we were going. What was arranged via the receptionist did not actually happen, and while I took some beautiful pictures of the sunset, this was not what we had signed up for. And we could have seen the sunset from the Gawdawpalin Temple at one tenth of the price! Now I was really pissed, and so was my companion. We’d been ripped off! Scammed! Swindled! No wonder he wanted the cash up front. We went back to our hotel seething. We explained what had happened to the receptionist on duty, who was ill-equipped to deal with two angry western women. She ended up calling the receptionist who booked the tour, who was off duty and ended up coming back to the hotel. After we explained the issue, she eventually gave us a partial refund, and did not want to involve the hotel. Still unhappy, we expressed our ire to our waiter (who turned out to be the Assistant Manager of the hotel) who advised us (in excellent English) that boat tours could not be booked through the hotel. Aha! We could only assume that the boat driver was a relative of the receptionist (she knew exactly who to call, and everyone knew everyone in Bagan) and that she was in on the scam. We escalated our outrage to the General Manager who happened to be walking by. He was suitably apologetic and gave us our dinner and drinks on the house.

What we could have done (if we had been so inclined):

#4. Where to eat in Bagan

We didn’t venture out of our hotel to eat — apart from the cooking class — because we were pretty much over getting hassled wherever we went. The food in the hotel was good, so we didn’t feel like we were missing out. The New Zealand couple we met in Yangon recommended the Black Rose and raved about it, and TripAdvisor reviews seem to agree.

Last word on Bagan:

What I liked:

  • Our hotel, the Areindmar Hotel — apart from the receptionist who tried to scam us (we think) but kudos to the management for doing the right thing
  • Pennywort Cooking Class — wonderful experience, great cause
  • My green lacquer bowl
  • My photos of the Irriwaddy River at sunset — despite the actual experience on the boat getting them
  • Horse and cart ride around the temples — something I had never done before.

What I didn’t like:

  • The boat trip up the Irriwaddy — scam central, made worse because it was organised by the hotel receptionist
  • The temples — in a terrible state of disrepair, and many are unsafe to walk around (case in point: the glass in my foot)
  • The rubbish — I was appalled at how much litter was in and around the temples
  • The foreign tax at the airport — whose pocket was being lined? I saw no evidence of the “tax” being put to good use
  • Being hassled everywhere we went for money — I always had to have my guard up because almost everyone had an agenda i.e. money and it was exhausting
  • Patchy wifi — access to the internet is a basic human right!

Photo taken by me on the Irrawaddy River at sunset.

2 Comments

  • Martin Jacobs July 12, 2018 at 8:53 am

    Interesting article Diane. You’re not posting them on Facebook anymore?

    Cheers,
    Martin

    Reply
    • Diane Lee July 17, 2018 at 7:05 pm

      Thank you, Martin. WordPress is telling me everything is connected, but I will check with the next post. Thanks for the heads up 🙂

      Reply

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