Myanmar – Bagan to Yangon, 23 September 2009

Today was a lazy day. I had an afternoon flight from Bagan back to Yangon, so I decided to take it easy, have some fun with the epic-ly slow, and heavily-censored internet traffic in Myanmar, and just check out the town of Bagan.

The town of Bagan is pretty slow-moving, but has seen better days. The restaurant row was obviously catered for the heyday of tourists, but these days, it seems like its main clientele are the ubiquitous mosquitos. I had some Indian, which was very delicious.

Due to the economic sanctions against Myanmar, trying to get international brands like Coca Cola and Pepsi Cola is a little bit tricky (and expensive). Just for kicks, I sampled a bunch of their sodas, including lemon soda, and the orange crusher. Retailing at 30 kyat, this was like 1/14th of the price of imported soda (500 kyat). Well, tastes like soda to me, and I didn’t go blind. So …

The highlight of my day was the surreality surrounding my trip to the airport, and the airport itself. While the rest of Bagan was dusty, and hot, the airport was a very modern, tiled facility, with air-conditioning, which they switched on, only about 1 hr before the flight was scheduled to depart. Yes, that’s how small it was, and that’s how they operated. When trying to make a decision about how to get to the airport, I had the option of taking a tourist coach, or taking a horse cart. Since I had plenty of time to kill, well, horse cart it is! How many times in life can you say you took a horse cart to the airport?

The flight back to Yangon was fairly uneventful, apart from seeing the flaking insulation on the plane window, and the sign on my tray table writing, “In case of emergency, use seat as flotation device.” C’est la vie! The plane did fly pretty low, so I was treated to a view of the sun setting over the rolling hills of Myanmar.

Orange Crusher

Orange Crusher, Myanmar

Horse cart ride to the airport

On the Way to Nyaung U Airport on a Horse Cart

Turbo-prop Yangon Air from Bagan to Yangon

From Bagan to Yangon on Yangon Air

“Use Bottom Seat Cushion for Flotation” sign on Yangon Air 

"Use Bottom Seat Cushion for Flotation" Sign on Yangon Airways


Myanmar – Bagan, 22 September 2009

Temples of Bagan

Bagan/Pagan is one of the traditional kingdoms of Southeast Asia, active from the ninth to thirteenth centuries. During the Bagan period, religion was often tied to political power, and religion was often used to enhance one’s political power. This could be achieved through the building of temples, which gave one merit and political prestige. This explains the level of building, and the extent of building in Bagan. Religion was only part of the puzzle for the sprawling complex – the other part of the puzzle were beliefs in omens. Nature was often interpreted for the signs it gave to the ruling house – as a region prone to earthquake, each earthquake meant a move to a new site of political power. This explains the extensive sprawl of the Bagan temple complex. In earthquake events, kings moved their courts, and built new temples to disassociate from he bad omens, which the earthquakes heralded. To this day, earthquake continues to be a threat. Locals whom I spoke with recall the destruction the 1975 earthquake caused to Bagan. For more information about Bagan, be sure to check out Michael Aung-Thwin’s scholarship about Burma.

For most part, it was fairly well-preserved for a complex its age. With the sanctions against Myanmar, the tourism industry collapsed. The spectacular Bagan, was as empty as it could get. There were probably fewer than 100 tourists in the whole temple complex. For those interested in temples, it would be quite a treat – dispute the economic challenges, many of the temples were well-restored, and the paints were also refreshed.

There were a couple of options at my guest house, including a solo self-directed bike tour, or a 3-hr horse cart tour with a guide. The weather was the deciding factor – it was too hot to bike, so I opted for a covered horse cart tour. There were several temples which were part of the standard route – for example, the Ananda Paya, which has a well-preserved standing Buddha, which is easily 2m tall. Personally, I was quite a fan of the murals in some of the less popular payas. In one of them (I can’t remember), there was a painting of a figure with a distinctly Mongolian hat, harking back to the Mongolian empire’s spread across Asia in the thirteenth century.

Ananda Paya

Ananda Paya, Bagan

Inside Ananda Paya

Ananda Paya, Bagan

 Intact fresco – picture of a Mongolian?

Paya with Intact Frescos, Bagan

Myanmar – Yangon to Bagan, 21 September 2009

I got to the domestic airport real early in the morning. It was surreal, especially the area waiting for check-in. It looked like a scene out of a ghost film, or a zombie apocalypse. There were areas which used to be stores or something, but it was empty of goods, or windows, or doors … just boxes. The whole area was also flooded with a very deep, orange light. It was only after the check-in area, and when people started streaming in, did it feel like an airport. I got some breakfast of siew mai and tea, while watching some advertisement, whereby Singapore was the backdrop. Weird! It was probably the season for Japanese tourists, as they are so many of them!

It was a crazy day of journeys of randomness. I wanted to go to Mount Popa, but didn’t manage to find the pickup at the local bus station, as mentioned in Lonely Planet. However, the lady selling bus tickets told me to go to Chauk, and somehow find my way up to Mount Popa. This was an epic bus journey, winding through the countryside – the countryside in Southeast Asia really looks the same. I never could tell the difference in landscape from one country of Southeast Asia to the next. Well, I guess there was lots of betel nut chewing. These were available in little packets, like candy!

After the drop off at Chauk, I was supposed to miraculously find my way to Mount Popa. First, I bumped into a guy with a horse cart, who offered me a ride to Mount Popa for 1000 kyat. That was 1000 kyat down the drain, because he just drove me 100 m, and left me there. Thankfully, I met a motorbike driver, who then offered to drive me to the Popa Mountain Resort. He also offered to turn back and pick me up the next day. I decided to stay there on the recommendations of G, our resident Burma expert.

Popa Mountain Resort is certainly a great recommendation. It was set atop a little hill, so it had great views of surrounding areas. They also have an infinity pool with a great view. It appears that I am the only guest. I asked for the US70 cheaper room, but as I was the only person around, they upgraded me to the large suit, which had a king bed, and a porch with a nice view. Unfortunately, there’s no real food around, so you kinda have to dine in their restaurant. Their restaurant is nice, but some choice elsewhere would have been nice.

G also suggested I go visit Mount Popa, which has spiritual significance for Burma. I obtained a map from the hotel reception, and just trekked through the jungle. The journey was kinda scary, as I was just following a vague path, with no cellphone reception, and nobody in sight for miles. But I just kept walking and hoping I’ll somehow make it there.

The climb to Mount Popa was fairly simple, but the monkeys there were vicious. Thankfully, a very nice Burmese family from Mandalay adopted me. The father of the family wanted to thank some of the deities for bringing him good fortune. I definitely needed their help, fending off the monkeys, and their explanations of the various deities’ functions were also very helpful.

After trekking back to the resort, I took a nice soak, had an early dinner, and turned in early. In the middle of the night, there was some crazy shaking in my room – I later found out this was an earthquake. My first earthquake, ever!

Inside a Shop Selling Bus Tickets, Nyaung U

Old School bus station

Popa Resort Pool and Taung Kalat in the Background

Gorgeous view from Popa Resort infinity pool

Taung Kalat, Mount Popa

Taung Kalat

Donors to Taung Kalat, Mount Popa

Donors to Taung Kalat