The FT's Escape From Reality
Ever heard of Bagan? I hadn't until I read the Lonely Planet guide to Myanmar. It's one of the top 10 places to visit in Myanmar, so we did.Bagan is just one of the towns in the Bagan district and it is broken down to Old and New Bagan, and in its distant history it was the capital of a kingdom in the north of Burma. In about 700 BC the ruling elite decided to stop worshiping the imaginary friends associated with the Hindu faith and start believing the fairy stories associated with a man called Buddha. To prove they were really serious about the change of heart they built some temples. Then some more. Then some more. Over the course of about two hundred years they built about 4000 and, when the capital was deserted and the wooden buildings disappeared, all that was left on the Bagan plain were these brick based structures. We had planned to spend a couple of days there and had one 'float day' with nothing planned on it yet. This was a good thing as my planning let me down somewhat again. I mentioned previously that the hotel I had booked was a bit (45kms) outside Bagan. That 'bit' made a day trip into Bagan expensive and tiring so we made a plan to stay in the Popa Mountain area for the day and use the float day to visit the temples. Popa mountain is famous for a temple built on top of a volcanic plug that rises out of the plain in a spectacular way. That's all there is though, so lying by the pool was in order. On arrival at the hotel, the Popa Mountain Resort, we very quickly concluded that we hated the place. After 11 hours on a ferry and 1.5 in a taxi, our patience was short so when we were given a twin rather than the double room we had booked and were told 'unlucky, that's all we have' we wanted leave there and then. The next day involved a conversation with a very helpful Wotif, ia conversation.p Pu between them and the hotel and we found ourselves in a double room overlooking the plain. After that the hotel managed to impress despite our desire to hate it. Good attentive staff, a great infinity pool overlooking the monastery, a quiet setting, good food and despite its isolation it was reasonably priced. We ventured out in late afternoon to scramble down the direct track to he base of the monastery and walk up the steps to its summit, past the very lively troop of wild monkeys that roam the area. Good views and well worth it. We were advised to hire motorbike taxis to get us back up the hill and whilst we did, I wasn't best pleased with my driver. It is a steep hill and the bikes are about 100cc, that's the reason I think we didn't get out of 2nd gear. Drives had a different view: 'You are very fat'; 'You eat too much'; 'You drink too much beer' was his main line in chat. Nice. At least I have more than three teeth, you f***er. Our trip to Bagan proper was was great. They are really impressive temples and against a backdrop of lush green fields and trees the whole environment is very special. We had a day with a guide and car (an excellent man with a newish car, who spoke good English and was very flexible - all for $35. Name and number). On the second day we hired very nifty little electric scooters, got up at 5.30 am to watch the sunrise over the plain and see the multitude of balloons that fly in the early morning. The nice thing was that despite being in one of the best spots for a sunrise, only about 50 people joined us on the temple steps. The other interesting thing is that health and safety has not yet arrived in Myanmar so all 50 of us clung to the side of this steep sided temple where a small trip would be very bad indeed. After the nanny state of Australia this is actually quite refreshing. It's quite a rare place really. Interesting history, good location, accessible by boat and still very raw. There are swish hotels but not many. There are a couple of good restaurants. Many of the roads have tarmacs and some have kerbs. There are lots of tourists but not lots and lots and we didn't experience crowds. Whilst we had people selling stuff to us here more than anywhere else in Myanmar it is all relative and here a polite 'no thank you' will work in the vast majority of cases. We could drive our very silly electric scooters with no helmets and know that a combination of very quiet roads and reasonably curtious drivers meant that our chances of survival were very very high. All good really. A bit like Thailand or Vietnam 20 years ago. Leaving Bagan could have been better. It seems that the 1hr we spent at the travel agents in Mandalay was a complete waste of time. Despite confirming our flights the day before, our names where not on the manifest and it was made clear we would not be flying. There followed a rather tense 45mins during which I discovered that a 9hr taxi ride to Yangon would cost $375. When I was away doing this J at some point pulled out her Qantas card and explained she was an airline employee. This seemed to change things and all of a sudden we were being run through the very small and basic airport, past the very superficial security who didn't seem at all bothered that our names were still not on the manifest and on to the Air KBZ plane. Hurrah for Qantas.