Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Myanmar, Day 5 & 6: Bagan by E-Bike

Upon waking and looking out the window, which had a view of the back side of the resort, hot-air balloons were starting to rise into the sky and drift across the Bagan plains. It looked like fun, and as we were going to be here for a couple days, we checked the price of such an adventure and discovered that it would cost $380 per person! That was quite a bit out of our price range and we decided against doing it. In any case, the idea of a hot-air balloon ride was not as thrilling to us as keeping our feet firmly on the ground.

Vito dismounts an e-bike.
Breakfast, as usual, was included, so we dressed and made our way down to the outdoor dining area. It was somewhat chilly, but the sun was out and the spread of fresh food was dynamic and enticing, including everything you might expect. Vito was particularly thrilled that there was an omelet station, and Angela and I were excited about the noodle station, which meant, of course, that we could eat more mohinga. We were beginning to expect mohinga at every hotel we might stay in during our trip. After eating our fill, a taxi brought us to a shop at which we could rent electronic bikes or e-bikes as everyone was calling them. We rented two for 6,000 kyat (about $4) and could use them the whole day. We could have rented them from our hotel, but they were almost three times the price!

We spent this day and the next bumping along dirt roads and exploring the Bagan plains. There were a few large paved roads, but almost all of the roads were squirrel-y dirt jobs that cross-crossed in and out of the relatively dense vegetation. E-bikes were everywhere and that method of transport made it easy to cover a greater distance quickly and fun to zip around from one pagoda or temple to another. Traffic was light or non-existent and really only consisted of other tourists on bicycles or e-bikes, tuk-tuks or an odd tour bus, so it really wasn't treacherous to travel in such a manner, even without the helmets that would have been required in other places. We hadn't planned on trying to visit every ruin that dotted the countryside, but there were considerable distances between some of the sites and walking or riding old-fashioned bicycles would have not allowed us to see as much without getting exhausted, especially in the heat. We also had Vito to consider, who would have balked at strenuous bike-riding or walking in hot conditions. With only two e-bikes, Vito (who was obviously under age) rode on the back of mine and Angela drove her own. The e-bikes were simple to operated and almost completely silent so it was quite pleasant to drive around with them.

The first of many temples.
Anyway, the ancient, mostly reddish-orange (or pink, depending on the light or time of day), brick ruins were scattered everywhere with no apparent order, and we pinballed around with no sense of urgency. Some were nicely restored and clearly cared for and some were left with weeds growing out of the roofs. Once we started, the sheer volume of structures was overwhelming, and, with little information to follow and little or no obvious identifying markers or signs, it made exploration much more difficult but also mysterious and surprising. Many of the ruins could be thoroughly explored and we wandered through the dark passages within and climbed the exterior facades and staircases without. The many carvings, designs, figurines, paintings and statues were unique and varied, and there was always something unusual or unexpected to discover.

Vito channels his inner Myanmari.
On the first day, we spent most of our time exploring the area around our hotel and around Old Bagan, which was along the northern part of Bagan. After visiting a few sites, we stopped for a cold beverage along the Ayeyarwaddy River and then stopped on a different riverside restaurant in Old Bagan for lunch. The restaurant overlooked the river and the food was largely unidentifiable, but we enjoyed it. Afterwards, Vito tried on some of the local dress (a longyi around his waist and thanaka on his cheeks) that, I believe, the proprietor was hoping to sell to us. Anyway, we were templed out, so we returned to our hotel for a quick dip into the hotel pool and a short rest before heading out in the evening for dinner.

To write that the temples were amazing does not really reveal the beauty or magnitude of the experience, which was completely immersive and, at the same time, magical and surreal. There were dozens of unregulated ancient pagodas, temples and other structures scattered throughout the shrubby countryside spiked with trees and rutted with curlicue dirt roads, and, at least when we visited, tourists could visit most of them at their leisure. It is hard to find a place that allows such liberty. A few of the more prominent temples required an additional fee to enter, but it was nominal. Many of the temples are still actively used by the local population, but many were in a severe state of disrepair and, otherwise, aside from serving as the homes of birds and rodents, abandoned. Unluckily, a few months before our arrival, there was a strong earthquake, which further damaged many of the deteriorating buildings. Some that were too dangerous to enter were cordoned off with yellow tape.

A view of the Bagan plains sprinkled with ruins.
On the second day, we carried on with the activities that we had started the day before. The sites we visited were further afield and, as a result, seemed less populated. At the end of the day, after driving to a remote location to watch the sunset, which happened to be in an area that had been more severely affected by the earthquake, despite what I had written about before, at sunset the sites offered ideal locations to view the sights in the declining light and were much more crowded at that time. When we were leaving, my e-bike started to fail and slowed considerably. We had driven much greater distances and barely made it back to the e-bike shop with just enough energy to return the e-bikes. We were afraid that, in the darkness, it would be long and dangerous return trip due to the busy unlit street we had to use, but we made it back without incident. Angela and I talked about how another day in Bagan would have been nice, but we weren't disappointed that we were leaving the following morning. We both felt like we had seen a great deal, but were still left with a desire to see more, and, I think, as a tourist, that is what you want to take away from a place: a desire to return to it.

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