Mount Popa and more of Bagan

With three full days to spend in Bagan, we needed a day trip out of the area to break up the monotony of temple hopping. So we booked a driver and a guide with the hotel that we were staying at to take us to Mount Popa, for a total of 70,000k (USD73).

During the drowsy late morning car ride towards the site, Lyn our guide dished out trivia about Myanmar in pretty good English, while the taciturn driver simply looked straight ahead and drove with an unshakable concentration. Lyn told us how he rides on the top of an overcrowded truck for three hours every day to get home: “Very dangerous. Ha ha.” And we just can’t help but love the Burmese’s laidback attitude.

He also mentioned how Bagan’s tourism only lasts for about 6 months every year during the dry season, and ceases as tourists avoid the area during the wet months. We also quizzed him about the lack of electricity in Myanmar, and he told us frankly how he thinks it’s ridiculous how the government continues selling electricity to China and proclaims publicly that most homes do have access to it. I still find it unbelievable that something as basic as electricity is only accessible to 30% of the population, as reported by the the International Business Times.

Anyway, we soon arrived at our first stop, a made-for-tourist village where they showcased how the locals lived off palm trees. They made use of every inch of it — leaves for thatched roofs, trunks for pillars, and palm sugar for candy and toddy (potent alcohol).

Mt Popa day trip ox
Made friends with this ox, and this was taken a few seconds after it tried to lick my face.
Mount Popa Myanmar
A glimpse of Mount Popa at last!

After disembarking at the foot of Mount Popa, Lyn led us into a Nat shrine. Nats are spirits that some Burmese worship, and each character came with an elaborate tale that Lyn proceeded to explain in great detail to Ade and Priya while I wandered around to take photos.

And then we began scaling the 777 steps up towards Taung Kalat, the Buddhist monastery that sits at Mount Popa’s peak. We were very pleasantly surprised that the entire way up is sheltered, making the journey way easier than we anticipated.

Mt Popa pilgrims
Pilgrims descending a crazy steep flight of steps.
Mt Popa views
Sweeping views of the surroundings.
Mt Popa monkeys
The guide books totally made too much of a big deal out of the monkeys. Look how chill they are!
Mt Popa
Perched on the edge.
Mt Popa view Myanmar
More amazing views from the monastery.
Mt Popa Bagan
The descent to earthliness.

We were back on ground level just in time for lunch, and we asked Lyn to recommend a place where the Burmese would eat. So we made the winding way back down the mountain, and made a stop halfway down at a little village market.

Mt Popa Bagan day trip

And I just love the colours of local markets…

Then we ate at a place called Yangon Restaurant, which is a short drive away from the village. It’s run by an elegant lady boss, and we had a local feast.

Mt Popa Yangon Restaurant
Fish curry with peanut salad, pumpkin, and spicy and sour soup.

The heat has sapped away most of our consciousness by the time we arrived back at the hotel, and we drowsily picked up our backpacks and headed to our next hotel. We wanted to try staying in the Nyaung-U region of Bagan since many forums and sites recommend it, so we decided to spend our last night in Bagan at Hotel Blazing (USD80/night for a 3-bedder).

It was 2pm by the time we settled into the new room, and the prospect of heading out into the merciless sun paralysed all of us. So we just stayed in to watch some mindless TV and enjoyed the room, which was far cleaner and nicer smelling than the last one.

When the heat abated, we ventured out and realised that the hotel’s just a walking distance from a whole stretch of restaurants. So we popped into one that had local beers with a local view, before heading off on bicycles to do more sightseeing.

Mandalay and Dagon beers
Mandalay and Dagon beers to cool us down.
Bagan sunset Shwezigon pagoda
Time again for Bagan’s celestial golden sunset… this time at the Shwezigon pagoda.

Without throngs of tourists circling the pagoda, I had the privilege of soaking up the shimmering splendour in its full glory. With just a few locals milling about and a few of them meditating around the temple grounds, it was really quite a lovely scene. I felt like a fly on the wall, trying to observe the country’s sacred beauty with as much respect as I can muster.

Hungry for a different view of the sunset, we were drawn to The Beach Bagan Restaurant & Bar. The entrance is tucked away in a very quiet street away from the hustle and bustle of Old Bagan, and we had to walk past abandoned houses and cars before reaching the eerily quiet restaurant.

The Beach Bagan Restaurant & Bar Bagan
The decrepit but still charming (and mosquito-filled) entrance walkway.

Well, it was worth it because the restaurant was perched on the banks of the dry river bed, giving us a panoramic view of yet another spectacular sunset.

Beach Bagan Restaurant & Bar sunset view

After the sun set, we made the dark journey back towards our hotel, had a quick dinner at a very mediocre restaurant, and was in bed by 9pm. Scenic walks, siestas, sunset watching, and early nights… Yes, we’re old folks like that.

The next morning, we had really bad luck with the electric bikes that the hotel rented us, which resulted in poor Adeline making multiple trips back to the hotel as 2 of the bicycles ran out of battery too quickly. The kicker was when we settled the battery problem, and the tyres of both the new bikes busted while we were navigating the rocky dirt paths of Old Bagan’s temple grounds. So for half of the way back, we had to control our bikes so painfully slowly as it fishtailed in the sand, while getting our asses assaulted simultaneously by the bumpy road.

But here are some really lovely pictures of that shitty afternoon to make us forget about the incident.

Bagan dirt roads
Riding around Bagan really felt like a reenactment of Indiana Jones.
Ancient Bagan Myanmar
Bagan is just magical.

We go back to Yangon next (where another surprise awaits), before hopping over to Ngapali Beach!

Ngapali Beach

Enchanting Bagan

We got unloaded onto Bagan at an ungodly time of 4am, right smack into a desperate swarm of taxi drivers. Sleepy eyed and freezing (yes we were once again under-dressed for the early morning 15°C chill), we found our groggy way through the throng of aggressive touts to collect our backpacks, and shuffled away from the chaos towards a closed shop front to gather our wits.

Armed with a dog-eared piece of paper that only listed our potential accommodations, and not reservations, our only option seemed to be to wait till the hotels opened. After rejecting a series of “where you go?”, “new bagan? old bangan?”, and “hotel reservation?”, we were finally persuaded by a kindly young chap to consider his offer. Zayzay was his name, and he proposed that since we had no reservations as yet, he could take us on a horse cart to a tea house for breakfast, and then to a pagoda to catch the sunrise view. We accepted it, and were soon piled onto a cosy cart pulled by a big bottomed lady horse named Marsut.

We traversed through the dark, silent streets towards the tea house, with nothing around us but the occasional street light and Marsut’s consistent clop clop clop. The shuttered shops that flanked the empty roads were still shrouded in the morning mist, and I half expected to see the silhouette of a cowboy form in the distance, with his head bowed low and his hand by his side, ready to draw his pistol.

After the forgettable breakfast, Marsut pulled off the tarmac and led us into the pitch black grounds of ancient Bagan. Dramatic scenes of robbery went through my head at this point, as Zayzay our carriage rider could have easily led us into a gang of hoodlums to ambush us since there wasn’t a soul in sight. But the surreal situation we found ourselves in transcended further thoughts of any potential danger. It was a spellbinding experience, getting pulled by an age-old mode of transport, passing shadowy figures of the pagodas, and enveloped in the stark silence under a night sky sprinkled with stars.

Bagan before sunrise
We had to climb this steep flight of stairs in darkness to get to the viewing spot.

And here’s the magic that we witnessed… I bet even Indiana Jones would be jealous.

Bagan waiting for sunrise

Bagan sunrise

Bagan sunrise

Ancient Bagan sunrise

It has gotten quite bright at this point, and there were many doubtful remarks of “that’s it?” amongst the tourists. We soon spotted a few hot air balloons in the distance only just beginning to rise, and thought that they completely missed the gorgeous sunrise view.

Bagan hot air balloons

Bagan Myanmar sunrise
Then the main character appeared.

Breathtaking in every sense, the little yolk chased away the greyness of the surrounding plains, revealing the land’s jaw dropping extensiveness. It stretched out into the horizon in all directions, and the tips of hundreds of tapered stupas started to take shape as the day broke. I’ve never seen anything like that, and fell in love with the whole romanticism of this time-worn site.

Bagan hot air balloon sunrise
It costs approximately SGD500 to sway in that little basket, and we were way too poor to afford it.
Bagan sunrise
By now, you can already predict how angry the afternoon sun is going to be.

Things looked just as beautiful on ground level…

Bagan sunrise

Bagan sunrise
The pagoda which we admired the sunrise from.
Bagan horse carriage
And so begins our hunt for a place to stay for the night…

Now, one thing about winging your holiday as you go is the risk of “wasting time”. Marsut had to toil hard that morning to bring us to about 3 places before we found a suitable accommodation, but we did have a lovely sightseeing tour of both old and new Bagan during the search.

Bagan monks
Someone buy my print already.
Bagan accommodation Umbra Hotel
After a 23000K (USD24) horse ride, we settled on Bagan Umbra Hotel for its USD70/night room.

It was still only around 9am after we checked into our room (with a stinky toilet), so we headed out right away to make most the day before the blistering afternoon heat bogs us down. With our free tour guide (aka Ade), a 1000k (USD1) map, and a 8000k (USD8) geriatric electric bicycle each, we sped at the speed of light to one of the 2,000 temples that dot the vicinity.

Htilominlo temple Bagan
Htilominlo temple, which was built around 1211.
Bagan electric bicycles
Scooting around in the arid desert-like landscape.
Bagan local food
Lunch at a joint recommended by a random local! They had no menus, and this was their omakase meal.

It was also our first taste of a typical Burmese meal, especially of this area. Our lunch at “Golden Myanmar Myanmar Food” came in tasting-sized portions of grilled fish, chicken, veggies, pumpkin, different types of sauces and chillies, and curry (pork, chicken, and mutton). Some of it was greasy, some pretty acquired, but it was a grand experience all in all. And it only set us back 13,500k (USD14) all together.

At this point I found myself a little bit bored with the monotony of the temples, so I will also do away with identifying some of the less significant spots. Just riding amongst the pagodas was a wonderful experience in itself. To an uncultured derp like me, it really doesn’t matter which are the “important” temples because honestly, they all look the same after you’ve seen 2. But there’s no denying that all of them are gorgeous.

So here are more chio pictures of us frolicking around.

Tourists at ancient Bagan in Myanmar
One for the album.

In this dry heat, covering up is the best solution. Since you hardly sweat, long sleeves and pants are really comfortable as they save your skin from sizzling.

Bagan evening sun
After a siesta, we headed out again to admire Bagan’s sublime evening.

Bagan Golden Palace was a tourist site that we weren’t too keen on; and since it had a USD5 entrance fee, we sent Ade, the best photographer amongst the three of us, in to survey the grounds. And these are her shots:

Ayeyarwaddy river sunset
Made a quick stop at the Ayeyarwaddy river for a glimpse of the sunset.
Shwesandaw Pagoda Bagan
Shwesandaw Pagoda, THE temple to watch the sunset.
Sunset viewing at a random pagoda in Bagan
We skipped that spot and headed to a random pagoda for the sunset instead, but the view of the flocks of tourists perched on Shwesandaw was far more amusing. Our private little stupa was way better.
Bagan sunset
The unexciting sunrise. We’ve truly been spoilt by the one we saw at Inle Lake.

For dinner we headed to an oddly named restaurant recommended by our Lonely Planet guidebook. It’s called Be Kind to Animals, and it serves Indian and Mexican-ish type dishes. We had zatziki with popadum, chapati wrap with vegetables, tamarind curry, and a gaspatchio (the only thing I didn’t fancy), and the entire meal only cost 14,900k (USD16).

Then we rode back in the dark (the lack of electricity in this country is downright incredulous), and turned in super early.

Next morning, we scale Mount Popa just so we could mock other tourists’ photogenic poses.

Mt Popa

%d bloggers like this: