Bagan


I couldn't not go to Bagan. It was one of the reasons I set off to Myanmar (Burma) in the first place. After seeing my first picture of what looked like an endless land of old temples, the plan was set in my mind, “Bagan. Temples. Go!” After five days in Yangon, which wasn't enough (maybe I'll work there someday, if I ever am so fortunate) I took an early morning taxi to the bus station for a day-long bus ride through the lowlands of Burma and into the almost desert mirage of temples that is Bagan. Ken was on-duty that morning at Chan Myaye Guesthouse; he wrapped a green ribbon that he labeled “Canada” around a strap on my backpack and said, “Goodbye, I will never forget you!' with   a sweet wave and a nod.

My bus arrived at the Bagan bus terminal, a convenient short tuk-tuk ride from Nyang-U, the town next to "Old Bagan" city with the train station, and cheapest guesthouses. 
My journey started with a 15$ U.S fee to enter the region of Bagan. All foreigners must pay this fee to be amongst the miles of near century-old temples. And every entrance fee that foreigners pay in Burma; for special pagodas, Bagan, Inle Lake and their tourist visa, goes directly to the government. After we passed the gates of Bagan, I noticed a sign that read "Plastic Bag Free Zone." I was impressed and a little surprised.  



In many countries, plastic bags are the norm, if not an essential for survival. North Americans and Europeans are fortunate enough to live where plastic bags are charged, or even banned in some places. A vendor selling 50 cent noodles to a man who makes $8 a day has no other option than to serve it to him in a thin plastic bag. You can even get your soda in a plastic bag; those old Coke and Fanta glass bottles still exist here too, and are used over and over again. 

A few days later I heard a story of a few employees (two twentysomething Burmese ladies) scraping trash and plastic out of the gutters in the old town. 

Half a day of temple-ing I was sweaty and needed a break. Also, I needed some inspiration. The centuries of old world Buddhist wisdom that I found myself in seemed to be only coming to me in the form of Burmese selling beautiful but overpriced (meaning inauthentic) sketches of monks, postcards, and cute vegetarian cafes serving homemade ice cream. I'm not sure if Buddha was a fan of ice cream, or even tried it, in one of his lives (he was reincarnated a few times, right?).

Months prior I had found myself, as I did many evenings back home in Montreal, standing in front of the travel literature section in my old bookstore. One Tuesday night, a week after I'd decided to go to Thailand and then Burma, I picked up a journal of a solo female traveler in Myanmar called "Defiled on the Ayeryarwaddy." It was a place where the author found herself, again. I picked it up and read a few passages. The river runs through Bagan and the rest of the country from north to south. My map indicated that it was only a few hundred meters from the main path in old Bagan. Being so close to it and thinking that I, too, still needed to be found, I ventured off to the edge of old Bagan to get a glimpse of the iconic river.

I ended up with my bike stuck in a ditch in the middle of a mostly Chinese-occupied tourist resort. I had followed the signs, and my nose, to the river and somehow the road led me right into the yard of an upper mid-range (beautiful, just not my thing) hotel by the sea. A hotel worker approached me, I assumed to shoo me away in light of my obvious Western backpacker persona. I was not the typical middle class Mainland Chinese customer this newly-employed Burmese man was accustomed to. I told him that I wanted to see the river.
"Go there! You can see!" He pointed towards the front yard of the resort, filled with tourists on lounge chairs staring out at the sea.
I was being honest, but also self-righteous. “But that is for people who stay at the hotel. I do not stay here!”
He laughed. I laughed back. “You have a monopoly on the river!” I said as I biked away, and he went back to work.
I passed through a few other resorts (again, though no fault of my own, I swear) and the air literally misted as I entered. Tiny air fresheners were everywhere. A young Burmese man greeted me with a smile, and before I even made a full-stop on my bike and attempted to ask for more directions he said to me, “Hello ma'am, can I offer you a cocktail?”
Where am I?!? I thought.
I just shook my head and said no thank you and biked off, again.
I finally found the road that led to the Ayeryarwaddy river. I stopped in a small restaurant as a family was watching a drama on a fuzzy t.v screen, bought a 300 chet big bottle of water (sure beats the 5000 chet cocktail at the hotel) and sat down at a table overlooking it.




I biked out to finish my day of exploring, a few minutes into it, as I stopped to take a picture of yet another beautiful pagoda, a group of traveling Burmese took a picture of me with their iPad.  

One of my favorite parts of the Bagan excursion was booking my train ticket to Mandalay at a local mart later that afternoon. The man who sold me the ticket told me how foreigners only have to pay the local fee for trains, since April of this year, and while trains are still all government run it's still much better than paying an inflated price. He has vocal about how excited he was, that the government needed as little money as possible. I felt so fortunate that a local could share his feelings with me, a random tourist. I think now is the perfect time to take a train in Burma. So if you're in Burma, or plan to be, take a train! And if you like the idea of crumbling, beautiful temples in the middle of Burma, I guess Bagan is a good place to visit. Just don't stay at one of the resorts, please. 





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