Wednesday, 12 March 2014

The real 8th wonder of the world

Bagan, Bagan, Bagan. The mythical plain of temples, temples, and more temples.

And give it 20 years, and it'll be tour buses, tour buses and more tour buses. There are too many of them already.

Oh, how cynical I am, eh?

The one benefit of the overnight bus was that it arrived at 3:45 in the morning and so the government ticket booth was shut, and I didn't have to pay the $15 fee.

I say the one benefit for good reason. Because as soon as night hit, they turn the aircon right up and turn the music up. And they turf you off the bus while they do it, whether you're sleeping or not, and whether it's 1am or not. I have no idea why they do this, but this is Burma, so who knows.

And it's difficult enough to sleep on leather seats as it is. Recline them and you slip off. It took a bit of sitting in the foetal position to successfully manage to get some kip.

I'd met Fiona and Ling on the bus trip, two Singaporeans who seemed to get really confused by my sense of humour, but still laughed at me and went with it. Fair play to them - I'd probably punch myself fairly quickly.

Then I lost it with a taxi driver.

It had been a long time coming.

They wanted 2000 per person for a 2.5km trip. Regardless of how many people came along.

That works out as $6 for a 10 minute trip, which is more than most people earn in a day here.

Way more.

And it was a horse and cart too.

Tired, hungry, and having been messed around enough already by taxi drivers, I just put the record straight with him and had to be held back by the poor Singaporeans. Who were very amused by the whole episode, of course.

Seemed fairer to wake the poor guy there up at 4:30am rather than 3:45 anyway. Though Jose and Mark, two guys I met when I arrived, had already woken him up anyway. So for the second time in this country, I had biscuits for breakfast, then we rented some bikes to go see the sunrise.

Got to make the most of being up at silly o'clock after all!

We climbed one that was empty – but it was only empty because we'd come a good hour before the sunrise, and all the sensible people were still in bed. And because the view was a bit rubbish.

"A bit rubbish" is all relative, of course
Oh, and bikes like to get stuck in the sand tracks. Not being able to see where the condensed bits of sand are is a bit of a problem.

Having seen the sunrise breakfast was well overdue, and I was more than happy to pay a dollar for a good portion of food. Mark and Jose genuinely didn't have enough kyats to do so, however, and actually bought some noodles and cooked them on a gas stove outside the guesthouse.

The looks off the locals were fantastic.

And of course it had to go up on Instagram, captioned #backpacking.

My room was ready at 8:30am so I took the opportunity to sleep in a room that wasn't absolutely freezing, and eventually made it out on the bike that I'd rented for the day.

I don't say this lightly: Bagan is incredible.

I'd go further.

It's probably the most incredible thing I've ever seen.

Yes, this is real
A 20km x 20km plain of temples. 2000 stupas, most with noone else within spitting distance.

The issue: we were trying to dodge the ticket checkers. I wasn't going to pay 15$ regardless of how good it was; I'd had enough of getting ripped off by this point.

So I played a game: how many sites could I go into without getting my ticket checked? I'll tell you the results at the end.

I was probably a bit more blazé than Jose and Mark, but then again, I wasn't trying to stick to a budget of 20$ a day – and so I don't do stuff like haggling over 20 cents in a meal, as they did.

To be fair to them, it worked.

But I've met these people, and for them every aspect of travelling is about saving any penny they can, and it all becomes about the money. Doesn't seem like much of a good time to me! For me, I need a bit of wiggle room, a bit of luxury now and then. I want to enjoy it. But yes, if there's systemic overcharging, as in the case of Burmese hotels or white-man-taxi-fare anywhere, I'll complain. That kind of thing pushes me hard.

And I'll just keep out of posh restaurants. That one tends to work quite well too.

So yes, I was being rather blazé. In fact I went to all the touristy temples – but they really weren't touristy at all, because the tour groups were having lunch. They were just full of locals.

Even if the steps down to the river from Bupaya were full of beggars and people accosting you trying to sell their boat trips. Give it two years...

Thankfully, tourist trap-ism isn't too endemic here, and they aren't persistent at all. But the tour buses can go away already. Cycling round is actually a lot more fun, and means I can see the quiet places, and search out the ones that people haven't really heard of.

Even if I accidentally wandered into a military compound. They saw the funny side though – especially when I had to be escorted down a staircase which was enclosed in a passage too narrow for me to fit through.

They're great, the Burmese. They wave, they say hello, the say mingalabar, they generally recognise your existence, and are so, so friendly – even in the most touristic area of the country.

And Bagan is truly awe-inspiring. Cycling through them really helped pick up the atmosphere that is so lost on those bus tours.

But eventually it was too hot and I was too exhausted to carry on, so it was time for the second nap of the day. Thankfully I didn't sleep right through sunset and I managed to find a decent place to see it.

And I managed to make those Buddhist temples look like a mosque. Kind of. They won't like that one!

My karma is not in a good way
The second day I gave in and went to one of the popular sunrise spots. Thankfully no tour buses turned up, and while it was a little busy, there was a reason it was popular.

To be explained by large numbers of photos:

Jose, Mark and Debra were headed for Mount Popa right away – but I'd spent a bit long staring at stupas and needed my breakfast. I wanted to go, but food comes first. Food always comes first.

In the end I went back to bed, and slept for a good 6 hours. I needed it. I think the aircon on the night bus had made me ill – it was genuinely freezing. Note to self: one thin sheet is not enough, ever.

Eventually I made it back outside though, and just stuck to the temples nearby. Unfortunately I made the mistake of spending too much time haggling for some more clutter-material, and the sun started setting. Thankfully the setting sun is a great excuse to ignore the other souvenir sellers who think that once you've bought one, you'll want to buy a million (“gift.....for your mama......for Christmas” – every time).

I'd heard about a good place, so I furiously cycled in that general direction. But I couldn't find it, and ended up with the unforgiving setting sun and some mediocre shots instead.

Turns out I'd misheard the directions. “on the left in 5 minutes” is not the same as “turn left and go for 5 minutes” apparently. English is my native language or something?

In the end, I was ill, unable to eat – and who knows where the others had gone?

Turned out they'd got through a bottle of rum between them and drunkenly gone to the full moon party, where they were the main attraction for the locals. The video brought out my classic far-too-loud laugh; it was genuinely hilarious.

Full moon's a serious affair here: it's a public holiday.

It would be rude to not join them for another bottle, so I did so and forgot how to play cards in the meantime.

Rum doesn't cure illnesses though, even in moderate quantities. It's not exactly Jaegermeister after all. So I slept in and missed the sunrise.

And I woke up all of half an hour too late to make it to Mount Popa. Bagan makes you fairly temple'd out, but I'm sure I'll be back to actually make it there!

But however temple'd out you are (that's definitely a thing), the place is still genuinely incredible. Even if the repairs and “restorations” are actually a bit rubbish, it's got atmosphere.

Seems legit
You know what? Maybe it's actually worth the price tag after all.

And I'm glad I've come now, because I really fear that it's about to be ruined by mass tourism and tour groups.

But there's a reason people are going to come in in droves: this is what I'd consider a must-see sight in the world, let alone Burma, or Asia. It's a wonder of the world, it truly is. It's something that truly has to be experienced.

As for that third day – my legs weren't working any more, and I was still a bit queasy. Given that I wanted to see some of the further-away parts, I thought an e-bike was a good shout and happily paid $7 for the day for it.

And oh, they're fun.

Having actually found an ATM that wanted to give me money, I got a thick wad of 5000s and got going. Which of course required getting lost fairly quickly in some local village, which a local girl offered to show me around.

Interesting place. Very traditional, very cultured, and not a zoo like some other “village tours” show you.

Though the “lake” was more like a big puddle.

And the “main road” was a similarly amusing affair.

I was massively off the tourist trail, and even the police were friendly – they didn't care that I didn't have a ticket, or if I took photos of “no photo” signs, or other such terrible things.

Of course, the restaurants still wanted to fight over Mr. White Man for his lunch, even if he was still so ill that he wasn't going to finish his staple diet of chicken fried rice. The place I ended up at was so local that when I asked to be shown the toilet, I got taken outside and the girl actually pointed at some trees and told me to go there. Yes, number twos too.

The e-bike's a dream though. You can really see a lot on them, and for 7 dollars you're not paying a lot at all. In fact, I found a great sunrise spot. On the day that I was leaving, and wouldn't be able to use it for sunrise. Sod's law eh?

But suddenly the battery decided it didn't want to work any more, and I had to pedal the thing back. Turns out that I'd accidentally turned on the headlight.

OK, another e-bike please?

This one was even faster – which is great fun on sand tracks, even if you come off it a few times and have to do a duct tape repair on your sandals.

Oh, and sheep don't give way to bikes. Even if you honk.

Today, I actually made it to the sunset spot I was meant to go to the night before. Best saved until last? Yes, I think so. What's “postcard shot” in Burmese?

I was going to go for a bit of a night ride – my bus wasn't until 9:30pm and I could keep the bike all evening. And this one was fun – even if I couldn't see a thing on the sand tracks because the headlight was rubbish.

But night-time here is cold. And I'd left my jacket at the guesthouse. And I fell off once more because the bike had a bigger turning circle than a road train.

Still, I want one. And I'm definitely learning to ride a motorbike (Hi mum!)

Bagan, see you again. But please don't let yourself get ruined? Please?

Oh yeah – and I didn't get my ticket checked once. Win.

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