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We arrived in Bagan, Myanmar in the dead of night. My friends and I got off the bus, groggy from the 8-hour ride that started in Yangon. It wasn’t the most eventful ride in that backpacking adventure, but it was certainly the most colorful – literally.
Neon green lights inside the bus bounced a little too playfully on multi-colored velvet curtains. The music, which I could only describe as a vague marriage of Indian and Chinese beats, blasted the whole way. And don’t even get me started on the men hawking and spitting their betel nut in plastic baggies. Thus when we finally alighted into the quiet terminal at the end of our journey, my friends and I couldn’t have been more relieved.
There was a small group of drivers waiting at the terminal, each going in for the early worm. We were immediately approached by one with a thick accent and quick speech. He mumbled in broken English we could barely understand and pointed in the direction of minivans. Minivans in Myanmar were open-air vehicles that looked like a mash-up of pickup trucks and tiny jeeps. He assured us that despite it being a little slower and having no AC, it was also just a fraction of the cost. We were all up for that, of course!
We followed him towards the vehicles but before we knew it, we were walking past the minivans we assumed we would ride. He kept going until we reached a dark alley where a lone horse stood with a cart drawn on its back.
We laughed at the miscommunication, realizing we barely understood anything the guy said, after all. What we misunderstood as a local term for minivans was the plain English term “horse cart”. We confirmed the rates, and enjoying the turn of events, boarded the cart anyway.
Soon we were cluck-cluck-clucking along Old Bagan. Dawn was approaching as the black sky slowly exploded with bright lilacs and deep pinks. The silhouettes of the ancient city’s pagodas revealed themselves in the early morning light, magnifying the enigma that drew us to Bagan in the first place.
Bagan is a city in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). It was founded in the mid to late 9th Century, making it three centuries older than Cambodia’s Angkor Wat. Because the country remained closed off to the rest of the world until the early 2000’s, the city became a veritable time capsule. Its traditions remained largely unchanged and its culture untouched by modernity and globalization. Its national treasures, like the thousands of pagodas dotting the flatlands, also stayed as secrets.
These days, more and more backpackers find themselves venturing deeper into the famous Banana Pancake Trail to see the mystical city for themselves. Open border crossings are still rare and remain quite dangerous, which means the only way in is by air. Inter-province transfers are challenging at best: think tracks so bad that trains get derailed – but don’t worry, they move too slow to create any real danger. Conveniences like credit cards and ATM’s are still few and far between. And transportation within Bagan is limited to bicycles and e-bikes.
There was an unmistakable feeling of freedom, exploring the ancient city on your own terms. It also somehow felt intimate, because despite its grandeur, it felt like we had it all to ourselves.JE
Difficult as these may sound to some, they’re also part of the mystique for many. Bagan is a glimpse into a time that’s passed. It’s a look into a world the likes of us belonging to the global internet generation never knew. It’s an experience that’s so unique and one of a kind that no matter how many temples you see in Southeast Asia, Bagan will stand out from the crowd like a lone tree in a dessert.
For one, temples in this city differ in architectural style from the rest of Indochina. While the shapes of the pagodas are similarly square, each spire has a unique design and embellishments, like wall carvings and bas reliefs, that are not repetitive. Temples around Laos and Thailand, Myanmar’s neighbors to the east and south, are distinctly Buddhist and even have a unifying theme among them. Bagan’s temples, meanwhile, seem like they have Hindu touches one moment and Chinese influences the next. Just like their music, this is further evidence of the strong impact their western and northern neighbors have on their culture.
We started our three-day tour by renting e-bikes which we can take freely around the city. Our hotel’s receptionist was quick to correct us that it’s “e-bikes, cos motorbikes are bad for the trees.” Despite their isolation, it was evident that locals had a very keen awareness of their land’s value. They won’t be letting it get exploited any time soon. He pointed us in the direction of a reputable company nearby, and we soon found ourselves zipping along deserted roads, eyes on the ancient structures that filled the horizon.
There was an unmistakable feeling of freedom, exploring the ancient city on your own terms. It also somehow felt intimate, because despite its grandeur, it felt like we had it all to ourselves. Unlike Cambodia and Thailand that’s ridden with tourists, there are no crowds to speak of blocking your view of the sites. There are no throngs in line for selfies with the landmarks. Instead, there’s a spattering of people scattered around the ancient city’s one hundred or so square kilometers.
We had a pagoda to ourselves each sunrise. This gave us unobstructed front row views to the iconic image of Bagan: its thousands of temples seemingly lined up in rows fading in the distance. We were able to define our own experience on our terms. And it felt like that grand place, that massive ancient city, was all ours.