Travelling to Bagan: Expect Temples, festivals, massages, golf & more!
A trip to Bagan has been on our list of "must dos" ever since we first heard about Myanmar. The incredible archaeological and spiritual sites are unparalleled and the plains of Bagan are home to the largest concentration of religious buildings in the world. Over 2200 temples and pagodas remain from over 10,000 that were built starting in the 11th century, when Bagan was a thriving kingdom. Built on fault lines, the surviving structures - some up to 1,000 years old - remain as an impressive testament to faith and community.
Everything centers around our main activity, a hot air balloon ride with Balloons Over Bagan. All extra time will be spent getting to know the countryside and visiting the ancient temples.
A lot! We had to plan for our balloon ride well in advance and make arrangements to pick up our balloon tickets and train tickets for the next day.
Leaving to Chance:
There are enough religious buildings and archaeological sites to keep a person busy for days, weeks, even months. But we are going to leave seeing the sites to chance, without an agenda to see certain temples. We aren't sure if we will see them by foot, by bike, by horse and carriage, or by car and we're happy to let things unfold as they will.
There are a lot of logistics that need to come together on a fairly tight schedule - arriving on the boat from Mandalay, finding transportation to our hotel, checking in, finding transportation to the Balloons Over Bagan office, ensuring our train reservations are sound, finding a way to pick up our train tickets..... it adds up to a long list of chores! This was a primary reason why we picked an upscale hotel with solid email access so we could communicate with them in advance and ask for their help in making arrangements.
Hmmmm..... None! Unless you count our value priced boat ride in and train ride out of town!
Splurges and Souvenirs:
Everything in Bagan is a splurge - it's the biggest splurge of our trip! From the travel experience of a lifetime riding the hot air balloons to staying in a 4 star resort to plenty of taxi rides, we are expecting this to be our most expensive 24 hours of the trip.
SOOO.... How Did It Go?
Have you ever reached a destination and it felt like everyone had come out to welcome you? Have you ever feared being caught in the middle of a parade, being a source of curiosity to all around you? Have you ever assumed your arrival would be low key and then found yourself at the centre of a spectacle? Throw all these things together and you have a good idea of what our first hour in Nyaung U, Bagan was like!
As we made our way to the hotel, squished in the back of our makeshift jeep taxi, we found ourselves in the middle of what could best be described as a parade. Women were dressed in their best colorful finery, people zipped around us on scooters, and a pickup truck was rigged with giant speakers. Speakers that BLARED out Psy's "Gentlemen" on repeat. What on earth had we stumbled upon?
It took a while to determine what was going on but it turns out that the community was celebrating Buddha Day. Of course! The blaring Psy should have been a dead giveaway! We should have known!
Before we got far - even before we were in a parade, we had an unavoidable stop to make. All visitors to the Bagan region, regardless of their reason for visiting, must pay a mandatory $15 US fee to the Myanmar government as entry to the archaeological zone. This was a rather distasteful exercise, as the idea of giving funds directly to the government was not high on our itinerary, but it is the only way to see the region.
We quickly snapped pictures of our entrance ticket in the unlikely event that we would lose it and were subsequently requested to present our papers. (We asked to pay the fee in Kyat, which were were able to do and we negotiated a bit on the exchange rate. There is also an option to pay 15 Euros for the pass, so I suggest you use whichever currency is more advantageous for you!)
We checked into our beautiful hotel but we didn't have much time to relax - we had to hit the road again to take care of our aforementioned errands. Fortunately the hotel was able to help, supplying us with a driver who was able to nimbly make his way around town with minimal disruption to the Buddha Festival!
Finally, it was time to relax! Back at the hotel we went for a swim and feasted at the onsite restaurant at the Amazing Bagan Resort. We polished off veggie spring rolls, chicken skewers with peanut sauce (peanut sauce! my favourite!), traditional tea leaf salad (delicious and crunchy, with lots of peanuts), stir fried vermicelli noodles, and a traditional Burmese chicken curry with rice. Delicious!
With an early morning wake up call looming in the not so distant future, we planned on an early night, but not before we had one final treat for the day. We had our first experience with traditional Burmese massage!
Visiting the hotel's in house spa, we changed into the provided pajama-like garments and laid on mattresses on the floor. Our massage therapists proceeded to beat, pummel, stretch, pop, and contort our bodies- but in the best possible way! Virtually no body parts were off limit as our tender muscles and stiff joints were reduced to jelly under their expert hands and elbows.
Our lack of flexibility was a source of much amusement, with Ryan bearing the brunt of the giggles. I wasn't exactly sure the source of the joke, but I did what any loyal wife would do when her spouse is being mocked in a foreign language -I joined right in! Ryan was a good sport about it and we both slept solidly before our ultra early wake up call.
The early morning wake up was well worth it to enjoy what was our most memorable travel experience ever: a hot air balloon ride over the ancient temples of Bagan. As detailed in our last blog post, the experience was something we'll remember for the rest of our lives and the team with Balloons Over Bagan run a first class, finely tuned operation.
We returned back to our hotel in time to eat our second breakfast of the day (shameless!) before gearing up for some additional exploring. This time we tried our hand at a more down-to-earth form of transportation - bikes!
The bikes supplied by the hotel left a bit to be desired (brakes? what brakes?!) but we were undeterred as we hit the roads and lanes around the hotel. We stopped to enter several small pagodas and found that we really enjoyed exploring the tiny structures. It was amazing that these 800-1000 year old buildings hadn't completely crumbled or succumbed to the elements and the aggressive vegetation.
Before we headed back to the hotel, we made a brief detour to visit the Bagan Golf Course. While it isn't likely to be found in any sports magazines, this very well could be the most unusual golf course in the world. The perfect grass is dotted with ancient pagodas - surely this is the only course in the world with 12th century hazards! If nothing else, they can provide golfers with a place for reflection to atone for their errant shots!
Making our way back to the hotel, we had just enough time to enjoy a relaxing late lunch by the pool before getting ready to catch the evening overnight train to Yangon. During our two days in Bagan we found ourselves in the middle of a parade, had a hysterical massage, relaxed by a beautiful pool, visited some of the oldest religious structures in the world, toured one very unique golf course, and had the most incredible travel experience of our lives.
Little did we realize we were just hours away fromthe worst travel experience of our lives....
Previous Stop: Day 9 Mandalay
Next Stop: Day12 Yangon
Related:The BEST Travel Experience of My Life with Balloons Over Bagan
Sailing Down the Irrawaddy: Traveling from Mandalay to Bagan by Boat.
The WORST Travel Experience of my Life: The Overnight Train from Bagan to Yangon
Where to Stay in Bagan
Where To Eat In Bagan