About a week ago, I told you about our trip to Yangon. In absolute record timing for an update on www.christenhunks.com, I’m now ready to tell you about Bagan. A day after landing in Myanmar, Rob, fellow Lucer Diana, and I went back to the airport to board our plane for Bagan. The domestic side of the Myanmar airport is significantly more…lax…than the international side. For example, this is what our ticket looked like:
And we did not have to show ID of any form to retrieve it. We just gave a lady our name, and she gave us a sticker and checked us off on a list, as if we were attending a neighborhood luncheon. Security was like old-school security — the kind where you leave your shoes on and your laptop secured in its bag, and you just walk through the possibly-not-on metal detector. Boarding the plane entailed some random dude shouting into the plastic seat-lined waiting room that anyone on Golden Myanmar that was going to Bagan should saddle up and ride (okay, he did not say saddle up and ride, but you get the idea). I am 78 percent sure that a couple of dudes snuck on our plane by loitering around the runway and waiting to see if there were any empty seats. There were empty seats, so they went to Bagan, because no one stopped them. (Excuse me, sir! Let me see your official sticker!)
All that aside, I recommend Golden Myanmar if you are flying around this country — the planes were brand new and felt like corporate jets, which allayed my fears of perishing in a fiery crash in a country that clearly does not take flight safety quite as seriously as I’m used to. Because everyone knows you can’t die in a corporate jet.
We booked a hotel in New Bagan called Thumbula, which is not notable in any way except as context for a story I’ll tell you in a little bit. Basically, the three of us crammed into a fluorescent-lit and linoleum-floored room that resembled a college dorm — Rob and me on the full-size, Diana on a little cot near the door. I heard a crash and a scream when I was in the bathroom, and I was legitimately worried that Rob had fallen off the tiny and probably-not-to-code balcony that was outside of our window. Turns out Diana’s bed had just collapsed.
That hotel did help us procure ebikes for the next day, which were to be our noble steeds for seeing the magnificent pagodas. For that is why you go to Bagan — to see pagodas.
Circa the 11th century, back in one of Myanmar’s many heydays, Bagan was a magnificent and massive city of wood structures that housed like a million people. Those people erected a bunch of pagodas from brick, which were basically neighborhood churches, probably jazzed up with a white or golden paint job. The wooden houses are long gone, but those pagodas still exist and are now just the faded color of earthenware. (Ah, yes, the classic earthenware comparison.)
But because there were so many pagodas, and because the topography of Bagan is fairly flat, you can look across the scrub brush-dotted plains and see dozens and dozens of little conical temple ruins. The quantity and scale is mind-boggling. So is the fact that you can interact with these thousands-of-years-old architectural wonders by climbing all over them. (Side note: that is changing. Rob says Myanmar closed a bunch of them to foot traffic like the week after we left.)
If you are fairly wealthy, or into blowing a lot of money on one morning, or possibly are about to propose to your significant other, I think the highlight of your trip is seeing this landscape from a hot air balloon, which lifts off at sunrise and gives you a stunning (I am guessing, because we did not go) and comprehensive aerial view of things. If you are kind of poor, or sort of frugal, then you are still doing something wrong if you do not go catch the sunrise, but you take it in from one of the larger temples instead.
After Diana and I went to bed, Rob apparently stayed up for a lot of hours and did a lot of research on which temple to go to for the best sunrise viewing, but I did not know this, so the next morning, when sunrise time was bearing down on us like a relentless herd of angry buffaloes, I panicked and asked the front desk woman for her recommendation, and then insisted to Rob that we should just go there.
“I mean, I did hours of research on this, and that one’s going to be packed with tourists, but that’s fine,” he said cheerfully. But it was late, and we needed to get somewhere quickly, so that became the plan, and the three of us rode there in silent rage, which distracted me from the fact that my ebike had no headlight and I was not wearing a helmet (“Sorry,” the renter had offered halfheartedly, while handing over my keys).
The temple was packed, but not so packed that we couldn’t find a peaceful spot and enjoy it. We camped out, took some photos of the luminescent landscape, oohed and ahhed about the hot air balloons bobbing serenely over the scene, and generally marveled about how awesome our lives are. And then Rob pulled me in for a kiss and whispered softly into my ear, “I should’ve come alone.”
And then Rob laughed and laughed.
We spent the rest of the morning cruising around to different temples on our bikes before having a lazy breakfast at our hotel and then a lazy lunch at a really great restaurant called Star Beam. It was here that I first discovered the simple Burmese salad that combines tomatoes, peanuts, and shredded chicken beneath cilantro, lime, and maybe a little sesame oil, but I hope to eat this combination many more times in my life.
Most of the rest of the day was about waiting around for sunset, so in between wandering around the ruins, we had a couple of beers overlooking the banks of the Irrawaddy River.
Because Rob is constantly vigilant about skin health, we picked up some thanaka, which is what everyone in Myanmar (well, all the women and children), from Yangon to the most rural areas, wears as sunscreen and bug repellent. It’s made from a tree and you’re supposed to dampen it and then apply it like cream, forming two thick clown-like patches on your cheeks into which you can etch designs. (This is also how I apply blush. Am I doing it right?) A nice lady put some on us at one of the temples, and then because I’m a sucker, I forced Rob to buy it. We have a tub of it, untouched, if anyone wants a souvenir.
We also checked out a little lacquerware, fondling bowls admiringly while pretending like we knew what we were looking for in lacquerware.
Too soon, it was time to cruise to our sunset viewing location, which was as far away from New Bagan as we could go. This was inconvenient because post-sunset, we planned to have dinner with a couple from San Francisco who we’d met in an airport lounge, and we’d given ourselves just 45 minutes from dusk to get home, shower, and link up with them. It became especially inconvenient, though, when Rob’s ecycle battery died in the sandy back trails of our last temple.
We parked the bikes, saw the sunset with a giant French tourist group that was real possessive of the view, and then got to the task of solving the problem. After some panicked threats of poor decision-making — “Okay, we’ll just split up, and leave Rob here in this dark shady lot to wait for the new battery, while the others try to find their way home without navigational tools or a headlight” — we decided to just be late to dinner, which our new friends George and Marsha were extremely gracious about. In fact, they invited us to come to their hotel for drinks and dinner instead of bothering with trying to venue-hop in town.
Plan shored up, a very nice Burmese man helped us negotiate a new battery from our rental shop, and once that was replaced, 45 minutes later, we just had to make the treacherous journey home, made more difficult by blind rage associated with not being able to see the road (oh, that was just me — did I mention my broken headlight?).
All’s well that ends well, though, and things ended well. From our dorm room, we hitched a “cab” (read: ride in the back of a pick-up truck) to George and Marsha’s hotel, which we knew was going to be a little different from our hotel the moment we turned down a quiet lane lined with street lights. (There were no other street lights in Bagan that I can remember.) After a few minutes, security checked us out suspiciously, possibly because of our mode of transportation, and then the road opened up into a massive compound filled with resort-y bungalows AND PRIVATE PAGODAS AND A TOWER. So basically the same as our hotel.
George and Marsha were having Manhattans poolside, because what else could you possibly do when your resort has private pagodas, and so we all had Manhattans poolside, and admired the private pagodas. (I know. I sound like a simple idiot. I really could not get over the private pagodas.) And then because they are the nicest people in the world, George and Marsha bought us dinner, including the round of Manhattans I tried to pay for, and gave us a tour of the tower, which probably had a better view than the hot air balloons, frankly, although I think it was sort of a controversial construction project because it is so not part of the historical feel of the rest of the landscape. Then they tucked us into a private car home. Which I tried to haggle over, because I’d had a couple of Manhattans and I was LIVID that the private car was going to charge us TWICE what the flatbed truck had (approximately $11, if you must know).
I guess if I want you to take anything away from this rambling story it’s that despite the emotional tumult of our day, Bagan is a stone-cold stunner (actually, it’s quite hot there — this is probably a poor descriptor), and you should go there immediately. But stay where George and Marsha stayed, which is called the Aureum. Or try to befriend your own George and Marsha in an airport lounge on the way to Myanmar. And save up for those hot air balloons. I’ll bet they’re worth it.
In our next episode: Inle Lake.
BONUS! A quick little pronunciation lesson, because basically the whole time we were in Myanmar, I felt like we were shamefully butchering words and mildly offending our hosts.
When I wrote about Yangon (the emPHAsis goes on the second syLABble, which is sort of in between a hard o and a not hard o — I think? I don’t know, I just watched a 15 second ad and then a six second clip on YouTube, and I’m still confused), I told you that Rob never really figured out how to say Schwedagon Pagoda, which everyone found entertaining enough to basically never help a brother out.
Here’s how you pronounce it: SHWEH-deh-gahn
The rest of the trip took us to Bagan, Inle Lake, Hpa-An, and Malawmyine. I know. Gazundheit.
Bagan: Buh-GAHN (as opposed to Bilbo Baggins or Pagan witches; the second is confusing because sometimes you see Bagan spelled Pagan)
Inle Lake: IN-lay (I still say this IN-luh all the time and feel mildly embarrassed, like when I realize I’ve had food in my teeth for four hours and no one has said anything because you’re all terrible people)
Hpa-An: Pah-AHN. You can sort of breathe that silent H at the beginning, or make the p a little softer.
Malawmyine: Mah-LAH-mee-eye-n (I just learned that one second ago — I avoided saying it for the entirety of our trip because I didn’t want to embarrass myself).