The flight to Bagan was short & uneventful and we soon found ourselves in the small (& slightly tatty) local airport. Lae had organised the checking & reclaiming of our bags (which she did for every internal flight) so all we had to do was follow her to our minibus and be transported to our next hotel. The land we drove through was dry & scrubby, tarmac giving way to packed earth as we reached our destination and went through the keys, rooms & muster time procedure once again. The hotel had much more character than the one in Yangon - one or two story buildings around a wide central courtyard with trees and a good sized swimming pool - and the wood panelled rooms were spacious & comfortable. One of my first actions (as in all of our hotels) was to find sockets to plug my chargers into (Myanmar uses both 2- and 3-pin plugs and although I had adaptors it was easier to stick with my British cables) and I made a useful discovery - nearly all TV sets used UK-style plugs. As I never turned a TV on during the entire trip I could unplug it and use the vacated socket for my various devices.
After settling in & freshening up we assembled for a walking tour of Nyaung-U, the town we were based in. It had a backpacker feel - a wide dirt road, lots of cafés, restaurants & bars with a scattering of gift shops and vehicle hire offices. It was well lined with trees, as were the smaller side street leading off to the less touristy parts, and pleasantly cool to walk along. Virtually all of the shop signs were in English, a reflection of the expected clientele rather than a remnant of Myanmar's colonial history I suspect.
The town turned out to be larger and more sprawling than I had expected with more shops & services for locals once we left Backpacker Street. The mopeds that had been banned in Yangon were the primary form of transport here, some of which were spookily quiet e-bikes that would appear out of nowhere and whoosh past, but the traffic level was fairly low and pedestrian-friendly.
After a hour or so we arrived at the local market. This looked like a fairly modest affair at first with maybe a couple of dozen fruit & veg stalls but it extended on & on, at first into a covered area with similar produce but then to a huge roofed building with narrow passageways forming a grid pattern between countless stalls selling a vast selection of goods. After establishing a rendezvous point we were given an hour to go explore by ourselves and I set off randomly criss-crossing through the giant maze.
I'd not planned to do much shopping this early in the trip but my wanderings led me to a collection of clothing stalls, each of which prominently displayed one or more old, mechanical sewing machines. One of these shops had some nice looking shirts displayed and after a process of pointing & gesturing and trying some on (there was, of course, no fitting room) I chose two white ones and indicated I wanted to buy them. We'd been encouraged to barter but once the price was shown (on an electronic calculator, a very common method) and I suggested a lower value the shopkeeper just smiled and pointed at the original quote. It was getting close to our meet-up time and a quick mental calculation showed them costing less than £5 each so I smiled, paid and was on my way. (The shirts were really nice but became sadly stained by sunblock, next time I'll remember to wear discardable t-shirts during the daytime).
From the market we walked back towards our hotel, stopping off at the main street for lunch. Although we tended to eat dinner together lunchtimes saw us splitting into smaller groups and finding our own places, although we almost invariably went somewhere that Lae had recommended. She'd warned us against street food and restaurants not on her approved list, not so much for the quality of the food itself but over the level of water quality used in preparation. We joked about being accomplished world travellers cowed by Lae's List but outside of cosmopolitan Yangon nobody risked it. Most of the places in Nyaung-U offered Indian, Chinese, Italian and general Western food but I stuck to Myanmar cuisine, why come to an exotic place and not embrace the culture?
As afternoon turned into evening we set off on another walking tour, heading for our first Bagan temple, the Shwezigone pagoda. On the way we passed our first chinlone game, a (predominantly) non-competitive team sport where six or so people try to keep a small rattan ball from hitting the ground without using their hands, similar to hacky-sack or collaborative keepie-uppie. Normally the players walk in a circle while one stands in the centre, passing the ball back and forth with stylish & creative moves. This game seemed to be a friendly pick-up with no audience, we'd see bigger matches later in the trip.
Birdsong at Shwezigone pagoda
The Shwezigone pagoda, while not as big as Shwedagon in Yangon, was nevertheless an impressively huge, gilded stupa surrounded by several smaller but still sizeable structures. As evening fell the colours slowly changed and as the artificial lights came on the central tower was transformed into a luminous golden glow. Like Shwedagon it was a very serene space to be in, the low murmur of voices and chittering birdsong giving it a timeless & contemplative atmosphere.
Among the peripheral buildings was a Nat shrine. This is a form of spirit worship that can be seen as an aspect of Myanmar Buddhism or old superstition, depending on who you ask. Nats can be human saints or nature spirits. The statues were very different from the Buddhas in the other buildings and there was a continual stream of devotees making money or flower offerings - clearly this tradition was very much alive.
The first night in Bagan was appreciably cooler than Yangon and although I was still waking up through the night I felt considerably more 'present' when I went for breakfast. The breakfast choice was quite different from our city hotel in Yangon - there was less fruit, my 'omelette' was essentially scrambled, the bread was almost synthetically white and very, very sweet, and there were 'sausages' that nobody could clearly identify. Somehow I managed to create a decent meal from what was on offer and the rooftop setting made up for the strangeness of the fare. This was probably the low point of breakfasts but the same super white, super sweet bread turned up again & again for the rest of the trip.
Bagan is a huge area that contains over 2,000 temples & stupas, widely distributed across its flat, scrubby plain. During the next two days we visited several of these and although the individual structures were often huge & impressive it was the sheer number that made the biggest impact. Only the largest temples stood alone and even then you could turn your head and see others, sometimes dozens of others, dotted around the countryside. They ranged in height from maybe six metres to the tallest at over sixty and were predominantly red brick built, although some were white or pale cream and several had guilded spires. Many of them were damaged - the area is a known earthquake zone - and a few leant at varying angles, we were not allowed to climb above ground level for safety concerns. There were a fair number of tourists and cheap gift hawkers around but the area was so big that it was easy to walk a short distance and find yourself alone in this landscape of devotional buildings with no reminder of the modern world in sight. Bagan is often compared to Angkor Wat (not least by the Myanmar tourism industry) and although it doesn't have the immediate Wow! factor of Angkor there was, at least for me, a similar sense of wonder & awe. Probably the highlight of my entire trip.
For lunch we went to the Sanon training restaurant, an on-the-job education centre for young people in Bagan. I'd been to a similar enterprise in Cambodia on a previous trip and, as there, both the service and the food were excellent. The sign in the bathroom telling people not to wash their feet in the toilet (sadly I didn't get a picture) detracted a little from the classy vibe but it was nice to feel that my bill was making a difference to local lives.
In the afternoon we visited a lacquerware workshop, a family-run enterprise headed by a jovial old man who gave us a very polished (no pun intended) presentation on the processes involved. Naturally the tour ended via the gift shop and although I'm not normally a fan of lacquer I was very taken by one of the designs, patterns of pale blue & beige made from inlaid eggshell. So taken that I bought some, nine pieces that seemed wildly expensive - they were tagged in dollars, a sign that this was the tourist price - but on reflection cost a tiny fraction of what they would back home. And it was nice to find something that was memorable, classy, and that I would actually use in my everyday life. They were carefully wrapped in peper, bubblewrap and a vast amount of sellotape and survived the ensuing travels to make it safely home.
That evening we drove to the Nann Myint viewing tower to see sunset over Bagan and the Ayeyarwaddy (Irrawaddy) river. The tower is a modern construction with some rather strange design choices - there's a long staircase to the entrance where the lifts are found, these lifts don't go to the topmost viewing platform but instead you have to climb a cramped staircase that serves ascending & descending visitors, there'a an external staircase but it's on the eastern side, away from the sunset. The viewing platform was much too small for the assembled tourists and, truth be told, it was far too hazy a day for good sunset photography. Despite all this it was nice to be high up and have the flat plain laid out before us, dotted with the multitude of spires.
Farewell from the Bagan hotel staff
That evening we had a group meal without Lae, who took a well-deserved break from shepherding us around. The food was very good but the staff claimed their system couldn't cope with individual bills, instead we were charged in pairs. This led to some tricky deciphering of the bills & calculations before most realised that the amounts were so small it was hardly worth doing more than divide by two.
Next morning I was, as usual, up before dawn so I decided to have an early stroll through town. Everything was very quiet - nowhere in Myanmar did I find any early morning bustle - and the few people around were wrapped up in warm clothes, in contrast to my t-shirt & shorts. Going out into the more agricultural areas I found leafy lanes between well-tended (but still seasonally dry) fields and the occasional tethered buffalo. And, it goes without saying, another couple of impressive stupas.
On one of our temple visits there was some renovation/repair work going on. Men stood on the roof while materials were hoisted up to them using a pulleyed rope and muscle power. There was no generator, electrical tools or (so far as I could see) any concession to health & safety concerns - the scene could credibly have come from centuries ago. Bagan has not been given World Heritage Site status and one of the stated reasons was the non-authentic repair work done in the past, on this evidence the current work is much more traditional.
For our final evening we took a boat trip on the Ayeyarwaddy to watch the sunset (we saw a lot of sunrises & sunsets during the trip). The 'jetty' where we embarked turned out to be just another stretch of riverbank but once we'd made it up the gangplank and cast off we were in another world, the wide, slow river below, unbroken blue sky above and the big old sun slowly turning golden as it sank towards the horizon. The chugging of the engine sank into the background (before being silenced as sunset approached) and we were left with peace & serenity, supplemented with green tea. The day was rounded off with dinner in a traditional restaurant where the food (curry, rice & side dishes) was served in lacquerware 'TV dinner' style trays with compartments for each dish. Yummy.
Once again I was up before dawn but rather than try to force myself to sleep I repacked, checked the trip notes for our next stop, sorted out what laundry I'd need to do to get through the trip cleanly clad, and was ready to have another 'interesting' breakfast before it was time to board the bus. We had a short flight ahead of us before reaching Mandalay, our next stop.