Biking around Bagan.

So I woke up at 5am and started getting ready, looked outside and it was full on thick cloud. So I went back to bed for a bit and got up for a swim and breakfast at the hotel. No sunrise today!

I walked across the road and rented an electronic scooter, charged and ready to go for 6000 kyat for the full day till 9pm. I was a little worried at first but it was either this, cycle or walk, and I was excited to explore.

Off I sped on the main road through Bagan, and luckily there was hardly any traffic, and the roads are in pretty good shape. I headed up towards Old Bagan and the temples started coming thick and fast. I was given a map and you can download one from a keychain you get when you pay the Bagan archaeological fee.

However I decided to go rogue and try and be a full on explorer. So at some point I turned off down a dirt track towards some of the huge brown pagodas. I stopped off and made sure I remembered to turn the bike off so I wouldn’t run the battery down. I then wandered slowly through the pagodas, each one seemed to have a Buddha inside.

They were beautiful, old and it was a surreal experience finally being here after reading and hearing so much about it. There were pagodas of all sizes just on their own, but also bigger complexes with outer walls and doorways to explore. I definitely felt like Indiana Jones and was sure I would find some ancient treasure.

After taking some fun pics and probably being far too excited about it all I headed down the next dirt track I could see, the paths here are quite small and sandy but I found it pretty easy going. It was only when the sand got a bit deeper that the bike struggled and I learnt to avoid this pretty quickly.

I actually was looking for a pagoda that I could climb up to get some good views, and later there would be some random locals asking if they could take me to some, bit I heard that after the earthquake in …… A lot of the pagoda were shut as it’s too dangerous to climb them.

I continued on, stopping at ones I liked the look of, jumping on and off the bike as I pleased. Then I saw a huge temple near one of the places I had stopped, so I worked out which path seemed to lead there and headed over.

It turned out this was one of the more popular points of interest, called Dhammayan Gyi temple. You could go inside this one and go through huge corridors and small windows taking you in and out of the building. There were even a few shacks outside selling drinks and snacks.

After this I continued my exploration until about 1pm, realised I had been driving around for about 4 and a half hours so decided I would head back to Moon in New Bagan for lunch. This time I had a bright green mint and lime drink, and tried the traditional Myanmar tea leaf salad.

Now this salad is literally one of the tastiest things I have ever tried. Fermented tea leaves, tomatoes, onions, and a load of crunchy beans and nuts all covered in garlic and chilli. I couldn’t believe how good it tasted and I felt bad for the aubergine curry I had next. It still tasted good but nothing like the salad.

After cooling down a bit in the restaurant and chatting to a guy who worked there, I stopped off at a couple more pagoda but it was super hot by this point, so after driving around through Old Bagan and up to ….. I drove straight back to the hotel and chilled out for a couple of hours.

After sunrise had been a miss I was looking forward to the sunset, and went back out on my bike at around 5pm knowing sunset was just after 6pm. The guy in Moon restaurant had given me a couple of tips on where to go but as I drove up the main road out of New Bagan the sky was dark and flashes of lightning were visible on the horizon.

I passed one of the guaranteed spots pretty quickly but wanted to check out the others, this was a big mistake as I then struggled to find them, only managing to find some small banks that you can view the sunset from.

So I quickly headed back to the spot from earlier, just making it about ten minutes before sunset. Although it didn’t really matter as it was again a bit too cloudy for a decent one. It was cool seeing the lightning and rain in the distance, I soon realised it was heading my way and jumped on my bike, getting back just before the heavens opened.

So I ended the night with a drink and swim at the pool as lightning illuminated the night sky above me.

Mingun and the cracked pagoda.

I was up early again today, knowing that my bus to Bagan was booked for 2pm I deliberated on what to do. I went down for a breakfast of noodles and fruit and spoke to the reception for help. I wanted to know if I could make it to Mingun, an area North of Mandalay, and back by 2pm.

Luckily for me if I left in the next ten minutes I could make the 9am boat up the river, so with the help of the hostel staff I was racing there in the back of a tuk tuk.

After sitting around from 8:45 the boat was acually ready to leave for 9am so myself and 4 other tourists walked a very unsteady plank of wood up to the boat and we sped off up river. The journey took around an hour and it was great, I spent it bird watching and looking for river dolphins, unfortunately I didn’t see any of the latter.

Once you arrive in Mingun you pay a small tourist fee, and decide if you want to walk around yourself or let a local latch on to you and take you around with the expectancy of a tip at the end.

A young guy latched on to me and I let him take me around as he promised me some thanaka paste. It’s a traditional paste made from a tree, they rub the bark onto a flat stone with some water to create it. Then apply it to areas at risk of sun damage.

Thanaka’d up the first sight was the Mingun Pahtodawgyi, a huge unfinished pagoda, first the king who was building it died, then it was hit by several earthquakes. It’s very impressive even unfinished and it’s cool seeing the huge cracks going down through it.

Next up is the Mingun bell, the second largest in the world and the largest uncracked bell. I got to stand in it and listen to people striking it with a huge piece of wood before I had a go myself.

The 3rd sight is the white pagoda, almost blinding to the eye in the sunlight. Hsinbyume pagoda is striking with its wavy design and golden pagoda at the summit. I wandered around here in awe.

I stopped for a drink as it was getting pretty hot at this point and chatted to my guide. Then we went to see a small pagoda with some interesting Buddha inside. One was made completely from one teak tree, another was stone and another made from metal. It was nice but probably not a must see.

The huge traditional boat just outside was pretty cool, again being carved from one huge tree. The last stop were the huge lion sculptures that are now missing their heads. I thought they looked more like elephants but was assured they were lions. At this point I went my seperate way from the guide, giving him 5000 for his troubles. He started asking for US dollars and I think was a bit disappointed I didn’t have any.

I spent the next hour wandering around checking out all the fried goods and trinkets lining the main street. Then it was back on the boat and back to Mandalay. I took a motorbike taxi back to the hostel with 30 minutes to spare till my bus.

Then it was a 6 hour, 96 Mile journey of stopping every 10-15 minutes to let people on and off. Even when I thought the little mini bus was full they pulled out plastic stools for more people to sit on. I was super excited to get going to Bagan, it’s probably the main reason people head to Myanmar.

I arrived at the station around 7:30pm and had to take an expensive taxi -12,000 kyat into New Bagan where I was staying. There are 3 areas you can choose from, the others being Old Bagan and Nyaung-U. It’s pretty same same with anywhere you stay as they kind of surround the main temple area. You have to pay 25,000 kyat for a 3 day pass to the Bagan area. About ยฃ12 which I didn’t mind at all if it allows them to keep the temple complex in good shape.

I checked in and immediately headed to a vegetarian place I had heard of called Moon (Be kind to animals) it was a 15 minutes walk from the hotel and I saw my first pagoda in the darkness just off the main road. The food at Moon was amazing, I had a tea leaf curry with rice, it tasted so fresh and garlicky. I couldn’t wait to try more on the menu.

Heading back I was up early (again) to rent an E-bike, am electric motor bike at 5am to go see the sunrise from one of the pagoda.

Exploring the ancient Cities of Myanmar.

Today I was up super early, I got everything ready the night before including a shower so I could get up 15 minutes before Min Min was picking me up. This was still 4:30am but I was excited enough to not feel too tired, Min Min was waiting for me outside and off we went towards U Bein Bridge, the longest wooden bridge in the world. It’s located south of Mandalay and is a popular spot for sunrise and sunset.

On the way we stopped at a pagoda where the monks were washing the face of Buddha, people arrived to pray and attach gold leaf to the body of the Buddha. It was a nice little start to the day.

We drove out of the City and into the countryside, arriving at U Bridge at around 6am. It was so quiet and only 2 other tourists around, unfortunately it was also really cloudy so I wouldn’t get a good sunrise. I still loved walking along the bridge and taking with the locals, I even found a little chameleon friend.

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Once I had walked to one side and back it was on to the next part of the tour, the ancient Cities. We stopped at a huge broken pagoda, destroyed by an earthquake, I had the freedom to explore the whole place, and I had it all to myself. After about 20 minutes or so I was ready for breakfast, with Min Min waiting just across the road from me.

Breakfast was a traditional Myanmar dish consisting of thick cold noodles with egg and a chilli, garlic peanut sauce. It was delicious and came with a banana plant soup. I ate it so fast the lady serving in the little covered shack was asking if I needed more! Even the little side dish of bean sprouts with a slice of lime tasted really good.

Once breakfast was finished it was back on the bike to continue onwards. We now headed to Innwa, one of the ancient Cities of Myanmar. The bike journey was so cool, passing by old temples, banana tree groves and rice paddies. We passed the old ancient walls of the City and really went off road.

The main place to see is a huge stone temple that you can explore, with a white and gold pagoda adjacent to it. I really enjoyed this place, it was a beautiful building and again I wandered around without seeing anyone else.

After I had been on my little adventure around the area, we continued to an old tower that had also been damaged by earthquakes, we didn’t linger here as you’re not able to climb it so no exploring!

The next stop was a small partly damaged pagoda with some cool Buddhas and great views of people working in the rice fields. This place was so peaceful, with villagers going about their morning duties and the scent of incense filling the air.

Our last stop in the Southern area of Mandalay was an old wooden monastery. I believe it’s used to teach children, but I couldn’t see anyone around, just a few squirrels and some dogs guarding the steps up, so I didn’t dare to climb them.

Next on the agenda was Sagaing hill, to get there we drove back up towards Mandalay before crossing the river over the …. bridge. Min Min stopped for me to take some pictures of the Irrawaddy river up close, then we started to ascend the hill.

Again I had to get off at the steepest part but it was definitely worth it as we reached the top and I took a short uphill walk to reach Soon U Ponya Shin pagoda, I hadn’t done any research on this so it was a great bonus. The bright blue curve of the temple along with all the Buddha inside was amazing. Plus the view of you walked a little further up over the whole river delta was spectacular.

We drove back down and stopped at one more pagoda, a controversial one that the government had painted gold against the community wishes. This one was good but I was a bit pagoda’d out at that point. We continued our drive and stopped for tea at a little teahouse while we waited to go to the next temple.

This next one was really cool, mainly because we got to watch the monks there chant and ring their bells before queueing up for food from one of the nearby villages. There was a lot of ceremony involved and it felt great to be able to watch it. They eat lunch at 11:30 and that’s their last meal for the day.

It was a long drive back into Mandalay but interesting to watch day to day life and the locals would always wave and smile when they saw me going past as a westerner.

Arriving back in Mandalay Min Min wanted to show me one last point of interest, Shwe In Bin monastery. I’m so glad he did as it was a beautiful wooden building with lots of intricate design. Monks walked peacefully about and I probably spent more time there than in some of the others places due to its beauty.

I was soon back at the hostel and ready to relax after being out for over 8 hours it cost me 20000 kyat for the whole day with Min Min, including food and drinks, he was so great and explained a lot about Myanmar life. I chilled out till the early evening coolness and had a wander around the hostel area. I don’t know if I was just in the wrong place but it felt like there wasn’t really much in the way of shops/restaurants or bars in Mandalay.

That evening I walked up the night market which wasn’t great, before finding a little restaurant on the street called Shan Ma Ma. It was similar to the night before, you ordered your main dish then got some sides and soup to go along with it. After explaining I only ate vegetables I was soon tucking into we great food again.

Suddenly the whole street went dark and I realised it was a power cut. My second of the holiday. Luckily the restaurant had a back up generator so I finished my meal with a beer before walking back some very dark streets and I think I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.

Made it to Mandalay

I was awake early and spent breakfast making last minute plans for Mandalay. Don Mueang airport in Bangkok doesn’t have public transport access with BTS etc but you can get the metro half way and continue on bus.

I decided I’d stick with a taxi as I wouldn’t have to worry about time and it wasn’t too expensive, 340 Baht in the end.

The airport itself has quite a few restaurants and shops etc and it wasn’t long until I was boarded and ready for the next adventure.

As we were descending into Mandalay the clouds dispersed and I got my first glimpse of Myanmar. I couldn’t wait to start exploring, once I was through immigration (I ordered my E-Visa a few weeks back and had my printed confirmation letter, just make sure you go through the official government site) I jumped in a shared taxi for 5000 kyat or ยฃ2.50 and an hour and a half later I was at my hotel.

Downtown@mandalay was a pleasant surprise, I was in an 8 bed dormitory with air con. The showers were excellent, breakfast was great and the staff were very helpful. When I arrived a local was outside with a motorbike and offered to take me around. I realised the only way to get around Mandalay was by bike/tuktuk or taxi so once I was checked in I dropped my bags off and met Min Min. Min Min agreed to take me to Mandalay palace for 3000 kyat.

I jumped on the back and we sped off, following the walls and moat of the palace ground to the entrance. Here I paid 10000 kyat for the entrance fee, this includes 5 more places you can visit. Min Min said he would wait for me while I walked to the palace past the walls.

The palace itself is a model of the ancient Mandalay palace, it’s pretty nice to wander around and there’s a small museum with some artefacts inside. The highlight has got to the the tower, you can climb up to the top and it affords you views of the whole palace grounds and surrounding area.

I walked back along the road to the palace walls where Min Min was waiting for me. I asked to see the nearby pagodas and off we went, with no price agreed it made me a little nervous. The first monastery we arrived at was Shwenandaw monastery, the building is amazing and completely made of teak wood.

I wandered around admiring the carvings before we went to our next stop, the …. Pagoda which was a 15 second drive up from. Shwenandaw. This huge pagoda was very pretty with big golden arch ways, the inside is pretty plain with a Buddha and some tall columns to hold the roof up.

Our next stop was one I had been really excited about before my trip. Kuthodaw pagoda is famous for having the largest book in the world. Each page is carved in stone and held inside a small stone temple.

It’s so pretty to wander about between the little white buildings and the actual pagoda is a huge golden topped building. They even have a mini model of the site so to can really appreciate the scale of the place.

The next pagoda wasn’t as impressive, a golden stupa and a Buddha to pray to. I did enjoy the view that you got over the Kuthodaw pagoda though.

Finally it was time to head up Mandalay hill, I had read that the sunset from up here was out of this world and I couldn’t wait to check it out. You can walk to the top but after showing me the entrance to the hill, Min Min sped off up the road to drive us.

Unfortunately he didn’t bank on having a big westerner on the bike, I had to get off a couple of times and walk the steepest parts. Min Min even asked me how much I weighed! We arrived at the top with my ego slightly dented.

At the top you have to walk up a couple of flights of stairs, the first level has lovely windows looking out over Mandalay and the Irrawaddy river. This was a spot I definitely would visit all the time if I lived there. The tiling around the windows was beautiful, and it seemed very peaceful.

The next lot of steps takes you to the pagoda at the top, this has an incredible viewpoint, you can see the the whole of Mandalay up to the mountains in the distance.

It’s truly a stunning experience up there, I felt bad that Min Min was waiting for me but I could’ve spent so much longer enjoying the views. 3 Burmese men in their early 20s came over to chat so they could improve their English. I really enjoyed this moment as I got to know a bit more about Myanmar life.

Once I was done Min Min drove me back into the main City and asked if I was hungry. I hadn’t thought about it but realised I could eat and eat and eat. So he took me to a very local restaurant down a small alleyway.

Here we sat with many locals and the Burmese ladies working there started bringing all this amazing food out. You got your main curry dish, then about 4 or 5 side dishes and rice. It was all so tasty, I’ve been vegetarian for a few months now and unfortunately they brought out pork. I didn’t have the heart to say no so I ate a couple of pieces before filling up on rice and vegetables.

I was pretty tired at this point, especially when Min Min said he would take me out the next day from 5am! So he dropped me back at the hostel where I was soon sound asleep.