#026: Ancient Bagan Burma (Myanmar)Tak's dispatch released on 21 April 2015

Bagan Myanmar Landscape

“Excuse me, excuse me,” she yells, a short-stubby woman running after you as you leave the airport serving Bagan, Myanmar. You have decided to forego the taxi cabs and take a walk on this pleasant day into Nyaung-U, the nearby town.

“Yes?” you respond as you turn to her.

“You come, you come, follow,” she says. You comply.

Back in the airport, you are now facing a hastily setup table announcing a $20USD tax against each foreign visitor to Bagan. As you have become well aware, they love visitors in Myanmar. If you aren’t getting exorbitant pricing on produce, you are being taxed to bring them business. Of course, if the money went to preservation or to helping the disadvantaged in the area, it would be a bit better feeling, but your research has only turned up that the ruling class use this as another means to enrich themselves.

“No, new bill, new bill!” the attendant exclaims as you hand her a $20 bill. If you thought the nonsensical tax couldn’t get worse, you are now having to quell their hyper-sensitivity over how many creases there are in the US dollars you are handing them, and trying to persuade them into taking foreign currency which works perfectly fine nearly everywhere else in the world.

Having placated them by handing them a newer bill, which luckily you have on hand, you walk again outside the airport. A few taxi cab drivers solicit your business but you walk on by and head out of the airport property on foot.

Halfway down the entrance road to the airport, an empty taxi pulls up and asks for your business. You tell him you will use him for 3,000MMK. He resists, so you continue walking, totally complacent with walking. He tries several more times until finally he relents and tells you 3,000MMK is perfectly fine for the short drive into town.

You have been warned that you need to advance book when visiting Myanmar in the high-season, which January is, but the consequences stemming from this warning have lacked teeth thus far. As long as you stay away from the lodging options talked about in the Lonely Planet, which all the uninventive mobs gravitate to, then you find availability.

You start examining hotel rooms and the price range is quite variable. What is not variable is that all of the WiFi in the broad Bagan area is terrible. Each hotel tells you they have WiFi and they do, but they don’t have a connection to the internet. Your devices tell you that you are fully connected to a router which has no actual internet access, which is far worse than having no connection at all. (In actuality it seems that the bandwidth for the area is highly constricted in that if you try the internet at 330AM, you might be able to get somewhere on it, but if you try during normal hours, you will have no such luck).

Another constant is that, while the hotels in the Inle Lake region gave you decent value for your money, the hotels in Bagan, like Yangon, give you terrible value for your money. For double the price of something quite nice in other Southeastern Asian countries like Vietnam, you are getting a really old, sometimes dirty, sometimes non-functioning shanty room. This hopefully will change in due time but as long as tourists are showing up in droves, they might as well keep on raising rates and renting these types of accommodations.

At this point, you are just tired that at every turn in Myanmar, the focus seems to be about money. They want to charge you 500% more for produce, they want to upcharge you for taxis, they charge you more for food, they want $50 to enter the country, they want $20 to see Bagan, they want $15 for you to see Inle Lake, and it goes on and on. The value just isn’t there. But here you are in Bagan, ready to see the highly-acclaimed ancient temples and other structures spread around the area.

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You walk into town, past the touristy signs for spaghetti, pizza and cheeseburgers, and ask around to get to a good spot for sunset. The best option seems to be taking a horse and so you set off and end up at a relatively quiet temple. The sunset is pleasant, and the scenery is nice.

Before you leave the horse’s owner behind, he desperately seeks your business for the following day, a day when you want to visit Bagan in full. After hashing out the details, you agree that he will meet you at your hotel at a time that will ensure you are at a temple for the sunrise.

Back in town, you try to find a place to eat that looks authentic, but it seems nearly all the options are quite poor—tourist traps hawking Italian food or places with tired looking food. At some point you have no choice, and you settle in at the best place you can find for a mediocre meal.

You head to bed early, for the practical reasons of getting up early the next day and the obvious reasons that the town is dead. You head back to your rudimentary room and call it a night.

The next morning, you are waiting for the side of the road at your hotel watching the clock tick by. A minute turns into five minutes which turns into ten minutes. Having waited now for 15 minutes, with no horse in sight, you decide you must now come up with an emergency plan, or risk missing the sunrise.

You quickly head off on foot, in the direction of the temples until you run across a local who appears to be waiting for a bus. He asks if you need a motorbike ride. Next thing you know, he has turned your desperation (and misplaced trust in the horse owner) into cold, hard cash and you are whizzing along on the back of his motorbike for a one-way ride to “the best” temple for sunrise.

“The best” temple for sunrise comes into view and he tells you to continue on foot up a certain path to reach it. You thank him, happy to be bailed out of a blown operation, and set off. As you arrive to “the best”, you find it crawling with people. Tour busses are pulling up into the parking lot, tourists are battling each other with tripods trying to set up for “the shot”, as others are standing around waiting with headlamps unnecessarily shining, surely ruining photographs a plenty.

You take a seat on a rock one level down from the top (in hopes of additional serenity). Just before the sun rises, a big mob of Chinese tourists arrives and promptly set up their tripods directly in front of you, chattering loudly.

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After the sun rose, you climb the steep stairs back to the ground and note that the better photo is of the mobs of people aboard the “best temple for sunrise”. The theme of “get to Burma before it becomes touristy” is ringing in your head, quite an empty phrase at this juncture. If you were looking for peace, this wasn’t the place.

Between the dingy hotel room, the non-existent internet, the over touristy infrastructure, the poor food scene and the average experience of the area, you decide to get out at once. While you admire the ancient architecture (and in some cases, new architecture as a bunch of these have been rebuilt), you are not blown away by the environment. After exploring some more, you walk back to your hotel, grab your bags, take a cab to the airport and buy a ticket on the next plane outbound.

Of course, you tried to buy a cheaper ticket online, but the internet didn’t work. You tried to buy a ticket at the ticket office in town, but they told you that you had to go to the airport for a same day ticket. And when you arrived at the airport, they gave you an inflated price (surprise!) and demanded it be paid with brand new US bills. Of course, they gave you change in used, worn, wrinkled Myanmar Kyatt bills. “This is okay,” they assure you.

One of the better sights of Bagan was from the departing plane, knowing you were no longer going to be in the middle of the Myanmar tourist mecca. There are some places where you connect and this was not one of them, despite all the high praise garnered.

Perhaps if the military government hadn’t kicked out all the residents from the older area (for tourism-related reasons) it would have had a better and more authentic feel to it, but wandering the scrub-brush and feeling like hosts to a parasite system doesn’t really have a warm and fuzzy feeling to it and so you head off to the next experiment; the Myanmar coastline.

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Tak

New York, NY
Internationally-published photographer with a passion for creative food, fine products, unique cultures and underground music. Twitter / Instagram / Email

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