Bagan, Myanmar

January 15, 2015 1:10PM JST

DAY 1 – December 20, 2015 4:30AM

The JJ (Joyous Journey) Express (VIP) bus has arrived in Bagan about 1.5 hour earlier than schedule. The bus stopped twice during the 10 hour-scheduled ride. One stop was toilet break while the other was food + toilet break. The JJ Express was highly recommended online when I googled extensively before my trip, so I booked with JJ Express via Facebook. They will respond to your e-mail promptly and I also highly recommend JJ Express for travel in Myanmar. The JJ Express VIP bus costs about 22,200 Kyat ($18 USD), which is typically more expensive than other buses, which cost around 16,000 Kyat. Since it is a long ride, the ride was quite comfortable. Since I was solo traveller and when I booked, I said I was alone, so my original seat (the one taken up by Geoffrey who has booked on spot right after I informed him about the bus name at the hostel in Yangon) was by itself – although I loved my newly switched seat even more so I could put my feet on seat to relax and sleep…though there were few times that the crew had to open the ‘fridge door’ for some food. A box of bread and water were given. I did not eat bread as I did not know what the bread included and I was little unsure whether I should trust the taste of bread. I wasn’t hungry anyway so I have gotten that passed.

Once we reached the final bus stop near Old Bagan, where all the archaeological remains were located, we hurriedly went to the van-taxi that Fabian and Marta had ‘reserved’. Their bus arrived 20 min earlier than us. Apparently, Geoffrey talked to these two and booked the hostel they stayed at last minute as well. This is what we call, Backpackers – we travel with no plan. I did it even more last minute. I bet it and booked everything on spot for most of my stays during my travel.

We bargained with the taxi driver. It took us to settle down the negotiation. The taxi driver offered to drive us to the hostel and wait for us, then visit the archaeological sites. If I were alone, I probably went with the offer. It was first time for me to travel for such long time as solo, so I would just go for whatever the convenient options were. However, my people rejected the offer. They wanted to see what the hostel offered and Jeffrey wanted to rent a e-bike. Therefore, we changed our original deal and told the taxi driver to drive us to our hostel Bello Stello. The driver seemed to be disappointed – he just wanted to earn lots of money. He still had to take our order anyway, so we paid him 10,000 Kyat each.

As we arrived at the hostel at around 5:30AM and settled down, we booked our rooms. Well, I did not book room yet, so I asked if there was room. Yes, there was a bed available, a bit more expensive than some others, though. The booking was not cheap, at around $20 USD. This was average in Bagan. For me, it was not so bad, but compared to other areas, it was indeed costly. After we talked with the receptionist, we discovered that the bike guide and people at the hostel were all ready to bike to a pagoda to see sunrise. We arrived just on time. We did not really have time to change to our clothes as we were told that it would be very cold at the pagoda. I just had to put long pants on top of my existing wear and jacket. I still had sandals on; I did not have time to change into hiking boots. Actually, this was lucky, because we had to take our shoes off at every pagodas we visited so I did not have to go through wearing socks and tying shoelaces every time.

I have never biked before and did not want to risk it either. Fortunately, the 24 year old Marta (one year younger than me) also has never ridden bike before. Otherwise, I think I would have been out of place. I shared the bike with Geoffrey. The bike was cheap – it was 6,000 Kyat ($4.60 USD) per solo and 8,000 Kyat ($6 USD) per double. We split up the cost. We quickly got the bike and was ready while the couple was getting ready. Most of the bikers were solo. As a group, the bikers were moving at a slow pace. We did not have any difficulty keeping up. However, my hat flew off after few minutes of riding. I was hoping someone could pick it up…but no one did. We were one of the last, after all. It was an old hat that I had for while so I was nothing of value.

By the time we got to a small road, the ride has become more difficult. It was very sandy. As a two-person bike, it was not easy to balance the bike. We made it through anyway. Without the other bikes, we would have no idea where we will be going. Thankfully, others waited for us at the entrance of the road. As we got to the pagoda, the pagoda was very dark and a little eerily. We parked beside the entrance and we all got our phone flashlight out. Inside was completely dark and we would be blind inside. We followed others and found the stairs leading to outside. The stairs were quite steep and the opening was quite narrow. As we got to the top, the sky was beginning was to lighten up. Many people were there, as I realized. Of course, majority were Caucasians, and maybe just two or three others were of Asian descendants. As I talked a little, I noticed that almost all of them were from Europe. Not many were from the Americas.

As usual, I took many pictures of the horizon. There were still some lights lightened up at some major pagodas. I recognized them as major because I could see their size and shapes were different from others. As the sun gradually came out and of course the lights dimmed, the sight was very impressive. As time passed by, I noticed that there were some air balloons afar, behind some pagodas. I remembered reading air ballooning online back home. I was deciding to take the air ballooning tour or not, but I decided against it. The most famous air ballooning in the world was probably in Cappadocia, Turkey, anyway and the price at Bagan was more expensive than Turkey. It was over $300 USD in Bagan while it is under $300 USD in Turkey. I counted the air balloons and it totaled 19. Some air balloons were higher than others. Since they were not in a single line and moving across the horizon, it was a sight that I would never forget. The pagoda we were staying at was bright red/orange while the landscape was also that color. This was something that I would never forget and would show the picture to the future.

Air ballooning as sun rises.

As sun had completely risen, everyone were ready to go. Most went back to hostel to have breakfast. We the newly arrived quartet determined to skip breakfast and explore. We were not hungry anyway. They ate breakfast (the bread that were handed out on bus or some other food) and I did not. I just did not have appetite. We did not have much plan since we did not have a map – we simply did not have time to grab it from our hostel. So we decided just to visit small pagodas first.

And so we did, we visited many small pagodas. Each pagoda had locals selling goods. We did not buy anything. It was our first day and all of us just started our journey. We needed to save it to last. During lunch time, we finally went back to our hostel to have some free breakfast/food offered. We were told that spaghetti was offered at 1PM. We did not know how much the portion was like, but we decided to wait, anyway. We took a table on second floor where our rooms were. It was perfect time to freshen up. They packed their belongings and took shower. I did not have to do these days so I just relaxed and roamed the Internet, using free WiFi. We did not know how to have food ready for us so I went down to ask how to do it all. Apparently, all we needed to do was to sit down and wait for the server to come by. That took while, so we planned our plan in Bagan. All three wanted to stay in Bagan for one extra day. I personally thought one day was probably enough for me. I preferred travelling with people so I decided to stay one extra night as well.

From left to right: Geoffrey, me, Marta, Fabian. Atop pagoda.

Since spaghetti did not come for awhile, Fabian and I decided to wait downstairs and informed the server that we needed 4 plates. Fabian went up later. Spaghetti finally arrived later a long time later and we only got 3 plates. I informed the server we needed 4 so the one dish was brought to us later on the second floor. Spaghetti portion in each plate was very small. I probably could eat all 4 plates on my own and be somewhat nourished. And so, we ended up going to a restaurant nearby to have real food. We had Burmese food, containing noodle and rice as main, just like any other Chinese dishes. Before we left our hostel, I saw Tuomas from Yangon! He traveled to Bagan from Yangon via train, which took longer – he arrived in Bagan at 2PM, yet he left Yangon earlier than me, about around 4PM.

After lunch, we went off to explore again. Generally, the small pagodas we visited all looked the same to me. The bigger ones were different from each other. All of these pagodas had Buddhist scriptures in the middle once entered. When it was time for sunset, we went back to our hostel to join the group to see sunset, just like how we saw sunset that morning. Location was different, of course. The view was similar – maybe the color was a little different. Geoffrey missed sunset (the moment sun disappeared beyond the horizon) since he had to wait for his e-bike to be recharged. We stayed longer until stars came out and lights shone upon larger pagodas came out, while others went back. At the end of the tour of this first day, I definitely thought one day was enough.

Before reaching the hostel, our bike went out of battery. Christoph, born in United States but grown up in Germany, drove me back, while Geoffrey went back without much trouble. E-bike simply seemed not to be made for two people. Well, actually, the e-bike of Fabian and Marta did not break down entirely, so I was sure that I was more to do with Geoffrey’s weight. He was bigger and heavier than Fabian. Marta and I were probably of same weight.

For dinner, we met some fellow travelers and ate dinner together. We had some awesome day together and socialized. We slept early so we could see sunrise again the next day. For me, watching sunrise on day was quite enough, even when the location may be different – what do you think?

DAY 2 – DECEMBER 21, 2015 5:45AM

The Quartet has decided to meet together early morning at around 5:45AM. If people did not show up, we were set off to go by ourselves and not wait for others. Geoffrey can be a little impatient, in my own mind. Fabian and Marta were actually only 1 minute late; yet, Geoffrey was ready to set off. There were others in the lobby seeking adventure. Some people just arrived that morning just like us. However, there was no tour from that hostel that day. It was only once every two days. So, we were very fortunate to be on that day of tour. Since we knew where we were going, other people joined us. To make sure everyone can follow up, we also reduced our speed. We acted as guides.

After the sun had risen and people were taking photos and socializing, I recognized two people from Japan since they were talking in Japanese from the back of me, which I had not looked back yet . I was amazed to see Japanese people here, yet there were two, not just one! I talked to them in Japanese and learned that both from of them from Kanto area – Tokyo and Yokohama (I live 20 mins away from Yokohama). One was a student and another was a working man, respectively. Both were there not for a very long time, within a week – a typical Japanese holiday. I later climbed to the top of the pagoda, to join the Japanese people who also climbed to the top, which I later realized. The local child whom I asked for picture to be taken for me from higher angle climbed up there and I was wondering how he did it since there was no obvious stairs nearby to climb. Apparently, he used some space in the wall to use as footsteps to climb and use the rest of his body. I wanted to try it anyway. It was not difficult. However, when climbing down, it was extremely difficult. I could not get down. Eventually, I asked the closest person, Krzysztof (Christopher in Polish), the man from Poland who shared room with Fabian and Marta with (Marta was excited that she met another Polish while travelling because she rarely met anyone from Poland overseas).

After this, we went to the larger pagodas, as planned out by looking at the map. At a building, that was not a pagoda, we discovered that there was a gate and the sign said that it was a museum. Apparently, we went to a different gate and there was another entrance. Since we just wanted to see pagoda and were not interested in seeing museum, we decided to skip seeing it. We took photo of it anyway. I noticed that there was a local old lady (the lady that we saw on our way to the museum) carrying very long tree branches on one shoulder coming towards our way. She was walking pretty fast, I would say. We wanted to take good photos so badly that we ran up to the front of the lady and took photo from front angle. Marta and Chris waited behind. Once we were back, both were laughing and Marta claimed we were stalkers.

After a bit, we visited a white colored pagoda that we had visited the previous day. None of us recognized the pagoda except for Geoffrey, since we came from different entrance that day. Geoffrey was very good at directions – he was the one who knew how to go back to hostel the first day from various pagodas while none of us did (I thought this was just man thing and woman was just not good at it – apparently not, it was just Geoffrey). The white pagoda had four sides and all sides had painting sellers. They painted these art all by themselves, all by hand – details little by little. Thus, the paintings were not cheap. Since it was our last day, all of us ended up buying paintings from one single lady – a mother. I spent $40 USD on three paintings – with one free cheapest painting. Fabian and Marta bought four paintings with same money plus one free painting while Geoffrey bought a $15 painting. While these were all happening, Chris was nowhere to be found. Later, we discovered that Chris was just laid back and enjoyed talking to locals. He was very nice and gentle that he hardly negotiated. Well, goods were not very expensive, so it was all good. Fabian argued that kids should not be selling goods because this would only be teaching them selling goods as a young child.

The lady whom we bought paintings from.

At the end of our time at the white temple, Christoph joined us. Later on, Fabian, Marta, and Chris were taking some time shopping (well, Chris was leading them to), while Geoffrey, Christoph, and I went off our own since we did not need to buy anything. Geoffrey sent a list of pagodas we were planning to visit and told them to follow up. Eventually, that never happened as we never saw them at any of the temples. The time we actually saw them were when Fabian saw us. They were in a hut already bought sandals and the lady was putting local natural sunscreen on their faces. The sunscreen was sandy color and it was clearly visible on the face. I thought it did not look alright on Marta’s face simply because her face was already pale. Since the Burmese people had darker skin tone (darker than Chinese), the contrast in color fit better.

As they were doing their own business, we just went off our own. We ate lunch at a local Burmese restaurant that we passed on the way to see pagodas. At one of the last few pagodas we were planning to see, our bikes got stuck in much sandy road – again, the bike shared by Geoffrey and me almost had no battery. We pushed bikes through until the area that went down into a different road. I got off the bike and Geoffrey biked down the steep road with excitement, so did Christoph. I noticed that the road that cut cross our path seemed to be another road (which they thought it was not one). We followed our judgement (mostly Geoffrey’s) and pushed our bikes that way. We ran into construction workers and asked for direction. We were right on track – we were told that it was only about 5 min walk into the main road.

By the time we reached the main road, the bike completely broken down. Geoffrey had to call the e-bike service for battery recharge just like the day previously. While we were waiting for the battery to come, we went the bike at the edge and went across the road to see a pagoda beyond the corn (?) field. We passed through a herd of goats. This was an amazing sight that I always wanted to see. There was a local herder woman in traditional clothing. I quickly shot a photo and moved along.

Herder looking upon goats as two foreigners walk on.

Once we were closer to other pagoda, we decided not to go into the fields to see pagoda since this pagoda looked same as other small pagodas. On our way back, we stopped by a local ‘slum’ house built from something that I believed was from straw and steel. I thought it was a slum because there was a pile of garbage right beside the house and there were actually two dogs (they were quite indigenous dogs, with no mix from foreign dogs – almost like pariah dogs) scavenging. I wanted to take photo with the house with its residents but Christoph just ‘simply’ take photo without asking me to check photo and see if I wanted to take photo as we were in hurry for sunset. Technically, it only takes a few seconds to minutes. Well, not everyone is a photographer, as people who has photography as their hobby will dig deep.

Anyway, Geoffrey stayed behind to retrieve his bike and waited for the battery. Christoph and I shared the bike and off we went to the sunset pagoda we were told by our hostel. We actually ended up going to the wrong pagoda – we went to a large pagoda with lots of people roaming about at the gate. I got off the bike and waited for Christoph while he was asking for directions. After we got the answer, we learned that we were in the area, we just took a wrong pathway. On our way to the correct path, we ran into a large herd of white cattle herded by a local woman herder. While we were stuck, I heard a voice calling my name from behind. Guess what? We were not the only ones who were late and running for sunset that was almost due. It was Fabian, and Marta, and Chris, again, stuck behind the herd just like us!

As we drove the bike to our destined pagoda to see sunset.

Eventually, Christoph took a right turn and parked his bike behind some bushes and we went into the pagoda from backdoor. There were always lots of people sitting atop the pagoda. They could easily saw two latecomers entering from a very different entrance. Christoph went ahead. I wanted to take some afternoon pictures of the last pagoda of my time in Bagan so I stayed behind and wandered about. Surprisingly, Geoffrey arrived shortly after. I saw him coming through the front gate and I was indeed surprised. I told him where the entrance into the pagoda was and I shortly joined after.

We did not stay very late that night because we had to go back to our hostel for departure to our next destination, Hsipaw, a village known for trekking and a better location to trek than Kalaw near Inle Lake according to several people who we have been talking to – well, Geoffrey had made most of the conversation. On our way back to our hostel, we visited some lighted up golden pagodas with Chris, Christoph, and Mike from Seattle as Fabian wanted to take photo of them (so did I). At the last golden pagoda we stopped, it seemed already to be crowded. It turned out to be a local big family (?) of about 10-20 people. They were excited to see us, mainly because of foreigners. They wanted to take photo with us. We were the role models. There was a monk among them and we all wanted to take photo with him, each by each, so we took turns. The ‘boss’ male of the party wanted to take photo with males and females of our group separately. It was a hilarious night.

Four foreigners taking photo with local man. From left to right: Fabian, Mike, Christoph, and Geoffrey. – Mike, as usual character of his, attempts to take a ridiculous shot.
The most sought photo by visitors.
Some female members of the party.

Geoffrey’s bike was super fast once charged and we easily overtook others. After we turned at the traffic light, others were left too behind. It was Chris’s bike. It was completely broken down and he was pushing it all the way. And so, Chris and I switched the spot, and I rode with Christoph again. Eventually, the bike of Christoph and I also was about to break down. Fabian and Marta came up last and we informed them that someone should come pick me up if we did not reach the hostel by the time they got to the hostel. Fortunately, that was never needed because we made it to the hostel ourselves…and Geoffrey was on the bike and was about to fetch me.

It was around 6:30PM. We had to be at hostel at 8:30PM for the bus. I went to the ATM and convenience store to buy some snack while others took shower and pack up their belongings. While Fabian and Geoffrey went to ATM as Fabian was short of Burmese currency, Marta and I waited. After they came back, we went to the convenience store to buy some snacks for themselves. After that, Chris joined us for dinner. Dinner, though, was a bad experience. The restaurant, Black Rose, was too crowded, for one thing, which I noticed but did not commented it. We ordered alcohol and non-alcohol which came on time but our food never came. We went berserk and just left without paying for food.

Time was very tight. We hurriedly brought our backpacks outside and waited for the bus. I took some photo with Chris. While we were waiting for the bus, there was a little game going on at the outdoor dining area of our hostel. It was a trivia of questions and answers. Closer to 8:35pm or so, the bus came, on our way to Mandalay, where we had to transfer to train onward to Hsipaw. After next stops until travelling to Mandalay, we met a girl from France, named Rita, from a different hostel. Later on, we made friends with her and did trekking together.

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