Bagan is, as far as we’re concerned, the jewel in the crown for Myanmar. It used to be the capital of a separate kingdom- of Pagan, now subsumed into Myanmar. It is an ancient city with the most temples per square kilometre of any other city with about 2200 religious sites remaining to this day.
Our fantastic tour guides arranged for us to ride electric scooters during our stay in the town. Worried about maintaining his image as an adventure biker, Simon made sure his off-roading on the outskirts of Bagan were captured in photograph before we boarded our e-bikes! The evening was perfect for it, with sandy paths leading along the river front which Simon tore through easily.
By the time night fell, we had a perfect view of some of the temples in Bagan which have been lit up with million watt bulbs so that they can be admired from space but actually give a majesty and a grandeur to the principle temples which they lack in the daytime.
The next morning, we arranged to be on a Stupa at 5am in order to witness the dawn over the city. Sitting on the parapets of the stupa we waited for the sun. The nighttime lights were switched off, one by one across the city and we were plunged into darkness. Ever so slightly, a smudge of grey was visible on the horizon, and slowly edged out become a salmon pink and burning away the mist sitting on the
ground. The spires of temples, pagodas and stupas were piercing the mist as the sun helped them grow from the darkness. By the time the sun was eking over the horizon, hot air balloons had taken off and by dawn the sky was filled with dozens of balloons, hovering over the temples. It was a breathtaking sight and as the air swelled with birdsong it complemented the soaring progress of the balloons.
By the time the sun was fully visible, the mist had almost all burnt out and the effect was to break a magic spell. The stupas and temples looked splendid but suddenly removed of their shroud, lost the mystery and ethereal beauty the dawn mist had lent them. With the city coloured in pink we headed for our e-bikes to visit the temples in person.
We came upon a market in the town. It was full of traders and very little buyers so we were soon bombarded with offers of fruit, tanaka and baby squirrels(!) There was a little boy sat outside the market who’d trained baby squirrels and they nimbly clambered all over him without a care in the world. It was definitely sweet to see!
Inside the market, it was full of produce, grain, souvenirs, enamelled crockery, wooden puppets, games, knives and cheroots. Basically you could buy anything here and it was absolutely jammed with sellers. We shuffled through the narrow lanes, trying to politely extricate ourselves from the children trying to sell tanaka cream. We tried tiny mandarins, which were similar to kumquats, eaten all in one. They tasted like tiny balls of marmalade! We saw about three different types of garlic and also a stand which sold the dried fish essential for the delicious fish and chilli paste served with meals.
Wooden marionettes featured heavily, they represented traditional characters in local folklore. It featured humans, ogres and monkeys (rated in order of terrifying from least to most). Alex was swiftly reminded of her fear of dolls and puppets as a child. They are a solid part of Burmese culture with shows put on a regular basis, known as Yoke The.
Alongside the puppets, basket footballs were for sale. We’d seen lots of young men playing with them without realising the balls were wicker. It makes them light and durable and apparently a popular sport to play in the evening in the street. Soon it was time to leave the market and absorb some spirituality instead so we hopped on our E-bikes towards teh Ananda temple.
We entered the Ananda temple which has beautiful solid teak doors the size of a bus guarding the inner circle. The inner circle has a standing Buddha figure on each point, all four have a curious optical illusion where they look severe from far but smile beatifically from up close. These figures are enormous, towering over visitors as they walk around the circle. Reliefs decorate the walls as you walk. The centre was being refurbished with bamboo scaffolding filling the space so perfectly that it looked like a complex sculpture in itself.
Leaving the cool of the temple, we headed for Dhammayangyi temple. Its slightly run down aesthetic was charming and added to the magic of the place. The temple was filled with small passageways to be explored and every so often, a sand painting seller would try to convince us that a sand painting would last forever rolled up on the back of a motorcycle.
All the temples were really beautiful and it was good to see how well looked after they were, clean and calm.
Once we’d spent the day looking at temples, it was time for a sunset mini boat tour of the Irawaddy river to see Bagan at dusk.
The banks of the Irawaddy are bordered by plains. From the boat you could see a massive amount of erosion on the far bank where there were no trees with the soil just falling into the water. On the city side, the river is bordered by Stupas, one being the Bupaya stupa, so called because it looks like a gourd or pumpkin. It looked gorgeous in the dying light and from the boat, the whole city was clothed in pink and gold thanks to the setting sun. It was a beautiful end to our stay in Bagan.
We had two days left to get to the border with India. First, to Mandalay, then onto the Friendship Road across 47 bridges to India. The way to Mandalay was fine with only a couple of aggressive truck drivers who almost rammed Alex off the road. Then Mandalay was our first experience of traffic in the whole country, where traffic lights worked but the roads were still under construction. Teams of villagers breaking rocks by hand and brushing them onto the surface of the road. Hand melting asphalt for pouring looked like the worst job of them all.
We left Mandalay early as the road to the last town before Friendship road was broken and not suitable for fast riding. We lost a member of our convoy to food poisoning so while they convalesced we continued on towards India. The road was interrupted often by people raising money to fix the temples of their village. It was pretty irritating as it would create a build up of traffic on narrow roads every 4km or so. Eventually the money raisers were replaced by road works which meant a whole road carpeted with large rocks and gravel. It made for pretty horrific riding as each rock was unstable and the smaller scooters trying to surmount them at slow speed made planning the next few metres horrible. Eventually the large rocked repairs were over and we broke onto a smooth, tiny road which wound through sparsely wooded hills. Only occasional vehicles passed us so we made up some time. Eventually the winding got tighter and tighter until it formed perfect hairpins on a slope with the added complexity of just the bend being completely washed away. With the result that, to Alex’s horror, fairly smooth intersecting slopes would drop 15cm and be just mud and exposed rock on not only an uphill but an uneven radial!! We managed through and by sunset we were on fairly consistent roads. We passed through forestry regions where they were burning the shrubbery and ground debris. By nightfall we were often passing little snakes of fire flickering in the trees.
We hit another patch of offroad but this was serious- night had fallen and the offroad sections were long, sloped and containing large loose rocks as well as lane switching into oncoming traffic (of which there was mercifully little). At night, in the glare of the headlights, each rock and pothole looks enormous, the shadows menacingly deep. We bounced along in the darkness, each sweating and swearing more than ever as hazard after hazard bounded out from the night.
Finally we turned off into a small road which leapt straight into a mountain, that signalled our stop for the night. By that point it was past our bedtime and we were all ready for showers, dinner and bed! The four remaining riders were treated to an amazing dinner by our tour hosts where we dined on ladies fingers and succulent pork (and quite a bit of whiskey to calm the nerves!)
The next day saw us crossing the Friendship Road all the way to Moreh. This road crosses about 47 bridges in one day. Now, when one thinks of a bridge perhaps London Bridge comes to mind, or the Golden Gate bridge- perhaps even a Venetian bridge, these bridges were none of those.
Type 1: Some were actually railway bridges and one had to choose a left or right rut to run the tyre along. Woe betide a wobble of the tyre!!! The bike would fall but worse, your foot would no doubt get trapped on the rail. Add to that the oncoming traffic who think you can squeeze past because you’re on two wheels and you have a pretty stressful bridge situation.
Type 2: wooden planks across (like railway sleepers) with some missing and others with nails poking out. Most of the super long bridges were this type.
Type 3: Metal plates bolted to frame, some would creak and others would bend a lot.
Type 4: concrete! (Very rare) rarer still were the asphalt bridges.
When we weren’t tightroping across rivers, the sceneray was quite beautiful with endless fields of sunflowers, bobbing their heads as we rode past. Just before the road turns towards the border, the sunflowers multiply until the whole place is filled with yellow and bordered by blue mountains behind.
The border crossing with India comprises of one last bridge (surprise!) thankfully this was a Type 3 and in good condition. Our guides helped out with our paperwork and by early afternoon we were ready to cross!
India would be a new adventure, Alex was terrified as everyone had said the drivers were crazy but how bad could it be?