We had cabs waiting for us at 6:30AM to take us to the Yangon airport where we would catch a flight to Bagan. Collectively, we had a lot of luggage including medical supplies for the clinic days, so when we checked into the flight we were more than 100 kilograms over the weight limit as a group. We carried on as many bags as we could and then paid the overweight fees. The airline took pity on us after the half hour we spent trying to rearrange the packed bags and the hundreds of dollars in fees, so they invited all ten of us into the lounge to wait for our flight. The lounge had a breakfast buffet of some traditional offerings as well as pastries, fruit, eggs, and cappuccino machines (a luxury since instant coffee granules seem to be the breakfast beverage of choice in this country). I was particularly interested in trying the mohinga which I had read about as the national dish of Myanmar consisting of rice noodles in a fish soup base topped with fried onions, lime, and dried chilies; typically a breakfast dish but can be served all day. The soup was very flavorful and filling, not anything like a typical American breakfast, but I was happy to enjoy a local staple. We ate as much as we wanted before boarding the flight.
We had a quick, one hour plane ride via FMI Air to Nyaung U Airport and then a fifteen minute taxi to our hotel in New Bagan. Of note, there is a 25,000 kyat Bagan archaeological fee that tourists must pay before leaving the airport in Bagan in exchange for a small stamped card that must be kept on your person throughout your stay in Bagan. We checked into Hotel Yadanarbon Bagan which was much nicer than our Yangon accommodation; the air conditioning was more effective, there was hot water on demand, a nice pool and blooming gardens, it was also easier to communicate with the hotel staff here. We situated our luggage in our rooms then rented scooter bikes from the hotel to explore the town. The hotel charges 8,000 kyats ($6USD) for scooter bikes for the whole day, SO inexpensive! I made sure to get outside early so that I could practice driving around the hotel grounds before we ventured onto the roads since I’m not a great driver and have no experience with any kind of motor bike/moped scooter device. I started in sandals and immediately changed into closed toe sneakers since I was frequently using my feet to slow down and stop. I was shaky and nervous on the bike but within a half hour I was comfortable enough to get around – also, luckily, there is little-to-no traffic to compete with in Bagan streets.
Once the whole crew was loaded up on the bikes, we set out for lunch. We passed by many shops and several pagodas on our way to a Burmese restaurant called Golden Myanmar recommended by the hotel staff. They call the restaurant a “buffet” but they really mean “all you can eat” because they bring the dishes directly to the table family style and will replenish any dish requested. I was eager to try the local cuisine – fried fish, pork curry, mutton curry, rice, a smattering of vegetable sides, and a soup. The food was flavorful and inexpensive but very heavy, fatty and greasy which we would come to realize is customary of Burmese cuisine; not my favorite.
After lunch we rode the scooter bikes to some of the surrounding temples and pagodas, Bagan has the world’s largest collection of these structures and is an important pilgrimage sight for Buddhists. We were told that there are around 3,000 remaining pagodas of the original 10,000+; many have been destroyed by the frequent earthquakes in the region. In each building, visitors must remove their shoes at the threshold, and enter a walkway that leads to the Buddha statue. Of note, the Buddha in these temples does not look like the Chinese, big belly, bald head, happy Buddha; the Burmese Buddha is much slimmer, with a hat and a more stern expression. Some of the pagodas are very small, and some very large; some have a narrow stairwell leading to a rooftop lounge area, perfect for relaxing and catching a sunset/sunrise. Many of these temples have vendors set up in the courtyard selling tourist souvenirs like local garments (longyi skirts and linen tops), jade jewelry and figurines (Burma is known for plentiful, high quality jade), and lacquerware (the famous craft of Bagan).
We visited a couple of tiny temples before making our way to Dhammayan Gyi which is touted as the “largest temple” and has a lot of vendors and people milling about in the courtyard. We spent a bit of time here and perused the shop stalls – I bought a couple of lightweight, linen tops that I thought would be more suitable than the clingy cotton-blends I had packed. A local boy with very good English began speaking with some of our group members and became an unintentional tour guide for us, imparting tidbits about history, customs and formality, urban legends, and travel tips for the afternoon. He showed us how to apply the thanaka root as sunscreen (the yellowish powder seen on Burmese cheeks and forehead, used for sun protection and cosmetics); he helped some of our group interpret how to chew the local betel nuts (little red beans mixed with tobacco and wrapped in a leaf then chewed and held in the gum like dip); and he guided us to a nearby temple with a rooftop terrace for viewing the sunset over Dhammayan Gyi.
This boy said he was thirteen years old and had learned English from a mixture of school and tourists. He said his brother is an artist doing sand paintings which he is sent into town to sell, though the boy aspires to do his own sand painting and is learning the craft in school and from his brother. After a couple of hours with us, I asked him to see the artwork he had with him (he’d been carrying a roll of paintings the whole time). He had quite a variety of sand paintings, some of which he said his brother had done and pointed out a signature on the bottom as his brother’s, there were two paintings of seemingly inferior precision which donned a different signature that he said was his own and quickly breezed by them saying he is still practicing his technique, other paintings were unsigned and he said they were from other various sources around town but were good quality. I didn’t necessarily need a sand painting, but I liked this kid and we intended to tip him anyway for the service he provided our group this afternoon. I was intrigued by a painting he called “The Peacemaker”, he had a couple of variations of it in his collection, one of which bore the signature he said was his own. He told the story of the peacemaker as a battle between the King Lion and the King Elephant which would have destroyed the world, the “peacemaker” or Lokanat as the guardian spirit of the world foresaw the repercussions of the battle and performed a soothing song and dance that was so captivating it brought the lion and elephant to stop feeling angry and stop having the desire to destroy each other. For this reason, the image of the Lokanat is said to bring peace and calm to the household or business where it is hung.
I asked him how long it took for him to create his iteration of The Peacemaker and he indicated most of two days but that his brother works much more quickly and he hopes that he will improve his speed soon; I inquired about his asking price for it and he wanted 20,000 kyats. In my mind, I know they set those prices intending to bargain down to a lower rate but, in my heart, I just couldn’t even counter his offer – if he really spent two days working on this painting plus a few hours just hanging out with our group, giving us a local’s perspective on stories surrounding the pagodas and Buddhism, and he wanted $15 for his work, I was going to give him every bit of the $15 (20,000 kyats) that he asked. I know, in every tourist town, there are tourist traps – was this one? Maybe. Probably. I don’t know, and I will never know what his real story was. I want to believe that he was an honest kid, but in any case, I now have a Lokanat Burmese Peacekeeper hanging in my closet, so take notice of the peace and calm if you enter my home.
We stayed out on the motor bikes to catch the sunset over the pagodas and then rushed back to the hotel to make it in before dark for driving safety. We showered and reconvened for dinner at the hotel restaurant which had a varied menu including burgers, chicken sandwiches, pizza, Burmese curries, and Chinese dishes. I had a stir fried vermicelli dish which was tasty, but again oily and not light. Most of the group had Western food like burgers and pizza, and we all enjoyed this meal more compared to the traditional Burmese buffet we’d had at lunch. We were pretty wiped out and had to be up at 5 AM for the hot air balloon adventure the next day so we went our separate ways and hit the hay.