Yangon had been interesting (and enlightening) but Mel and I were over big city life and ready for a change of pace, so we took a night bus for Bagan; the crown jewel of Myanmar. While waiting for our bus at the station we chatted with a lovely English couple, Alex and Bea. Unbeknownst to us at the time, these two would play a major part in our time in Myanmar (but more on that later).
We arrived around 5am and, after breakfast, went out exploring. The landscape of Bagan is covered in more than 4,000 temples. Everything is washed in sepia tones of tan, gold, brown and rusty red, making it feel more like a movie set than an untouched, holy city. Days center around sunrise and sunset. The in-between is filled with leisurely exploration of the many temples and pagodas, driving around on e-scooters that feel more like motorized carts at grocery stores than proper scooters.
In Bagan, you can drive straight to the door of thousands-of-year-old buildings. There are no officials, entrance fees and hardly any rules (you must removed your shoes before climbing the first step, your legs should be covered and no spagetti straps). There are also no English signs or plates to describe what you’re seeing or its history – that’s for you to read about or imagine on your own. But I actually find it a bit liberating. You can just take in the beauty of everything guilt-free, not spending your time looking at a guidebook or listening to a recording as you make your way through. It gives you the feeling of discovering it on your own. I felt like Indiana Jones the entire time, wandering the halls, finding the “secret” stairs and climbing out onto the roof.
There are other tourists around (particularly at sunrise/sunset), but it’s not uncommon to be the only person in one of the many temples, especially those that are smaller and a bit further back off the main road. It’s a fun challenge to scope out your next location for sunrise/sunset.
The first temple we climbed was quite large. The steps were more like a stone ladder, leading straight up. Upon reaching the top and looking around, my eye instantly filled with tears. I was overwhelmed with the sight. Temples of varying size and style dotted the entire landscape as far as the eye could see. Bagan is eerily beautiful, utterly unique and everything seems a bit surreal there.
When wandering around one of the other temples we ran into Alex – the English guy from the bus. We chatted a bit and decided to meet at our hostel to all ride to sunset together and then all get dinner. This may seem obvious, but I can’t emphasize it enough: the people you’re with will make or break your time while traveling and will HEAVILY influence your opinion of that place. I already had Melanie, but when we added Alex and Bea to the mix… it was travel buddy gold.
Alex and Bea are engaged, but are first traveling around SE Asia for 9 months.They absolutely made our time in Myanmar. Alex laughs like a diabolical mad man when he’s drinking and ranks among one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. Bea is lovely in every way possible – one of those girls you feel instantly comfortable with and have no qualms telling anything and everything. They have adorable English accents making everything they say endearing. Oh, and they’re perfect for each other.
We spent the whole next day with our new English friends exploring temples, screwing around on our scooters and swapping stories. We had lunch in the big market outside the main temple, got talked into some paintings, then ended the day atop a random temple with beers and cigars to watch the sun sink. We’d found our travel match and were thus particularly anti-social as we felt very satisfied with our crew and didn’t see the need to upset the chemistry of our new group. These were MY Europeans, and I was keeping them to myself.