Thursday, December 16, 2010

6th Stop: Bagan

Ok, Yangon a minute! Stop the presses, hold the phone, do whatever you want, the competition is over from here on in! There's no point in even keeping score anymore, Mynamar has just swept the board! Between Yangon and Bagan, all the trophies are heading to Myanmar; best people, best food, best accommodation, best cultural experience, the lot! If we had decided in that travel agents to turn around and leave the country when things started to get tough, it would've been the biggest mistake of our lives! We're already planning our trip back here in the summer! My words aren't enough to convey to you how exceptional this place is, so I'll quote once again from the Lonely Planet, "Gather all of Europe's medieval cathedrals onto Manhattan island and throw in a whole lot more for good measure and you'll start to get a sense of the ambition of the temple filled plains of Bagan...". I only wish our photos could do the place justice. It was without a doubt, the highlight of the trip so far. But I'm getting ahead of myself, let me tell you how it all Bagan...

We got to the airport with about 2 hours to spare before our flight, of course, that's what you do at airports, right? We needn't have bothered. We went up to our check-in desk, where the lady wrote our names on a sheet of paper and gave us a sticker for our shirts. Next we went through "security". Myself and Ash starting taking things out of our pockets and any liquids out of our bags, as you do, but the guard stopped us and just waved us through. And that was it! We were in the departures hall! There were no gates or anything and we weren't sure where our flight was going to be leaving from. Ash joked that when our flight was ready, someone will probably just come out and yell "Bagan!"... how right she was. We climbed aboard the plane and were greeted by stewardess handing out warm towels and free drinks. I can't remember the last time I got a free anything on a plane! We joked that hopefully we'd get a free meal too, but that was ludicrous seeing as it was a 70 minute flight. Surely, right...? Wrong! We got a tray each with a little circular sandwich, fresh fruit and a cup of tea. It was like flying in Ireland again in the 90s! Free food, lax security... who knew that a little circular sandwich could make us feel so nostalgic?!

Things were just as laid back when we arrived in Bagan airport. Our bags were literally carried off the plane by two guys and handed to us in the arrivals lounge. We jumped in a taxi to the Kumudara Hotel, and were welcomed at the steps by a host of staff taking our bags and offering us a tray of drinks. We were shown to our room and could hardly contain our excitement! This was heaven. It really couldn't get any better! That is until we walked out onto the balcony, and saw our swimming pool with a panaramic view over the temple strewn plains! Unbelievable.

We were wrecked after our early flight so decided to go for a little nap. We were woken abruptly though by a phone call from reception, someone had rang the hotel looking for me... Myself and Ash wracked our brains as to who it could be. Very few people would've known that we were in Bagan, let alone known what hotel we were staying in! We couldn't figure it out. Reception passed through the call anyway... It was our man, Zaw Hein! He was just checking up to see that we had arrived safely. We love him! He was saying too that we should meet up when we arrive back in Yangon before we fly back to Bangkok! We said we'd have to check on the flight times but we'd do our best. Zaw Hein, what a guy!

We were too awake at that stage to fall back to sleep so we decided to go for lunch. We flicked on the TV as we got ready and watched a bit of 'Cinderella Story' with Hilary Duff. I wanted to go for food but Ash was really into it and made me stay and watch the whole thing! Pfft! (Ok, confession time, it was actually the other way around... It was awesome though!) The hotel also did food (delicious food!), so we just ate there. (In fact, it was so nice that we had every meal in Bagan there...).

After lunch, we went on the hotel's computers to look up flights back to Bangkok. The internet there was painfully slow and we couldn't access websites like yahoo, hotmail or meteor. Still, we eventually found an Air Asia flight back to Bangkok on the Saturday evening, which also meant that we had half a day to hang out with Zaw in Yangon! I emailed my mom to get her to throw some money that we had left at home onto our 3V card so we could book the flights the next day. With all that sorted, we could have some fun in Bagan! We got a couple of bikes at the hotel and asked the staff to recommend some temples for us to visit. It was so exciting knowing there was so much out there to be discovered. We grabbed our map and plenty of water, and hit the road!

Ok, I'm gonna save a lot of time here. We saw an awful lot of temples that day, and I'm sure you don't want to read about them all individually, as much as I don't want to write about them all! Even if I wanted to, I can't remember a lot of the names and I don't think most of them even had names! (in fairness, there are over 4,400 temples here, I'd be surprised if someone thought up names for all of them). We had such an incredible day though, and I hope the fact that I'm rushing through the descriptions doesn't diminish what an unbelievable place this is! We took so many photos over our three days here, so I'll try to cram this entry with as many as I can!

Our first stop was just down the road at a massive stuppa, no idea of the name unfortunately... (We've seen so many stuppas, temples and pagodas here, and we're pretty sure we know what a stuppa is, but we're still not entirely sure what the difference is between a temple and a pagoda...). We had to climb over an old brick wall to get to it, and wade through some long grass and briars. We felt like such adventurers! Also, because of the fact that there are so many temples and so few tourists, whenever we stopped off somewhere, we generally had the place to ourselves. We had a good look around, seeing as it was our first stop, we really wanted to savour it. There was also a temple (or maybe pagoda...?) next door so we had a wander around that too. When we went inside though, there was some guy asleep on the floor. (That ended up happening quite a lot). You can't blame him though, it was roasting outside and nice and cool indoors. Also, who wouldn't want to take a nap in a temple?!

We spent the rest of the day cycling through the countryside, exploring what was on offer, eventually taking a well earned rest to watch the sunset atop Shwegugyi (I think...). When we arrived there, a lovely local girl called Nunya, gave us a tour of the temple and a mini history lesson to boot. We knew she was only doing it so we would buy something in her lacquerware stall outside, but we didn't mind, she was lovely! (and yes, we did end up buying something from her in the end). She kept telling Aisling that she was beautiful too (she was dead right!). Although it wasn't the most impressive temple around it had a great view of the surrounding area. She took us up to the top just in time to watch the sun go down over the land. It was stuppa-endous!

Actually, while Nunya was showing us around the temple, this guy kept following us around, trying to jump on her bandwagon and sell us gems. It was very annoying. We really didn't want any gems! We kept telling him we didn't have any money but he wouldn't stop pestering us. He even wanted us to trade him things from our bags (there was no way I was trading Frankie for a few fake gems, let me tell ya!). We finally shrugged him off, but when we were buying things from Nunya's stall afterwards, he spotted us and came over again, obviously realising we were lying about not having money. We felt kinda guilty about that... not guilty enough to buy anything from him though!

It was pitch black when we got back to the hotel and we were both wrecked after our action-packed day. I went for a quick dip in the pool to cool down before dinner, and it was awesome! I don't know if I had ever swam at night before, but there was something really peaceful about it. It was great. Afterwards, we had a lovely meal in the hotel. There seemed to be some party happening the next day too, as we saw the staff decorating one of the dining rooms with a stage and everything. We asked the waiter what was going on but he kept saying something about noodle soup... we couldn't really understand him... And that was pretty much it for our first day in Bagan. We had another early night as we were so tired after our cycle, and also we had an early start the next morning to catch the half 8 bus to Mount Popa, the so-called, Mt. Olympus of Myanmar.

The next morning, we got up and had our free brekkie in the hotel, giving us plenty of time to make it to the bus station. As we left, there were a load of wedding cars arriving at the hotel. That must've been what all the decorations were for! Still no idea what the waiter was on about though... We walked down the road to the centre of New Bagan looking for a taxi, but were having very little luck. (This was nothing like the Khaosan Road...) We just couldn't find one anywhere! With about 15 minutes before our bus left, we finally found a guy in a pick-up truck who said he'd drop us there. We held out hope that we'd get to the bus station just in time. What we didn't realise is that the driver meant that he'd drop us to the bus station after he did all his deliveries around town... It was the most uncomforatble journey of all time, but in a strange way, kind of fun! I've never seen a truck in such bad shape, I don't know how it worked! Myself and Ash were squashed into the front seat, staring through a shattered winscreen with a petrol can between our legs.

We got to the bus station 40 minutes later, and realised we'd have to just get a taxi there. It was over 55km away though, so we knew it'd be pricey enough to go there and back. The cheapest prices we were hearing from people was 40,000 Kyat, but we eventually worked a guy down to 23,000. (We're after becoming great at haggling! We really honed our skills in Bangkok. Myself and Ash even have a kind of good cop, bad cop routine that works a treat!) So we jumped into the taxi (well, actually it was the back of another pick-up truck) and headed to Mt. Popa!

What a journey! We almost enjoyed the trip there as much as the destination itself! As with the circular train in Yangon, it was incredible seeing the Burmese countryside first hand as we passed through. From tiny villages to green fields and sandy paths, it was a really enjoyable trip.

Mt. Popa itself was no disappointment either may I add. We eventually made it to the top after climbing an infinite amount of steps, and dodging an equally infinite amount of monkeys along the way! It was definitely worth it for the view though. The temple at the top was kind of tacky, but it didn't matter with such spectacular scenery all around. We chilled out at the top for a while, to catch our breath and to take in the surroundings.

And yes, as I said, monkeys all over the place! They were all fairly tame but there were just so many! They could've definitely taken over if they wanted... On the way down, we even saw one doing its best Kate Winslett impression! If only it had a little monkey necklace...

When we got back to the hotel, it was still quite early so we just had a nice relaxing day lounging by the pool. Absolute heaven. It was a nice break though, seeing as we'd be spending all of the next day cycling around the temples again. We had planned on booking the flights back to Bangkok that evening too, but there were people using the computers any time we looked. It was just going to have to wait til tomorrow.

We got up the next morning, ready for another day of cycling. We had to sort out the flights beforehand though. As with all Air Asia flights, you have to book at least 24 hours before the flight leaves, so we made sure to do it that morning as, come 5:40 that evening it would be too late and we'd be stranded in Myanmar... but that was aaages away, we had loads of time! ...or maybe not. As i said, the day before I emailed my mom to get her to put some money on my 3V card, and she did exactly what I asked. Unfortunately, I forgot to ask her to send on the voucher number so I couldn't book the flight! Even worse was that this was at around half 8 Myanmar time, meaning it was 2am in Ireland (they're GMT +6:30 in Myanmar, weird time zone...). Panic stations! I emailed my mom straight away for the voucher number, knowing that she wouldn't get the email for at least another 8 hours, that is if she even checked her email in time! (I tried ringing too, but the connection was predictably awful and couldn't hear a thing. Also, as I mentioned, we couldn't access meteor here so I couldn't even send a webtext) Knowing my brother would be definitely checking his emails when he got into work, I sent him one too asking him to pass on the message and also if he could send on his credit card details to me (we were really getting desperate at this stage, so we had to cover every base). And that was all we could do... we just had to wait until Ireland woke up, and hope that things fell into place for us, one way or another.

But there was nothing we could do about that now, we just had to put it out of our minds and enjoy our last day in Bagan. We went to reception to get bikes for the day ahead, but when we got there, there was a big group of Spaniards enquiring about bikes too! Fearing there wouldn't be enough to go round, I nipped over to another staff member and nabbed a couple of bikes for myself and Ash, before the Spaniards sorted themselves out, and off we set! The first day, I think we made the mistake of stopping off at every nice temple we saw. This time around we had much higher standards. It really had to be top notch to catch our attention, and we weren't disappointed! We really saw the biggest and best Bagan had to offer! Again, I wont bore you with the details of every single one.

The main one we wanted to see that day was Dhammayangyi Pahto, an absolute monster of a temple, with its huge corridors and giant double walls. We had a good look around but unfortunately the stairs to the top were closed. On the way out too, first we were engulfed by a herd of goats, then cattle, then another herd of goats! It was great though. Classic Myanmar!

After that, we got a bit lost... There were so many small and twisty paths that it was hard to judge where you were on the map. We cycled along the sandy trails for a while, not really having much success figuring out our location. It was after getting really hot at this stage too so we decided to take a break at a temple up ahead. It didn't look too amazing but we needed a breather.

We went inside, out of the sun and had a general wander around. As we walked along, we spotted a padlocked gate to the roof that was slightly ajar. Most of the temples we had visited that day had staircases to the roof, but they were all locked off, so we were very excited about the prospect of seeing what was up there! It looked like it should've been locked so we were worried whether or not we should go up... there was nobody around though, so we said we'd take a sneaky peek. (As there was noone around, we kept our shoes on too. We hated taking them off and putting them on again at every temple!) When we walked up those stairs to the roof, we didn't have much expectation as to what was up there (we didn't even know what temple we were at!), but I can tell you now, and you can quote me on this, it was the single greatest view I have ever seen. Ever. And again, the pictures just wont do it justice. (Also, we found out later that it's called Pyathada Paya)

We stayed up there for about 40 minutes, just taking in everything from the viewing platform. The caretaker must have been passing by and seen our bikes as he came up to us. He was grand though, he just told us to take off our shoes. (The floor was absolutely roasting! It was a good thing he wasn't here from the start, we wouldn't have lasted 5 minutes up there in our bare feet!) He stayed with us up on the roof, probably making sure we weren't up to any mischief, and after a while asked us if we wanted him to take a picture of us. We gladly agreed, walked over to the edge and stood in the generic photo pose. He was having none of it though and wanted something special (he was obviously a budding photographer in his spare time). He showed us what he wanted and we giddily obliged. That photo is one of my favourites from the entire trip!

It was getting late on in the afternoon at that stage, so we headed back to the hotel (getting lost on the way again!). It was seriously hot too and the sand was so thick in places that it was impossible to cycle. We finally made it back and went straight to the pool! So refreshing. We recovered for a while, got some food and then headed over to the computers, back to our mission for the day.

It was about 4 o'clock at that point (half 9 Irish time), giving us a good hour and 40 minutes before our deadline, and also giving my brother half an hour to reply. And reply he did! Thank God! He sent us on his card details so we could finally book the flight. We filled out the form and were ready to send everything off, when we realised we didn't have all the details we needed! We didn't know what type of card it was and what bank either! Sigh... it's just one thing after another. It was about half 4 at this stage and time wasn't on our side, so I sent off another urgent email, waiting frantically for a reply... but nothing came. The minutes were ticking away and still nothing... We waited and waited, but no reply. We had no choice but to guess! And guess what, I got it right, first go! Success! ...Or not. Another security screen popped up (probably cause we were in a strange location) asking for more information. This time we were finally beaten.There was only 20 minutes to go before our flight closed and we had hit another dead end. We waited on the computer, just in case there was a last minute miracle... and with 7 minutes to go, there was! My brother apologised about missing my emails as he had to pop out of the office, but he had the 3V code from my mom for us! It was now just a race against time to fill out the forms in time and for the page to load (and with the internet speed here in Myanmar, that was no guarantee!). Finally, finally, finally with 4 minutes to spare, our flight was confirmed. Neither of us could really speak for a while after that, we were so mentally tortured. Thank God. We had the flight!

That night we just chilled out in our room, too drained to do anything else. We tried to watch Jumanji, but were both just too tired and fell asleep. We had to be up early for our flight back to Yangon the next morning anyway. So, that was our time in Bagan! I can't recommend it highly enough. Visit this place, that's all I can say. Oh, and stay at the Kumudara Hotel, it's awesome!

So, next stop Yangon and our date with Zaw, before we flew back to Bangkok.

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