This is part of the Trip Report So Long Mongolia, Hello SE Asia (December-January 2015) which covers:
- Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
- Bangkok, Thailand
- Chiang Rai, Thailand
- Yangon, Myanmar
- Ngwe Saung, Myanmar
- Mandalay, Myanmar
- Bagan, Myanmar
- Hong Kong
- Orlando, Florida
Catch up by reading the preview, The Banana Pancake Trail to Myanmar Starts This Monday, then the overview, Thailand, Myanmar, Hong Kong, Disney, Home, where the game time decision was made to leave Mongolia for good.
Bagan is the reason to visit Myanmar. The pagodas go on for kilometers and the stories behind each are equally as remarkable.
Here is the Bagan Travel Guide using the Guns & Butter methodology:
- A trip is composed of two factors: Labor And Lazy
- Anything on the line (Production Possibilities Frontier for my fellow economists) is an efficient use of your time depending on your tastes and preferences.
- Anything inside the line is inefficient as should be avoided.
- Anything outside is aspirational but may be impossible to do given the constraints of time and resources.
- The opportunity cost (what is given up) for relaxing and being Lazy is gained by being adventurous in the form of Labor and vice versa.
The goods and bads of Bagan correspond with Lazy and Labor nicely. Some efforts are worthwhile, e.g., visiting the sunrise pagoda. Some activities require no effort but are still disappointing though they do make for great memories e.g., uniform menus with bland food and getting ripped off.
Let’s dismiss with the bad before we move onto the good.
New Bagan, Getting Ripped Off, & Food
The name of the new part of Bagan without all the history and pagodas is curiously called New Bagan. The part of Bagan with the history and the pagodas is called Old Bagan. New Bagan embodies all that is wrong with Bagan and Myanmar tourism. It is the site of disgusting hotels that nevertheless charge $50+ a night, restaurants that make you long for street food in Yangon, and a hospitality strategy that seeks to ripoff tourists.
It may be argued that Myanmar has been closed off to visitors for so long that they have yet to acclimate to the influx of tourists. I argue that time has come and gone. It is my contention that locals in Bagan are suffering from tourist fatigue. Ugly Americans, naive travelers notwithstanding, the Myanmar Tourism Board should look to its Thai neighbors for how to deal with tourists more graciously. Fees to enter the City of Bagan that go to preserve pagodas if you ask one local, infrastructure if you ask another, and in the pockets of the powerful if you ask a third are ridiculous. Indeed, our friendly innkeeper sympathized with us when he heard that the ‘tourist tax’ went up from $15 to $20 the night we arrived.
Price gauging runs rampant from New Bagan to Old Bagan where so-called upscale hotels go for hundreds of dollars a night without good reason. The food which caters to tourists is bleh pizza and terrible hamburgers. I guess that’s what they believe tourists want to eat. Next to the pagodas are young kids who spend their days peddling postcards, bootleg copies of Orwell’s Burmese Days, and overpriced, poor quality longyis. Unlike in Yangon, the solicitors aren’t very friendly. Some are rude and forceful.
Enduring all the nonsense described above is worth it because of the pagodas. Trying new methods of getting to and from one pagoda to the next is what makes Bagan an adventure within an adventure.
- The Bicycle: The Best Worst option
If you’ve made the arduous journey from Mandalay to Bagan via boat then you can tolerate more suffering. Rent a bicycle from your guesthouse and prepare to peddle with no gears from New Bagan to Old while busses zip by, electric bikes pass quietly, and horses trot along oblivious to everything.
As a man who is terrified of bicycles, I recommend, at least for the sake of your backside, to do it for half an afternoon. It is fun to hop on and hop off but the sun and soreness can quickly catch up.
- The Car: The Worst Best option
If you take a taxi to the pagodas then I wouldn’t want to travel with you. Though it is convenient, it is not adventurous.
- The Electric Bike: The Middle Ground Option
I’ll peddle on a bicycle at my own pace even with people honking and laughing. What I will not do is rent a motorbike. I’ve yet to meet one person who has traveled to SE Asia that hasn’t either wrecked a motorbike or been taken to the cleaners for damage to the bike that the proprietor said was not previously there. Fortunately, electric bikes are not motorbikes. They are a speedier version of the Hoveround that can show you scenery as spectacular as the Grand Canyon. Though I didn’t rent one, I would still recommend it if you’re going to be in Bagan for a few days.
- The Horse and Carriage: The Best Best Option
The horse and carriage is going extinct in Bagan. With the tour busses, taxis, and mobile apps, the need for an old school travel guide are coming to an end. That’s a shame because second to renting a bike, nothing was more enjoyable than the horse buggy ride. Even though the ride is bumpy and uncomfortable, making it ideal for half of an afternoon, it was the best way to see and learn about Bagan. The guide brought us to the ideal pagoda to see the sunrise and told us to wait till the hot air balloons flew overhead. He explained that the pagodas were built as a competition among landowners to see who could build the most elaborate, most ornate pagoda. One was built bigger so another was built taller. One had more decadence so another had more murals and on and on.
- Sunset Pagoda
Shwesandaw Pagoda is known as the sunset pagoda. It is a steep climb resulting but wait till you see the view. Arrive early because the crowds and tour busses all do.
- Sunrise Pagoda
I was more awe-struck with the sunrise in Bagan than the sunset. The morning was quiet as the crowds had yet to arrive. At that time, I could envision what Bagan was like so many years ago. Then the tour bus showed up and kept the engine running, effectively interrupting my oneness with nature.
- Hot Air Balloon
If you have the money, I would recommend the hot air balloon ride. The cost is $350/person but I imagine that the views make the price worthwhile.