Bagan Travel Guide: Trip of a Lifetime
The rugged stones sitting muted by the roads, watching every traveller, and allowing weary ones to rest on them for a while; have many stories to tell. The playfully swaying trees have their own testimony of the changing scenes of Myanmar’s Bagan. The shy huts scattered around the region have housed families who are not just residents but protectors of the rich heritage held by the town. Bagan has several enchanting tales to tell.
In the plainness of the lives people lead here, in the joyfulness traveller’s experiences here, and in the poignancy with which tourists leave this small town; Bagan simply does not stop to amaze its visitors.
My advice would be to plan a trip which allows you to relish the moments here without hurrying through your itinerary. Bagan really is where you breathe deeply and let experiences unfold one after another at their own pace, allowing you to enjoy every moment. Make it a ritual to watch the sunsets and sunrises here, because they are the most beautiful moments of the day.
A lacquer making workshop sounded fitting for our last day here, especially since Vikram and I were so intent on taking back a part of Bagan with us! A traditional lunch followed by a sunset river cruise and dinner at the Aye Yar River View Resort rounded up our day with the most spellbinding views and delicious food.
By the third day of our trip, we were acquainted with the town and knew just the place to catch the last rising sun of our visit to Bagan – Bulethi. The proximity of the pagoda to the point from where the hot-air balloons take off makes it a great place for someone trying to capture the astounding views in their lens – camera and eyes.
Losing ourselves in the magic of the sunrise, we gently leaned against the ancient walls forgetting everything else around us as if we were in a magical trance.
These are the perks of picking a temple away from the well-traversed paths. Fewer people to share the place with, equals more magic and more romanticism in the air. With the balloons dotting the skies and the sun colouring the sky in the most uplifting tones, we knew that the quietude of the place served as a catalyst to increase the beauty of the view.
Watching the sun rise over Bagan while the balloons fly over at Bulethi Pagoda
I have put together a few tips for taking pictures of sunrises and sunsets for those of you who are planning a trip to Bagan:
- Don’t sulk over early morning alarms, you will find the views to make your trip to Myanmar a more fulfilling one. Staying late is equally rewarding.
- When it comes to the perfect shot, a lot is left on chance. But patience usually pays its dues.
- A tripod and lens make for excellent companions, but they aren’t a necessity.
- Enjoy every sunrise and sunset from a different temple, it allows you to enjoy different views and capture various angles of each moment.
- Take a lot of pictures, but don’t forget to enjoy the sunrise or the sunset itself. Even amateurs end up with some of the most beautiful shots here.
Bagan’s Lacquerware – A Wonderland of Remarkable Workmanship
There is something universal about the search for beauty.
Beauty is objective. It defies a limited meaning by changing itself according to the eyes that see it. Poets have written endlessly about the eternal way in which beauty touches our souls – sometimes in everyday things and sometimes in the most surreal of ways.
I travel to explore. Explore the country I travel to. Explore the people. Explore cultures. Explore the way in which routine lives differ in diverse regions of the world.
And in all my explorations I have realized that no matter which corner of our planet I travel to, every community strongly feels the need to beautify their environments, decorate the architecture, and adorn themselves in ways that are fitting to their culture.
Take Burmese lacquerware for example: it is one of those mediums through which the beauty of everyday items is transformed into richly decorated objects. Hardly a matter of a single day’s work, beautiful lacquerware is usually the product of seasoned artisans.
Visiting the U Ba Nyein Lacquerware Workshop in Bagan, taught us the basics and immersed us in the meticulousness of the artisans. Imagine an unassuming piece of bamboo being transformed in the hands of the craftsmen into a thing of immaculate beauty. That is exactly what happens every day in Myanmar’s lacquerware shops.
With intricate patterns carved carefully on bowls, plates, jewellery holders and pieces of furniture, lacquer work is a fascinating process. I returned home with a small piece of beautifully crafted artwork, and now it serves as a memory of rendezvous with the masters of the art.
A Traditional Burmese Meal
My experience of Burmese cuisine was limited to the one time that I visited a Burmese restaurant in Mumbai and the few times that I had food over at a Burmese friend’s place. But the food that I had tasted was just a prelude because the actual story of Myanmar cuisine unfolded during my trip to this beautiful country.
While we are quick to associate rice, boiled vegetables, curry and tea to the cuisine, it took me a trip to the country to understand the actual flavours, the use of spices, and the cooking techniques used by the locals.
I like elements of the unknown which is very well played in restaurants here since you don’t really place an order. Instead, you simply wait for several items of food which have been cooked for that day to be brought to your table. There were a number of dishes on our table, but quite to our amazement, nothing seemed too much. The meal was just perfect, and the availability of condiments in small bowls helped us augment the tastes of those dishes with new twists of salty, sour, sweet and spicy.
My favourite was a bowl with dark green leaves which had been pickled with some very flavoursome spices. And as for the beer in the country – Myanmar Beer, I sing its praises even after my return.
Stuff your bag with tamarind flakes, and then send me some!
Tamarind flakes are so addictive, that when you are given a few of these flakes wrapped in white tissue after lunch, you end up starting with one and ending with nothing in your hands but the tissue – all in just a few minutes! This is why I like to call them my “Burmese addiction.” 🙂
Palm Sugar “Factory”
With a fulfilling meal sitting smugly in our tummies, we were ready to begin our onward journey to the Aye Yar River View Resort. But before we could reach our destination, our guide made an unplanned stop at a popular tourist attraction which had nothing to do with ancient monuments or beautiful sceneries; The Palm Sugar Factory as we came to know of it later on, had a different kind of experience lurking in its conventional methodologies.
A cow was strapped on to a manual machine which acted as a mortar and pestle. The cow went around in circles and this resulted in the extraction of palm oil. Intrigued by the orthodox processes used in the factory, a part of us also realized how much of the country remained untouched by the evolution of technology.
We stuffed our already-full tummies with some very delectable palm sugar desserts before taking a look around the factory. The dessert bore some similarities to the chikki sweet back home which is also made of palm sugar, peanuts and coconut.
Here’s the most interesting part of our visit: we witnessed a local worker glide up the palm tree and collect sap like a pro.
Sunset Cruise on Ayeyarwady
Nestled in the bountiful banks of the Irrawaddy River, the Aye Yar River View Resort is just the place to be when you are hoping to spend a relaxing evening watching the sunset. It offers excellent views of the river and the mountains crafting a ragged horizon in the distance. With a refreshing drink in our hands, and the most mesmerizing views captivating our senses, we knew that our trip was coming to a beautiful close.
In an attempt to gather more experiences in the last few hours of our stay in Bagan, we decided to go for an hour long cruise in the Ayeyarwaddy River. Immersed in the beauty of nature and the untainted splendour of the views we enjoyed, I realized how much I was going to miss these sunrises and sunsets when we returned home to a city where buildings compete with each other to reach the sky. All we had here was the greenery of Bagan’s flora and the exquisite addition of age-old pagodas in the skyline. No big buildings interrupting your views.
As the sun softly murmured its goodbyes dipping behind the Tangyi Mountains and the ombrésky reflected its motley moods, Vikram and I forgot for a moment that we were still on Earth. It was heavenly, in all senses. A perfect ending to a magical trip!
Tip: This cruise does not require preplanning. Walk down to the Ayeyar jetty and someone will approach you. It is best to reach early, so plan to be in the water by 4 PM. This will give you enough time to enjoy the sunset on the Ayeyarwaddy.
Come next morning, we were ready for our journey to Mount Popa – our next destination.
End note: Every time I tell a friend about my trip to Myanmar, I find myself inevitably talking excitingly about my chats with the warm locals of the country. Tourism is still in its infancy, and the rare sight of tourists piques the interest of the locals very quickly. I was glad to sit for long chats with them because it helped me know so much more about their way of life.
I am hoping that these posts about Myanmar help you imagine the beauty of the country and encourage you to plan a trip to Myanmar. My memories of Myanmar will be cherished for long because it is rare to come across a country so other-worldly where foreigners are still so few, nature still so cared for and hospitality deeply treasured.
* This trip is split in several posts: Stay tuned for my review of our stay at the luxurious Aureum Palace Resort in Bagan
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*** Disclaimer: This review was done on an invitation from the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism, Myanmar. Due judgement and care has been applied by the author to remain objective and unbiased in the review.
Have you visited Bagan before? If so, which was your favourite experience there? If not, is it on your bucket list? Let me know in the comments below!