Asia, Destinations

Bagan’s greatness and local life

December 15, 2014 • By

Alas, my travel company in the US (Frosch) worked some wonders for me and located my suitcase. Many of my friends and family members thought I lost my shoes as I’ve appeared bare foot in the pictures, while other thought I had gone native with all the pink longyi’s (the sarong skirt) I was wearing.

I left the humidity and city life for a calmer more cultural experience in Bagan, formerly known as Pagan. It served as the capital of the Pagan Kingdom from the 9th to 13th centuries. It’s a countryside spattered with temples. During the 11th and 13th century, more than 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were constructed in Bagan and 2,200 remain today. I visited more than 100 of them, which is not hard to do by boat, bike, e-bike, horse cart, car or two feet. Bagan is Myanmar’s number one tourist destination but to Buddhists it’s a type of pilgrimage. Practicing Buddhists from Korea, Thailand, China and Japan flock here. It goes without staying that this area has significant meaning to the country’s history both for religious reasons and historic. Many stupas (solid) and temples (hollow may enter) have endured several hundred earthquakes and remain as ruins, while others through conservation efforts are as impressive now as they stood 1,000 years ago. Unfortunately, UNESCO has expressed dismay that the military government restored many of the region’s most important temples with little concern for materials used or historical reference.  For those who have visited Cambodia, Bagan will give you a similar feeling to Ankgor Wat and there is talk that the natives in this area are likely descendants of the Khmer (the inhabitants of Cambodia).

I haven’t converted to Buddhism yet but that’s primarily because I like wine, food, my hair, shoes, and talking. In order to become a monk, you must meditate 16+ hours a day, shave your hair (no wigs), eat meager meals and consume nothing after noon. The first six weeks to nine months monks can’t even talk. I appreciate the idea of meditation and giving oneself to a higher being but there must be some limits.


The region of Old Bagan, New Bagan and Nyaung-U comprise about 150,000 people. It’s a “city” of small villages. My guide “Owen” picked me up at the airport and we got right to work visiting the market. The market is my least favorite and most desired place to visit because it’s the best way to get a sense of the people. Locals peddle their fruits, vegetables and products daily. In Nyaung-U, you can find cauliflower, green eggplant, peanuts, potatoes, corn, bananas, eggs, bamboo woven baskets, longyi’s, etc. Locals bat away flies and cry out for bystanders to purchase their goods. This is how they live. They are awake before sunrise, walking for hours to get to the market to sell their products day in and day out. They milk the cows, skin the catfish, and pull out the animal organs, in hopes of a sell. I despise the wretched smell of warm meat and fish and focus on the faces of people. In Myanmar and in Bagan, a fine coating of thatnatkhar lines local faces. It’s a moisturizer, sunblock and likely an ancient remedy that spans the lifetime of these people. It derives from a tree in the citrus family and every household has a wooden stone to make thatnatkhar. I purchased a container. That was my contribution to the market.

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Nuns collecting daily alms at the market

From the market, we wove through Nyuang-U to Old Bagan and the home of many of Bagan’s ancient temples. Locals lined every entrance with handicrafts.  Woodcarvings, longyi’s and fake and real lacquer bowls are the rage in Bagan. Bring back those precious gemstones please! Sometimes it’s hard for me to decide between shopping the rows of goods or going inside to hear more about Buddha especially when the guides push you toward their friends, “oh he is best. He give you good price.” I like good prices but when I consider how little these people have compared to me it’s hard to even haggle over $5. It’s really important when visiting Bagan to spread out the temple hopping with other activities hence the reason my eyes veer toward “sand” art, watercolor paintings and the occasional longyi.

It’s dry and hot in Bagan but this is winter and locals wear sweaters in the early morning and evening when the temperatures dip into the 60s and 70s. During the day, many of the guides take breaks, as it’s too hot for tourists to temple hop with the intense sun and heat. Most locals do have air conditioner but it’s really only necessary during the rainy season from  June to October when temperatures soar above 100. This is a dusty but somewhat baron area. Adjacent to the temples, sit a few high end hotels overlooking the Irrawaddy River, restaurants that resemble old-fashioned farm stands and villages that mirror the people’s trade. Families farm sesame seed oil, roasted peanuts, cauliflower, eggplant, bananas, watermelon, onions and a few other goods, while other families make lacquer products or another craft. There is one industry here and it’s tourism.

My guide Owen is originally from a town a few hours from here where his parents are manufacturers and distributors of longyis. I might add he is very well dressed. When I asked him how many longyis he owned, he admitted 20. My hunch is most people have two – three if that. He studied tourism and has lived in Bagan for a couple of years. He is 27 and married with a son. He met his wife in his hometown but they did not grow up together. While some marriages are arranged in the countryside, Owen’s is what I will call a love marriage. He dated his wife for a year, proposed and then after a meeting of both families he married just a week later with more than 1,000 guests. Talk about efficiency!

What strikes me about the people I have met here in Myanmar is their sincerity. They are loving, warm and kind people. I feel at ease around them even when I am being pestered to buy something. They are eager to please and a little naive. They talk about the need for better education and healthcare yet they are paralyzed by their government. They are simple. They are religious. They are hopeful.

My guide Owen lives in a village in New Bagan with his uncle and uncle’s family. He is saving to build a house on the land he recently purchased. It will cost him $10,000 USD for a one-story brick home (the second story will come in time). This will take a few years since he makes about $10,000 a year. His sandy plot of land is probably about 12×12 and the entire village constitutes less than an acre. The village does not have underground plumbing and the residents all share a tank of water. His wife must walk to the “well” daily to fill up buckets to last her for the cooking, cleaning and laundry. They are lucky. Other places I visited, the people must walk hours for water especially during the dry season when reservoirs of rainwater sit empty. I imagine that Owen is middle class for Bagan. He is educated, has a good paying job and will hopefully soon be a homeowner. That is his goal. That is his role as a father and husband especially since his wife does not work (she did before the baby).

Sunset from Ywahaunggyi Temple

Sunset from Ywahaunggyi Temple

Bagan is known for its sunsets and I enjoyed one atop a temple with panoramic views of the temples and the other on the river with the sun illuminating the sky in orange and yellow beams on both occasions. I highly recommend taking in the sunset from both angles. Watching the sun dust the temples in haze and color is spectacular but I also appreciated the sun’s diminishing rays glistening on the water before ducking behind the mountains. There is something absolutely magical about a clear sky and a sunrise and a sunset and better yet it’s free.

To top off my Bagan experience and to celebrate my 41st birthday a day early, I treated myself to a balloon ride over the area, “Balloons over Bagan.” This is my second ballooning experience and it did not disappoint. The balloon took to the skies moments before sunrise and my fellow passengers and I were treated to breathtaking views of the temples, river and countryside. Imagine soaring above tree tops and gazing at historic treasures, locals farming the land, monks moving from their monasteries to the villages and watching every detail of daily life progress as time stands still from above. A medley of 20 green and red balloons filled the sky and provided as much entertainment as the ground below.


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Floating peacefully, I sensed the sky and earth would never meet but could co-exist. I reflected on the local people. They worship, stand, live and work beside these relics. Do they remind them of a time of greatness or do they symbolize weakness? Their smiles reflect their sensitivity and their faces determination. I am in the balloon because I am privileged. I will never know their plight but when my feet can’t touch the ground, the wind is blowing in a different direction and there is cause for concern then maybe for a split second I can gain some insight (metaphorically of course).

Ananda Temple built in 1105, it’s being restored with the help of Indian archeologists – probably the most famous temple in Bagan.

Ananda Temple built in 1105, it’s being restored with the help of Indian archeologists – probably the most famous temple in Bagan.

Bloopers and more from Bagan

I swatted a mosquito and nailed my face hitting my newly fixed readers, which are now crooked (again). Back to the market for me or maybe I should invest in a second pair

A pseudo colleague and I are both in Bagan and we had dinner with three Germans. It took me two hours to explain campaign fundraising and two minutes for them to squeal once the translation kicked in

I bought two kitchen towels from a woman who hand makes them in a local village. She wanted $10 for 1. I bought two for $10 and I will gladly pay someone $10 to take them off my hands

After thinking the sand artwork was stupid, I am now the owner of two Buddhist designs. I couldn’t decide and I have dreams of living in a two-bedroom apartment one day. It will most definitely go nicely next to Nefertiti from Egypt or the Bali girl from Indonesia

Own after asking why I am not married informed me he has plenty of eligible suitors when I am ready

When trying to sort out whether I actually new said co-worker, I yelled over to a table, “Are any of you Michael?” A very handsome British guy responded, “No but I can be Michael if you want.”

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