My alarm went off at 05:15 and I got dressed in the pleasant coolness of early morning. The staff weren’t up yet, and I crept out for the short walk to the Shwezigon Paya. Locals claim this is the model for the larger Shwedagon in Yangon which I intend to visit on Sunday.
It was still dark when I arrived, leaving my sandals under a market stall and using my headlamp to get me up the corridors to the main square where the huge golden structure is located. It’s lit all around by lamps, and at the foot of it some children were prepareing for morning prayers with one of the senior monks. I simply settled down in a nice location and snapped photos as the sun rose and the colour of the golden surface changed in the light.
An hour or so later, with plenty of nice pictures, I walked back to the guest house for a decent breakfast. Tea with condensed milk in it is definitely the way forward.
At 9:00, I picked up a bike for the day at 1500K. I think some places drop the price as low as 1000K, but all the bikes seem exactly the same. I had 4400 or so temples to pick from and I decided to make things easy. Stop at a couple early on then aim for the four listed in Lonely Planet as being the pick of the bunch: Ananda Pahto, Dhammayangyi Pahto, Gawdawpalin Pahto and Thatbyinnyu Pahto.
The first two places I stopped off at allowed you to climb up to the top, something you can’t do at the more impressive structures. However, both also resulted in two unwanted “guides” who, in exchange for showing me round something the size of a small house, expected me to buy sand paintings which I really don’t have an interest in even though they are quite pretty. I don’t have a home to hang them in so why would I buy them?
As the weather warmed up, I tried to spend more time inside the temples but again I was constantly being pestered to buy things so instead took to arriving, snapping pictures of the outsides and cycling off again. To be honest, with the exception of the likes of the Ananda which has some nice interior decor, this is the best ploy anyway. The vast majority of the larger temples’ interiors seem to consist of a white corridor encircling the centre with a golden Buddha on each side. Once you’ve seen one, they all start to look very similar.
Externally, details vary although there are essentially only a couple of designs. It’s the sheer number of different temples that makes the region impressive. Although the cost of building them all did bring the country into ruin. Whoops.
One thing that really shouldn’t have been built is the viewing tower that the government erected in pretty much direct contravention of the UNESCO protection status that Bagan enjoys. It’s like adding a summer house to the Angkor Wat, or carving a McDonalds into the sandstone of Petra. It’s taller than any of the buildings in the area and pug-ugly to boot. However, it’s $10 a throw to climb up and from what I saw is serviced on a regular basis by busloads of Japanese and Korean package tourists. No independent traveller I met or saw went anywhere near it.
As I headed back to town along the north-easterly road from New Bagan to Nyaung U, I felt like I was back on the bus again. As well as the crappy road, there was a regular bumping. Uh-oh. Flat tyre. Fortunately, I happened to be near a little stand at the side of the road staffed by a man with the full array of bike-mending materials. Ten minutes and 1000K later (I know I overpaid, but I had no change and it’s only 60p) he was cycling next to me as I tested the newly-patched inner tube. Once he was satisfied his work was holding out, he doubld back. Customer service for you.
I was parched and exhausted when I got back to town. My first stop was a small “cold drinks” place by the roundabout where I necked two chilled Star Colas and a banana-stuffed pancake. Back at the guest house I showered off and collapsed for 40 winks.
Three hours later (oops), I woke up and decided to go for dinner. Nearby on the Main Road was the ChÃ©ri Land Restaurant that I’d spotted the night before. It was empty, but I decided to give it a chance – I’m glad I did. I guzzled a Star Cola so cold that it turned to slush as the waiter poured it into my glass. The orange milkshake that followed was the only disappointment, but the fresh-made tomato soup was delicious and the fried chicken with pepper fantastic. I even got a complimentary fruit salad for dessert. 4500K well spent, and some of the best restaurant service I’ve ever had. If you want to steer cleer of Restaurant Row when you’re in Nyaung U then this place is definitely recommended.
And finally back to the guest house where I’m typing this up. My bus to Mandalay has been booked for 7am (6500K) so I’m up at 6am for breakfast and packing. I only hope the bus is slightly more comfortable than yesterday’s. I know I have to go down the really bad road again as far as Route 1, then it improves up to Mandalay. My bottom actually has bruising, though whether it’s from the bus or the bike I’m not sure!