48 hours in Myanmar: A Bagan adventure

I HAD a plan. And I only had 48 hours to do it. Get myself from Bangkok to Bagan, a small ancient city southwest of Mandalay, Burma and back to Bangkok in just over two days. Was it ideal, this slapdash trip to one of the world’s most fascinating countries? It certainly was not, but when a three-day weekend popped up in February, amid an already busy work schedule, I knew it was now or never. So, like any (wo)man with a plan, I set to sleuthing my options.

A little backstory: I have always wanted to travel to Burma (or Myanmar, as it’s officially been called since 1989). Having lived just next door in Thailand for the past five years, Burma has always been the mysterious neighbor to the north-west, a place considered off-limits to travel ethically because of decades of political and social turmoil under military control. But Burma is changing. With the dissolution of the military junta in March 2011, the election of Aung San Suu Kyi to parliament in April 2012 and Barack Obama’s historic visit the same year, murmurs were rippling that now was the time to go. Burma is still far from perfect politically, but these steps have helped to assure many that it is moving in the right direction.

Photo by Sarah Waldron

With just 48 hours of total travel time, I wanted to maximize the experience but also (attempt) to make it a stress-free affair. I secured a visa through the Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok (approximately 800 baht, or $27). I then booked my flight from Bangkok to Mandalay through AirAsia (approximately $200 roundtrip) and found a roundtrip flight on Air Mandalay from Mandalay to Bagan (around $180 roundtrip) later on the same day. Burma’s infrastructure is still a work-in-progress and booking internal flights online is still more of a reservation process in name only, at least through Air Mandalay. I made my reservation online but was informed that I would need to pay for the ticket upon my arrival in Mandalay in US cash, specifically crisp $100 bills.

Anyone who has traveled in Burma is familiar with the crisp $100 bill conundrum. The majority of Burma is still without ATMs (although this is changing) and no airports, tellers, or money exchange booths outside of Burma carry the Burmese kyat. What adds to the challenge is that Burma’s bank tellers will not exchange any other currency for kyat, except for US dollars. Specifically, crisp $100 bills. Upon learning this, I set off on a mad dash throughout Bangkok, trying to find tellers who would give me new, crisp (no folds, no tears) $100 bills. Make sure to tell them you are going to Burma, they know the deal. One teller showed me a stack of fresh $100 bills but, sadly, pointed to a small, barely discernible stain as she shook her head no. Eventually, I was able to get my hands on these elusive Burma-approved bills (Super Rich currency exchange kiosks are a good bet) and I guarded those bills with my life. So paranoid was I that they would get torn or creased that I slipped them into the pages of a hard-back novel that I would go on to carry throughout my entire trip in Burma.

Photo by Sarah Waldron

After a two-hour flight, we touched down in the middle of the tarmac in Mandalay, disembarked and boarded a rickety old bus towards the terminal. I was already excited. But once in the airport, nerves kicked in. What if I was turned away for shoddy American bills? What if they weren’t crisp enough? It was a quandary that had never before presented itself during my travels and likely never would again. Luckily, it went off without a hitch, my perfect bills were accepted and my morale soared. It’s good advice to always keep some “crisps” (my new term) on you, so I didn’t exchange all of them at once. I now had a wallet brimming with Burmese kyat, and only a vague notion of the exchange rate. Very vague it would turn out.

I had been instructed, via email, to find the Air Mandalay office in the airport to pay (in ‘crisps’, of course) for my flight to Bagan. It was nowhere to be found. I asked a man (airport employee?) loitering near an empty counter if he could direct me to the Air Mandalay office. He nodded, grabbed my backpack, and led me back through security to an unmarked door behind the ticket counters. The Air Mandalay office was crowded with desks, stacks of paper, a lazily spinning fan and a distinct absence of any computers. A friendly lady accepted two more ‘crisps’, gave me change in US dollars, and added my name to the written flight manifesto with her pen. As a thank you, I gave the helpful, loitering man (not an airport employee, it turns out) a wad of Burmese kyat, only to realize later that I gave him the equivalent of about fifteen US dollars. It was clearly time to learn the exchange rate (about 900 kyat for $1, by the way).

Finally, I made it to Bagan. Bagan is one of Burma’s gems, an ancient capital once containing over 10,000 temples and pagodas. The majority of the temples were constructed in the 11th-13th centuries A.D. when Bagan was the seat of the Myanmar Dynasty. Fifty-five kings were said to have ruled this dynasty over the 1,200-year reign. Today, only about 2,000 of the original temples remain after subsequent centuries of pillaging and ruin.

Photo by Sarah Waldron

Upon arrival in Bagan, one is instructed to pay a $10 archeological site entrance fee in order to leave the airport (again in US dollars, though using change from a ‘crisp’ is accepted). I easily found a taxi and headed to my hotel, which I had previously booked online through Agoda. I stayed at the Oasis Hotel ($60 per night), which was on the main road into town. The Oasis was a lovely place with a nice garden, restaurant, a friendly and helpful staff, and surprisingly good WiFi. The staff were extremely accommodating in arranging me a taxi to see the sunrise the following morning, an activity highly recommended while in Bagan.

I woke early for my 5.30am call time at the front desk. My trip was in February and, after living in Bangkok for so long, I was surprised at how cold it was outside. Cold, of course, being a relative term, as it was probably about 65 degrees Fahrenheit (18.3C). Nevertheless, teeth chattering, I bundled into the back of my taxi and we were off. When we arrived, still in the dark, a long line of people were already snaking their way up the side of the temple. Resembling an Aztec pyramid, the temple had steep, crumbling stairs that induced a sense of vertigo as I clamored my way to the top. A sunrise viewing is a must in Bagan, because it is only then that you get the true sense of your surroundings from a high vantage point – miles and miles of temples stretching before you in every direction. If I had had more time (and money), I would have taken a hot air balloon at sunrise, an activity Bagan is known for. Yet even if you don’t take a balloon ride, just seeing the balloons rising up in the dusty rose of dawn over the temples is truly breathtaking.

Photo by Sarah Waldron

After a brief nap back at the hotel, I again consulted the front desk for a taxi to take me around for the day (this and the sunrise trip, approximately $50). Again, if you have the time, there are myriad other (and surely cheaper) ways to explore Bagan. I encountered many tourists on bicycles and in horse-drawn carriages making their way down the dusty roads. Despite the morning chill, the daytime in Bagan gets extremely hot, so as I smugly settled into my air-conditioned taxi, I had no regrets in forgoing what some might say was a more ‘authentic’ experience. But the taxi itself was something to write home about, an old boxy off-brand car (SuperLucent?) with velour upholstery and a stoic driver. As I climbed back into the car after our first temple visit, I was a bit surprised to see someone new sitting in the passenger seat.

“Hello!” he said, cheerfully. “I am Zaw. I am friends with your driver. I am not a tour guide but I want to show you around, is that alright?” My first instinct was to say no, that I knew this might somehow be a scam, but with only one day in Bagan and not willing to put up a fight, I reluctantly agreed to this new deal. And this is how Zaw came into my life.

For the record, you can easily find tour guides in Bagan (just ask your hotel or guesthouse) or you can stumble upon a Zaw, as I did. For me, I am glad he showed up (surely called by his friend, my driver) because we ended up having a great day together, if not the most educational one.

Photo by Sarah Waldron

Zaw and I visited many different temples. The exact names of them, I’m not sure. I do believe that there is a ‘route’ in Bagan of the best temples and that any tour guide/hotel/horse cart will guide you in the right direction, no matter your mode of transportation. I enjoyed strolling through the temples with Zaw, and delighted in our hilarious, if not illuminating, conversations. “What’s your favorite football team?” he asked at one point, as we stood in a thousand year old temple. His was Chelsea. With just one day to tour the temples, I realized that this experience was going to be more fun for me, more memorable, than I would have had on any ‘official‘ tour. “This is old,” he smiled at me at one point, gesturing towards the temple. “It is,” I agreed, nodding.

Photo by Sarah Waldron

After a brief break in the afternoon, we picked up again before dusk, visiting another two temples before heading to watch the sunset. We wound down a dusty road and ended up at another temple, different from that at sunrise. Clearly, it was the place to watch the sunset, as it was packed with tourists, climbing up an indoor staircase, illuminated only by flickering candles. Zaw found some other tour guide friends (real tour guides? “Zaw” tour guides?) and told me to find him when I was ready to head back down. I wandered about, taking pictures, perusing the souvenirs laid out on blankets, and enjoying the cooler air. The sunset was beautiful, a slow descent over a backdrop of extraordinary temples, a place seemingly untouched by time.

Photo by Sarah Waldron

Over the past several hours, I had grown to really appreciate Zaw and our day together. So had he, apparently. This is when he casually dropped the idea of going to his house and meeting his parents. I wasn’t thrilled, initially. I wasn’t entirely sure of what this meant and I didn’t want to give anyone the wrong idea. We had had a great day together, visiting the temples, browsing a lacquerware shop, enjoying lunch. But his parents? Were Zaw and I on the road to marriage? Would they ask for money? Was I too cynical? More importantly, was I a fool to agree? Because I did agree. I was exhausted and possibly a bit sun-burnt and my compliant attitude had already carried me through much of the day. To Zaw’s house we went.

We pulled up to a large wooden house, filled with bustling women in longyi skirts, towel-drying their hair (“Aunties,” he told me), young children scuttling about, and a few dogs roaming through the yard. We sat in plastic chairs in the living room, lit by a flourescent light flickering shadows on the wooden walls – a room filled with faded blankets, some mattresses, a table with cookware and an old television. Zaw gave me a glass of Red Bull and one of the Aunties pushed a bowl full of freshly cut papaya towards me. Drinking Red Bull and eating papaya, we all wordlessly watched the 1950 cartoon version of “Cinderella” on VHS, his nieces on the floor absentmindedly chewing their papaya and watching, wide-eyed. I sipped my Red Bull, ate my papaya and, with no words exchanged, entered their world for awhile.

Photo by Sarah Waldron

As it turns out, Zaw didn’t want to marry me or ask me for money. He just wanted me to come over and watch some “Cinderella” for a while with his family. And as I sat there, nestled cozily into their evening, I reflected over my whirlwind trip to Burma. And the gratitude I felt. For Zaw. For the people. For the temples. For the kindness I was shown at every turn. For Red Bull and papaya. Maybe Zaw didn’t teach me much about history. But he taught me so much more. When he proudly informed me that Barack Obama recently visited. When he questioned, with imploring eyes, what I thought of Aung San Suu Kyi. When he asked, brows knitted, if I would tell people about Burma.

“Yes,” I told him. “I absolutely will.”