The Irrawaddy River runs gently to the south, its wide brown flow progressing steadily under the blazing rays of sun. The shores are far away and so the people who work in the fields along the river are but small specks against a red earthen background. Pagodas balance precariously on its banks – for some of them it looks like it is only a matter of time before a flood will wash their foundation away and cause the entire structure to slide into the mighty watercourse. The Irrawaddy is sometimes called the road to Mandalay, but we are not going to Mandalay – we are moving away from it at a slow but steady pace of at most 15 knots.
This morning after we bought our tickets a young man showed us which of the several large boats that were docked at the river’a edge was the one that was to take us to Bagan. It lay hidden behind two other boats, and we had to walk a couple of wooden planks from boat to boat to reach ours. For a moment, walking the plank had me visualizing the possibility of losing my balance and falling into the river with my heavy backpack still on my back. Sinking would be an easy feat. But we made it to our boat, and were kindly welcomed with some breakfast and the warm smiles of the boat’s crew. The sundeck was fitted with inviting lounge chairs and we settled down for our nine hour boat ride to the plains of Bagan, leaving the energetic city of Mandalay and its countless temples and pagodas behind.
We have been sailing for several hours now, with nowhere to go and few sights to see for most of the day because the river is so wide that not much can be seen of what happens on the river banks. We snack on the meals that are provided by the boat crew and read a book, and use our hats to shield ourselves from the hot midday sun while a mild breeze helps us to stay cool. After the hustle and bustle of Mandalay we feel that this is a great mode of transport on our way to Bagan. The alternative is to reach Bagan by road or by air, which takes considerably less time, but we opted for the way people travelled through Myanmar in the era of the Pagan Kingdom. Slow travel at its finest. From time to time we pass creeping tug boats emitting black clouds of exhaust, ships carrying large piles of tropical hardwood and fishermen trying their luck on tiny vessels closer to shore.
It is at the end of the afternoon when our boat makes its way towards the river bank where dozens of people have assembled in wait of the boat’s arrival. The boat blows its horn and it takes some time to get docked and ready for disembarkation. We walk the plank again and touch solid ground for the first time in nine hours. Our wobbly sea legs take us past the swarms of people trying to sell snacks, offering guesthouse rooms and taxi rides. We had agreed with the guesthouse where we had booked our stay in Bagan that they would pick us up at the boat’s landing, and after a short search we find our taxi driver. He has come to the river shore to pick us up with a motorbike tugging a little cargo cabin where we put our backpacks – and ourselves. The sun is setting now that we are driving through the streets of Bagan that are illuminated in a golden hue that paints a bright lining on the fruit vendors, monks, stray dogs, playing children, fishermen returning home with their catch, and chatting women that we pass. The motorbike’s engine rumbles loudly underneath its load.
The next few days float by as if in a dream. The golden sunlight of our first evening rarely seems to go away here in Bagan, where the dusty plains offer beautiful photo opportunities both at sunrise and sunset. We rent electric scooters on our first two days and electrical bicycles on the last, and make our way from one temple to the next pagoda, some of them eerily quiet as if no one has visited in the past thousand years, and others bustling with visitors, monks, painters and vendors. The Kingdom of Bagan came to full bloom in the 10th century and in the next 250 years Bagan’s rulers ordered the construction of 10.000 buddhist monuments. The Kingdom collapsed in the 13th century as a result of Mongol invasions, but some 2.200 of the religious structures have survived until today and can be visited in these 100 square kilometre plains. You will require some form of transportation other than your feet if you want to visit more than one or two of these temples and you will be rewarded for making your way to the more remote ones, where few tourists go and where the magic of the lost Kingdom of Bagan can be grasped by climbing the pagoda’s steps and overlooking the plain, stupas sticking out high among the trees wherever you direct your gaze. For some parts of the way you may have to walk and push your scooters because the road turns to loose sand. From time to time you’ll meet cattle and some dogs and to break your day you’ll enjoy simple but scrumptious lunches at local eateries.
One morning when watching an early sunrise we are treated to a display of hot air balloons that are slowly becoming airborne, as if struggling with the forces of gravity. The deep red balloons seem to compliment the landscape, their abundant round shapes contrasting with the pointed roofs of the numerous stupas in our view.
In the evening we watch a sunset in the absence of balloons but in the presence of a beautiful deserted stupa. We have climbed its pyramid shaped roof and settled on the edge just below its dome. The sun drops to the horizon for about the 300.000th time since the construction of this monument that we find ourselves sitting on. We are all alone – the faint sounds of Burmese youngsters shuffling on the temple grounds below have fainted before the sunset reaches its crescendo and colours the sky crimson red.
The sounds of the daytime dissipate at the moment the sun is lost beyond the horizon and darkness quickly settles in, as it commonly does in these places that are close to the equator. We scramble down the temple steps and ride back to the town of Bagan on the main road that is now pitch black, while buzzing insects of the night – attracted to our motorbikes’ headlights – strike our faces.
Bagan is a place that is best savoured slowly, like a simmering stew whose flavours intensify with time. Its temples and pagodas are best experienced when you take your time to explore the more remote places, where the quiet heat of the Burmese afternoon surrounds the structures and where crickets sounds probably exactly as they did eight centuries ago, when these magnificent monuments were erected. And there is no better way to arrive here than to come floating in that same slow but calming pace, down the mighty Irrawaddy river.
Create your own adventure
There are several carriers that offer boat trips between Mandalay and Bagan. We used the services of MGRG Express, which despite its name takes all day to complete the trip. The boat leaves early morning and arrives in Bagan at the end of the afternoon. The trip can take anywhere between eight to twelve hours, depending on water levels. You can buy your tickets at the jetty before boarding, or you can purchase them in advance. The trip includes bottled water, a simple breakfast (think croissant, banana and a boiled egg) and a hot lunch (we had stir fried rice with vegetables) as well as coffee/tea with a snack in the afternoon. Facilities on board were fine, with clean toilets. The chairs on the sundeck were comfortable. Expect to pay around $40 per person for the trip. You can also take the trip in reverse direction (from Bagan to Mandalay) but expect to take even longer because you’ll be boating upstream. I found the trip to be very comfortable despite its length. Don’t expect amazing views because for most of the ride the boat is in the middle of the river which is really wide, and there is not much change of scenery – but you will see some local hustle and bustle along the shores and from time to time shiny golden pagoda’s will pop into your view. I can highly recommend the boat ride over a bus ride: on the boat you can walk around freely to stretch your legs, read a book, and enjoy a pleasant breeze. I did not observe anyone being sea sick – the slow pace of the boat keeps it pretty steady.
In Bagan I wholeheartedly recommend Saw Nyein San Guesthouse. This is a small scale guesthouse owned by a few generations of powerful but very friendly women. They serve delicious breakfasts on their roof top terrace, offer fairly large and comfortable rooms with private bathrooms, and you can arrange various types of transportation directly with them (e.g. electrical bike rental, taxi services). Their guesthouse is about a 10 minute walk from Bagan’s mains street where you will find many different restaurants and bars.