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Published: September 9th 2017
My Secret Temple
Selfie while waiting for the sun to set.
I spent four fantastic days in Bagan Lara Croft-ing (i.e., exploring temples. Lots of them). But, before I talk about these temples, let me tell you about two unexpected things I did:
1. I stayed in a hostel and I loved it.
2. I rented an e-bike.
Ahmar, the UCLA MBA alumnus I had been put in touch with, told me he had booked at Ostello Bello Hostel in Bagan, and that it came highly recommended. When I set out in this trip, I had resolved to not stay in dorms because I am a light sleeper and I was wary about sharing rooms with partying twentysomethings. My past experiences with hostels over 20 years ago weren't too favorable - they were primarily crash pads for people who stumbled in at all hours. At my age, I value my sleep. However, I got good vibes from Ostello Bello's website, and so I decided to chance it and book one night with them. Part of my motivation was also to socialize, as weeks of solo travel was wearing me down. While I'm not normally an outgoing guy in my own home environment, I do love socializing
with independent budget (and budget-ish, like myself) travelers as they're a different breed of people - by and large, they are adventurous, hardy, and, most important to me, curious about the world... basically the type of people I like to surround myself with.
Ostello Bello turned out to be a great experience. I booked a four person dorm and was placed in a room with three other American guys. It quickly got loud in there! In all, there were eight Americans in the hostel. I had not even seen this many Americans so far this trip. When I wasn't sightseeing, we hung out, ate meals together, and drank a lot. It felt so good to connect with people I could communicate easily with (i.e., I didn't have to speak s-l-o-w-l-y and repeat myself). It was the fix I needed. I came to realize that the American part of my identity had become culturally isolated on this trip. I had never felt this culturally isolated since my early days living in Bangkok. The Singaporean part of my identity has been well indulged during this trip, though!
The other thing that surprised me about Ostello Bello was the demographics of
Having Lunch with Hostel Mates During Guided Tour
At Moon Restaurant near Ananda Temple. A few people weren't amused at having to eat at a vegetarian restaurant. Photo Credit: A. Reza.
the crowd there. There were only a handful of students and post-college gap year kids. While most of the guests were in their twenties, many of them had jobs and were on vacation, or were in-between jobs like me. Many of them could easily afford hotels, and I was surprised they chose to stay in hostels. I was by far the oldest guy there. I was pleased that I could blend in so easily with this crowd, and not just the Americans. I guess in a way I was a curiosity to some of them. A couple of people even said that they were inspired by me. Wow.
I ended up staying two nights at Ostello Bello. As much as I enjoyed it, I did sleep badly. I checked in to a nearby hotel for my other two nights because I needed to catch up on my sleep, and because I could not sustain all that drinking. While I am now a convert to hosteling, I will still approach it with caution. I think the average hostelite traveling in Myanmar would be different from the type that goes to Thailand, for example, as Thailand is much cheaper and more
Me on an e-Bike
Who would have thought I'd ever ride one?
geared towards a party crowd. Regardless, I resolved to balance hosteling with staying in hotels for the remainder of my time in Myanmar, so that I get to socialize with travelers but still have the alone time that I love (and that so many people misunderstand about me).
My two post-hostel nights were at the Arthewka Hotel. I booked a $20/night budget room and got upgraded! I also had access to a pool which was most welcome as Bagan is hot.
I'm too cautious to make a good motorcyclist. But, riding an e-bike is the best way to explore Bagan. Rental is cheap at $4/day, and they even throw in free laundry (maximum 5 pieces). Normal pedal bikes were also available to rent, but who wants to do that in Bagan's heat? So, with Ahmar coaching me, I managed to get the hang of it. It isn't that hard, and the max speed isn't that fast either so I wasn't terribly nervous. The heavy rain that came down most afternoons did make the dirt tracks treacherous in places. I did have one mishap: I skidded as I tried to get past a big puddle
En Route to Mount Popa
Dozens of people lining the road asking for handouts. I'm not sure what was going on.
of water, and I ended up getting my feet in the mud. I don't want to know what was in the mud... probably cow poop and goat poop at the very least. I shrugged it off and kept going.
Ostello Bello made it very easy for its guests to see the sights around Bagan. One of the regular activities they organize are excursions to Mount Popa, a religious site about 1 hour 20 minutes outside of Bagan. On the day I arrived, I signed up for the afternoon trip. When departure time came, we were transported there in one car and one minivan.
We had been pre-warned that there was a religious festival at Mt Popa that day and that it would be crowded. I was excited at the prospect of seeing the festival in motion. On the road to Mt Popa, we witnessed some disturbing sights: hundreds of people lined up along the road begging for handouts. We could not figure out if this was related to the festival or if it was an everyday occurrence. I suspect and hope it is the former. Anyway, we saw vehicles ahead of us toss cash and goods
We climbed 700+ steps to get up there. Pardon the poor picture quality due to rain.
out of their cars and motorcycles without even slowing down, and there was a mad scramble to retrieve those items, with some people running into oncoming traffic to get the goods. As far as we could tell, those vehicles were occupied by locals and not tourists. It is a miracle we didn't see anyone get hit. Our minivan driver did not know enough English to tell us what was happening. From my western-biased perspective, if this was about making merit, it is a seriously screwed up way of doing it.
As we approached Mt Popa, it was clear that the place was going to be one big cluster. There were vehicles all over, and people and motorcycles were trying to squeeze past the cars in the jam. The driver of the car stopped and told everyone to make their way on foot. He told us to stay together and come back together, and gave no further instructions on where and when to meet. Gee, what could possibly go wrong? Fortunately, he did give one guy his phone number.
Alighting from the vehicles, we walked to the base of Mt Popa on foot through the rain. We walked between
the cars and roadside stalls, and squeezed past people and motorcycles. I wish I were eloquent enough to describe the atmosphere. It was a big mess. I was bewildered most of the time, but in the best possible way.
Before long, we reached the first of many staircases that make up the 700+ steps to the top of Mt Popa. We had to remove our shoes and socks and cover our knees. The floor was wet and muddy, and there were monkeys all over. I dread to think about what I was stepping on with my bare feet. There were, of course, throngs of people climbing up and climbing down, so it was slow going. Along the way up, there were various shrines. At the top, there were more shrines and lots of golden stupas. I loved that we got to see Mt Popa as a living place of worship.
It shouldn't come as any surprise that our group didn't stay intact during this trek. It was virtually impossible to stay together. At the base of the steps, we gathered and waited for everyone to come down. We waited and waited, and finally all but two of us
The only explanation I could find about the festival was that is was the 65th anniversary of something to do with this guy.
were down. We called the driver then and he came to get us. He was of course unhappy that two were missing (I actually heard him cuss "Oh My Buddha", which I found hilarious). After he and the minivan driver got us back safely to the two vehicles, he sent the minivan driver back to find the last two. Finally, after about an hour of waiting, we set off back to Ostello Bello.
The Plains of Bagan
On my second day in Bagan, I joined the free tour of Bagan organized by the hostel. Setting off on a rented e-bike, the tour is led by a local guide who receives tips as payment. This was a "greatest hits" tour of Bagan as he pretty much led us to the major temples in the vicinity, including Dhamama Ya Za Ka, Dhammayangyi, Sulamani, Ananda Temple, Thatbyinyu, plus an orphanage where the kids are trained as novice monks. I certainly got a good sense of the layout of the plain, and it gave me the confidence to venture out on my own the next couple of days and explore at my own pace. We had to walk on bare feet
My Secret Temple
The Plains of Bagan stretching as far as the eye can see.
at the temples, and, depending on what lived in or around the temple (think birds, bats, cows, goats) I'm pretty sure we stepped on some nasty things.
Over the next two days, I rented an e-bike and did some exploring on my own. Many of the temples - both big and small - were worth exploring. Quite a few were cordoned off for restoration, but I did discover quite a few gems, like breathtaking Buddha statues, pagodas you could climb, and great views of the plains. It did rain most afternoons so I concluded my sightseeing well before 3pm. The temples were a big blur to me because there were so many of them. However, the notable ones I visited included a small (and smelly) temple with bats living in it, a tiny one with original wall paintings relatively intact, and my own special pagoda (see next section).
I've uploaded quite a few photos of the temples I visited, and I've labeled each one of them to the best of my recollection, as many of the temples blurred into one another. I also mapped my two long solo rides. Click here
to view Day 1 and here
My Secret Temple
The dark hidden staircase leads to this platform, from which...
My Own Secret Little Temple
You can't go to Bagan and not discover your own secret temple, right? Well, I discovered the neatest little spot. It is a nondescript little temple along a dirt track not far from Dhamma Ya Za Ka. Inside, it has the ubiquitous four Buddha statues each facing a cardinal direction. Hidden at the back was a dark staircase that led you to the rooftop (there weren't any visible restrictions on climbing), from where you could scramble to the very top of the temple for unobstructed 360 degree views of the entire plain. It was breathtaking. The best part was, most people just rode past this temple as it isn't noteworthy from the outside. The one sunset I attempted to do from my secret pagoda wasn't a particularly good one due to cloud cover, but seven other people ended up joining me there; most of them were on their way to other viewing spots when they saw me on the top.
Ahmar had his own secret temple - Pagoda 446 - which unfortunately I was unable to find because I can't navigate and ride at the same time as I cannot see
My Secret Temple
..you scramble up to the very top.
my phone screen without reading glasses. I stopped frequently to put on my glasses and see where I was on google maps, make a best guess effort which direction to go (bear in mind these were dirt tracks with no street names) and repeat the whole process again. In the end, I gave up. Ah, the challenges of the middle aged traveler.
Bagan has been one of the key highlights of my trip so far. Tomorrow, I get up at stupid o'clock to go on the road
slow boat to Mandalay, where more adventures await. I was disappointed to learn that Ostello Bello's branch there is closed for renovation; staying there would make sightseeing so much easier and cheaper.
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