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I had arranged my trip to Bagan beforehand since I wasn’t sure about the availabilities of transport or how easy it is to get one from Mandalay, in short, I simply didn’t want to take the risk! I opted for a shared van and booked it online via oway.com.mm. Later I’ve learned that hotels are actually well accustomed to this, they can help you purchase bus/van tickets, or you can buy them from the ticket office directly. Tickets from Mandalay cost about 10,000 kyats ($10).
In case you are curious as to why I took a shared van as oppose to flying, the answer is simple – the total driving travel time from the hotel in Mandalay to the hotel in Bagan was, as I have discovered, only about 2 hours more than flying. Flying time is short at 30 minutes but you have to get from your hotel to the airport, you have to wait at the airport before the flight and then you fly. When you arrive, you wait a (short) time for your baggage, you find your transport and then you have to get to your hotel. This adds up to around 3 hours and the car takes around 5 hours but is more scenic and you can stop and look at the scenery and have a nice lunch stop too.
After 3 hours on the road, we finally stopped for a 30-minute break. As expected the place was not the same as what we would normally see in the city. It was more like a dilapidated house converted to function as a small restaurant where you can eat or buy something to munch. By the looks of it, I don’t think it would be wise to eat there as they are not that particular with hygiene. Still, there were some adventurous travelers who tried to have a taste of their meal. I didn’t buy anything, but my eyes feasted on the people doing their daily routine.
I wanted to talk to them, it has always been my belief that if you can communicate with the locals, you can have an authentic, personal experience and a deeper understanding of their culture. So, I initiated the conversation with a simple “Mingalaba”, they did welcome me with a smile while saying “Mingalaba” back to me, but that’s it. I couldn’t comprehend one word of what they were saying. When I opened my mouth, no one could understand me, either. So I just listened and enjoyed the moment. Eventually, one guy approached me and tried his best to talk to me. He actually thought I came from Cambodia (maybe I looked like one). He told me his name and asked what brought me to Bagan. I responded to his question and he was surprised that I have chosen his country to visit. That ended the conversation, he left and joined the group of vendors from across the street.
The whole place reminded me of my province in the Philippines back in the 80’s, simple and laid back. Such rawness! Come to think of it, they used to live in a country controlled by a military regime that is sanctioned with most countries due to its human rights abuses and other governmental problems. The country is incredibly poor and largely cut off from most of the world, but apparently, the people are quite happy. It’s moments like this when I realize the true investment of travelling. The ability to see a side of the world that almost no one will ever see. The ability to experience human kindness on a completely different level. The ability to connect with people who have grown up 100% different than myself and who speak an entirely different language.
Time to hit the road again, only about an hour and half left before we reach our destination. While I was enjoying the view from the window, the van came to a complete stop in front of a control post. Next to it was a small building that had “Archeological Zone Tourist Fee” written in big bold letters on the outside. The ticket costs 25,000 kyats ($25 USD) per person. From the look of things, I clearly wasn’t the only one that had been caught off guard by the amount we need to pay. The woman in charge insisted and didn’t leave until all the foreigners in the van had paid up. Asking around, I was given a bit more information – 25,000 kyats and I’d get to explore all the sights of Bagan for up to 5 days. Seemed reasonable, considering that the proceeds will go to the maintenance or restoration of the ruins.
After you pay the fee, you’ll be issued a small card like this one.
At last, we reached Nyuang U’s main road, a few miles from town. This road split across three main areas of Bagan: Nyaung U to the northeast, Old Bagan to the northwest and New Bagan to the southwest. Broadly speaking, Nyaung U has the bulk of the budget accommodation, New Bagan has the midrange hotels and Old Bagan caters to the more upmarket traveler. The guide books gave the impression that Old Bagan was the prime choice and Nyaung U was last on the list. The reality for me was quite the opposite. Nyuang U is the largest town in the area and offers the most amenities, plus a great selection of restaurants. It is also where most of the transportation links are, and, even if you don’t stay here, you’ll likely pass through on your way in or out of Bagan.
I didn’t know that it was my time to get off the van, until a young man yelled “Zfreeti” the name of the hotel where I will be staying. And without a word he reached for my luggage, signed me to walk while pointing towards the direction where his horse cart was…. In my mind, I was like “what a horse cart?”. He can’t be serious! I looked around and noticed that there’s no taxi anywhere near the cart. I asked the guy “to zfreeti?”, he smiled and responded “yes, yes zfreeti”. Okay, I was a little hesitant to board the horse cart but, what choice to I have? My adventure was about to begin!
We reached the hotel in no time. I went through the usual check in protocols of signing forms and handling of passport to be photocopied. The staffs were very welcoming and the service was quite efficient. The hotel has an open style plan with the rooms built in 2 story blocks running back from the reception, pool and dining area. My room was all white with wood trimmings for small fridge, safe, tea and coffee making and desk. The room size was good enaugh, bed was comfortable and there’s couple of chairs to relax on.
I stayed in my room for two hours to freshen up and get organized. I flicked through maps and pamphlets and put together a quick to-do list , making sure that everything will work out as planned.
To get my bearing of the place, I decided to walk around following the path the horse cart driver took. The town is pretty quiet, dusty, and hot, not to mention dogs everywhere. I continued to walk until I reached the so called ‘Restaurant Row’ (Thiripyitsaya 4 Street). It has clearly been developed with tourists in mind, but it has a laid-back atmosphere – a perfect venue to relax after a hard day of temple exploration. A number of local tour operators can also be found here.
Honestly, it was hard to choose where to eat, especially if you don’t have any idea what to eat, LOL! TripAdvisor recommended “Weather Spoon’s Bagan” so I decided to give it a try. However, when I get there, the place was already packed with tourists. Looks like they have the same source as mine!
So instead of waiting in line, I went to the restaurant opposite Weather Spoons. The restaurant was packed with locals so that’s a good sign! I Looked at the menu which I knew nothing off. I figured with all the back-and-forth wars with Thailand that the food would be similar. But the food was nothing like that, and that’s what made it amazing. Though the menu was basically Burmese, you can order Italian, Thai and Chinese food just the same.
I sampled a Thai infused dish, which had a great mix of textures. The flavors varied a bit as well–though it was way too spicy for me.
The avocado salad was impressive of all the dishes as it had a great combination of crispy, sweet, and salty. It was my top choice.
The food was served in generous portion – good for two! The only drawback to the cooking was that they were very heavy handed with the oil, but other than that everything was satisfying. So happy with my last minute decision to eat here.
Each meal in Bagan ended with these tart tamarind flakes that Burmese say aids digestion.
It was a great start stay in Bagan. I was ready for more and went back to the hotel to get an overview of what to actually see and how to structure my days. By the way, remember to take a torch at night or early morning when walking around. Some areas have no lights and some of the drivers on the roads are crazy, so for your safety turn your lights on.
Have you by commenting been to Nyaung – U? Share your experiences below.