Apparently the best way to see Bagan is by hot air ballon operated by Ballons over Bagan (great, catchy name). We however arrived in the wrong season so were confined to much less expensive but possibly more troublesome bicycles as our mode of discovery. Bagan is one of the two must-sees in Myanmar. The other being Inlay Lake which I'll just go ahead and tell you we will not be making it too. Oh tragedy I can hear some of you saying, but after a lot of thinking we decided that doing one very touristy site was enough for all of us. Besides, it's the dry season, not the right moment to go visit a giant lake that shrinks down to a muddy puddle until its refilled by, you guessed it, the rains.
We had an early morning flight on Air Bagan (official tagline: The Treasure of Myanmar better than the another local airline whose tagline was "We will fly you safely"). It was rainy and wet but we didn't mind much until we boarded the plane and then were asked to get off of it because of a "technical problem". The last thing you want to hear from a local airline in a recently de-sanctioned country is "we have a technical problem", though clearly we made it safe and sound.
Bagan couldn't be more different from Yangon and Mawlyamine. We landed in a dry, dusty, hot plain having left the tropical dampness of the south. To me, with the bougainvillea in bloom and the dust it felt like the central plateau of Spain more than SE Asia. Driving out of the airport you start to see the thousands of ruined pagodas (stupas), temples, monastery, libraries doting the landscape, all built between the 10th and 13th centuries during the reign of the Bagan Kingdom (and according to UNESCO, very poorly renovated post the 1975 earthquake).
After a quick early morning check in at our Hotel (Hotel@Tharabar Gate - yep the at-symbol is part of the name), we asked for three bikes to go discover the temples. Two of the bikes worked find, but mine decided its preferred state was to have two flat tires. The hotel didn't have another bike, so we tried to compromise by putting two of us on one bike (there was a seat over the back wheel of one of the bikes, so why not use it, we reckoned). We made it as far as a third temple when in a rather dramatic fashion the wheel gave out. Sue, who was side-straddling the back wheel, and me, who was pedaling, tumbled into the soft, hot sand. No one was hurt, except for the bike of course, and we laughed pretty heartily. Now, however, we were stranded in 40C heat with one functioning bike and three people.
Back at the hotel, when we had set off with our wobbly and ultimately broken bikes, we had collected two local kids who through pure determination stuck to our side the whole time. Obviously they should not working tourists, but we didn't have much choice as they simply followed us wherever we went. They helped return the first flat tire-ed bike, insisted in showing us how to get up to the second level of a pagoda for a view of the plain, and stayed with us as we walked back through shortcuts in the heat of mid-day to the hotel. Without them I think we may still be wondering between the temples, dying of thirst.
By this time we all felt pretty indebted to them, and though I strongly don't recommend this, we bought them some water and gave them a little bit of money. I think because we had bike troubles from the beginning and they jumped in to help we were stuck. This is one of the challenges you face when you travel, especially with two kids who could really use a couple of dollars you make the emotional choice rather than the right one.
The afternoon was spent by the pool. It was too hot to do much else. Dinner was at the delicious and friendly Starbeam Restaurant, very highly recommended.
The next day we hired a guide in an effort to learn something about the temples and the kingdom that built it. The guide arrived and stated that we needed to set up our own transportation. Our only option - the local tuk tuk aka horse carts. Now, I'm loath to use transportation based on animals but both Camilla - who knows her horses better than I do - and I were impressed with the conditions of the animals. I honestly don't think I've seen ever such healthy working horses in a developing country.
A long hot morning of touring temples later, we sent our guide and the horse carts home and headed off Nyauk U, the local town. Sue had a recommendation for Indian food and we sought out Aroma 2 (if there is an Aroma 1 no one knows where it is, and this trend of second restaurants is rampant). The afternoon was another pool and nap combination. Dinner was at the extraordinarily disappointing Sarabha 1 restaurant next door to the hotel. Sarabha 1, not 2 which is right next door. Don't go there.
On our last full day we learned our lesson and this time rented hard core mountain bikes. They still had dodgy breaks but we figured we were on relatively flat land. Off we went into the dust to the Central Plain and off the beaten track a little. We visited what I've decided is my favorite temple, Salamani Paya. More biking took us through one of the local, seemingly untouched villages before turning into New Bagan. The town was created in 1990 when the government moved the village that had sprung up in the ruins of Old Bagan.
A full day of riding behind us, we are now sitting by the pool, enjoying the evening heat, and sipping the most civilized drink known to man - gin and tonics.