We had been warned about temple fatigue early in our trip: Bagan, arguably Myanmar’s #1 attraction, is all temples, all the time and we wouldn’t want to burn out before we got there. I am intimately aware of the phenomenon, as is likely anybody who has tried to see all the churches in Italy or all the Mayan ruins in Guatemala. We did see a fair number of pagodas in Bago, Inle, at the Golden Rock, and a whole slew of them around Mandalay, but it all pales in comparison to Bagan.
Our guidebook describes Bagan as a ‘Manhattan of pagodas’, which is funny and about as good a description as any. Not so densely packed-in as the New York skyline, but just as striking, at least. Plains surround the villages of Nyuang U (where all the backpackers stay) and ‘Old Bagan’ and they are absolutely surrounded by old temples and pagodas. The tourist map that we got from our hotel points out the biggest and most famous temples and the rest are just indicated by tiny red dots, making our map look like it’s going through puberty. The vastness of it is indescribable, as is the heat. Our guidebook recommends avoiding the area in March through May and even in the ‘cooler’ seasons, scheduling sightseeing at dawn and dusk with long siestas in between. Since we arrived right in the middle of May, we have been doomed to sweating for our good time. Waking up at dawn is insufficient to avoid the heat; we went through two liters of water each before 8am. The mid-day reprieve of shutting ourselves in our room with the AC going is frequently interrupted by power outages and our midday showers are acts of futility within moments of stepping out the door again in the afternoon. But it is all worth it. I have never seen such a vista, with heat-and-smog haze only amplifying the romance of the place. You can climb up the biggest pagodas and see a sea of little pagodas poking up through the scrubby trees. There is a quality of timelessness that is broken only when child-vendors swarm you with offers or postcards, guidebooks, t-shirts and all the rest.
Even the base-town where all the cheap hotels are, Nyuang U, has a lazy charm. All the restaurants serve more or less the same hybrid-menus of Chinese, Western (read: banana pancakes), and Burmese dishes, but they have put up fairy lights instead of florescent bulbs and have nice touches like wooden tables (no child-sized plastic stools) and no dysentery. Around town there are the standard pitches for tour guides, t-shirts and taxi rides, but it’s just too hot for anyone to get too worked up about anything. True, it is not the best depiction of the ‘real Myanmar’; it is much more comfortable and clean. But, I’ve still got my flea-bites to remind me of the time we spent in a ‘real’ Myanmar village and I’ll take Bagan over that any day.