When we were leaving Moscow, we didn’t have a rigorous travel itinerary for our year-long trip: we roughly planned our movements for about one and a half months. We decided that after that we will think where to go on the spot. Therefore, starting from Vietnam — after Istanbul, an intense trip to South Korea, and two weeks in Hong Kong — we stayed in each place for as long as wanted.
This approach is good for several reasons. First, it allows you to feel the real freedom of movement and how formal and unimportant the boundaries between different countries are. The lack of an exact travel plan is the best way to forget the usual “holiday” categories of time and to stop feeling like a tourist. Traveling in Asia allows this freedom because in most cases Russians (i.e. us) and people of many other nationalities do not need visas or can obtain them at the border. Second, the most interesting events and meetings often occur accidentally. This flexible approach has led us to Myanmar.
Initially, we did not plan to go to Myanmar. When we were still in Moscow, preparing for the trip, we read some alarming (and inaccurate) information on the Internet about what was happening in Myanmar: something about a military power there and either tourists not being allowed to enter the country or obtaining a visa being an extremely difficult process. Therefore, we quickly abandoned this option and moved on to other ideas.
As a result, we can give a small advice: do not rely solely on the media and Wikipedia preparing for the trip to an unfamiliar country. Wikipedia has a lot of inaccurate or incorrect information, and after reading the news one would not want to leave the house at all. The media form a very distorted picture of reality.
An accidental meeting helped us to get to Myanmar after all: we met three Germans in Ho Chi Minh City who became our friends. With one of them, Hannes, we traveled for a couple of weeks, and with Anna and Sebastian — for almost a month. Hannes, an awesome Bavarian guy from Munich, talked a lot about Myanmar — a country he visited several times and was planning to go to again. He also told us that a visa to Myanmar can be obtained in a couple of days in Bangkok. We were easily persuaded and decided that we will go to Myanmar after Thailand.
Getting a visa to Myanmar in an embassy in Bangkok turned out to be a painful process with endless queues under the scorching sun; but in general, it was a good preparation for Myanmar. As a result, we flew from Chiang Rai to Mandalay in Myanmar and stayed in the country for three weeks. Every place we have visited in Myanmar left a strong impression. Today we will begin telling about Bagan.
Bagan is the former capital of the ancient state of the same name. Bagan was the center of science, culture and religion (Theravada Buddhism) before the end of the 13th century, when it was captured by the Mongols. During the few centuries of prosperity thousands of pagodas, stupas, temples and monasteries were built in Bagan. After the 13th century, the city began to deteriorate, but until today there are more than two thousand different religious buildings in the archaeological zone. In fact, Bagan today is a large piece of land with pagodas of different sizes.
One of the most beautiful sights in Bagan is the sunrise, and it is beautiful not only because of the first sun rays of the day. Moreover, in March, when we were in Bagan, the sun was rising in a kind of a gray haze, through which the sun could not get through for a long time.
What really fascinated us were the balloons over Bagan: some (rich) tourists watch the sunrise on them, and for an hour you can admire about thirty balloons flying slowly over the pagodas. On the way to the temples every morning we saw preparations for the flight: people were brought to a special field on buses, and there the balloons were prepared.
While the balloons were being prepared for the flight, we drove to one of the pagodas that we liked and climbed up on it to meet the dawn.
Slowly, one by one, the balloons began to rise slowly into the air. The flame in the balls, by the way, is not always lit — it turns on and off; when there is no flame, the balloons move in complete silence.
It is an incredible view: balloons flying over thousands of ancient pagodas.
Flight on a balloon is expensive: it costs around 300 dollars per person. In general, Myanmar is not the most convenient country for the tourists yet: the hotels are relatively expensive and the roads are very, very bad. But we were pleasantly surprised by the food — it is cheap and often delicious, for example, we loved local avocado salad.
By the way, no one knows whose view was more beautiful — the balloons passengers’ or those who watched them from below.
There are several pagodas popular among the tourists that have nice views. There can be a lot of people in the morning. But if you want, you can always find a secluded pagoda and meet the sunrise by yourself.
We watched the sunrises on several different pagodas. We liked one of them the most: it wasn’t very tall, but the balloons’ starting point was close to it, so we caould see them well. We were lucky, and a few times the balloons flew right above us — so close that it seemed they could touch the pagoda.
Bagan is an amazing place, but it’s beauty didn’t come for free for us: we spilled many liters of sweat. One of the factors that made the exploration of Bagan particularly difficult was the heat. Myanmar has two distinct seasons: rainy and dry. In February, the dry season begins, and by April the temperature reaches its maximum — about 45 degrees. Some parts of the country are cooler, but Bagan is somewhat like a desert, so it is particularly hot. We got there in early March, and in the middle of the day it was very hard to be outside: the heat was around 40 degrees. Therefore, almost every day we got up around five in the morning to meet the dawn, explored pagodas for a couple of hours, returned home to sleep and rest, and in the evening went to the pagodas again.
Speaking about the desert. When we were in Bagan, we saw pictures of this area during the rainy season and thought how cool it must be when all the trees and the grass are green! And then, looking at our own pictures, we suddenly realized that there are in fact a lot of green trees in March — but because of the heat, dryness and the sand you just do not notice them at all.
To explore the archaeological zone, we rented bicycles that cost about two dollars a day. It is also possible to rent electric scooters (strange vehicles that look like stools that suddenly became alive) for $6 a day, but we opted for more traditional and cheap bicycles. Every day we drove about 30 kilometers on them. We were in a special, altered state of consciousness: the sense of time disappeared, and every day seemed incredibly long; we got so tired that we couldn’t even eat sometimes; we fell asleep within half a second, only touching the bed. Of course, you can explore Bagan on a tourist bus, but we believe that these rises at 5 am, heavy physical exertion and the unbearable heat turned Bagan in a special place for us. The more you give to Myanmar, the more it gives back to you.
With all the beauty of Bagan, the main treasure of Myanmar is its people. They are an incredibly open, friendly and curious people who are not shy to smile to complete strangers.
One morning we watched an interesting photoshoot on one of the popular pagodas: we’re not sure whether these people were a bride and a groom, or if it was just some kind of a thematic photo session.
Well, there you have us for contrast — sleepy, exhausted and dusty, but happy.
Another inhabitant of Bagan.
UNESCO refuses to call Bagan a World Heritage site for several reasons: the restoration works are carried out unprofessionally, and directly in the center of the archaeological zone a huge (and wildly ugly) observation tower and a wide asphalt road were built.
It is difficult for UNESCO to have a dialogue with the local government: the country became a little more open to the West only a few years ago. The borders opened for the tourists in 2011, and until recently you had to confirm the plan of your trip with the government. Many areas of the country are still closed for visitors, but you can freely move between more or less touristic areas. Bagan is the main tourist area in Myanmar, so it is highly unlikely to have any problems there.
Don’t be afraid to travel. Come to Myanmar.