Bagan was THE thing I wanted to see in Myanmar (mainly because that’s the only place I knew in the country). I had those magic images of balloons flying over golden sunrises in mind, that romantic atmosphere of thousands of red temples gently decaying in the bush, and of course, because Myanmar still is quite new to mass tourism, I was expecting something a little bit adventurous. Yes, I was daydreaming.
Balloon rides cost a fortune ($360 minimum, what a joke), the temples are either empty, either rebuilt pretty badly and for an adventure… no, just nope. First of all, people actually live in Bagan, it’s not a vaguely worshiping place. No, it’s an actual town with resorts and locals living off tourism. And yes, tourism, lot of tourism. We had to deal with the “photo tours” assholes many times (setting up scenes with locals with no consideration whatsoever for them or making everyone move with no respect so they would not be on their sunrise photos, I was requested not to redo my ponytail!), the Asian tour bus that are all parked in front of the bigger temples for sunset, the French who bitch about everything (like me right now, yes), the Canadian who tells that poor kid trying to sell random stuff not to ask because it’s not nice after making sure everyone understood every meaningless detail of her life, and so on… So yes, Bagan is apparently just another Disneyland to many people. You’re supposed to pay a $25 fees to get on site, but they actually charge it at the airport or at THE sunset spot, nowhere else. Of course the money does not go to locals… And yeah, the locals… Not so nice in this area. You, as a tourist, are nothing more than a walking wallet full of dollar bills. You are harassed like nowhere else in the country, anyone talking to you will request that you give money, whether it’s because they gave you a 1 minute visit of a temple you didn’t want or because they put 3 candles in a stairway you used. Locals will try to sell you stuff constantly. We were lucky enough to be there during a big festival which allowed us to see Iron Cross, the biggest (metal!) band in the country! I was really surprised by how good the music was! But at the end of the concert, people were completely pissed, so much that it was scary enough to make us leave. In the huge market set up for the festival, local’s behavior was sometimes disrespectful too.
Now let’s talk about the temples… Some are beautiful, some are boring, some are crowded, some are used by local teenagers to make out (with their shoes on!), some are fun to explore. The first days we had a bike to visit and stopped at the most famous ones. It was nice, but the last day we decided to take it easy and just walked, and that was the most fun we had! We started the day with a beautiful sunrise at a deserted temple near our guesthouse, walked around a group of abandoned temples that were not on maps, pure exploration with no one around us, and watched the sunset on a stunning spot with few other people. We also visited Mount Popa, a sacred mountain an hour away from Bagan which allowed us to see more celebrations in nearby villages. There were huge lines of people all dressed up to bring gifts to the monks for the year and lot of colors! In the end I loved Bagan. The place is incredible, apparently they were building an average of 2 temples a month at busiest time! It’s really amazing to see how they’re all so different from one another, close or far away, and it’s fun to see life still going on in the middle of the temples. Villages still exist there, sheep and cows live there and move around like us. It’s easy to get lost and forget the crowd.