The boat from Mandalay to Bagan was supposed to leave at 6.30am but we eventually got going about an hour later. It was really cold on the river for the first few hours and we slowly chugged down the Ayeyarwady narrowly missing big cargo ships.
It takes 11 hours to get to Bagan because you have to zigzag across and back to miss the shallow sandbanks. Many of the ships we passed had two men on the front of the boat with big sticks with metre markers who were measuring the depth of the river and indicating to the captain with their hands to let him know when to turn.
We passed Sagaing, a hillside full of temples and that was pretty much it in terms of things to see until we reached Bagan.
On the boat our guide shared his recipe for an amazing ginger salad, which is really popular here as a side dish so I’m looking forward to making that at home. We also had the traditional tea leaf salad and some Myanmar wine (it’s actually really nice) in the afternoon. It was cold on the boat with the wind but the sun was strong too so it was ok.
We watched the sun go down on the boat and arrived in the dark. After dumping everything at the hotel we headed out and went to a local restaurant for dinner. We passed the night market stalls selling Indian style dosas and sweet coconut pancakes.
On day 1 we went to see the view of the northern plain of temples and then visited another four temples during the morning. There are over 3000 temples here all scattered around one area, nearby 3 villages – Old Bagan, New Bagan and Nyaung U. Nyaung U has the most going on but this area seems to be very quiet although there seem to be more tourists here than in Yangon and Mandalay.
Some of our group were going on a balloon ride so they left early in the morning but the rest of us started at a more leisurely pace and went to a temple where there was a good view across the plains.
We reformed as a group mid-morning and continued on to four different temples. Although there was potential to be templed out quite quickly, our guide showed us four very different styles so it was very interesting.
It’s nowhere near as busy here as in Angkor Wat and we didn’t really see many other tourists at all until it got to sunset and we went to the busiest area because it does have the best view. In the evening we went to see a puppet show, another local tradition here, with dinner – very touristy but it was great fun and really great food, the best we had so far, served in a big lacquerware dish like an Indian thali.
The next morning I got up early to walk over to the temples to take a picture of all the hot air balloons flying overhead and I still had enough time for a swim before we left for another day full day of things.
We climbed Mount Popa, 777 steps up a sacred montain where there is a very interesting tradition of nat worship. A nat seems to be like a spirit that is not a god but a real person, usually someone bad, who evenutally becomes a guardian. There is the Drunk Nat, who likes a good time and is the guardian of drunks and gamblers, and others – 37 in all, all with their own story. When we arrived at the base of the mountain we could here all this loud music and our guide was very excited to tell us there was a nat festival going on.
It turned out to be sponsored by an American man who had a company responsible for cleaning holy sites. A spirit medium (in this case a gay man dressed as a woman) was dancing around to music, smoking and drinking beer, to appease the nats. It was one of the most bizarre things I have ever seen, and we were really lucky to be there on that day (as with the novice initiation ceremony).
We had lunch in a very peaceful resort up in the hills with a great view of the temple.
On the way home we went through a village and saw some lovely people who were living a very simple life – it could have been 1000 years ago.