On the Road to Bagan

By Aung Naing Oo 25 October 2014

BAGAN, Mandalay Division — I awoke at 5 am, ready to watch the famous Bagan sunrise for the first time in my life.

I have heard so much about watching the sun rise and set over Bagan’s thousands of pagodas. It has always been at the top of my tourism wish-list. Many years ago I purchased a framed picture of a Bagan dawn from an art gallery in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand. Every time I looked at it, I dreamed of someday actually visiting the ancient city.

By 5:20 I was ready to leave the hotel. Although Shwe San Daw Pagoda—where most tourists go to see the sunrise—is only a short ride from the beautiful Tharabar Gate hotel where our family was staying, I wanted to get there early. I wanted to feel the morning stillness covered in darkness.

Like many visitors, I watched the sunset the day before from atop Shwe San Daw, an ancient pagoda with five terraces built by King Anawrahta after his conquest of the Mon Kingdom in 1057.

We were unlucky. Though already well past mid-October, the rain lingered. Clouds blocked the sunset, and by dusk it was raining buckets. Hotel staff told me that it was the heaviest rain of the year.

Bagan was still dark at 5:20 am. A young hotel staff member gave me a torch. As I stepped outside, I saw two French tourists who were staying at our hotel. They were on their way to watch the sunrise, too, so I offered them a ride.

We were early, but a taxi or two made it there before us. As I stepped out of the car I was greeted by the call of a rooster from a nearby house. The vendors were already up and selling wares to tourists.

I climbed the first terrace from the south side of the pagoda. In front of me was a family from Kenya with two young girls walking slowly up the steep stairs. After the first terrace, I went around and climbed from the west side.

I took my place atop the highest terrace, among a smattering of other tourists setting up their cameras to capture the dramatic moment. I heard chatter around me in familiar languages: English, Thai, French, German, Chinese, Korean, Russian, Japanese and Myanmar.

The sun would rise at 5:45, I was told, but it was still dark at that time. On the horizon, though, I could see signs of dawn; a glowing sliver of red and orange. Quiet chatter in various languages continued around me as we all waited patiently, soaking up the atmosphere.

At first a small red circle appearing beside a pagoda in the distance, the sun finally rose at 6:15. Suddenly, all conversation stopped and the only sound was the clicking of cameras. The sun rose slowly.

Clouds drifted northward, along with a flock of birds flying past the backdrop of a red dawn. A hot air balloon suddenly appeared to our right. As the sun leveled with a distant pagoda I noticed that it was not just one balloon but three rising above the ruins, still silhouetted in the semi-darkness.

It was so beautiful, the whole scene viewed from a distance. It struck me as surreal, and I lingered long after the sun came up. I was seeing the famous, breathtaking image of Bagan for the first time in my life.

Later on we went to the Bagan viewing tower, a controversial structure built by the military regime in 2005. Designed to resemble an ancient watch tower, it felt like a behemoth rising out of the ground. Though the structure itself is large and unwieldy, the panoramic view from the top was undeniably stunning.

You can see everything from the tower; all of the famous pagodas, the paddy fields and the dirt roads below. We had a clear view of the Tuyin Taung Mountain, just across the Irrawaddy River. We sat sipping coffee on a mezzanine below the tower, observing the tranquil patchwork of greenery and red ruins spreading out across the landscape.

We also visited Mount Popa, a volcano located about an hour from Bagan by car. Even the drive was memorable. Many people, young and old, were begging on either side of the road. Whether it was because they wanted easy money or if it was simply a tradition, we still don’t know. But we stopped once or twice to hand out small kyat notes. Each time we did, however, many people swarmed the car, making it difficult and dangerous to drive.

Having learned our lesson, we eventually started signaling to the expectant villagers as we drove by that we had no more money to give away. At one point, a bus filled with Buddhist pilgrims passed by, hurling bank notes out onto the road. Again, hordes of people ran into the road to pick them up. It’s really quite dangerous, but we knew that it was a pastime unlikely to end; Myanmar was, after all, recently ranked the second most generous nation in the world by a UK study of charitable behavior.

Once we arrived, we checked into the Popa Mountain Resort. It has the best view of the mountain and its environs. The restaurant rises up above the forest canopy, and at the end of a long walkway we found what could only be described as a “million dollar view.”

While there are many things to see and enjoy on the road to Bagan, Myanmar does not yet seem ready for independent travelers like us. We were traveling with children, so we broke up the trip with an overnight stay in Taungoo. The lakeside Royal Kaytumadi Hotel seemed out of place in the provincial town, but it’s beautiful nonetheless. I particularly like hotels and buildings by a lake, river or sea.

All was well until we tried to go to Than Taung Gyi. The signs aren’t clear, and there is nothing to indicate which direction one has to take. The roads are narrow, and you have to pay close attention to avoid collisions with motorbikes. We took a few wrong turns and wasted a good one and a half hours.

We tried asking many people along the way, but no one could give us clear directions. By the time we finally got there it was almost 6 pm, and we could not enjoy the view anymore.

The motorway to Bagan was alright, but there are no signs indicating how far we were from our destination. There is no sign telling you how far Bagan—Myanmar’s biggest tourist attraction—is from either the highway or from Yangon. I had to stop and ask a good many times to be sure I took the right exit. No one could tell us how far Bagan is from the junction, either.

I understand that Myanmar is gearing up for “Visit Myanmar Year” in 2016, but I am not sure that the country is ready for the influx of tourists expected next year. There will be backpackers and independent travelers like myself; people who are curious and want an easy, comfortable travel experience. Many may want to drive and explore on their own, like we did.

If a Myanmar citizen like myself—a first-time traveler—had that much trouble navigating the roads, one can imagine how difficult it will be for foreigners to get around in Myanmar.

Many things could be done to turn this problem into an asset. The motorway could itself become a tourist attraction, as there are many historic towns and sites located just off the main roads. The roads could be widened by adding shoulders. Signage could be written in both Myanmar and English, in large letters with directions and suggested attractions. Litter, the scourge of Myanmar, could be controlled.

Perhaps a large-scale overhaul of the tourism sector is needed. Maybe then travelers—be they Myanmar or foreign—could enjoy this country a little bit more.