The bus arrived at 4:30, in the humid predawn darkness. A jumble of men seethed at the door, offering fares into Nyaung U, or New Bagan. “Where is your hotel? I know every hotel in town. I take you. Very cheap. This way sir. This way!” Fresh off the night bus from Yangon, the clamor was too much for this sleep-deprived tourist. I grabbed our bags and tried to get some space, some room to think, but the drivers followed, shouting offers, pulling at my sleeve.
We finally picked one in self-defense, a young man with superb English and fanatical persistence. Erin mentioned a hotel in town, the Shwe Na Di Guesthouse. We’d read some good reviews. “Yes, yes. I take you. I know this place.” And just like that, the other drivers melted away.
The ride into town was smooth, down a highway lined with coconut trees. We paused briefly at the security station. The Bagan Archeological Zone had an entry fee for tourists, $20.00 each. We paid the government official and got our tickets, then climbed back into the cab for the remainder of our journey.
The Shwe Na Di Guesthouse was silent when we got there, hiding behind a closed gate. Our driver got out and shouted until someone came to let us in. The concierge looked almost as bleary as I felt, rubbing his eyes and staggering. We got to the lobby and dropped our bags in a pile.
Did they have a room? Yes.
How much? $22.00 per night.
When could we check in? Eight.
Sigh, but I shouldn't complain. It was better than I’d expected. Only three and a half hours of waiting, instead of closer to ten.
The cab driver lurked in the background. When he heard our checkin time, he offered to drive us out to the ruins, to catch dawn breaking over Old Bagan. It was supposed to be beautiful, but I was tired and surly and done with new experiences. I needed sleep, needed some space away from people. We declined and found an old chair to doze in.
An hour later, the hotel took pity on us and showed us to our room. Our $22.00 a night got us a private suite with wood paneled walls, a bathroom, shower, and a mini-fridge stocked with water. But we noticed most of this later. We finally had access to a bed. It was time to sleep.
We woke hours later to the sight of palm trees outside our window. Geckos lurked in the corners, hunting mosquitoes. It was as close to a tropical paradise as I could imagine. And it was time to explore Bagan.
In its heyday between the 9th and 12th centuries, Old Bagan was a massive city, the cultural mecca of Myanmar. It was home to hundreds of thousands of residents and 10,000 temples. But the Mongols ended all that. In the long centuries after the hordes, the city rotted. Today, nothing is left but a skeleton of scattered temples. It is an impressive archaeological site, 2,000 crumbling ruins on a plain of red clay, beautiful and mystical and eerie. The few remaining locals live in small towns nearby, away from the site itself. This is also where tourists like us end up.
The afternoon sun was blistering when we left our hotel room. Our first priority was food. We found a restaurant on a quiet, dusty street and bought some traditional Myanmar cuisine: tea leaf salad and chicken curry with rice.
We'd picked a place that was a little nicer than average, so our meal cost 4,000 kyat (or about $3.00). The curry was familiar, with spices similar to indian food. But the tea leaf salad was fantastically unexpected - crunchy and bitter and hearty and delicious.
Erin pulled out our guidebook to check the local map. We were staying in Nyaung U, a small city just outside Old Bagan.
We resolved to get up early tomorrow and see the sunrise over the ruins. But that left our current afternoon for exploration. It was 5 kilometers from town into the main site. In the heat, without shade, that would be quite a hike. The day was wearing and we decided to catch a horse cart. These were everywhere in Nyaung U, always eager to ferry tourists around.
Lacking any better plan, we went to the first temple in our guidebook. This was the Ananda Pahto, a beautifully restored building just outside the old city.
Built in 1105, the Ananda Pahto is a cruciform structure with massive statues of Buddha at each of the cardinal points. The exterior is white-washed stone, with a golden spire glittering against the blue sky.
Inside, the atmosphere is quieter, full of creamy orange light and ancient statues.
We hired a guide to tell us the temple's history. He was professional and informative, but I'll be honest and admit I've forgotten much of what he said. I was too busy gawking.
Outside once more, we set off deeper into the ruins. I'm not sure what we were searching for, but the area pulled at me. I wanted to poke into the quiet places, to explore this ancient world. We found a small complex nearby, down a rutted, forgotten road. Everything was quiet. There were no tour groups, no guides, no signs marking things of historical importance. Just a cluster of buildings in a little field.
Most of the structures were too small to go inside. But one near the back was bigger. I stuck my head through the low stone entrance and found a shadowed interior. The faded Buddha watched me from his perch at the back.
An opening in the far wall called onward. I found a cramped stairwell. Curious, I began to climb. Geckos dotted the walls, the floor. I had to be careful not to step on them in the narrow confines.
But on the roof, the view was spectacular. I wasn't high, but I felt like I could see forever. Erin gave a start when she saw where I'd ended up.
But she quickly followed. Together, we sat on the sun-warmed stones and watched dusk roll in. Tomorrow, we would be up at dawn to see Old Bagan, but tonight, we had a peaceful corner all to ourselves.
Well... almost to ourselves.