The early Bird... Catches the sunrise
Unlike in Ecuador, buses in Myanmar seem to be usually on time or even arriving early (could be that we were only lucky though). As a consequence, instead of arriving at 5am, we arrived at 3am in Bagan, right in the claws of the cruel taxi drivers just waiting to rip tired-out Backpackers off. We were highly overcharged and went to our hotel at 3:30am where they couldn't check us in early. Already drained and half frozen due to the long journey and 'well functioning' arctic air conditioning, we continued our journey with an e-bike towards the pagodas for watching the sunrise.
Funny fact: it is prohibited to drive normal motorbikes around Bagan anymore and rental has specialized in e-scooters due to the fact that foreigners were causing many accidents by driving too fast. They usually don't go any faster than 40 km/h, unless they are pimped (up to 60km/h) and sometimes there is no speed indicator at all! Like Indiana Jones, we explored the old part of Bagan by night, attempting to find a less crowded Pagoda to watch the sunrise from. We ended up on a small one where about 10 others joined- nothing in comparison to what seemed to be hundreds on the infamous Shwe San Daw Pagoda. There is no doubt about it that the latter is offering a better view as it has more levels, but if you prefer to have a romantic spot, this is not the one. The sunrise however was beautiful especially when the balloons started their flight over the temples which were still covered in mist.
The rest of the day consisted of relaxing and sleeping as both of us were suffering from lack of sleep due to getting up early every other day. On top of the voluntary early awakenings, there were also some involuntary ones, due to 'morning gymnastics' or 'prayers' which were blasted out of big speakerphones at around 4am or 5am- no need to set your alarm, indeed!
One of our highlights in Bagan was the hot air balloon flight. Although it is very expensive, it is worth the money. The Balloons are checked regularly and the pilots are usually from the UK or Australia with hundreds of hours of flight experience. Becoming a pilot in Bagan is particularly tough and people do fail on their practical test despite having years of practical experience, but the challenge is not the flight itself, it actually is the communication. Every morning 21 balloons are starting their journey at the same time and the pilot is busy not only with steering, but also with communicating with both, other pilots and the air traffic controllers. Balloons do fly only in the morning due to the hot weather in the afternoon, but this gives you the chance to see the sunrise from above. We were particularly lucky with a very nice pilot and a flight that lasted 1:15 hours instead the usual 45 min due to good weather conditions and an experienced pilot. Next to us was a girl from Myanmar who seemed to be very popular- it turns out that she is a famous singer and calls herself 'Popo'. After hesitating a little, we decided to enlighten her on what the word 'popo' actually means in German (for all non-Germans: it means 'ass' but a cute word for it). She laughed a little when she found out but we guess she didn't mind too much. After our flight we went back to our hotel and ended up exploring some other temples- with Dhammayangyi being one of the Most unique ones in the sense that it is inhabited by bats which can be seen and heard while being inside. Many of the temples are unique in their own way- some have painted walls, some have interesting architecture, several levels one can climb on, hidden passages, different type of Buddha statues, so one doesn't get bored.
We heard from another traveler about a hidden pagoda which is usually empty at sunrise due to the fact that the stairway to the upper deck is difficult to find. In order to avoid pointless driving around in the dark prior to the sunrise, we checked the location out beforehand and asked the guard of the temple if it would be locked or not. The guard said he would leave it open and indeed, when we came the next morning, we could easily get into the pagoda and enjoy our view all by ourselves while the sun came up and the balloons made their way towards the temples.
Buy, eat and stay local!
When traveling to Bagan, every tourist has to pay 25000 Kyat (about 20$) for a 5 day ticket permission to enter the archeological zone. Theoretically, that sounds like a good idea as the temples need to undergo restoration once in a while, especially after the earthquake that shook the ground in August 2016 and destroyed several pagodas. However, turns out that 90% of the admission goes directly to the Government (and it is not really transparent what happens with the money), 8% go towards the Tourism foundation to promote Myanmar in other countries and to attract more and more tourists and only 2% is invested into restoration with the consequence of set up donation boxes at some of the temples.
NONE of that money is invested in the infrastructure or local projects, nothing goes to the people of Bagan which is especially bad after some of them were 'relocated' from old Bagan to a newer area to give space to luxury hotels. Locals rely on their handcrafts, postcards and souvenirs being bought, as well as on their food being eaten at the restaurants and their house being used for accommodation (rather than big hotels). The best idea is probably to eat out at different places and to shop ones souvenirs at different families. We found out that every family/seller has their fix spots and take care of 'their entrances', they also have to pay a certain amount of rent for their display location which many people don't know about.
A nightmare for OCD, a free monkey-porn show and the choice of where to go next
We spontaneously decided to go to Mount Popa, an extinguished volcano with a monastery on top called Tuyin Taung and a beautiful sunset spot. After having found out that taking an e-scooter wouldn't have been a good option as it would die half way, we decided to share a cab. The cab driver left later than expected, wanted to drop us off at a sugar cane factory which we kindly refused as we wanted to make it to the pagoda before it got dark and arrived there on the bumpiest road we have encountered, ready for sunset. The good news: Mount Popa is very well located and just beautiful to watch. There are, however, hundreds of monkeys which are taking advantage of the alms given by locals in the shape of fruits and food. The fact that one can meet hundreds of hyper energetic monkeys who can steal your camera, money, or other objects in itself is less disturbing than the reason why we think it should be named Mount Poo-Poo.
As with every pagoda, temple, monastery or shrine, one needs to take their shoes of before entering the pagoda and prior to climbing hundreds of steps towards the top. Taking the shoes off as well as covering shoulders and knees are a sign of respect, so here you go, of course we want to be respectful, so we do as they say. Everything is good until you see the amount of shit smeared on the stairs, the monkey pee puddles on the floor. Some of the shit was smeared, indicating that an unlucky person stepped into it with his bare feet. Some of the monkey turds were still intact, waiting for a poor victim to become one with the brown piles. And sometimes, you could see a mix of poo and pee- nothing for the faint hearted! I still find it difficult to understand how I could possibly show my respect to Buddha by walking up these stairs, with my feet covered in poo and pee, which I drag along the red carpet towards the statue and his shrine in order to say my prayers- this does not make any sense to me!
The idea of watching the sunset from the top of the mountain was thrown out of the window within seconds when we realized that we would have to walk down along poo street in the dark-no way! While climbing up poo street, which can be very difficult when tip-toeing the hundreds of stairs in order to avoid the size of the surface which can be contaminated' with poo, we managed to enjoy the view, the beautiful sea and the monkeys making out and having sex at this holy place, until we reached the top (after having passed about 15 donation boxes, by the way), just to find out that the pagoda was not sooo beautiful after all and continuing our decent towards the taxi.
Which beach to go next?
Once back in Bagan, we decided that we were ready to explore the beaches of Myanmar which were supposed to be beautiful and untouched, but which ones should we go to? While Ngapali is supposed to be the number one beach, prices for accommodation are sky-rocketing with more than 100$ per night. On top of that, the only feasible way of getting there is by plane (bad safety records and high prices for airplane tickets...). Our second and probably most favorite option would have been the south of Myanmar or the Mergui Archipelago which is supposed to be truly untouched and breathtaking, close to the border to Malaysia. Unfortunately, this would also have involved flying to the South and - on top of that- hiring a tour guide as the islands cannot be entered independently. If we had not had planned to go to the Philippines for 3 weeks, this would actually have been an option but we lacked time and money so we settled for Nwge Saung- a beach in the proximity of Yangon. Now we had to make a decision on the mode of transportation we wanted to take. While we were favoring the train as it is supposed to be a 'unique experience', bad reviews and horror stories of derailed trains made us choose the overnight bus again.