After the uncomfortable but thrilling 579km overnight journey from Yangon to Bagan we all disembarked looking a bit rough around the edges. It was around 11am as we alighted at Bagan train station which is a beautifully crafted piece of colonial eye candy with its artistic plaster cream and pink embellished by the morning sun.
Our modern air-conditioned minibus sat in attendance waiting to ferry us off to our new home for the next three nights, the Arthawka Hotel in New Bagan. Most of the hotels (quite rightly) are set in the New Town, which is around 10 minutes, by bus or a 30-minute cycle from Old Bagan. The reviews on Trip advisor (which as we know is heavily Americanised) are not ecstatic (64% positive) but we all thought the hotel, staff, facilities and food were excellent. At £33 a night you can’t get better value, that’s per room for 2! At the epicentre is a pool, unheated but clean and welcoming respite from the dust of a cycle across the temple plain.
Bagan is one of the most magnificent and inspiring sites in Southeast Asia. With over 2,000 temples and stupas dotting its landscape, this ancient Buddhist capital provides travelers a unique opportunity to explore the evolution of Bagan’s art and architecture over its 450-year history (850-1300). In its glory days, Bagan was a major Buddhist center and a thriving city of at least 300,000 people along the banks of the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River. The people erected over 10,000 pagodas and monasteries. Some 2,000 edifices still stand. The rest suffered chiefly from human neglect and earthquakes. The last major quake occurred in 1975. Many structures that had survived the centuries were badly damaged – and one of the largest Bagan pagodas irretrievably collapsed into the river. Fortunately, archaeologists have restored many key structures.
We swiftly unpacked and headed out to lunch at the wonderful Aye May Thida restaurant. The menu gives a choice of Myanmar Cuisine or Chinese, Burmese love their Chinese food! I tried to stick to the local cuisine, with an emphasis on rich, predominately savory/salty flavors, influences from South and Southeast Asia and a repertoire of ingredients not found in any other cuisine, there’s much to discover. I first order a traditional “tea leaf salad”, lephet thoke or fermented tea leaves, a picked dish. The sour, slightly bitter leaves are mixed by hand with shredded cabbage, sliced tomatoes, crunchy deep-fried beans, nuts and peas, a splash of garlic oil and pungent slices of chili and garlic. I then chose a beef curry, as the name suggests, curry is the central element, but after you’ve chosen one (typically a meaty, somewhat oily curry based around pork, fish, shrimp, beef or mutton), a seemingly never-ending succession of side dishes will follow. These include rice, a tart salad, a small dish of fried vegetables, a small bowl of soup and a large tray of fresh and par-boiled vegetables and herbs to be eaten with various dips.
After lunch few of us set out to the liquor factory, which was somewhat of a surprise. Around 10 km from Bagan New Town beyond the station, at the side of the road, is the “liquor factory” which actually is a palm oil business. On arrival it was obvious that no one spoke any English but we were courteously offered seats and given samples of the candy that the family produce, we were also offered tea and samples of the liquor by-product.
Accommodated in a slight, open-air building is a sales counter, a tiny café, a candy making “factory,” and a liquor distillery. Nearby it are fields used for cultivating peanuts, which are sold and also squeezed into peanut oil. In addition there are palm trees that create sap which is used to make candy and the palm liquor. It’s all quite tidy and generates enough income for this family (which appears to cover three generations) to live on and employ additional people.
Forty-some palm trees are the basis of the operation, and twice a day each day, one of the sons climbs each tree to gather the sap. After harvesting the sap, the liquid is put into large, metal, wok-like containers atop hot coals in a process that would boil away the water to leave a hot, bubbling, gummy mass used to make candy.
Another product made from the sap is palm alcohol, akin to what is called moonshine or everclear in the USA. A couple of ingenious little stills had been set up in the back of the shop, and the final product, which packed quite a punch, was bottled and sold out front. The tourist-conscious family even offered palm alcohol in a bottle enclosed in a woven-palm carrying case.
On our visit the kids argued and played alongside their mother who were manning the woks! Another worker used palm leafs to produce garlands that are used as offerings to the Buddha.Meanwhile a coahload of Japanese arrived and boosted the family income by loading up with the powerful liquor.
By now it was late afternoon and we wanted to see the sunset over the twmple plain. We climbed aboard and after consuming some of the aforsaid liqour our driver made a number of attempts to land us in a ditch. Somehow we survived long enough the laeve the main road and head to the dirt tracks of the temple plain. We passed a number of crowded temples before reachng Shwesandaw Pagoda. Save a few folk we were the first to arrive and after passing through the underbelly and some portly buddahs we ascended the steep stairs to a wide platform. We had a superlative view across the plains and we could make out the hundreds of temples that ha survived both Mongol invaders and earthquakes. As the burning orb slowly descended towards the hills to the South East across the Irrawaddy the light changed and the temples became even more visible. They glowed from red to amber before finally becoming silhouettes as the sun dropped below the mountain range. As the final slivers of light slipped away we saw cattle herders in clouds of dust returning their animals from their grazing. We returned to our carriage down the now candlelit staircases before returning to the Arthawka for dinner.
Dinner was somewhat disappointing, it took forever and came in mouse like proportions. The restaurant was obviously trying and failing to be trendy. A minor disappointment on another incredible day in Myanmar.