Waking early, I walked to the dusty main road, rented an old bicycle, and rode off to explore the temples and monuments of the ancient city. It was a beautiful clear morning, perfect for a relaxing ride around the 2,000 odd places of interest. I stopped at the first pagoda I saw – Thingaraza Pagoda – fairly unremarkable, but still worth a traipse around and a photo. As I was riding down the road towards Tharabar Gate (around which are some of the more impressive structures) on the Bagan Nyaung Oo road, passing a small market, a teenage girl pulled out of a side road and pulled up alongside me on her bicycle. “Do you need a guide?” She asked. “No thanks!” I replied and continued riding. She kept up with me. “Let me take you around. I know a lot about the temples. It will be more interesting for you. I speak good English.” It was true, her English was impressive. I didn’t have any company today. Perhaps I should take the chance – maybe she could show me something different. We talked a little, still riding down the street. I saw a nice looking pagoda to the right, Nagayon, and swung around to follow the road to it. She followed me. I parked my bicycle up and began walking around the temple, trying to ignore this young enthusiastic teenager who had stopped on her bicycle and was looking at me. The temple was a beauty, fairly well-preserved with a huge twice-life-sized buddha image inside under the head of a serpent. When I walked out, the girl was still there. “Do you want a nice view? Follow me” she said, and darted around the back of the temple. I followed her. She began climbing up the brick encased temple. Up and up we went, until we reached the top. the view was spectacular – temples dotted the plains – this was the hot air balloon ride for those on a budget. “OK – you can be my guide” I relented. “Great!” She replied, and began telling me about all the others she had guided in the past, showing me the little Swiss flag bracelets, the coins from Canada, the necklace an old American couple had bought her. She obviously did a good job. We sat up in the temple observing the crowds below for some time before making a move. Now I had the most unorthodox guide in Bagan, I was ready to explore. I showed her a map of the temple grounds and she pretended to study it briefly before folding it up and putting it in my bicycle basket. She couldn’t read it, but then, she didn’t need one.
No more illegal climbing opportunities presented themselves, but the tour my young guide took me on was memorable nevertheless. We went to Manuha pagoda, home of a huge reclining Buddha. Mingala Zedi was next, another red-brick built pagoda, then the Emerald Stupa, or Mya Zedi. Here, hawkers were lining the entrance selling all kinds of little keepsakes. At all temples, my little helper, called Thu, waited outside guarding the bicycles and chatting with the fruit sellers, and I wandered around alone, which is something I much prefer. Pagodas, temples, museums and the like are to be enjoyed at one’s own pace. If there’s a chance you might only be at the place once in your life, do it right, do it your way.
Thu and I headed off piste after this – she said she knew of a temple that few go to, but which she thought I’d like. We headed down a dusty track through a field – the kind of track not made for a bicycle. Here, I saw a sight almost as old as the temples – an ox cart, wooden wheels and all, laden with a crop of some kind, being driven painfully slowly down the bumpy track by an old husband and wife team. A herd of goats and a few oxen were being shepherded down the track too by a young farmer. Locals going about their lives, scenes as old as time, surrounded by the stupas, pagodas and temples built by ancient kings. The pagoda we finally arrived at, deep down the dusty track, was not on the map, and justifiably so. It was not particularly impressive. It did little to fire the imagination. I was left feeling hungry, so decided we should find a place to sit down and have a bite to eat. Thu led the way back towards the main road, and chose a spot. We had something I could only describe as ‘edible’ at best, then we were on the bikes again, on to Thatbyinnyu, a magnificent towering monument that is possibly the highlight of the plains. It’s the highest of the monuments, and possible the best preserved. Here, I saw the peculiar sight of two people hopping around tied together, legs in the same potato bag, in a strange kind of company-bonding race. Shwegugyi was next, then we went through the other end of Tharaba Gateway and we found ourselves at Ananda – like a museum of Bagan inside the ancient city. Like Thatbyinnyu, it is something of a must-see – an architectural wonder. In Ananda, there is a natural ventilation system with windows built inside the thickness of the walls, and natural lighting from light wells in the high ceiling, through which beams of light get through and illuminate the buddha statues within. Murals paintings, sculptures, and wood carvings are all abundant inside this well-preserved relic. I had a good half-an-hour in here, wandering around the dusty old temple, cool and satisfying, whilst Thu drank fruit juice outside under the shade of an umbrella in the blistering heat.
We rode on and explored other temples. By now, the sun was setting, and I wanted a good vantage point to watch the sunset. But we were too far from a suitable one, so I had denied myself the chance. I needed to ride back to New Bagan and to my hotel. Thu had to go back to her village and help prepare dinner. I’d enjoyed Thu’s company. Bright, cheerful, uneducated yet wise….making the most of the opportunties tourism is bringing. A girl like that should go far. I gave her a reasonable amount of kyats, as well as one of the bracelets I had bought earlier, and a $2 Singapore note, and she was off, cycling into the sunset, her job done for the day. She’d be doing exactly the same tomorrow. Hopefully she’ll get work as an official tour guide when she’s old enough.
It was dark when I got back to New Bagan. I had dinner alone as usual, in the Green Elephant again. The ice-cold Myanmar beer washed away the dust from my parched throat. It had never tasted so good. The first beer can never be beaten. We spend the whole night drinking the same beer trying to recapture the feeling that first thirst-quenching beer gives us. It’s a hopeless chase. I decided after my third that I was going to leave Bagan in the morning – I’d seen enough of temples and needed to escape – the cool hill station of Kalaw seemed just the ticket. I returned my bike, booked passage to Kalaw on a bus from the bike rental guy, and rested up for the long journey ahead.