If you’re in Myanmar, I highly recommend a trip to Bagan, an arid and beautiful ancient city, just for the spectacular sunsets and the peace.
My guide in Yangon had expressly avoided taking me to too many pagodas and stupas (there is a difference – the former is used more as a place of worship, sayeth the locals), warning I would get more than my fill in Bagan, which has more than 2,000 of them.
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I arrived early in the morning to a tiny airport (it only opens when there are flights!), where arrivals have to walk down the runway and into the terminal. The luggage claim was pretty interesting, as there was no tagging system, and airport attendants simply came in with armfuls of suitcases, waiting for the right owners to approach. That’s trust.
You have to pay a US$20 entrance fee before you leave the airport because the whole place is a heritage site.
They also helpfully give you a menu of taxi, car and minivan prices, so nobody can rip you off. I hired a driver with hair dyed blond and ears sporting bling who looked like he was 15 but was completely competent through the ride featuring rural scenes that, except for the brick-colored temples, looked like a highway drive along Nueva Ecija.
You can see a lot of fairly modern, low-rise hotels in the area, including a five-star shebang that features a viewing tower, but I was glad I was booked at Kaday Aung Hotel, which was resplendent in all its simplicity. The driveway alone is inviting; the pool even more.
My room, which overlooked a garden of thickets and driftwood furniture, was too large for one person and, like many Buddhist temples, was octagonal perhaps to represent the eight corners of the Myanmese zodiac.
The hotel offers a suite of activities, like a US$10 massage (pretty good, but not remarkable) in a secluded hut, US$20 a day rentals for bikes so you can explore the surrounding village and city on your own, and alfresco dinners that features a one-man puppet show.
The bikes are not well-maintained and are very rusty, so although I had a nice ride along the dirt roads in the surround village, I did keep on falling.
The hotel food was pretty pricey by local standards, but tasty (a mix of Chinese and Malay — and in some cases, like the “vermicelli with seasonal vegetables and chicken” was exactly like Filipino pansit).
There are a few foreign choices, including this artsy roadside Italian-Chinese restaurant called San Carlo that served wok-fried noodles alongside offerings like french fries and deep-fried squid. I asked the waiter why they chose these particular genres of cuisine, and they said the chef simply liked them.