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4 – NOVEMBER – 2013

SHWEZIGON PAGODA: Built in the 11 th cen­tury, this is the crowning pagoda of Bagan. Legend has it that the Buddha’s collar bone is enshrined inside. It’s worth exploring on foot and up close.

ANANDA TEMPLE: This is right up there with Shwezigon. This gleaming, golden temple was also built in the 11th century, but had to be rebuilt after an earthquake in the 1970s.

This is what we call Damayan Gyi Pagoda in Bagan, Myanmar. It’s famous for its great volume in shape and size. Myanmar old people said, this Damayan Gyi pagoda is the strongest one in its structure among Bagan pagodas and zedis.

rhis is what we call Damayan Gyi Pagoda in Sagan, Myanmar. It’s famous for its great rolume in shape and size. Myanmar old people aid, this Damayan Gyi pagoda is the strongest ine in its structure among Bagan pagodas and zedis.

The magnificence in white which is the Thatbyinnyu takes its name from the Omni­science of the Buddha. Thatbyinnyutanyan h Myanmar language, Sabbannutanana in Pali, omniscience is given further explanation in contemporary inscriptions as “knowing thor­oughly and seeing widely.”

 

Bagan in central Burma is one of the world’s greatest ar­cheological sites, a sight to rival Machu Picchu or Angkor Wat but — for the time being at least — without the visitors. The setting is sublime — a verdant 26 square-mile plain,

part-covered in stands of1palm and tamarind caught in a bend of the lazy-flowing Irrawaddy (Ayeyarwady) river and framed by the hazy silver-grey of distant mountains.

Rising from the plain’s canopy of green are temples, dozens of them, hundreds of them, beautiful, oth­er-worldly silhouettes that were built by the kings of Bagan between 1057 and 1287, when their kingdom was swept away by earthquakes and Kublai Khan and his in­vading Mongols. Some 2,230 of an original 4,450 temples survive, a legacy of the Buddhist belief that to build a temple was to earn merit.

Most are superbly preserved or have been restored by Unesco, among others, and many contain frescoes and carvings and statues of Buddha, big and small. Only a handful are regularly visited, and though tourist numbers are increasing and the hawkers are beginning to appear,this is still, by the standards of sites of a similar beauty andstature, a gloriously unsullied destination.

Bagan is hot most of the year. The best time to visit isbetween November and February, when temperatures hit30C (86F). Avoid March to May, when temperatures canreach 43C (11OF). OF). Rainfall is highest in Tune and October. If you can, visit during a full moon, a popular time for local festivals.

HOW TO TRAVEL

Burma is a difficult place in which to travel, especially independently. Now that Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLDparty have sanctioned responsible tourism, the recent surge of visitors has created its own problems, notably the inability of the nascent tourist industry to cope. Even reputable outside tour companies with many years’ expe­rience in the country-are struggling to guarantee rooms and services.

Old problems remain, namely the poor infrastructure;sudden travel restrictions; the almost total lack of ATMs and mobile phone and internet coverage; and the inabil­ity, in all but a handful of hotels and other businesses, to make payments by credit card.

Bagan is one of the areas in the country that has known visitors for some time, and in appreciable numbers, so the problems here are slightly less acute. At the same time, it’s the obvious target for the majority of new visitors.

All this means you should think carefully about trav­elling independently and that if you take a package (the recommended course), you book early with a company that has long experience of working in Burma.

PACKAGES

Most tour operators offer Bagan as part of a longer Bur­mese itinerary, usually approaching Bagan by air, by river from Mandalay (recommended), or overland from Inle Lake. A minimum of one full day (two nights) is required. Alternatively, combine tours elsewhere with a shorter, self-contained river cruise between Bagan and Mandalay (or vice versa).

Check to see if your package includes a balloon flight over the temple site, a superb, if expensive way to see the temples.

ON A BUDGET

Explore (08452914541; explore.co.uk), offers 12 Burma options, including a nine-day “Essential Burma” trip, including Bagan, from £1, 115 per person b & b, excluding international flights.

VIEWING TACTICS

The main centre for the site, with the most hotel, eating and transport options, is Nyaung-U. Just over two miles west is tiny Old Bagan, a sleepy village whose inhabitants were forcibly moved in 1990 to the workaday New Bagan, about two miles to its south. Old Bagan is closest to the temples, and contains sights of its own, but if you are on a package the chances are that transfers will be provided wherever you stay.

A handful of the more popular temples see some coach tours and can become relatively busy, and will have ven­dors and children trying to sell you their drawings: this is especially true of Ananda Pahto, the single biggest draw, and Shwesandaw, the “sunset” pagoda, so-called because it is the one (with Buledi) most visitors climb to watch the sunset.

However, it is easy to take a bike, taxi or horse and cart to quiet areas of the site, especially the central plain, where you won’t see another soul and where there are dozens of other temples, such as Pyathada Paya, full of murals and statues of Buddha, or which you can climb undisturbed to watch the sunrise or sunset.

BY BALLOON

The best initial way to see the temples is from a hot-air balloon. The roughly 45-minute flights leave at dawn and drift over much of the site, with glorious views of the river and distant mountains, hazed by mist, as well as a bird’s-eye view of the temples and rural village life. Sunset flights

are also available.

Balloons Over Bagan (00951 652809; easternsafaris.  corn) is a privately owned Burmese (but British-run) com­pany, and its balloons are state-of-the art and operated by highly experienced UK crew, along with ground and other staff recruited from the area.

Prices are $330 (£217) per person and flights can sell out many months in advance. Flights run roughly mid-Octo­ber to mid-March, not year-round, and are weather de­pendent and cannot be guaranteed to operate. Bookings will be refunded. Visitors taking package or tailor-made tours should ensure bookings are made for them. Stand­by tickets are available if you arrive without a booking.

 

 

BY BIKE OR CART

The temple site is too big to explore on foot, but is well suited to being seen by bike, being Criss-crossed by gravel roads and paths. Most hotels in all three centres rent out bicycles. Hire a guide if you are worried about becom­ing lost, or want to see some of the best out-of-the-way

Jfto temples. Guides will know where to find the key-holders for locked temples, though many temples are always open and access to most, for the time being at least, is simple.

You can explore at a more sedate pace from one of the area’s 250-odd horse carts that congregate at the larger or more central temples. Most drivers speak a little English and, again, can act as guides to less-visited parts of the site. Ask at your hotel for the latest going rate and fix the price and duration of the trip beforehand.

BEFORE YOU GO

A visa (£14) is required for Burma. There is talk of a visa-on-arrival scheme, and the embassy website (myan-. marembassy.com/english/visa.htm) alludes to this pos­sibility, but in practice you should apply for a visa before travelling in consultation with your tour operator or a visa agent such as Travcour (020 8543 1846; travCOur.com), which can arrange visas, usually in five working days, for £40 plus the £14 visa charge. Contact it before downloading or submitting any forms.

Visit the embassy website for requirements and to download the application form. Postal processing can take up to four weeks; or you can apply in person in the UK at the country’s Mayfair embassy. Beware the pletho­ra of websites, some purporting to be official “embassy” sites, offering visa services.

Heed the latest Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice (gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/burma). At the time of writing, it advises against all but essential travel, among other places, to the towns of Meiktila, Tharzi, Wundin and Mahlaing, which are all in the vicinity of Mandalay and Bagan.

Burma has specific health concerns: polio, typhoid, diphtheria, hepatitis A and B, Japanese encephalitis (mosquito-borne), dengue fever (ditto), among others, are all present. Malaria is a risk outside main cities and below around 900m (3,000ft) so antimalarial tablets are essen­tial. Visit nathnac.org for a detailed assessment of health risks and how to reduce them.

TIPS

Take plenty of cash. US dollars can always be used and exchanged but as the local currency (kyat) has appreciat­ed so it has become more attractive to local businesses.

Dollar notes should be as near pristine as possible, larger denomination notes are preferred, and you should exchange money in shops and hotels only.

Tipping is not widespread, but keep small denomi­nation (K50, K100 or K200) notes for donations in larger temples.

Dress conservatively. You may see a few locals wear­ing shorts in cities, but generally T-shirts and shorts are considered underwear and wearing them is seen as disrespectful.

Shoes and socks must be removed before entering temples and Burmese homes. You will not be admitted to temples with bare shoulders or knees.

Women are not admitted to some temples.

Steps to the upper terraces of most temples are incred­ibly steep, with no handrails, and can be a challenge for even the fittest and most agile visitors.

There are only a handful of tiny (but charming) ram­shackle cafes among the temples for refreshment, so take food and water.

Do not shake hands with, or touch monks and nuns. A small bow is the most appropriate greeting.

Tap water is not safe to drink.

BEYOND BAGAN

Local trips if you are spending longer in Bagan include Mount Popa, a sacred mountain; Salay, 22 miles from Ba­gan, an active religious centre from the 12th century that also has numerous colonial-era buildings; and — unless you are already on a river cruise — one of the sunset or other short boat trips offered from the jetty at Nyaung-U.

By – TIM JEPSON

Source : The Traveller journal