It always feels good to scam the authorities, but never more so than in ultra-corrupt, military-controlled Myanmar. Technically, all foreign tourists have to pay a USD$15 entrance fee to the archaeological zone of Bagan (the country’s most important tourist attraction), the proceeds of which go straight into the already deeply-lined pockets of the military government. However having arrived at 5am on an overnight bus from Yangon, we missed the usual checkpoint where tourists have to disembark and pay the fee, and scammed our way into “the zone” for free.
The scenery around Bagan is extraordinary. There must be hundreds of individual temples, with the slender spires of pagodas rising above the parched plains. As the dry season draws to its hot and dusty end, the landscape often makes outback Australia look lush. Think sandy earth, scrubby bushes with lethal spines and dust-laden air that coats your skin, gets up your nose and helps create those magic, red-tinged sunsets.
Although the guidebooks list several must-see temples, we found that some of the most spectacular were unmarked ones that we stumbled upon, cycling haphazardly over shitty, sandy tracks. Some fairly severe earthquakes destroyed a lot of the original temples, statues and paintings but there are still a few remaining which have not been subjected to dicey restoration works.
Seen individually, the temples of Bagan can’t compare with the ancient Khmer or Thai sites, but taken as a whole, the area is completely breathtaking. Probably the only thing better than exploring on two wheels would be taking a hot-air balloon ride over the plains at sunrise….a hideously expensive, but no doubt spectacular way to appreciate the scale and grandeur of Bagan. Hmmm, maybe next time.