Myanmar: Temples for the tempting

By Tim Roxborogh

Comparisons to Cambodia's tourist sites are unavoidable, writes Tim Roxborogh.

Bagan doesn't have the French colonial chic of Cambodia's Siem Reap but it does offer is something entirely unique.
Bagan doesn't have the French colonial chic of Cambodia's Siem Reap but it does offer is something entirely unique.

I am leaving behind the tropical steam and manageable mayhem of Myanmar's former capital Yangon, a city of five million people and zero motorbikes thanks to a Government ban in 2003.

Bikes are allowed at the next stop on my tour, but horse and cart are just as likely.

Bagan is a 42sq km plain dotted with more than 2000 millenia-old temples, ringed by mountains and adjacent to the mighty Irrawaddy River. In a poor country that is rapidly opening up to tourism, Bagan is enthusiastically being billed as Myanmar's answer to the Angkor temples of Cambodia.

One local tour operator tells me it is in actual fact "the most significant archaeological site in all of Asia".

He had studied archaeology in Delhi before returning to his homeland, and said there were no tourists in Bagan until recent years.

He is genuinely excited about the future. I am lying in bed recovering from a spectacular bout of food poisoning (who eats a pizza in Myanmar?) so have a bit of time to listen.

The pizza had delivered on the promise of the sign in front of the restaurant: "Eat here once, remember forever."

Although I am weakened, thanks to local horse-and-cart services I am still able to see how the burgeoning Bagan hype is justified.

For the grand total of next to nothing for the entire morning, I have a horse, cart, soft mattress and chatty driver to clippity-clop me across half a dozen of Bagan's most impressive sites. These include Shwesandaw Paya (Bagan's most popular sunset spot), Buledi (grand views worth the steep climb) and Ananda Pahto (a Buddhist temple built in 1090 with 50m-high gilded spires).

Although not swamped in the dense jungle of Cambodia's temples, nor as individually awe-inspiring, Bagan's temples are just astounding as a collective - it shouldn't try to sell itself as a rival destination to Angkor. That may sound a tad shallow when discussing religious monuments built many centuries before humans first set foot in New Zealand, but it is a reality in terms of how the newly progressive Myanmar looks to market itself abroad.

Bagan doesn't have the French colonial chic of Cambodia's Siem Reap (the town next to the Angkor temples) nor the sheer enormity of man-made structures that fight the wilds of the jungle for supremacy.

But what it does offer is something entirely unique and, for many people, just as memorable. Where else in the world is there a flat expanse of land with more than 2000, 1000-year-old temples? Despite this, with 21st-century tourism to Myanmar in its infancy, Bagan's Cambodia comparisons are probably unavoidable.

Accepting that, how does Bagan's equivalent to Siem Reap, Nyuang Oo, fare?

Here you'll find a typically boisterous market, tractors-cum-buses with their engines exposed, a range of accommodation, processions of nuns and monks shielding themselves from the sun, and a nicely ambient restaurant row. Think gardens, lampshades, the lazy smell of mosquito coils and excellent Thai and Indian cuisine.

Ultimately, Nyuang Oo lacks the glamour and party vibe of Siem Reap but this potential selling point may only be the reality for this moment. In five years, much could change.

But in 2014 you can visit a pleasantly dishevelled town on the doorstep of a truly breathtaking natural- and man-made phenomenon and have much of it to yourself.

And if it is luxury you want, or just to cool off in a fancy hotel swimming pool, a couple of kilometres away in the settlement of Old Bagan and next to the Irrawaddy River are several large luxury resorts that got to know me well, thanks to my love of mixing adventure with sunbathing and swimming. From these hotels you can hire bicycles, motorbikes or the more languid horse and carts to plot your temple adventure.

Yes, Bagan's temples are individually more modest than some others in Southeast Asia, but you can clamber up one of these 1000-year-old stupas and look across a plain dotted with hundreds of other monuments, some dramatically bigger.

Framing that view are jagged mountains and one of Asia's great rivers, the Irrawaddy.

Bagan doesn't need comparisons.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Contact Student Flights on 0800 255 995.

Further information: Intrepid Travel's Best of Burma tour departs on selected dates throughout the year.

Tim Roxborogh travelled through Myanmar courtesy of Intrepid Travel and studentflights.co.nz.

- NZ Herald

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