From Chauk provincial market to Yoke Sone Kyaung monastery and museum in Salay to Mount Popa and a sunset boat cruise on Ayeyarwaddy River. This was the highlight of my recent trip to Myanmar.
When it came to choose between doing it on our own or doing it on a tour for a short visit, we made a right decision by taking a day tour with the limited time we had in Bagan. My partner and I had 2 nights in Bagan, arrived on day 1 in the evening and departed in the afternoon on day 3. This limited us to only 1 full day to see as much as we could on this trip.
Before we left on our holiday to Myanmar for the first time, I did some research on the types of tour available in Bagan and came across a company called "Enjoy Bagan Tour" owned by Sawaan Kumar (SK). A colleague of mine who happened to travel about the same time with his friends had told me they had booked a day tour with this company as well. This gave me a bit more confidence that I have chose the right tour company.
I contacted SK via email and asked to tailor our day tour based on our interests. After an exchange of a few emails, we had an agreed schedule for a full day tour in a private car with our own driver and an English speaking tour guide. Enjoy Bagan Tour has a good rating in Trip Advisor. The process of arranging our day tour with SK was easy and fast. He was quick in his response and came across in the email as helpful and polite. Our tour was arranged on a New Year's Eve. I was a bit surprised when SK said I don't have to pay a deposit. That I pay after the tour is complete. How trustful is that.
On the day of our tour in the early morning hours of New Year's Eve 2016, our tour guide and his driver arrived on time at our hotel at 8:00 am. We were greeted by our tour guide, Aung Phyo Naing, but he told us to call him "Ko Phyo". "Ko" in Myanmar means "brother" and it is customary to address a young man who is of similar age group as "brother" rather than an "uncle" for an elder.
We started our morning to a provincial market in Chauk. Along the way, Ko Phyo filled us in on our itinerary and gave us a history on the Bagan district, some of the culture and tradition. He explained some of the trees we saw enroute to our destination. Most of them is the Palm tree, used to produce palm sugar blocks and palm sugar balls as sweets. There are other trees that they used domestically, which I couldn't remember their names, except the Thanaka tree which the women used as a cosmetic product on their face. We also came across oil fields and land areas that looked barren, which Ko Phyo told us that on a rainy season, these lands will be covered in water running as a stream and the wider ones as a river.
We arrived at our first destination, Chauk provincial market.
I wasn't sure what to expect before we arrived at the provincial market. I thought it would be somewhat similar to some of the markets I have seen in Vietnam or Laos. However, this wasn't the case. It took me by surprise. It is untouched by tourism. Everyone seems to go along with their own thing. I have not seen a single tourist as we walked the street and made a slight turn down a narrow alley into the market. Some of the local villagers were looking at us strangely. One was staring into my eyes intensely, which I happened to notice. I felt a bit uncomfortable at first. But, our guide was calm and collected, and casually guided us through the market and visited a dry spice section. He explained to us the various spices and we came to some stalls selling areca nut (betel) of different sizes and shapes and fresh betel leaves. He explained the tradition of chewing the mixture of grounded areca nut wrapped in betel leaf as a stimulant, called "paan". We had a go chewing "paan". I didn't like it a bit. Strange texture, unusually strong taste and flavour. After chewing it for a minute, I had to spit it out. Rinsed my mouth with a bottle of water and it still had an after taste that lingered in my palate for hours! Yuk!
The visit to the Chauk market was all very interesting. We would not have done this on our own without a tour guide. It is an eye opener to see how people shop in this village, compare to how we shop back home. I believe we have only seen a tiny bit and less confronting part of the market. Our guide didn't take us to see other sections in the market. Perhaps we didn't have the time. Or, perhaps he felt our stomach is too weak to take it all in.
Next we went to Salay to visit the Yoke Sone Kyaung monastery and museum.
The drive to Salay was long. The main attraction is the monastery which was built in AD 1882 all from wood with intricate carving depicting the history of Buddha's life and the cultural heritage of the area and old kingdom. The inside of the building housed some Buddha's relics and artefacts, archaeological findings of 19th century utensils and original and replicas of Buddha statues. We didn't spend too much time here. It is a small site and not much to see. If I had known better, we could have skipped this destination and spent more time exploring the sight, smell and sound of the Chauk provincial market.
Next is Mount Popa. The main attraction of this tour and the reason that I have organised this trip with Enjoy Tour Bagan.
This is properly one of the busiest tourist destination since we have arrived in Myanmar. When we got there, it was almost midday. It was busy but wasn't overly crowded as I would have expected. Our guide told us that if we had arrived in the morning, it would be busier. We saw that other tourists and local visitors were dropped off at a further distance from the main entrance and had to walk up a narrow slope to reach the main entrance. Our driver was good and dropped us off at the main entrance because it was a private car, not a bus or a van. And, that is the advantage of having our own private tour.
What makes me decide to make the trip to Mt Popa? After reading other travellers' experience to Bagan, the major highlight is Bagan itself and the thousands of stupas and temples spread across an area of slightly over 100 km. You can watch the sunrise or sunset, take the hot air balloon if you are prepare to pay the outrageous price, boat cruise, cycling and visit each of the stupas and temples. There are a fair bit to choose and to decide how best to spend the time in Bagan. I have been to other Southeast Asian countries and have seen a few ancient sites including Borobudur and Angkor Wat, and temples after temples in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and China. I do not want to spend the entire time in Bagan to see temples after temples, or stupas after stupas for the whole day. Only choose and pick the best stupas to visit. This was organised with a different tour company on a 1/2 day cycling trip.
There are other destinations within driving distance to Bagan, and one of them is Mount Popa. I spent some time researching on the internet and read Trip Advisor. The travellers' review is very mixed with people complaining about the monkeys, having to climb up barefoot on dirty steps filled with monkey's poo and nothing much to see once reached the top. But there were other travellers who enjoyed their trip and the climbed up 770 steps with an amazing views into the horizon. I have my own opinion and decided we should make the trip regardless of the negative reviews.
As we got off the car, Ko Phiyo guided us to the "Nat" temple. He gave us a rundown on the Nat history in the car before we arrived at Mount Popa. There is a total of 37 Nats or guardian spirits according to Ko Phiyo. Nat is a religion and tradition in Myanmar before Buddhism. He told us a story of the evil king that was extremely unpopular with the villagers and the king prosecuted and killed his wife's brother, who was well liked by the villagers, into a fire. The wife was so distraught by the cruelty that she threw herself into the fire to die with her brother. These 2 Nats have become a great legend with the Burmese as a guardian angel. In a way, I think of the Burmese's Nat tradition and folklore similar to the Chinese's tradition of Taoism, which is widely practised among the Chinese outside of China.
From a distance as we ascent the mountain range to Mount Popa, it looks like a single gigantic hill with a temple on top. It is quite a spectacular view and looks impossible to get to the top. We were told that Mount Popa is an extinct volcano over three hundred and twenty thousand years ago. It's main attraction is its religious and mystical significance with the Burmese pilgrims who congregate here to worship during festive times. An area that is widely recognised among the Burmese as an abode of many "Nats".
Climbing up the 770 steps was not an easy feat, especially being bare footed. However it was not impossible either. It was actually quite refreshing and interesting. The initial climb up the steps was easy with vendors selling colourful souvenirs on either sides of the footpath. During this climb, there was hardly any monkey to be spotted. Rumbling noises could be heard on the tin roof above us with the monkeys jumping and scurrying around.
The best advice our tour guide has given us before we started our climb was to avoid any eye contact with the monkey. He said don't look into their eyes, don't speak to them, and definitely don't feed them.
The steps get narrower from concrete footpath to tiled steps to metal steps. There are hand railings on either sides for some support. There were men sweeping and mopping the steps. I haven't stepped on any monkey poo. As a matter of fact, I don't recall seeing any monkey poo on the steps. They were constantly cleaned. There were a few monkeys here or there on the steps or railings, but were quickly chased off by some boys to stop any unwelcome "monkey business". All the way up and down the steps, we felt safe and undisturbed by the monkeys. It was a pleasant walk with intermittent stops to take a deep breath, fresh air and views.
Once we reached the top, we rested for a few minutes to take in the vastness of the vista, mountains and villagers below. The air was refreshing and cool. It was very pleasant and rewarding to be able to reach the top of Mount Popa.
After we had accomplished our mission up Mount Popa, we were ready for some lunch. Our guide recommended an open restaurant called Yangon Restaurant at the foothill of Mount Popa. It was crowded with both Burmese and foreign tourists. I guess this was where most people come to eat as it was busy. When we saw that many foreign westerner tourists, we weren't sure if our guide has taken us to the right place. We wanted a local experience not a tourist trap type restaurant.
The first thing we did was we asked Ko Phyo to help us with ordering the food. We told him we only wanted local Myanmar food. We didn't want any of those westerner style dishes. I could tell most of the other tourists were eating fried rice.
Local Myanmar dishes has some influence from the Indian, Chinese and Thai. There are curries, salad dishes and stir fries - sourish, salty and sweet with lots of different spices and herbs. We were extremely happy with our choices - lots of vegetables and salad dishes. Most of the condiments come free with the dishes we ordered. We only ordered the mutton curry, fish curry, tomato salad, tea leave salad, eggplant salad. All these food for less than $10 USD. It was a feast! And, the food was delicious!
Next destination is making our way back to Bagan for a sunset boat cruise on the Irrawaddy River or known in Myanmar as Ayeyarwaddy River.
We finished our day tour on the Ayeyarwaddy River on a private boat with our tour guide. Slowly cruising down the river and waited for the sun to set behind the mountain ranges. With the engine switched off and gently floated on the water. By the time the sun sets, our boat was back up the river where it first began. And, we didn't even know or felt it. It was peaceful and surreal just watching the sunset with our mind and soul feeling relax and free from our body.
This was such an incredible journey to spend our New Year's Eve away from the hustle and bustle of our normal daily city life. It was the best NYE I ever had. No fireworks. No crowds. No noises.
Back at our beautiful and private boutique hotel, Blue Bird, we organised a table for our dinner in the candle lit garden. A perfect day in a perfect hotel in New Bagan to spent our last day of the year 2016, and welcoming the new year 2017.
Blue Bird is a like a little oasis hidden in a lush garden away from the noise, traffic and crowd of New Bagan, and yet it is within 15-20 minutes walking distance to the shops and restaurants. This hotel is small and has limited room. It is very private and special. The restaurant caters for the hotel guests. No outsider is allowed. We had the most wonderful stay for 2 nights. The room was spacious, comfortable and charming. The staff friendly and service was good. The free wifi was super fast and works well on all our devices. We were fortunate to meet the owners, husband and wife - Phillippe and May, and their daughter, Nora. They treated us well and made us feel welcome staying at their property. We had some exchange of great conversations and few good laughs.
Blue Bird is definitely a hidden gem from the main district of New Bagan.
Insight Penang blogs about travel and food, sharing with anyone who enjoys traveling to other destinations, taking photographs, meeting people, experiencing new cultures and traditions, enjoying cooking and trying other cuisines.