Bagan for Vagabonds

Myanmar in my mind


As soon as the doors of the sleeper bus opened, touts in sarong-like garments called longyis milled around the passengers who had traveled 10 hours overnight from Yangon, offering taxi rides to Old Bagan or neighboring Nyaung-Yu.

Just as what an online travel guide had warned. Bretha and I squeezed cautiously through the mob at the New Bagan Bus Station, making sure not to make eye contact with anyone, or else that tout would lock in on us and follow us to the ends of the earth until we relented.

Luckily, no one took an interest in travelers who looked like locals with tiny backpacks, so we slipped unnoticed and picked a quiet spot near the stalls that had just opened shop. It was probably around 5 or 6 a.m., so we had some hot milk tea for warmth.

Life-changing chewables

As we waited for the mob to dissipate, I noticed a Burmese teen rolling powdered leaves with crushed brown fillings. “Momma!” I exclaimed at Bretha, bringing memories from two years ago when I first chewed betel nut in Sagada. Here, they called it kwun-ya or kun-ja, and I asked the young man for a set of chewables.

Laying betel leaves on a counter, he spread a layer of slake lime from an oddly shaped mortar and pestle, then sprinkled chopped areca nuts on each leaf. He took one leaf, rolled it with his dexterous lime-caked fingers, and, flashing a smile stained dark red, handed me a lovely roll of organic Burmese chewables.

As was the custom, I, brimming with confidence, popped one kwun-ya in my mouth and chewed vigorously. The next thing I knew, my head was buzzing. “You okay?” Bretha said. I chewed one last time before I spat everything out rapid fire at a ditch. “Wan’t some?” I asked Bretha. She declined. In hindsight, it was the right thing to do.

After a 10-hour bus ride from Yangon, “pre-breakfast” of kwun-ya or kun-ja at the Bagan Bus Station that a young Burmese man prepared. Made of betel leaf filled with chopped areca nuts and slake lime, these chewables are a favorite among Burmese locals.

It was at this point that a driver approached us and offered to take us to Old Bagan, and I, lightheaded from the extra-strong betel nut now swirling in my head, nodded with hardly any resistance.

Before Bretha could protest, the driver, who like every other local was chewing kwun-ya, led us to the back of the terminal where a horse cart was waiting.

Yes, a horse cart. After a few long minutes of deliberation, I finally persuaded Bretha that this was a good ride. And so our slow motion trip to the ancient city of Bagan begun.

A very long trip

After what seemed like an eternity on the cart — not sure if the kwun-ya had properties that altered one’s perception of time but I later realized the entire journey took nearly six kilometers — we were dropped at the edge of Old Bagan, in Nyaung-U.

…not sure if the kwun-ya had properties that altered one’s perception of time but I later realized the entire journey took nearly six kilometers…

I looked at the horse, and yes, did I feel a bit sorry for the poor thing, but on the other hand, his human must do this for a living. Bretha and I then headed on foot to the public market.

It was just several minutes after the break of dawn, and local vendors and buyers in their traditional garbs went about the morning’s trade at a frenetic pace. Some traders were still unloading their precious cargo.

Elderly Bagan woman selling root crops in Mani Sithu Market in Nyaung-U

One would quickly notice that the trappings of modern life have not yet taken over, and the Old World was still much evident, at least here in the Mani Sithu Market in Nyaung-U.

Stalls were overflowing with produce and other items, some arranged meticulously in circular patterns inside baskets, while others such as root crops and meat were laid down on the ground.

Mani Sithu is an ideal place to witness traditional crafts and practices performed in their purest form. We saw a group of men rolling dried local cigars, and a few meters away a baker was intently kneading local bread on a broad table blanketed with flour.

Mani Sithu is an ideal place to witness traditional crafts and practices performed in their purest form.

A baker kneads local bread in Mani Sithu Market in Nyaung-U

As we ventured into the market’s interior we, chanced upon a rice noodle and fish soup dish an elderly woman served piping hot, the same dish a group of monks were enjoying at the next table. And so we ordered a bowl each, which came with local sausages, and flavored to taste with slices of lemon, chopped scallions and chili paste.

We learned later what it was called: mohinga noodles and fish-based soup infused with lemongrass, an irresistible Burmese staple. How we’d love to let the kids have a taste of this noodle dish, but they have to stay behind back home as the school year had begun.

For now, Bretha and I will enjoy the reason for the trip: the 15th year since we tied the knot. And where else to celebrate this milestone as a couple but in a mystical place such as Old Bagan? We did promise ourselves to take the kids here one of these days.

Breakfast before Bagan: a Burmese woman pours hot broth into a bowl of mohinga noodles at a stall in Nyaung-U public market

And where else to celebrate this milestone as a couple but in a mystical place such as Old Bagan? We did promise ourselves to take the kids here one of these days.

Water carrier

Hello there, stranger

A taxicab then took us to a resort hotel that I had booked for a really low off-season price. To our suprise, the resort was one of understated elegance, situated along the Irrawaddy River at a dedicated site with other early post-colonial structures that now offered accommodations. A few yard shrines, ancient but well-preserved, dotted the four-hectare Aye Yar River View Resort.

After taking our backpacks to our room, I returned to the lobby and found Bretha chatting with a guest wearing a hijab at the lobby. We shall call her Aya. Since she was also doing the day tour in and around the temples, she offered to share her van with us and just split the fee.

As a couple, we don’t usually mingle with other travelers, much more get cozy with strangers, but we hit it off with Aya rather quickly.

Ancient structures at the Aye Yar River View Resort

Off to the temples

“Traveling alone?” I asked mindlessly while waiting for the van at the lobby. Aya nodded, adding she was on a business trip in Yangon and decided to fly to Bagan for the weekend while her peers stayed behind.

Aya is from Egypt but was working in Dubai, and while her work in the Middle East took her to different continents, her leisure travels were quick and compact, something that Filipino parents like us who love to travel but don’t have the luxury of time can relate to.

…her leisure travels were quick and compact, something that Filipino parents like us who love to travel but don’t have the luxury of time can relate to.

The van eased into the driveway, and we hopped on for the whole day tour in and around hundreds of centuries-old temples and shrines that would take us back to a once glorious time of kings and empires.

Old Bagan

(Another version of this article also published on SunStar Travel)

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