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May 25, 2020

Bagan: Then & Now

By James Perry

Glazed pots are one of the more popular locally produced products in Bagan, especially during the Ananda Pagoda Festival in the winter season, as the earthen pots are still used by people for collecting drinking water in the arid region. Photo: Aye Min Soe
Glazed pots are one of the more popular locally produced products in Bagan, especially during the Ananda Pagoda Festival in the winter season, as the earthen pots are still used by people for collecting drinking water in the arid region. Photo: Aye Min Soe

I first visited Bagan in 1998; there was just a trickling of foreign tourists to the region, partially due to the tenuous times the people of the country were patiently enduring. There was a small scattering of guest houses, yet enough restaurants that mostly had local cuisine some Thai food. Transportation was available but the accessibility to it could at times be tricky. Regardless of these things the ancient city still had retained its stately presence and beauty.
To ring in the new year of 2018 I decided to revisit the city and see how it changed. The American president John F. Kennedy once said “Change is the law of life”, Bagan is certainly no exception to this dictum. Now Bagan has a wide variety of accommodations that can range from inexpensive guest houses to high end resorts. I was in a festive mood so I decided to stay in nice resort. A friend suggested a 5 star resort in New Bagan, it was one of, if not the best accommodations I have ever stayed at in over the 20 plus years of traveling I have done in Asia, you just have to trust me on this.
The staff was exceedingly friendly and helpful and the gratis breakfast buffet was sumptuous. The rooms were tastefully designed and decorated. As I said there are other types of accommodations in both Old and New Bagan to suit any visitor’s needs.
Besides the increase in places to stay, more and more restaurants are dishing up a wider variety of cuisines. You can still get local food, and there is greater variety of Thai food. However, now many restaurants will have western meals on offer, so if you have a hankering for a burger, pizza, fish and chips or spaghetti carbonara you can find them in Bagan with just a little bit of sleuthing around. The coffee shop craze has hit Bagan just like other places. There are lots of coffee shops that can brew cappuccino, espresso and lattes. Most coffee shops also have a bakery that can whip up a range of cakes, breads, pies, muffins and cookies. They are the perfect companion for an iced cappuccino on a hot day.
Bagan doesn’t have much of a nightlife to boast about, however there are some bars and pubs you can visit if you want a cocktail, a glass of wine or just an icy cold beer if you feel parched. There are a fair number of them between Old and New Bagan.

Tharapa Gate, one of ancient entrances to Bagan, some of which are thousands of years old. Photo: Aye Min Soe
Tharapa Gate, one of ancient entrances to Bagan, some of which are thousands of years old. Photo: Aye Min Soe

Transportation is Bagan now has become ridiculously easy. Visitors can find push bikes for hire at many shops and some accommodations will have them as well. Petrol powered motorbikes can also be rented. When I was there for the New Year I witnessed the latest transport trend, “e-bikes” or electrically powered motorbikes. They seemed to be a big hit with the foreign tourists. Obviously they’re good for the environment and they don’t go as fast as conventional petrol powered motorbikes. This is good for visitors who have never rode a motorbike before or for people who feel uncomfortable riding a motorbike.
Visiting Bagan in 1998 I saw the traditional horse and carriage used by people visiting temple sites, I thought it was pretty cool because it gave Bagan a vibe of classy antiquity. The horses and buggies are still there and visitors will still use them to trot around the city or visit around the temples. However, today with many transportation options the carriage drivers have been put in a position to raise their prices. So the choice is yours, but it’s a novel way to see parts of the city so a short trip by horse and buggy would be worth it.
The number of visitors has obviously increased, I was fortunate to find a place to stay for the New Year because many local people will go there. The number of foreign visitors also goes up during the holiday because it’s the height of the tourist season. However I have good reason to suspect that the number of foreigners visiting Bagan throughout the rest of the year has increased significantly.
Yet there are still some westerners who feel skittish about visiting any part of Myanmar in spite of the fact that the country has moved beyond its troubles from the past and recent minor conflicts have been tranquilized. So I don’t know why some westerners are still refusing to visit. The image that some westerners have about Myanmar seems to be a disparaging one. What these westerners fail to understand is that perceptions do not always reflect reality, so it’s their loss.
I was glad I made the trip to Bagan for the New Year holiday and being pleased by the changes that have occurred there. When I visited Bagan the first time I left with no question or doubt in my mind that Bagan easily ranks in the top 3 places in South East Asia for seeing historical and cultural iconic landmarks and ancient architecture. I think anybody who visits Bagan would agree with me.

After harvest, villagers from nearby towns and villages come to the Ananda Pagoda Festival, which falls in the winter season. The worshippers traditionally come by bullock cart and camp around the pagoda to participate in the festival and to engage in religious activities. Photo: Aye Min Soe
After harvest, villagers from nearby towns and villages come to the Ananda Pagoda Festival, which falls in the winter season. The worshippers traditionally come by bullock cart and camp around the pagoda to participate in the festival and to engage in religious activities. Photo: Aye Min Soe

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