My tricycle driver stands over his pedals for the uphill climb. Like all Burmese he is as thin as wisp and I marvel that his lunghi (sarong) doesn’t catch in the chain. He constantly fingers the huge silver bell to flaunt his luck. He has snagged a foreigner and, for now, all is well in his world.

I arrive on the afternoon ferry from Mandalay, just as the sun is setting over the receding banks of The Irawaddy River. There is no dock. I teeter along a narrow gangplank into the hands of frenzied touts pushing everything from guides to guesthouses.

The May Kha Lar Guesthouse offers rooms which are simple but immaculate. For C$10 a night I have aircon, satellite TV, private bath and a ‘two egg’ breakfast served on the upper balcony. I also have the invaluable services of Miss Cho.

“You will need a bicycle or a horse cart, unless of course you plan to visit the temples on foot?” She exudes a no-nonsense charm that commands respect from locals and guests alike.

2000 temples and stupas cover an area of 80 Sq kilometres. Another 2000 lie in ruins, the victims of time and looters. Many date back 1000 years to when Bagan was the capital and Myanmar was in transition from Hinduism to Theravada Buddhism.

King Anawrahta ascended the Burmese throne in 1044. He began a lavish building programme which was continued by his heirs for another 250 years. In 1287, Kublai Khan’s marauding Mongols overran the city.

According to Marco Polo: “The king caused these towers to be erected to commemorate his magnificence and for the good of his soul. They form one of the finest sights in the world”. They still do!

Since my last visit in 1987, Nyaung U has become the new base for budget tourists. The government forcibly moved residents of Old Bagan to a field several kilometres away, flattening and removing any sign of past habitation. Doubtless a political move carried out just prior to the fruitless 1990 election of Aung San Suu Chi still under house arrest in Yangon.

9am. My driver is waiting. I prop myself up on a floral mattress and we clip clop along dusty lanes. We pass a peanut plantation. A man perches precariously at the apex of a tripod built from 3 bamboo poles bound at the neck by strands of rattan. He shakes peanuts from freshly harvested plants onto a sheet of gunnysack.

Tin, speaks good English. He and his wife Kin Kin support an extended family of thirteen. They all share a palm-thatched bamboo hut. She leaves for the market at 5am to sell Shan noodle soup to early risers.

Tin rents the horse cart (which turns out to be an authentic pony and trap) on a daily basis from the owner. He urges it on with a series of gentle clicks and grunts, rarely using the long tailed whip. He gives me a brief history of each temple before sending me off to inspect. Not bad service for around C$10 a day.

In 1975 a major earthquake shook the area. UNESCO funding saved the day and restored The Ananda Pahto, the oldest of the great temples. It houses a 30’ Buddha, hewn from a single teak log. Restoration continues on many others.

We potter from one extraordinary monument to the next, dodging coach loads of French tourists and German cyclists. The spire of The  Mahabodhi Paya is shaped like a pyramid, each face dotted with tiny niches holding hundreds of seated Buddhas.

Inside the dark passages of The Pahtothamya, I pay a toothless old lady to show me murals dating from 1084.

Sunset is breathtaking. The sky turns from deep gold to darkening shades of pink. Temples slowly evaporate into the haze of night.The street is suddenly alive with people and flickering BBQ’s. Hawkers prepare quail eggs, skewers of meat and deliciously crisp crepes brimming with onions and tomatoes.

Miss Cho demands a blow-by-blow account of the day. Did Tin show you this temple and that stupa? “Where did he take you at sunset?” “Tomorrow will be better. I will tell him to take you further. They are lazy you know!”

“You are lucky. Tonight there is a puppet show at The Myayadana Restaurant. I will arrange a tricycle for you. Later he will take you to a Pwe in the next village.” Burmese love street theatre and an opportunity to watch transvestite actors strut their stuff.

In this extraordinary corner of an outrageously beautiful, if tarnished, country, I feel a warm glow of contentment. I am in the capable hands of Miss Cho!

Myanmar is surely the most fascinating country in South East Asia despite a despotic government. Golden stupas gleam from every hilltop. The one-legged rowers of Inle Lake are unique. Festivals happen around every corner. Smiles are contagious.

When weighing your decision to visit, remember that many, like Miss Cho and Tin rely on tourism to buy food and medication for their families.




Most Canadians will fly to Bangkok then take a one-hour flight ($100) on Bangkok Airways to Yangon.

VISAS: Necessary for all travellers. Myanmar Embassy, 902/903 – 85, Range Road Ottawa ON KIN - Tel 816- (613)232 6446 – email or The Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok for same day service. Take 3 passport photos.

GETTING AROUND: Car & Driver (around $40 a day). Rickshaw. Bus. Pickup truck. Shared taxi. Plane or train (wonderful ‘tho ancient and unreliable!).

SAFETY: Myanmar is as safe as it gets. Don’t talk politics. You can get people (and yourself) into trouble.WHEN TO GO: November to May is the dry season and less humid.

Take clean US Dollar bills.

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Copyright © 2007 Andrew G.P. Renton All rights reserved.