February 12th 2017
It is surprisingly nippy as we set sail down the Irrawaddy before dawn and I scramble to locate long-neglected fleeces and socks. There are a couple of options to reach Bagan by boat: The local boat will be more interesting but this is the dry season and it is navigated through the increasingly shallow river by a boy on the prow with a depth stick, so it will inevitably run aground. At best this means the arrival time is aspirational, at worst a night on a sandbank. My hotel guys steer me to one of the tourist boats. Not the one with teak loungers and signature cocktails, unfortunately, instead they book me on the one that sits highest in the water and has sonar even if the other passengers are French and Belgians, who would rather talk to me than each other, a mansplaining Canadian lady who has evidently not talked to anyone for a week, and my first Americans. A nice young family from Eastham of all places, doing spring break in Burma before decamping to the Canary Islands to sit out the Trump era.
The Irrawaddy is splendid in the shimmering heat that soon develops and even with necessary zigzags we make it in a mere 12 hours, cruising smugly past other boats listing sadly, stuck for who knows how long in the treacherous shallows.
Bagan, which is currently scoring at least an 8 on the hotter-than-hell index, must advertise itself as the fairy light capital of the world, but we are here to experience the 2000 plus temples scattered throughout the Bagan plain.
The sheer vastness raises the inevitable question of access and the inevitable specter of the e-bike. In its Chinese version, which we have here, the e-bike resembles a Vespa more than a bicycle. Since the dawn chorus, dominated by Buddhist chants, begins at 4:30 in Bagan I have had plenty time to contemplate my deeply ingrained instinct to grab the accelerator handle and speed up when confronted with a crisis. After a couple of trips up and down the lane, the nice old e-bike man and I reach the mutual conclusion that this old dog is unlikely to learn the new trick in the time available, and points me to the normal bikes. I examine every single one before finding the killer trifecta of functioning brakes, more than one gear and inflatable tires. He insists I take his phone number.
The heyday of the Buddhist Empire these monuments celebrate was in the 11th century, so some wear and tear is anticipated. It has been hastened along by a 2016 earthquake and not ameliorated by UNESCO pulling out of the renovations in a huff. So some of the temples are sheathed in bamboo scaffolding and others by piles of bricks. This will be the last season we are allowed to scramble on them willy nilly.
Still, the huge area engulfs the few tourists and most are deserted, leaving the vendors forlorn. At some remote spot, I find myself enticed into buying a sand painting which the artist assures me is washable, although not in the machine, a selling point I have never yet encountered for artwork. He also assures me it can remain folded in my suitcase for years, secure in the notion that even if I did come back to argue the point I would never be able to find him.