I only came to Bagan to see the amazing temples and pagodas in the archaeological park, but upon leaving and flying back to Yangon it was the sleepy lifestyle of the community of Nyaung-U that left just as large an impression on me.
Exploring the many temples of the Bagan plains was a major highlight of my travelling life, and compares favourably the temples of Angkor in Cambodia, the Cham ruins at My Son in Vietnam, and the Buddhist temple of Borobudur in Indonesia. However, the sleepy villages around Bagan provide the kind of close-knit and simple communities that makes travel all the more rewarding for me.
At the start of my trip to Myanmar, I was shocked at how chaotic scenes in Yangon were. I had imagined that city to be very much like Chiang Mai or Luang Prabang, but I was wrong. Very wrong. I loved my time in Yangon but the frenetic pace of the everyday life left me a little bewildered, as my idealistic belief of what Burmese life was like had been turned on its head.
That was until I arrived in Bagan.
Villagers in Bagan rely of course on tourism for much of their income, but I always find it somewhat amusing that despite living next door to some of the most amazing Buddhist temples in the world, many of these villagers show little or no interest in them. Instead, they opt for a relaxed and sleepy rural life, with everything seemingly revolving around their agricultural industries, and of course the necessary mealtime and playtime.
Two areas I spent a lot of time in during my stopover in Bagan was Nyaung-U and Wetkyi-Inn. In both of these sleepy places it was clear that the local women who had the ability to work for themselves set up their ‘stools’ in the market and hassled every passer by to look at their produce and fruit and vegetables.
Wherever you go in the tiny villages of Old Bagan you can see the local way of life going on before your very eyes. From mothers washing their families’ clothes in the Irrawaddy, to [presumably] the husbands who are trying to court your attention for rickshaw rides or to rent you a bicycle. In Nyaung-U, I even saw a guy using two cows to plough the mud on the riverbank, and as he was doing it was basically sitting riding these cows almost half asleep! It seems work does get done around here – but just in a very sleepy way! As I mentioned before, agriculture is a very important industry in Bagan, and the whole family can help sow the seeds after the man of the house has finished the dirty work in turning over the mud!
Every nook and cranny of the streets have clothes and other materials hanging to dry in the dusty Bagan air (presumably just washed in the dirty Irrawaddy River too), and small dogs and cockerels pacing around the place in search of food.
The featured image in this article is courtesy of Pete DeMarco at TheNomadWithin.com.