The aim of the game: to see as many of Bagan’s ancient temples and pagodas as possible, maneuvering the hazards and gaining merit as you go.
Level 1: Getting Started
Getting started is very simple. Step out of your hotel and choose your mode of transport – taxi, e-bike, horse and carriage etc. Negotiate your price and off you go.
We elected to do the horse and cart. Our driver, Aung-Aung, and his young, bitey but much loved pony whisked us off at a brisk trot to visit all the major attractions of Bagan.
Level 2: Temple Running
Running the gauntlet of hawkers is usually the first hazard you encounter. Our first stop was the Shwezigon Pagoda. We were greeted by ladies directing us to the entrance (via their shops of course) but Aung-Aung had already pointed us in the right direction and informed us the wifi here was better that at our hotel, so we avoided our first hazard and gained the wifi bonus with ease.
I can’t say we were so successful at other stops. I’m a bit of a sucker for a smile and a joke and the pagodas are full of helpful people directing you to the best bits in exchange for a visit to their stall full of job-lot souvenirs or sand paintings. I’m afraid I lost a few lives by stopping and shopping with nearly everyone I spoke to. I didn’t always buy but I did make a considerable contribution to the economy during our stay. I’d like to think I was gaining merit instead!
Don’t get me wrong, I actually enjoyed the exchanges. Stock phrases were delivered with charming smiles and it was in no way the aggressive selling I’ve experienced elsewhere. It’s also the only income the people have, as the ticket for the archeological zone, purchased at the airport, finances the Government not the local people or their families, and the only source of employment is within the tourism industry; so I was happy to fail and repeat this level a number of times.
Level 3: Left or right?
This bit is always tricky, choosing which way to turn to see the best bits of a temple. Again, Aung-Aung, in helpful hints mode, explained the significance of the temples we visited and told us which way to turn to see the best paintings or statues of Buddha. Although his English was limited we always got the gist, and his twelve years experience of guiding certainly enabled us to see the best bits. Serene Buddha’s, cartoon like paintings and dramatic, dusty vistas abounded on our first day exploring Bagan.
Level 4: Hazards
Of course, there are many small hazards to be aware of here. Taking your shoes off to enter temples means stones, bat poo and, on one occasion at a lesser-known site, snakes.
Then there’s the stairs. Most of the temples are out of bounds for tourists and some are just too eroded to attempt but a few are prime locations for viewing the 50 square kilometer archeological area. However, to get up them you have to navigate the steps. These are often steep, narrow and oddly leveled to create an uneven rhythm when climbing. Sometimes they are on the inside of temples, resulting in pitch-black leaps of faith, or, they are climbed in the dark before sunrise or after sunset.
When allowed to navigate them in a timely, cautious fashion they are surmountable but throw in gung-ho Americans with no brakes, narrow spaces with no handrails and people jammed in, heading in both directions and it becomes a terrific feat of balance, especially in the dark. Thankfully, my accident-prone companion and I both managed to survive these hazards with (some) grace and humour!
Level 5: Increasing the challenge
Our second foray into Bagan was by e-bike. Neither of us are big fans of bikes, roads nor traffic as both of us are a bit accident-prone but these electric bicycles presented us with an opportunity not to be missed. We managed to find a repressed, reclining Buddha and a fantastic view of the Ayeyarwady River by simply heading off the beaten track and wobbling our way cautiously down unfrequented tracks. Sandy routes, other inept riders and unpredictable traffic did keep us on our toes but we survived this challenge unscathed and saw plenty more of Bagan as a result.
Level 6: Rewards
Apart from the fact that we got to explore an amazing archeological zone, the rewards from this experience were plentiful. Dusty, leafy vistas and red brick stupas were everywhere we looked, the sunset was only marred by other people(!) and the sunrise was truly breathtaking, and only enhanced by the twenty or so balloons floating majestically over the misty landscape. We met a wonderful array of locals and had fun chatting and bartering with them. We challenged ourselves, treated ourselves, and rested too. The greatest reward of this visit was Christmas Day by the pool with a book, a real treat!
All in all, I think we mastered our version of Temple Run, and we certainly had fun playing!