“Where are you from?” asked a pagoda watchman at Upali Thein. “I’m from the Philippines!” I replied slightly exasperated already from answering this question just on the third day in Myanmar or is it because I haven’t slept yet. “Oh Philip-Pines!” most people would pronounce it with the last syllable sounding similar to a “Pine” Tree. I proceeded to admire the beautiful frescoes inside this small ordination hall then suddenly the watchman spoke “My friend, maybe you can help me change this money, I can’t use them here” I looked back and saw in his hand a few peso bills amounting to 850 pesos. Surprised, I asked “Where did you get those?”
The plains of Bagan stretch to 16 square miles and with about 2217 pagodas that can be visited, it can be overwhelming which ones to start out with. Knowing the layout of the land first would really help. There are three main areas in Bagan – the Nyaung U, the Budget and Transportation area with a few pagodas, the Old Bagan where a lot of magnificent pagodas that can easily be explored by foot and bike, the New Bagan houses the high end accommodations and a few temples. But what is really exciting is travelling the roads between these places where the pagodas are scattered out there. Coming from Shwezigon Paya from Nyaung U, we made our way to Old Bagan visiting the pagodas of the North Plain road.
The road between Nyaung U and Old Bagan is a paved two way street enough for two large vehicles to pass on opposite directions. The sidewalk is a dirt path but pleasantly lined with trees and occasional small pagodas randomly popping out of the scene. The morning sees a lot of natives on their bikes, and fellow travellers on horse carts. About 15 minutes ride, Mime navigated Chune to turn left into a dirt path to the pagoda called Gubyauknge Paya.
“Mingalaba! Where are you from?” A vendor with paintings greeted me as I entered the small pagoda but with very high ceiling and impressive paintings but obviously some pieces stolen or broken apart. The vendor directed me to the stairway leading to the top platform and asked me to look at his wares later. The views there were okay but I was more impressed with the stuccos on the wall despite being damaged. Since the 1975 6.5 magnitude earthquake, a lot of pagodas here were damaged reducing the numbers from 4400+ to 2217. I looked at the vendor’s paintings when I got down, while nice, I politely begged off.
About 10 minute’s ride, we arrived at the impressive Htilominlo Pahto with its 150 feet high temple. Pahto usually refers to hallow temples or shrines with either an entrance or 4 entrances in different sides. But as I entered the entrance I saw the grounds behind the perimeter wall replete with vendors. As I was clipping my slippers on my bag, a guy about his 20s, wearing a longyi greeted me again with the usual “Where are you from?” I indulged in his attempt to chitchat while I arrange my things. Then he asked “Sir, can you help me! Can you tell me how much are these worth?” I was surprised to see him holding a few peso bills. I counted and it was around P850 which is about US20 or 15,000 kyat. “Can you change it? We can’t use it here” I was hesitant and told him I’ll think about it and proceeded to explore the temple and I admired the carved reliefs at the doorway.
The miniscule Upali Thein was a really short ride opposite Htilominlo Pahto. Thein is referred to sacred ordination halls. This thein is often locked to preserve what’s left of its frescoes. For me the water color mural here is one of the most impressive I’ve seen in Bagan, unfortunately photography inside wasn’t allowed. I did have an accidental shot before he warned me. And those peso bills popped up again which I thought was something fishy. The reason that it came from a tourist friend wasn’t reliable enough to think about the authenticity of the bills.
Finally we arrived at probably one of the must-see Payas in Bagan, the Ananda Pahto. At the entrance gate, while I was again clipping my slippers to my bag and getting my camera out, the same thing happened to me as Htilominlo. A different guy greeted and offered if I could change his P850 pesos to dollar or kyat. I said I’m sorry I can’t and just proceeded inside the pahto. Do these guys know each other? Are they tailing me and informing each other of my whereabouts? Are those Peso bills even real? I never got the chance to inspect it to avoid giving a wrong signal. Unfortunately for them, I needed all the kyat and dollars I have so I couldn’t change their money.
Ferdz Decena is an award-winning travel photographer, writer and blogger. His works has found print in publications such as Singapore Airlines’s Silver Kris, Philippine Airlines’ Mabuhay, Cebu Pacific’s Smile and Seair InFlight. He has also lent his expertise to various organizations like the Oceana Philippines, Lopez Group Foundation, Save the Children and World Vision, contributing quality images for their marketing materials.