After a love-hate relationship with the overnight train, we finally reached Bagan. Our guide, Min, had arranged for a coach to take us to our hotel and after a quick check in and freshen up, we were ready to embrace the rest of the day, exploring Bagan temples and local village life in this new part of Myanmar.
Min had organised a visit to a local palm plantation, where Toddy wine is produced, a drink popular amongst the local community, a drink he was most proud of sharing – obviously didn’t appeal much to me, but I was happy to learn and see what they do.
We watched as one of the locals scaled the tall bamboo ladder (which he didn’t seem to use much on the way up) right to the top of the Palm, where he went about collecting the sap. Obviously in these parts of the world health and safety is the last thing on peoples minds, the men scaling these heights with nothing more than the tools they need to get the job done, a knife to ‘tap’ the sap out of the young coconut flowers and a ‘Toddy pot’ to catch it in.
Tip: Don’t stand directly underneath your Toddy palm climber as usually locals who don the traditional Longhyi attire, don’t tend to wear underwear, so give them a little distance 😉
The sap is simply left out in the sun to ferment and the wine is produced. If it’s left out too long, or overheated, it actually becomes highly acidic, turning it into a vinegar rather than wine. Alongside the basking sap, they also had their own mini distillery all set up, where the more potent drinks were created. Ever the host, as well as pointing out what meats were halal, Min also made sure to let me know when things were non-alcoholic so that I, and other non-drinkers, weren’t left out. We all had a taste of the pure sap pre-fermentation, with others then enjoying a tipple of the harder stuff (it smelt pretty toxic!).
My favourite take-away from this experience was learning about the resourcefulness of this community. Like most developing countries, when it comes to using natural elements – waste is never an option. And the Toddy palm is no exception. Every part of the tree is used in some form or another, ensuring that each tree sacrificed has been utilised to it’s full potential.
Turns out Toddy wine wasn’t the only sight to be seen here, we watched how an ox was used to grind batches of peanut down to create oil – an oil that is used heavily in Myanmar cuisine. We also enjoyed some afternoon tea. No we’re not talking triangle sandwiches and earl grey. We were enjoying our afternoon tea Myanmar style, sat on palm trunk stools, with lakka cups of green tea and a beautifully laid out sharing plate of tea leaf salad.
Tea leaf salad, Laphet Thoke, is something you will find on nearly every Myanmar menu. You’ll find the look and ingredients of this iconic dish may vary, depending on where you are but the basic principal carries through. The tea leaves are pickled and served alongside a mix of peanuts and dried beans. Each part is served separately, combining it all is down to you, so you can proportion it how you wish. I’ll go through some of the other variations in a separate food post.
After a chat and a snack we headed off to walk through a local village, where hospitality was in abundance, we received countless offers of tea and snacks whilst the inhabitants showed off their local trades and skills. After my favela experience in Rio, I’m always a little apprehensive when it comes to village visits, it always feels like such an imposition. A group of tourists walking around watching you go about your daily life. I suppose the difference here, is the locals actually want us to visit them. The exposure, tip money and the fact that they’re proud of what they do, even if it’s something I may not have chosen to do had I been organising the trip on my own, just to see them going out of their way to interact with us, well its always worth it.
Our day ended with the piece de resistance…
Off we went to the North Guni temple. There was a decent crowd already gathered as we climbed the stairs to the roof of the temple – this was our first opportunity to witness the view that graces nearly every Myanmar travel guide book going, the view looking out over more than 2000 Bagan temples.
It really was something. There may have been some large group of tourists, but it didn’t distract from how stunning the vista in front of us had turned out to be. During the 11th and 13th centuries, it is said that there were nearly 10,000 pagodas in the Kingdom of Bagan, but the numbers diminished as time went on as the area suffered hundreds of earthquakes.
Ever the lover of a good sunset, me and a few of the others scoped out the different nooks and levels and settled in the corner to relax and watch the sun disappear for the night.
I never really get bored of a sunset, and luckily for me there was an opportunity to catch many of them on this trip. When I looked back at my photos, well let’s be honest, most sunsets look the same. So why do I keep falling for them?
I think it’s more because when you are sat in that moment, and you are literally waiting for that sun to fall. I love that it’s such a natural scene, something that happens every day in every single corner of the world. I love the colours, I love the descent of darkness and that deep red warning that pops just before it occurs. It doesn’t matter how many of them I see, each one gives me the same peace and heart flutters, enough to make me crave the next.
Tip: Take a torch with you, once the sun has set there are no lights in the temple, so you won’t be able to navigate some of the stairs in the darkness (this actually goes for some of the Bagan temples in the daytime too, as some stairwells have no light coming in at all).
We watched, we chatted, we took snaps… it was a lovely way to end our afternoon and it was enough to ignite our excitement for what was in store the following day, where we would be heading off to explore up close the rest of Old Bagan.
Have you been to see the Bagan temples? What are your opinions on sunsets, love, hate or not fussed?