Exploring Myanmar’s Bagan with Horse Cart 101

A surreal landscape presents remnants of Bagan’s 1044-1287 Golden Age. (All photos: Yvonne Horn)

Bagan has no shortage of horse carts. Horse carts by the dozens stand ready to provide clip-clop transportation around pagoda-rich Bagan. Every shady spot, every hotel, every outdoor tea shop, every pagoda courtyard serves as a horse-cart taxi stand.

Locals pile into them as an everyday means of getting about. Visitors, like me, take them because they underline the adventure of being somewhere quite different from home. Picturesque. Fun.

Bagan has no shortage of horse carts. Horse Cart 101 is one of several hundred ready to provide clip-clop transportation around pagoda-rich Bagan.

All of Bagan’s horses and drivers know the territory, chapter and verse. Except for choice of back-cushion material, carts appear identical; horses, too, look as if sprung from a Bagan horse-cookie-cutter mold. So, why when I checked in at my hotel, the Thiri Marlar, had I asked if a morning horse-cart tour might be arranged for me specifically with Horse Cart 101?

Credit TripAdvisor.

In Your Bucket Because …..

  • Myanmar has opened itself to visitors and you can’t wait to go.
  • You know that getting around as the locals do is a good way to get to know a place.
  • You’re a collector of landscapes that can be nowhere else than where they are.

Scrolling through TripAdvisor reviews for the Thiri Marlar Hotel – highly recommended – I came across one with an addendum: “Horse Cart 101 outside the hotel. Lovely man. Best cart driver in Bagan.”

“TripAdvisor?” the woman behind the hotel desk questioned with a smile. “That little mention has certainly made him Bagan’s busiest,” she commented as she said she’d check on the cart’s availability.

A Most Excellent Tour of Bagan

As morning light spread over Bagan’s pagoda-punctuated plain, from my hotel window I watched as carts began to gather in the shade of the tamarind tree out front. A number was displayed on each cart’s shade cover. None was 101. Just as I was beginning to wonder about Bagan’s best cart driver’s availability, in trotted Horse-Cart 101.

Tin Win, “Bagan’s best horse cart driver.”

Bagan’s “best,” with a smile featuring a gleaming, gold tooth, handed me his business card. “Let Me Help You For Excellent Tour of Bagan,” it was headed.

“Tin Win” he said, pointing to himself as he assisted me into the cart. “Ming-gala-ba (hello),” I responded, making use of phrase one of my three-phrase, Burmese-language cache. “I show you best,” Tin Win assured. “Kaum-ba-bi (OK).” Useful-phrase number two.

As we clip-clopped dirt roads and dusty paths, it took more than a squint of the eyes to picture how Bagan originally appeared. Marco Polo wrote of “a gilded city, alive with tinkling bells and the swishing sounds of monks’ robes.” Surrounding villages supported temples, pagodas and magnificent teak monasteries. Outskirts housed administrators, artisans, domestic staff, laborers. The royal family lived within a moated, walled palace. During Bagan’s Golden Age (1044-1287), an estimated 13,000 structures were completed as tributes to the Buddha, fulfilling the religious zealotry of 11 kings who built to gain merit toward a more Elysian existence in the next life.

Today some 2,200 pagodas remain on the 26-square-mile arid plain edging a length of the Ayeyarwady River. Many thousand more lie in ruin ravaged by earthquakes, time and man. Following dirt roads, dusty paths and an occasional stretch of macadam, Horse Cart 101 transported me through a landscape so surreal it could have sprung from Steven Spielberg’s imagination and not that of eleven kings.

A small brick and stucco pagoda featured ancient frescoes.

Relying on Tin Win to decide where I should go on my “excellent tour of Bagan,” we stopped at a small brick and stucco pagoda where his flashlight revealed ancient frescoes, their faded remaining existence due to the interior’s lack of light. At another, I watched as devotees rubbed small squares of gold leaf onto a Buddha that had received so many layers of gold leaf that its features had turned into blobs. Yet another housed a reclining Buddha so huge that it took a stroll to cover its length head to toe.

At the Sarbha Gateway, Bagan’s guardians, the Mahagiri nats sit in shrines. Here, Miss Golden Face.

I climbed steep, uneven steps that led to the terrace of Gawdawt Palin temple, and then climbed winding more for views of the plain in every direction. We drove through the Sarbha Gateway, the only remaining section of the walls of the palace, where Bagan’s guardians, the Mahagiri nats, Miss Golden Face and Mr. Handsome, sit in shrines at each side of the entrance.

I said goodbye to Tin Win at Bagan’s jetty where the Orient-Express riverboat Road to Mandalay awaited to take me on a four-day journey up the Ayeyarwady river.

But that’s another story for another day and quite a different tale than that of clip-clopping through Bagan’s wonders with Horse Cart 101. Tay-zu-timba-la (phrase number three, thank you) TripAdvisor. Tay-zu-timba-la Tin Win.

Practicalities

  •  Be prepared to take off shoes and socks when entering any of Mynamar’s temples and pagodas.
  • Nyaung U village’s lively Central Market provides a good visit for market lovers with its colorful array of local produce and goods.
  • Bagan is the center of lacquerware production in Myanmar. The village of Myinkaba has factores and shops with a wide selection of high-quality ware.
  • Terraced temples provide wonderful bleacher seating for the incredible experience of watching the sun set over Bagan’s surreal landscape.

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