Everything about Bagan resonates with beauty, tradition, and peacefulness….. until you get attacked by a swarm of bees, and it becomes the setting for one of the scariest moments of your life. This is what nightmares are made of.
We were stopped in front of a temple that was one of the lesser preserved ones. Weeds had overtaken much of the area inside the enclosed courtyard. I climbed on top of a mound of dirt and then a brick wall in an attempt to get a better view for a photograph, but just wasn’t satisfied with the views I was finding. My guide suggested we go to a small temple nearby to try to get a better view. The temple looked like it had a small balcony on the second level.
Inside the unnamed temple was a small stairway leading up into darkness. It looked like the stairs went halfway up to the second level and then took a 90-degree turn to the left. Beyond that, there was only darkness.
I got my Petzl headlamp out of my backpack. The height of the passageway was only a few feet high, so I had to crouch down just to fit inside. I started slowly walking up the stairs, my guide following behind me. The clearance was so low that my backpack kept scraping the ceiling. At the same time, it was really narrow. My thin body barely fit through. The stairway felt more like a cave. My headlamp became almost useless, since I had to keep my head down to prevent hitting it on the low ceiling. It was not a place for claustrophobic people or those that are afraid of the dark.
“Are you okay, Mr. Ryan? Can you fit through? Do you want me carry your backpack?” asked Win, my Burmese guide.
“I’m fine. I can squeeze through.”
A little way after the left-hand turn, the passageway turned back to the right. That explained the extreme darkness of this particular stairway, compared to the ones where you can usually see some light seeping in from the exit at the top.
There were some buzzing sounds as I approached the final turn in the stairs. I assumed the sound was from just a few flies.
I saw some light peaking through, so I must have been near the top. The passageway was even more narrow here, so I had to completely tuck my head down and crawl. I couldn’t see anything ahead of me.
My backpack caught on something. I gave a little push to get through, and suddenly I was on the rooftop balcony.
There were several bees buzzing around my head.But I wasn’t alone…
I looked behind me and saw a beehive right at the opening to the stairs. My backpack must have hit it on the way out.
“Win, there are a bunch of bees up here! Don’t come up!” I shouted.
I quickly moved to the far side of the balcony.
The balcony was only about 2 meters by 3 meters. It was small. There was nowhere to run.
“Are you okay?” asked Win.
“I think so. But don’t come up here.”
Most of the bees were hovering around their hive, but a small army had followed me to the far side of the balcony.
One of the bees stung me on the neck.
I paced back and forth quickly and swung my arms around at the bees to shoo them away.
Eventually, the bees gave up and left me alone.
“Win, is there another way down?” I asked.
“No, I think this is the only way.”
I looked over the edge of the balcony. There was at least a 4-meter drop to the ground on all sides. I briefly contemplated climbing down the brick walls, but there didn’t seem to be very good footholds
“Win, what should I do? I don’t want to go back through those stairs. How should I get down?”
At this point, Win was laying on his stomach near the top of the stairs. I could see his hand reaching up.
“I think you can make it if you crouch down low underneath the hive. Hand me your backpack so you can crouch lower.”
I hesitantly approached the entranceway. I wasn’t sure if I was ready to crawl underneath that hive yet.
As I handed by backpack to Win, the bees began to swarm around their hive more actively.
It was only me and the bees left up there now.I backed away quickly as Win pulled my backpack down the stairs to safety.
“Are you coming?” shouted Win.
“Yes, I’m just waiting for the bees to calm down again,” I said as I focused on my breathing. I didn’t want to panic.
I slowly approached the doorway, staying low and putting my feet forward.
I briefly contemplated whether to slide down on my back or to crawl on my stomach.
I decided to go on my back. I was too afraid to turn my head away from the bees and their hive.
As I inched my legs underneath the hive, hundreds of bees came flying out of the hive.
I looked down and my pants were completely covered in bees!
I jumped up and started running circle around the small balcony.
“Win, they’re all over me!!!”
“The bees…. there are thousands of them!” I screamed.
Where could I go? The only advice about bees that I could remember was to run, but there wasn’t anywhere to run up there.
I spun around, flailing my arms around my head like a madman.
I felt a sting on my arm.
Damn, that hurts!
A few bees crawled on my face. I closed my mouth so they wouldn’t get inside.
I hoped I wasn’t allergic to bee stings. I’d never been stung by multiple bees and couldn’t even remember the last time I had a bee sting. It was probably close to thirty years ago.
I shooed the bees off my face and started screaming.
I didn’t want to die of bee stings on top of a temple in the middle of Burma.
By some miracle, a local farmer was walking through a nearby field and heard my screams. He started running towards the temple.
I continued to run circles around the top of the temple, convinced that I was going to be stung to death.
The next thing I knew, the farmer appeared on top of the balcony with me. He was smoking a cigar and holding a small, leafy tree branch and a machete. This guy had come to save my life, although I wasn’t sure what good the machete would be against a swarm of bees.
He motioned for me to calm down. Then, he started blowing cigar smoke at me and waving the leaves to chase the bees away.
After he was satisfied that he had chased enough bees away, he signaled to me that he wanted me to crouch down as low as I could in the far corner of the balcony.
I got into a position similar to how they teach you to crouch during tornado drills in school. He blew some more cigar smoke around me.
As he moved toward the hive, the farmer lit a second cigar. He puffed on both cigars until they were both producing plenty of smoke. When he was close to the hive, he started blowing smoke directly into the hive to subdue the bees. Then, he waved the leaves at the hive and what seemed like thousand of bees came flying out.I got into a position similar to how they teach you to crouch during tornado drills in school. He blew some more cigar smoke around me.
Maybe I should’ve asked him for a cigar for myself.
But, I didn’t need it. The entire swarm of bees flew right over my head and kept going.
I watched as the farmer waved away some straggling bees. He motioned for me to hurry over and get down the stairs before any bees came back.
When I got to the bottom of the stairs, Win handed me a bottle and asked if I was okay.
I was barely able to mutter a “yes”. I was starting to choke up with tears, not tears from the stings, but tears from the joy of this random farmer showing up and saving me.
When the farmer joined me and Win on the lower floor of the temple, Win explained to me that the farmer was in the area collecting honey from various beehives in the area. When he heard my screams, he knew it could only be one thing.
I was still pretty shaken up, but said “jay zu bay (thank you)” over and over again while I shook his hand and handed him a 10,000 kyat note (about $11 USD).
I never got the name of the farmer, but I’ll be eternally grateful that he was walking past the temple that day as I got attacked by bees.
Despite being nearly fully covered by bees at one point, I amazingly escaped with only three or four bee stings.
I do believe in miracles now.
Global Goebel’s Bagan Notes and Tips:
- If it’s within your budget, I recommend staying at the Hotel @ Tharabar Gate. Besides being an excellent hotel, the hotel has best location in Bagan for being close to the best temples. Also, the included breakfast buffet is the best breakfast in the Bagan area.
- Again, if you it’s within your budget, take a hot air balloon ride over the temples at sunrise with Balloons Over Bagan. It’s truly a magical experience.
- If you have more than one day (which you should), hire a guide on the first day so you can get a good feel for the layout of the temples and some useful background information. For subsequent days, rent a bicycle and explore the temples on your own. Don’t be afraid to just get lost and wander around some random temples.
- The Lonely Planet, Trip Advisor, and everywhere else recommend The Moon Vegetarian Restaurant. I admit that it’s really good (even if you aren’t a vegetarian). However, I highly recommend you also try Star Beam Restaurant (also known as “Star Beans Restaurant”) right next to it. It tends to be less crowded, but the food is every bit as good, if not better. They even have freshly baked baguettes.
- Bring plenty of water with you when you head out for a day of exploring the temples. It can get really hot in the middle of the day.
- I found the sunset cruise on the river to be overrated. Due to the direction of the sunset, the only good views are of other boats full of tourists.
- On the other hand, watching the sun set from Pyathada Paya is well worth it. Be sure to bring a flashlight or headlamp with you, since it can be very dark on your way back to the hotel after the sun sets.
- If you have a guide or someone else with you and you are going up a dark, narrow stairway, let them go first so they run into the bees before you do.
- And on the note of bees: Supposedly, cigar smoke helps to calm them.
- One more note on bees: If all else fails….. RUN! (just hope that you’re not on a small temple balcony)
Have you ever been attacked by bees? What’s the scariest experience you’ve had while traveling? Tell me about it in the comments section below.