Day 47: The Temples of Bagan


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Asia » Burma » Mandalay Region » Bagan
November 30th 2009
Published: December 15th 2009
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Carvings at Tayokpye Pagoda.
Today was one of our favorite days of the entire trip.

We'll begin with a story:

A long time ago in a far away land (the area then known as Bamar), a king named Anawratha was visited by a monk. This monk was sent by King Manuha, who ruled the neighboring Mon kingdom (also a part of Burma today). The monk's mission was to introduce King Anawratha to Theravada Buddhism (one of the two main schools of Buddhism, the other is Mahayana). The king was intrigued. The Bamar kingdom supported several religions at that time, including Mahayana Buddhism, Hinduism and the usual animist (worship of nature) religions. However, King Anawratha was very progressive and open to new ideas.

The monk must have done a bang up job because King Manuha not only adopted Theravada Buddhism for his land but also launched a feverish building frenzy: temples, zedis (aka stupas, the tower-like structures containing relics of the Buddha - like hair or bones), monasteries and libraries to house Buddhist scriptures, and ordination halls (where the monks were ordained). Hundreds and hundreds of structures were constructed during his reign.

But King Anawratha felt that something was missing . .
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The zedi at Shwezigon Paya
. . and sent a note to King Manuha asking him to send over a collection of Buddhists texts and relics to fill all of the libraries and zedis. When King Manuha said, "No way, dude, get your own", Anawratha proceeded to do exactly that. He sent his army south to King Manuha's kingdom with instructions to bring back Buddhist texts, a gaggle of monks, Buddhist scholars, and even King Manuha himself (ouch!).

The Theravada Buddhism fever in Bagan continued for more than 200 years with successive rulers each building temples/zedis/etc. at a rapid pace. Temples and zedis of all shapes and sizes were erected most constructed with local bricks and sandstone.

When all was said and done, in just over 200 years (from about 850 until 1287) more than 4,400 structures were built in an area that is only 26 square miles. Just take a minute to think about that. It must have been a magnificent sight.

So why did the building end? In the late 1200s, those pesky Mongols from up north, headed by Kublai Khan, posed a serious threat to the Bamar kingdom. The building stopped as the Bamar kingdom prepared to defend itself.
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Flower vendor at Shwezigon Paya.
Eventually, Bagan (as the area is called today) was abandoned and, for several centuries, all those spooky empty temples were considered haunted. Many of the temples were subsequently raided by treasure hunters, and at least half were destroyed completely, but Bagan is still an incredibly impressive sight today.

Our day started with an extremely early 6:15am flight. Yangon Airport's international terminal is very modern but the domestic terminal is a bit scary - very grim and Soviet looking (bare, grey, dingy, lots of people in military uniforms with guns). We arrived at 5:00 a.m. and the departure lobby was absolutely packed with people. Our bags were whisked away (we hoped to our plane) and an airline representative handed us two boarding passes and two stickers for Air Bagan (our airline today), which we were asked to stick on our shirts.

The boarding process in Burma goes something like this: a guy holds up a sign that says "Air Bagan Flight 6 Boarding Now" and walks around with it. No announcements are made so you have to keep an eye out for your sign. Eventually someone pokes around the crowd looking for people with the right sticker (there are
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The Hilominlo Temple.
four domestic airlines in Burma and they all seem to coordinate their flight times to within 10 minutes of each other) and then rushes them out on to the airfield to board the plane. It seems to work pretty well.

We were surprised to find a good cafe with decent coffee in the departure area and also delighted to see two familiar faces, our newest friends, two guys from Spain. Not only were they on our flight from Bangkok to Yangon two days ago, but we also ran into them three separate times yesterday in Yangon. Initially we smiled and waved but last night we finally introduced ourselves at the Shwedagon Paya and found out that we'd be seeing them again today. They're really nice and we enjoyed talking with them over lattes.

Another perk of this airport are computer terminals with less restrictive internet access. At our hotel, the websites for gmail, hotmail and yahoo's mail were all blocked. We'd heard from other people that hotmail and yahoo were blocked throughout the country by the government but were upset to find that gmail was blocked as well. However, it seems that at least a few internet cafes
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Cool Buddha statue.
have figured out how to get around the government censors and we were happy to be able to check email again (albeit with a v-e-r-y s-l-o-w connection).

Our plane was a Fokker 100, a plane that is not used often in the U.S. , but it seemed to be in reasonable condition and our 50-minute flight north was fine.

Bagan is stunning! Picture a large open valley dotted with gorgeous temples. Temples surrounded by miles of palm trees, peanut fields, and farms. Bagan sits in between two mountain ranges (east and west) in a very active fault zone - earthquake country. The Ayeyarwady River runs north/south along the western boundary of the plains in the shadow of the western mountain range.

Bagan falls in what is known as the "dry zone" in Burma. Not exactly desert but not lush or tropical like most other areas of Southeast Asia. The soil is sandy and the grasses and plants other than the palm trees and cactus are brown (it is the dry season but we think it probably looks pretty arid most of the year). Peanuts, palm products (coconuts, palm fruit, brown sugar etc), and sesame seeds are grown
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Our bungalow at the Bagan Thande Hotel.
locally. Rice is not.

After undergoing the routine temperature check (this time with an ear thermometer) at the airport, we met our guide (Aung Shwe), driver (Minmin) and the regional manager of Good News Travel. They presented us with a small bouquet of roses (!!), collected our luggage and loaded it into our air conditioned van, which will be our chariot for the next two days.

At 8 a.m. we began our tour of the temples. Aung Shwe had our itinerary all mapped out and we spent the next four hours touring six temples. Although most of the temples in Bagan have been damaged, many are still in surprisingly good shape considering they are more than 1,000 years old. We notice that some have been entirely renovated (knocked down and rebuilt using the original design) - they look out of place.

Temple renovation vs. temple preservation is a controversial issue in Bagan. UNESCO was involved in some preservation work back in the 1990s; however, there was apparently a huge disagreement between the UNESCO folks and the government archaeologists about preservation (minor updates) vs. renovation/restoration (knock down temples and rebuild them the way they would have looked when
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Making lacquerware.
new). Long story short - Bagan is not a recognized UNESCO site and all temple restoration work is being conducted by government affiliated archaeologists. Sigh.

Most of the temples are large brick structures, often with several levels/tiers. Think of the Mayan pyramids. Most are empty inside except for one or more Buddha statues with altars. Most of the temples are still in use today and the locals leave flowers and other offerings at the base of the statues. Several of the large golden Buddhas are stunning. Interestingly, here in Burma many Buddha statues have painted red lips (it looks like they're wearing lipstick); we haven't seen red lipped Buddhas in other countries.

Many of the temples once sported not only ornate sandstone carvings but also beautiful paintings/stuccoes of Buddhist scriptures on the walls. The paintings/stuccoes are faded now but a few have been touched up by the government.

It would be nearly impossible to see all of the temples in Bagan. There are still more than 2,000 temples and they are scattered across the plain, connected by several paved roads and dirt trails. Some people explore the temples by bike but it is also possible to walk
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Our lacquerware education.
(if it's not too hot). Another popular option is to hire one of the 200 or so horse carts, and to explore the temples while sitting on cushions under a shady roof.

At noon we took a break for lunch and checked into our hotel, the Bagan Thande Hotel in Old Bagan. There are three main towns on the plain: Old Bagan (where most people used to live before being forcibly relocated to make way for an enourmous sprawling government-run "archaeological museum), New Bagan (where the residents of Old Bagan live now) and Nyaung U (the more casual, backpacker town near the airport). Old Bagan has several upscale hotels including ours. It's a lovely complex that was built in the 1920s (in advance of a visit by King Edward) and is beautifully situated on the eastern bank of the river. We reserved a riverfront deluxe room for $55. There's a large courtyard in the middle of the hotel complex under a large acacia tree where breakfast and dinner are served. The courtyard like our room has wonderful views of the river and is a great place to watch the sunset.

In the afternoon, Aung Shwe took us to
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View from the Mienyeingon temple.
a lacquerware studio. Burma, and Bagan in particular, are famous for their laquerware. We watched people making bowls, statues, napkin rings, vases and, other things. Lacquerware is an incredibly resource- and time-intensive process. One lacquerware bowl can take up to 8 months to produce and all the work is done by hand. The main material used in the studio is bamboo which is formed into whatever shape is needed and then wrapped with horse hair (for the high quality pieces) and then covered with successive layers of lacquer (a thick, sticky substance from the "lacquer tree"). The pieces must then be dried in exactly the right conditions (temperature, humidity) for several weeks before the next layer of lacquer is applied. Once the final layer has dried, the designs are etched into the piece. This is also a time-intensive process and is done with very specific kinds of materials (paints, gold leaf). The final product is beautiful.

Here's how to tell high quality lacquerware from the cheap stuff:
- High quality pieces made from soft bamboo can bend without breaking or cracking (especially the uber-high quality horse-hair pieces)
- The designs are etched, not painted on (you can feel the
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Minyeingon temple. Great views from the top.
etching with your fingers)

We perused the shop and bought a few things including an elephant with gold leaf etchings who will serve as our mascot for the remainder of our trip.

After making our purchases, Aung Shwe arranged for us to have a horse cart ride past some of the prettiest temples. It was really fun. What's nice about Bagan is that, in many areas, you can get away from the crowds and locals who try to convince you that your life is meaningless with out the oil paintings, postcards, figurines, books, etc. that they are selling.

Our tour today ended at the most popular sunset-viewing temple, Shwesandaw Paya. It's popular because it's beautiful (white and shaped like a pyramid), tall (five levels), and has magnificent views of the sunset from its terraces. The upper levels of the temple were packed with people but we found a spot and took some great photos of the sun setting over the temples to the west of us.

The stairs at the temple are extremely steep and we hugged the iron railings the entire way down. Lovely Minmin was waiting for us at the bottom of the stairs
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Our horse cart.
with cold towelettes for our hands and feet (shoes are not permitted in the temples!). Our guides rock!

We had a surprisingly delicious dinner at the hotel under the acacia tree. Great curries, fresh seafood and Myanmar beer. An enormous feast can be had for under $20 US.

Tomorrow we visit the famous spirits/Nats of Mt. Popa and, if lucky, we'll hear their predictions for 2010.


Additional photos below
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Touring the temples by horse cart.
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One of many ox carts we saw while in Bagan.
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Sunset on top of the Shwesandaw pagoda.
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Sunset from the top of the Shwesandaw pagoda.
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Sunset from the top of the Shwesandaw pagoda.
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Sunset as seen from our room.
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The Ayeyarwaddy River at sunset.


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