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Published: February 10th 2012
After what has seemed like months of successive, agonisingly long journeys which have taken us from A to B on our travels, we opted for the less scenic, but certainly more manageable six hour bus ride from Mandalay to the town of Nyuang U in Bagan. Originally, our plan was to taken the government owned and operated slow boat down the Ayeyarwaddy River to Nyuang U. However, in this instance we simply did not in any way desire the 5am start nor the fifteen hour travel time. I could have fabricated a falsehood at this juncture, painting ourselves as democracy demanding crusaders who would not allow a penny of our hard earned money to fall into the pockets of the tyrannical military Burmese government, thereby giving them the proverbial middle finger – but we all know it was about the fifteen hours!
Of course, the reason to go to Bagan in the first place is the fact that it is home to some 4,400 temples, pagodas and stupas, many constructed approximately 1000 years ago. Flanked by a mountain range to the west, the site itself is spread over vast planes and encompasses three primary towns (together with numerous local villages);
Nyaung U, ‘Old’ Bagan and ‘New’ Bagan. As an archaeological wonder, Bagan lies somewhat in the shadow of more famous sites in South East Asia, namely Angkor Wat (though the two are vastly different, both in architectural style and the area covered by each site, Bagan being condensed into approximately 50 square kilometres, whereas the historical complex of Ankor Wat encompassed an area the size of New York City!). I mention the two in conjunction since almost everyone has heard of Cambodia’s greatest symbol, yet many remain unaware of Bagan. The sheer volume of religious sites alone, regardless of any aesthetic beauty, and the efforts exerted in their construction must surely stand as one of the most concentrated displays of religious dedication found anywhere in the world.
After arriving in the comfort of a sunny mid-afternoon (the freezing nights of Kalaw never seemed so far away!), we walked from the bus station to find our accommodation at the friendly and helpful May Kar La, where we purchased a map of Bagan and its planes and were offered a detailed explanation of the best temples to visit and which would be most secluded come sunset, when seemingly every tourist across
the three towns is searching for an optimal viewing point – head to the wrong temple and your sunset could turn into a chaotic shambles!
Like our visit to Inle Lake, we had ensured plenty of time for our stay, to appropriately take in what we needed and desired to see and experience. Our first full day in the town, we accomplished little, save for the discovery of our favourite eatery in town, “San Kabar Restaurant.” With its friendly staff, great food and decent WiFi, we lazed away much of our first day within the confines of this ‘Restaurant Italiano.’
However, as the afternoon wore on, we decided to explore the standout feature of Nyuang U, that of Shwezigon Paya, a large gold-encrusted stupa contained within decent sized grounds on the shores of the Ayeyarwaddy. The sun still seared, even in the late afternoon, thus we found ourselves some shade under the refuge of a tree. Before long however, we had attracted the attention of two young local girls. Joining us under the tree, they proceeded to use our Lonely Planet as a means of attempted communication (as they spoke very little English and of course, we speak
even less Burmese!), deciding this was no longer entertaining, they wanted a photo shoot instead! For a while, they literally would not allow us to leave and, not so regrettably, we virtually had to run away to make our exit!
The following day, we decided to explore Bagan’s central and southern planes and so, rented bicycles from our hotel. With map and camera at hand, all we required were some nutritional snacks (oranges and crisps) and some water and we were set. We set out early to get some significant cycling and distance covered before the severe heat of midday arrived. Cycling west from Nyuang U, we stopped at neighbouring Sulamani Pahto and Dhammayangyi Pahto, the latter of which boasts itself as Bagan’s largest structure. Dhammayangyi was constructed in the 12th century by King Narathu, who ordered that the temple should use no adhesive substance for the brickwork, which is so tightly compacted that (apparently) not even a needle can fit between the bricks.
Following stops at these two temples, we cycled south in the direction of the beautiful golden stupa, Dhammayazaka Zedi. Cycling along the narrow, dusty trails, we were able to stop as we pleased, venturing
off the paths to explore some of the smaller and lesser known temples along the route. Certainly this is one of the better aspects of Bagan – given the number of temples and stupas, there are always plenty of deserted sites where one can simply get lost in exploration (if you can brave the heat, I would possibly suggest the best way to see the planes would simply be to hike, cutting through fields rather than the sandy trails). We found Dhammayazaka Zedi to be a great resting spot, since we were able to ascend to its upper levels, where its golden stupa provided some shade, whilst the elevation afforded picturesque views over the vast planes.
After enjoying the respite from the heat, we mounted the bicycles once more, this time heading east for the village of Min-nan-thu, where we ate some decent friend rice before searching for Kyat-kan Umin, an underground Buddhist monastery. This place is supposedly still functioning as a monastery but sadly, there were no monks inside the underground tunnels (which eerily resembled ancient catacombs). Of more interest at this site was the adjacent Nanda-pyin-nya, a small temple whose most interesting feature is the depictions on
the inner walls of numerous topless women, attempting in vain to entice the Buddha just before the moment when he reach enlightenment!
For sunset that evening we settled ourselves (on the advice of staff at our hotel) at Tayok-pyi Paya in the south-eastern corner of Bagan’s central plain. Originally, we had planned to take in sunset from the centrally located Pyathada Pagoda, but were advised that this particular pagoda would be crowded come sun down. We were looking for a more intimate experience so opted for the lesser know and aforementioned Tayok-pyi Paya, where our elevated position gave us scope of the western mountains and most temple peaks in between. Quietly we sat, mesmerised by the sun as it lazily descended towards the mountains. The closer the sun came to the mountain peaks, its light and glare began to dim and, gradually, a perfectly clear and visible yellow orb took shape. The sky turned from yellow to orange to blood-red, a hypnotic backdrop for an impossibly clear star.
Following our exploits on the bicycle, we decided that for our final day, we would take in the remainder of Bagan’s sights by horse and cart. After hiring a driver
(who I’m almost certain was high on ‘bitterness,’ a substance similar to chewable tobacco which terribly stains the teeth), we headed for ‘Old’ Bagan, along the way stopping off at some smaller temples. Before we reached the old city walls, our ‘horse master’ took us to Bagan’s most famous temple (and most beautiful according to the locals) Ananda Temple, whose outer walls are white washed and topped with a golden spire. From the outside, this old temple (constructed in 1090) is no more beautiful that most others (in fact its stained outer white walls make the temple look dirty) however, inside, its central structure is square shaped, with each side displaying four huge, beautifully sculpted, standing Buddha statues.
We rounded off our day by taking in other sites, such as Thatbyinnyu Temple (which at 66 meters high, is the tallest structure amongst all of Bagan’s temples and stupas) before watching a final breathtaking sunset from Buledi Paya, a small and innocuous looking stupa on Bagan’s northern plane. It must be said that I have yet to see a sunset as beautiful as that which occurs each evening over Bagan, but rest assured, we will keep searching!
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