We were unceremoniously woken and kicked out of the bus at Kyauk Padaung at about midnight. When a helpful local asked “May I help you?”, the response of 5* hotel, massage and a nice meal went right over his head. Clearly he had learned the basic English phrase but had no conversational skills (and/or didn’t get my bad joke in the middle of the night.) We were kindly directed to the area of town where the buses would pass and declining the offer of a motorbike taxi up the 43km we were surprisingly alert and waited patiently for a bus heading our way. I flagged one down and got us there by 02:00.
The taxi drivers at Bagan had amazing English. It was a sure sign we had arrived in a very touristy place. We declined their offers of a ride in to town – nothing to do with the extortionate prices – but instead preferred to wait until it started to brighten up at about 04:30 and head 6km in to Nyaung U where we would hopefully find a guesthouse, toilet and breakfast.
We rented electric bikes from the shop next door to our guest house for a bargain of 5,000 kyat a day and we were off. Planning on getting a few temples in before it got busy we started at Nwar Pya Gu Temple, thinking it was Swezigon Pagoda, where we intended to go first. Swezigon is Nyaung U’s main religious site, and is most famous for its link with the 37 nat. We’re still slightly confused by what the guide book says about these nat, but they are 37 important figures that gave up Buddhist beliefs due to public pressure. We were lucky enough to visit the compound which is normally locked, but too dark to take any real photos and no signs explaining their significance like some other places do. The 4 bronze statues at the 4 entrances to the temple are the largest of their kind in Bagan. We eventually got to visit everything at the site, posing for long periods of time for photos. We left and headed down to river – very shallow at the moment, no ferries running to Mandalay – and enjoyed the views with a muffin for breakfast.
A brief visit in the dark corridors of Kyanzittha Umin cave temple before we detoured off the road to visit Tha Gyar Hit Phaya as we saw so many other bikes heading towards it. Nothing in the book, it gave us our first panoramic views of the area and it was stunning! Temples large and small all across the plains and by moving a few metres around the top of the temple, more became visible while others were hidden in the trees. Edit We carried on to Upali Thein, an ordination hall from the mid 13th century. Although locked we were able to see some of the brightly coloured frescoes that were painted in the late 17th, early 18th centuries. Sadly, like many of the temples and artwork the earthquake in 1975 caused a lot of damage and they crumbled leaving only a few sections to look at through the gates.
Motoring along, physically and mentally, we headed to ‘the’ recommended sight, by the lonely planet, Ananda Pahto Temple. It is one of the finest, largest, best preserved and most revered of all Bagan temples. The confluence of hawkers outside suggested as much! What we liked most about this temple were the 4 statues. 9m tall and made of solid teak, the north and south are originals, east and west being replicas to replace ones destroyed in a fire.
The interior corridors reminded us vaguely of Mruak U and gave the impression of what that city could have been like in its prime, but we reckon we preferred the charm and style of the stone temples to that of these brick temples in Bagan. The quantity and sights here are amazing, but as actually temples themselves, they were too touristy, had lights hammered in to the corridors, white wash paint over the frescoes and slap-dashed repairs all too quickly and poorly.
We sat outside in the garden and posed for more photos, took some of an electric blue lizard and enjoyed the outside views of the temple a bit more than the inside. In 1990, the temple spires were gilded and the exterior whitewashed. The terraced roof and the glazed tiles had something different from every angle and we spent ages walking around enjoying it.
After a brief nap, and it was a proper brief nap this time, not like Mruak U, we headed back out. Ebike recharged and the owner very content that we weren’t driving it like idiots, we were heading to sites furthest away. In the Myankiba area we visited the Abeyadana Paya. With so many temples everywhere we were giving them names so that we could remember them and hopefully spot a sign that looked like one we wanted to visit, this one being Abbie like Katherine’s oldest friend down in Haywards Heath.
The temple was stunning. Built in the 11th century with a Sinhalese-style (we think this is Sri Lanka style) stupa, but the king’s wife who waited for him here while he hid for his life. All very dramatic stuff. The original frescoes were cleaned by UNESCO staff in 1987 and we walked around twice with a torch marvelling at the detail and colour still visible on the walls and ceiling.
Katherine and I sat patiently outside the temple as the keyholder/artist showed us her sand paintings and explained the history and significance of each one, its roots in Myanmar culture and tradition, religious meanings and auspicious significance. And yet, it was a simple painting of five Burmese women doing a New Years Eve dance that caught Katherine’s eye the most.
Down the road and through New Bagan (not sure why anyone would pick here over staying in Nyaung U) we headed up a back road towards Old Bagan and more temples. Stopped at a cremation hall not marked on a map or mentioned in the book. But, with at least 3,300 sites in the area, with more being discovered/repaired all the time, it’s no wonder that we had no info about this place. The woodwork detail on the pagoda roof was lovely and worth the stop.
We detoured slightly to Gubyaukgyi (meaning Great Painted Cave Temple) as it was recommended by our artist friend earlier. We didn’t walk around twice as before, but enjoyed some quite different scenes and depictions on the walls, with some frescoes being more intact and preserved than expected, being originals from its construction in 1113. While in the neighbourhood as you say, we read about the temple next door and why so many visited (why so many hawkers). The Myazedi (Emerald Stupa) wasn’t adorned in anything green and wasn’t particularly different to other temples. However, at the front SE corner is a four-sided pillar consecrating Gubyaukgyi and written in four languages – Pyu, Mon, Old Burmese and Pali. It’s linguistic and historical significance is great (as noted by a UNESCO poster outside), since it establishes the Pyu as an important cultural influence in early Bagan and related the chronology of the Bagan Kings as well as acting as a ‘Rosetta Stone’ to allow scholars to decipher the Pyu.
Up to Shwe San Daw Phaya, this is the temple to climb for a sunset view. Not really sure what the hype was about. Congestion in the low season getting up and down the steps hints at how manic the place could be, with the views being similar to other places. We did take some compulsory posed photos and hopefully we’ll be able to splice together some panorama photos from the corners when we get a chance (good wifi). Leaving there later than planned, visiting a reclining Buddha in the grounds of the temple, we were too late to explore the largest temple of the central plains and Bagan. Thus, wandered in to the one next door, like popping round for a cuppa, and found a staircase up to the middle tier of Myauk Guni Phaya and some exquisite, uninterrupted and quiet views.
Back to Nyaung U as it was starting to get dark, timing it perfectly, we enjoyed a Thai Green Curry and a pizza for dinner before calling it a day. We hit 13 temples in the day and felt quite proud of ourselves for managing to do so with such little sleep. It also helped to justify the expensive zone fee by visiting so many temples. It felt right that we should salute our success with a Myanmar draught beer – that stuff is too easy to drink.
Thursday 19th May 2016