Ancient Bagan

On Sunday 20th May 2018 we headed to Bagan, our final stop in Myanmar, before returning to Yangon where we would spend the night and then out to Taiwan. We were picked up from our hosteling Mandalay at 8am and taken to the bus station where we got on a reasonably old bus that would take us the 5 hours to Bagan. The bus left at around 9am and it was a very bumpy journey. We had gone with the cheapest bus option this time as we were travelling during the day and the bus company we chose offered a pick up and drop off service to and from our hostel which was handy as Mandalay’s bus station was quite far away from the hostel. The roads weren’t great and my seat was slightly slanted so it wasn’t the most comfortable ride compared to the other journeys we’d had but it was manageable as we didn’t need to sleep.

Bagan is an ancient town and one of the main tourist destinations in Myanmar. There are between 2000-3000 monuments in the area to explore and the government are currently applying to have the site accredited with UNESCO protected status. Throughout its history, Bagan has had 55 different kings who all wanted to build monuments, temples and stupas during their rule to leave their mark. There are also monuments built by local common folk as the the building of these monuments helped you to be reincarnated after you die. For this reason the site is littered with monuments of all different kinds wherever you look making it a perfect place to spend a few days getting lost amongst them all – which is what we intended to do! To get into Bagan and visit the temples and monuments you had to pay an archaeological fee of 25,000kyat (£13.70) which is an extortionate amount of money particularly as only 2% of this money (500 kyat/27p) actually goes on restoring the tourist sites.

We booked one night at Ostello Bello but would be staying in Bagan for three nights. We had chosen to book only one night here as it was an expensive hostel at just under £10 a night each but it offered a free bicycle tour of the Bagan temples which would mean we’d get to see the main temples and get our bearings ready to be able to explore the other temples ourselves. We would then decide after that night if we’d continue to stay there or move to somewhere cheaper.

We arrived into our hostel at 1:30pm so was able to get checked in straight away. Unfortunately (and surprisingly considering it was the most expensive) it was the worst of the Ostello Bellos that we stayed in. A lot of it was the same as the other hostels with free water and a good breakfast but the room was hot as the air conditioning wasn’t very good which was a bit disappointing for the price we were paying especially as Bagan was the hottest place we’d been to in Myanmar.

We avoided the hottest part of the day and then hired e-bikes to have a drive around and find a place to watch the sunset. E-bikes are just electric scooters and we even saw an electric car here which surprised me as I hadn’t taken Myanmar to be at the forefront of electric transport! In Myanmar it is illegal for tourists to rent motorbikes so I guess this has been Bagan’s way around that law so that tourists can easily explore the temples. The bike rental place next to the hostel was cheap and only charged us 2000 kyat (£1.10) because we just needed it for a few hours for the sunset.

Our first stop was to Lawka Nanda Pagoda. This was built in 1059 on the bank of the Ayeyarwaddy River. Normally this is a large, golden, elongated dome but we could only see the golden base of this as the rest was covered over for reconstruction. It wasn’t as impressive as we’d hoped but we weren’t to know and the views of the river were nice.

Across from the pagoda was a pond with a colourful wooden veranda outside. It was pretty and there were loads of locals throwing bread into the pond to feed the enormous fish in there. This was obviously a very popular thing to do there as we passed a number of street vendors selling baskets of broken up bread. In all honesty I probably preferred the pond to the pagoda!We drove through the streets to where the majority of the temples seemed to be clustered. Everywhere you turned you saw stupas or temples all made of red brick and all looking magnificent. It made me excited for the next few days we had where we’d get to stop and explore them at our leisure. Two local boys passed us on their motorbike and asked if we wanted them to show us a place that we could watch the sunset. We negotiated to pay them 2,000kyat (£1.10) and they took us to a nearby temple that we were able to climb to get views over Bagan. Climbing the temples has been recently banned by the government but the locals don’t really support this ban and so are happy to help tourists find places to get good views for the sunset. As a local said to us, “they had steps built into them for the purpose of climbing them so why shouldn’t we be able to do that?” – can’t argue with that logic really!

The views were really nice and it was our first proper glimpse of what Bagan was all about. For as far as you could see there were outlines of temples, stupas and other monuments surrounded by dirt roads and lots of green trees. The sunset wasn’t spectacular due to some low lying clouds that blocked the sun just as it would have gotten good but the views were still nice so we were happy we had gone out to see it anyway.

The next day we were up at around 7am to get breakfast, check out and be ready for the free tour that started at 8am. All we had to do was hire the e-bike for the day and the same place we had rented our bike from yesterday rented the bikes for 4000 kyat (£2.20) for the full day. Ostello Bello have two hostels in Bagan just five minutes from each other (one of them has a pool) and they join up for the free tour so we had to wait around 15 minutes for everyone to arrive at our hostel so we could get started.

We had a great guide for the day called Mowbap (this will be a bad spelling of his name I’m sure) and he knew loads about Bagan and the monuments we visited. He explained that Bagan came into existence in the 9th Century but that the monuments weren’t built until much later. There were originally 4000 monuments mostly all built between the 11th and 13th Century but there was an earthquake in 1975, the biggest Bagan has experienced, which caused considerable damage and destroyed loads of them leaving only 2200 monuments intact. Some monuments were rebuilt to get the final count up to 3000 but another earthquake in 2016 damaged around 765 monuments which are still being repaired today which can be seen from the green tarp coverings on the tops of many stupas and temples.

There are five types of monument built in Bagan that we might see and Mowbap explained the difference of these to us:

Pagoda – a place of worship that you can walk inside but can’t walk around. This only allowed for still meditation.

Temple – a place of worship that you can walk inside but that also has a corridor that allows you to walk around it. This allows for still and walking meditation.

Stupa – a solid structure you cannot enter.

Monastery – a place where monks live and go to school.

Ordination Hall – a place where children who want to become a monk forever go to live and meditate after they turn 20 years old. It’s a place of teaching and meditation.

Bagan was very hot and was the hottest place in Myanmar that we had been. Apparently we were having cooler weather than normal (it was still in the high 30s) as there was a cyclone somewhere nearby that was causing more winds and clouds than usual for mid-May. We were told that temperatures can reach 45 degrees celsius which would be unbearable to be out in all day! In the 11th Century Bagan wasn’t this hot though and used to have cool temperatures where they were able to grow a lot of food and be comfortable all year round. Apparently the building of all the monuments caused so many trees to be cut down that the temperatures just got hotter and hotter until it became the arid climate that it is today where the only things that can be grown are things like beans and nuts.

Our first stop of the day was to Dhammayazika which was built in 1196. This was a temple with a giant golden stupa attached to the centre of it. The temple has five entrances which is very unusual as temples usually have four to mark the four different buddhas that there have been over the years. The fifth entrance was added by the King of the time to mark the soon-to-be Buddha who was in the process of becoming enlightened. The stupa has three tiers which led to the main golden dome and it was very impressive! While we were there, there was also a local tour visiting from a nearby village. There was some very tall people in our tour group and it was funny to see the Myanmar visitors react to seeing them as, generally, people aren’t very tall in Myanmar. Niall even heard someone say ‘wow’ as they passed them and they were also stopped for a number of photos!

We then headed to an unnamed temple that was built by some locals (its only the ones built by royalty that they know the names of). This was a nice temple with four buddhas inside and stairs in the corner that took you to a platform where you could get views of the surrounding monuments. We were told that this was a good temple for sunset which was handy to know. There aren’t really any penalties for tourists to climb the temples despite it not being allowed, it’s only the guides that would get in trouble if they went up there with us so he was showing us secretly. The views were great over Bagan and we would definitely be returning later for the sunset in the hope that it was better than the day before.

Dhamma-yan-gyi temple, our next stop of the day, is one of the largest temples in Bagan. It was built by King Narathu who was considered to be a cruel, aggressive and selfish king. He wanted to build a temple bigger than any other in Bagan and wanted all of the bricks to be so close together that he would test that even a needle couldn’t fit between them. He also wanted to make sure that no one would be able to copy his temple in the future and so everyone who worked on the temple was killed to make sure they couldn’t be commissioned by someone in the future.

At the front of the temple are two Buddha statues sitting next to each other which is said to symbolise his brother and father. King Narathu had always wanted to be king but his father was still alive so he smothered his father with a pillow! This still didn’t make him king as he also had an older brother so he poisoned him and only then was able to be king. Because of his cruel nature, no one wanted to marry him and he was unable to find a wife. This surprised me as I always thought the king would just force anyone he wanted to be his queen. Eventually a lady from India came to Bagan to marry the King not knowing of his behaviour and wanting to be a queen. Once she became the queen and realised what he was like, she thought that she would be able to influence the King to become a nicer person but he didn’t want to be told what to do so he killed her too. This was whilst the temple was being built and so a reclining gold statue of the Queen was added behind the two Buddha statues. The Queen’s father came from India when he heard of the murder and killed the King. As the King was hated by the people, the construction of the temple was abandoned and never finished to this day. The temple is enormous and has hundreds of bats living on the tall ceilings so you have to be ok with walking in bat poo if you’re going to have a look around.

Our next stop was called Sulamani Temple which means “small ruby” as the King who built this temple found a small ruby in its spot. This temple was known for fresco paintings which are paintings on the temple walls instead of carved into the stone. The main colours used are black (made from carbon from a fire), white (made from lime) and red and orange (made from stones). They would stick the colours to the walls with glue made from trees like the acacia tree. Now, the paintings are damaged either by termites living in the walls destroying the stone underneath or from people. During the Second World War, Myanmar was involved against the Japanese as they were a British Colony. The Japanese were dropping bombs but wouldn’t drop them on the temples so many villagers moved into the temples to stay alive. The smoke from them cooking food caused black smokey carbon to layer over the paintings meaning the original colours can no longer be seen. There is now a long restoration programme in progress throughout the region to try and restore all of the paintings from the smoke and termite damage but this will take years to complete.

Ananda temple was built in the 11th century by an Indian architect as the King who commissioned it wanted it to be one of the greatest temples in Bagan. The temple had two corridors with an outer corridor for the commoners and an inner corridor for the king, royalty and monks. There were four standing Buddha’s in the temple with two being originals from the 11th century and two being from the 13th century. You could tell the difference as the 11th century Buddha’s had features such as carved knees and their ears didn’t touch their shoulders unlike the 13th century statues. They also had a very clever face that looked smiling or serious depending on whether you walked the outer or inner corridor. This was really smart and wasn’t replicated in the 13th century statues.

At noon we stopped for lunch at a vegetarian restaurant called Moon. Niall and I both had fried noodles which were some of the nicest noodles we’d had in a while as they had a lot of flavour. The place wasn’t the cheapest for our budget though but all the food looked really good!

Our final temple was built by the father of King Narathu (the ‘Killer’ King) in 1140. This is called Shwegu Gyi temple which means Golden Cave. The temple has four Buddha statues and large, carved wooden doors. It’s said to have only taken 7 months to be completed which is fast especially when everything would have had to be built by hand.

We got back from the tour at around 2:30pm so we just got our bags and got ready to move to our hotel in the next town called Nuang-U. Ostello Bello Bagan hadn’t sold it to us enough to fork out the money to stay and we had been able to get a room for £28 total for the two nights we had left so it wasn’t a hard decision to move. To get to Nuang-U we had to get a taxi and the hostel quoted us 10,000kyat (£5.50) which is a lot of money in Myanmar but we managed to get a taxi for 7,000kyat (£3.85) in the end from the travel shop we had hired our bikes from which was still a lot but a better price.

We moved to the Innwa Motel which wasn’t bad but certainly not as good as we had expected. We had a reasonably comfy bed and an ensuite but we were in a room right next to the road which wasn’t too bad in the evening as everywhere shuts down around 11pm but in the morning beeping horns and loads trucks did have us awake early which wasn’t ideal. The WiFi was also quite sporadic which wasn’t great either with some nights us not having any WiFi at all but we managed for the couple of nights and the air conditioning was fantastic to say the least so we were able to cool off after our days in the sun. The breakfast here was really good and the saving grace of the hotel with a huge buffet of fruits, pancakes, toast and eggs. We definitely made the most of this and it was great to be able to eat so much fresh fruit!

After arriving, we relaxed for a few hours in our room and then headed out to watch the sunset. We hired an e-bike from our motel for 3000kyat (£1.60) and headed to the sunset spot we had been told about by our guide that day. Despite being in a different part of Bagan now (Ostello Bello had been in a place called New Bagan) there were still temples and stupas along the route and it didn’t take much longer to get there than from our last hostel. We got our spot for the sunset on top of the temple and waited for the sun to set over the view of lots of stupas and temples including the grand Dhamma-yan-gyi that the killer king had built. It was a nice view and relaxing sitting there for sunset and it seemed for a while like we would get a decent sunset until the sun went behind clouds that had been invisible to us at first glance. Just like the night before we didn’t get a sky of beautiful colours but it had lasted longer than the previous night and had still been pretty so it’s not the end of the world really – there will always be more sunsets to see after all!

After returning our bike we found a local restaurant to have food and got fried rice for 1,500kyat (80p) which was an enormous portion and then on the way back bought two mangos for 1000kyat (55p) which we had back at the hotel and were so good! Mangoes were in season in Myanmar whilst we were there so we had to exploit that!

It had been a really good day and the tour had been perfect for making sure we saw some of the bigger temples whilst also giving us a lot of the history which really made you appreciate the temples more. The guide was really great and we felt a lot more confident to spend the next couple of days exploring on our own now we had been out with him.

After a good breakfast the next morning, we rented an e-bike from the hotel and headed out at around noon to spend the rest of the day exploring the different monuments. We didn’t bother using our maps but just had a drive around and pulled into anywhere we thought looked interesting. What first caught our eye was a giant gold stupa that wasn’t too far away from our hostel. This was called Shwezigon Pagoda and was a number of temples all surrounding a large golden stupa. The stupa shone brightly in the sun and looked like it was quite a new temple compared to the ancient temples we had seen a lot of the day before. One issue we had with this temple and all of the other ones we visit that are outside is how hot the floor gets. In a Buddhist temple you’re not allowed to wear shoes or socks and sometimes you’re walking on marble or stone and so this can really heat up in the high 30 degree heat of the day and sometimes has you running from one patch of shaded ground to the next.

Another stop on our exploration was to Htilominio Temple which was built in 1218. At one of the entrances there is an incredibly large golden Buddha that took up the majority of the hallway it was sitting in. The other three entrances also had Buddha’s that weren’t as big as this one but still gold and all covered in offerings of flowers by a steady flow of devotees that arrived as we were there. The temple was chosen to be built here as it was the spot where the King was chosen from among his five brothers to be the new king. Normally this temple has a pineapple shaped dome on the top of it but we think this had been damaged in the 2016 earthquake as it was all covered in green tarp and scaffolding when we visited. The temple is also surrounded on the outside by market stalls but in the heat they’re not pushy and only shout out about buying from their stall if you’re very near so it didn’t impact on our time there.

The rest of our day we spent stopping and looking at random monuments as we passed them. It’s cool that such big structures were built by ordinary people and that these structures could be built pretty much anywhere. It did get a bit repetitive though so we only spent a few hours out exploring before going back to our room to be in the air conditioning as it was very hot outside!

We went out for sunset again but there was still a lot of clouds. We tried to go up one temple that we had heard had a viewpoint and could be reached by climbing through a broken gate but the stairway was locked so we just went back to the sunset spot we’d been to the previous evening. We did manage to see the sun huge and red in the sky and the sky did go more colourful than the day before which was nice but it still wasn’t a spectacular sunset due to the low lying clouds.

We didn’t need to check out until 12pm and so made the most of the great breakfast and then stayed in our room until checkout as we weren’t getting a bus until 9pm that evening. Our stay here hadn’t been the best and was made worse as we weren’t able to pay on card as planned despite it being advertised and so had to withdraw more money which cost us more and left us with a bad feeling towards the hotel which was a shame.

We hired a bike for 4000kyat (£2.20) from an e-bike shop down the road from our motel and headed out for the rest of the day. We mainly just drove around finding temple and stupas to see. It was a very hot day with temperatures reaching into the high 30s and even the breeze from driving around was warm!

During our drive around we came across a couple of monastic complexes which were large sites full of small red brick houses and a few different temples. I imagine it would have looked particularly impressive when the area was in use as monks would have been everywhere going about their daily life.

Shwe Nan Yin Taw Monastic Complex was the first monastery we visited.

Hsin Byn Shin Monastic Complex was the other monastery we visited which was built in the 14th Century.

We had already seen the majority of the large, established temples in Bagan on our free tour but managed to find a few we hadn’t looked around yet. Pyathadar Temple had an Indian influence, had a flat roof and was made out of brick. Brick was used instead of wood to show the strength of the monastery and this is regarded as one of the last constructions built in Ancient Bagan.

Our final stop for the day was to Shwe San Daw Pagoda. It was getting a bit of work done when we went but this was more to the outside buildings of the pagoda so we could still walk around it and take in its grandeur. This was built in 1057 by the King of the time after he won a battle in the area and it was built to be in the centre of his kingdom. The temple used to have statues of the Hindu god Ganesh at each corner of the structure before the country became a completely Buddhist area. This was also the first monument in Bagan to feature a stairway that went from the bottom of the pagoda to the top. These stairs were blocked off though so we didn’t climb it.

Driving around on the e-bikes was relatively easy and was the best way to see all the temples as they were spread over a large distance. Despite our hotel telling us we didn’t need a helmet and the majority of tourists not wearing one, we still wore helmets and we don’t understand why anyone doesn’t as they’re pretty much just electric motorbikes and can still go reasonably fast. As well as this you’re still driving along roads with cars and motorbikes on it which means accidents can still be deadly and we have seen loads of people scraped up or heard of tourists getting into collisions so why take the risk! We had one small fall ourselves by a temple where the path was a lot more sandy than we thought. Driving about 1mph, the bike span and I flew off, hitting my back and head. I was slightly bruised but my helmet meant my head was fine and where we were was relatively soft from the sand so we were lucky. That being said, that type of fall wouldn’t have happened on a road anyway and Niall (the designated driver) has always kept us safe on the roads and we always wear a helmet as we realise the risks.

Bagan was good, we saw some nice temples and had a good time here but it wasn’t what we expected and I think it underwhelmed us both a bit. It was nice to drive around and explore but a lot of the monuments are very similar once you’ve seen the main ones. Regardless, I’m glad we came and it was good to see for ourselves, it was a shame we weren’t hear during the hot balloon season (which ended in April) as I’ve got a friend who came during that time and showed me photos of the sky being full of balloons over the temples which really does look spectacular. Maybe we’ll see that one day but for now it was time to get back to Yangon.

Sending love x

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