Thursday was my second full day in Bagan, and my plan was to visit *all* of the largest and most popular temples on the map. This would have been quite the feat in Angkor Wat, but everything is much closer together at Bagan…plus, I had my handy electric scooter!
I set off to the very northwest corner of Bagan, planning to hit all of the biggest temples while slowly making my way back towards the area where my hotel is. I resolved to not stop for anything on the way there, but I saw a beautiful temple flanked by two trees and just had to stop!
I continued all the way through the city of Old Bagan and pulled up outside Shwezigon Pagoda. Shwezigon is easily identifiable because the entire thing is painted gold!
On my way out, I saw…well, just watch. It’s seriously impressive how much hard labor is done without power tools.
I got back on the road and started back towards the rest of the temples. On the way, I looked over and saw a man climbing around the top floor of a temple, so I stopped to follow in his footsteps! Climbing to the top required ducking through a very narrow, steep, and small staircase, but it was a great view!
I continued on and stopped at
Hitmonchan Htilominlo temple. Even more impressive than the temple’s beauty and size (almost fifty meters tall) were the giant Buddha statues on the inside.
I stopped for lunch at what turned out to be a vegetarian place, “Be Kind to Animals The Moon”. In restaurants in Europe and America, the server often brings some complimentary bread before your meal. In Mexico, tortilla chips. In Myanmar? Peanuts! After another delicious curry meal, I was brought (not for the last time) the traditional Myanmar version of an after-dinner mint – tamarind flakes! Tamarind and sugar is mixed together, pressed into coin-shaped pieces, sprinkled with flour, and wrapped in bundles of five or six stacked on top of each other. This sweet/sour/salty treat is delightful, and another item added to my list of foods to find back home!
After lunch, I made my way to Thatbyinnyu, built in 1144. This temple was unique in that it wasn’t perfectly symmetrical, but instead shaped like a cross. While walking around inside, I heard some giggling behind me and turned around to find a small gang of local kids. I’m not sure exactly what fascination they had with me, but they asked (through hand motions) if they could get a picture with me! I agreed, but then made sure to get a picture of my own. In general, I found that the children of Myanmar are much more outgoing than the other countries in SEA. On the rare occasion that I tried to talk to anyone under the age of sixteen in Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, or Cambodia, the kids would mostly shuffle their feet and stare at the ground while shyly trying to utter a few words in English. However, in Myanmar I had several different instances where a child came up to me and asked me questions, with (seemingly) no intentions other than practicing their English!
The next temple I wanted to visit was Dhammayangi. This temple wasn’t along one of the main roads, and I didn’t see a sign pointing me to it. However, the temple is very large, so I just picked a trail that looked like it was heading that direction and started driving. My poor little electric scooter had some issues with the path I took – the dust was so thick and deep that I had to push through with my feet, Flintstones style! I finally made it onto a less dusty road and drove to the rest of the temple without much difficulty.
Having visited Dhammayangi, I officially visited all of the largest temples in Bagan! It was nearing the end of the day, so I headed back to the hotel to get some rest and get out of the heat for a little while. I went to a small temple to the east of my hotel to snap a few more sunset pictures, then grabbed a cheap dinner and rested for the next day.
I woke up at 5am the next morning to see a sunrise in Bagan. I hopped on my little electric scooter and biked to the most popular sunrise spot, with barely enough light to see five feet in front of me. Making it to the temple in one piece, there were already a couple dozen other tourists there, but I was able to get a good spot looking east from the center of the highest spot on the temple. Many more tourists showed up after I got there, so I’m very glad I got up extra early!
I’ve watched the sun rise several times in Southeast Asia now, and it’s kind of a strange experience. Because it’s so hazy in the area right now, there’s not really one “moment” where you first see the sun rising up on the horizon – it just sort of slowly appears through the smog well above the horizon. Because of this, watching the sun rise – while beautiful – has been somewhat anticlimactic, lacking that “ooooooh…aaaaahhh” moment. I happened to be thinking this exact thought when I heard the crowd start to murmur, and then gasp, pointing towards the horizon. I saw dozens of hot air balloons, just starting to take off above the tree line, and started to get goosebumps. Not seconds later, the sun appeared as a dim orange disk in the sky. It was definitely the most memorable sunrise I can remember.
Before I headed down, I saw some monks also taking pictures of each other. Many of the monks I saw were tourists like me – the orange robes indicate that they are not from Myanmar, as Myanmar monks wear robes colored a deep red. I normally try to avoid taking pictures of monks, as I feel it is somewhat disrespectful…but I felt somewhat justified since they were taking pictures too!
At this point I went back to the hotel to get some breakfast and take a quick nap. I actually was able to listen to Gonzaga’s first round game on internet radio (and of course I was wearing my Gonzaga shirt that day, though nobody made any comments on it). Go Zags!
I headed out again without any clear direction to go, just to explore areas that I hadn’t been to yet. I headed towards the Ayeyarwady River, which flanks Bagan’s west side, a mighty river perhaps as wide as the Columbia River in Washington/Oregon. I stumbled upon the Buphaya Stupa, built in the 3rd century!
I left Buphaya and headed back to a building I had passed a couple of times, but never entered – the Bagan Archaeological Museum. Wanting to get out of the heat for a little while, and eager to learn something about all of the temples I had seen, I bought a ticket and walked up to the entrance. Unfortunately, the museum would not allow any cameras or phones inside, so I don’t have any pictures of the inside – though I did take a picture of the statue outside of the Hero of Bagan, who according to legend saved Bagan from five beasts – eagle, boar, tiger, bat, and gourd (?) with his legendary bow.
The museum didn’t have much information on the temples themselves, but there were some other very interesting exhibits. The coolest was a large exhibit on language. Many of the temples had giant four-sided stone tablets, around five to six feet tall, and two feet across on each side. Most of the inscriptions were relatively mundane things, such as documenting how a group of slaves was purchased by one family from another family – the interesting thing was the language. Each side had the inscription in a different language, making these tablets great for studying the languages of the times and how they evolved! They had so much data from these tablets that they were able to make a chart of each language, showing how each character changed over the centuries, including characters that became obsolete or others that were invented much later.
After a few hours of exploring the museum, the sun was already low in the sky! I went to a temple by the river to watch my last sunset in Myanmar, the Dhammayazika temple.
My flight left early the next morning. I flew from Bagan back to Mandalay, and I had about a six hour layover. I did this on purpose when I planned my trip to give myself some time to explore Mandalay, but that was before I knew that the airport was an hour away from town. Still, I was able to take a taxi to a tourist site closer than the city, the U Bein Bridge. Thought to be the longest teak bridge in the world, the three-quarter mile bridge was built in 1850. Even more interesting than the bridge were all of the people visiting – a healthy mix of Myanmar people and foreigners.
Before I knew it, I was back at the airport ready to head back to Thailand! But I wasn’t going to Chiang Mai – for the next two weeks, Julia and I will be in Phuket with our great friend Dan! Until next time…