Temples, temples everywhere!

Trip Start Nov 06, 2012
Trip End Feb 01, 2013

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Friday, January 11, 2013

Beautiful, beguiling Bagan..........you need to see it to believe it. 

From around the 11th century, over a period of about 230 years, Bagan was the site of a temple building frenzy, the scale of which is almost impossible to comprehend. Over 4,000 temples were built and over 3,000 can still be seen today. Some of these are reconstructions, but over 2,000 of these are original.

When we say “temple,” we use this term loosely as there are actually six different types of religious monument in this area: temples (hollow); pagodas (solid); libraries; monasteries; meditation complexes (cabes); and ordination halls.

To get a sense of the sheer scale of Bagan, we clambered up the Buledi Pagoda on our first morning, fresh off the plane from Yangon and just after sunrise. The view was breathtaking (not just because we are really quite unfit!) and rivals that of Machu Picchu from the sungate, just after sunrise before the tourist crowds descend. Only a handful of places we have seen compare to that view of Machu Picchu and so a big gold star to Bagan. Gold turned out to be a theme here - we’ll come back to that shortly...

The view over the plain was spectacular - a sea of brick/ stone monuments and palm trees dotting the landscape. We visited a number of these monuments over a couple of days and below is a short summary (mainly so that we can remember them):

Buledi Paya - what a great place to start! We climbed up this to get our first taste of the amazing views over the plain. Incredible stuff.

Htilominlo Pahto - another fantastic temple with a different style of architecture. Much larger than Buledi and some surviving examples of the original glazing and original fresco decoration.

Kyanzittha Umin - an example of a cabe, a dark, peaceful place for monks to meditate. V banged her head on the way in. Ouch. Next to a couple of monasteries.

Schwezigon Paya - glittering gold stupa in the area of Nyaung U, where we learnt about the relationship between the positioning of the day of the week buddha images, animals and the planets. Fascinating stuff. A was born on a Saturday and so his lucky animal is a dragon, which is always on the south west corner and which corresponds to Saturn. V was born on a Sunday (she thinks) and so her lucky animal is a garuda, which is always on the north eastern corner of each temple and which corresponds to the Sun. If it turns out that V wasn’t born on a Sunday, she’s been making offerings to the wrong day of the week buddha images...

Yar Hong Gyi - our first Bagan sunset, which we enjoyed from a temple which has just re-opened after having been closed for five years for conservation. Very peaceful.

Sulamani Pahto - our first temple on day two. Lots of examples of original painting, stone carvings and glazing. Very popular with the locals and there were a number of people there making offerings to the various buddha images within the temple. There was also a group of tourists there (we think from Korea) in serious need of a visit from the Fashion Police.

Dhammayangyi Pahto - Bagan’s largest temple and one with a very dark past. Legend has it that King Narathu killed his brother and his father to quicken his accession to the throne. He also killed one of his wives. Not a great family man. Nor was he a great boss - he demanded perfect masonry skills and any worker whose brickwork didn’t fit tightly together had his arms chopped off. Our guide showed us some stones with arm-sized grooves where this apparently happened. A of course insisted on a photograph. 

Ananda Pahto - apparently the “must-see” temple. We weren’t that impressed and were slightly concerned about the quality of the restoration work that it’s currently undergoing. Something we did enjoy about this place was that on the face of one of the buddha images, the expression changed depending on where you stood: serious for the monks praying at his feet and happy when viewed from the position taken by locals.

Tharabar Gate - the only original surviving gate to entry into Old Bagan. The gate is flanked by two nats, a brother and sister. Locals still come here to make offerings to bring them good fortune.

Pitaka Taik - ancient library intended for the royal family to read and review Buddha’s teachings. Different type of architecture.

Schwegugyi - another temple from which we could see the original site of the royal palace and which we were told was the site where King Narathu killed his father and brother

Thatbyinnyu Pahto - although we couldn’t go inside as it’s closed for restoration, we stopped to admire Bagan’s tallest temple from the old city wall.

Law Ka Hite Pan - unassuming and within a few steps of Shwesandaw Paya, the inside ceiling and walls of this small temple are covered with original murals. The artwork was incredible, even more so as all of the sunset junkies heading to Shwesandaw Paya don’t know what they are missing. It was just us, our guide, the keyholder and a couple of torches.

Shweleiktoo - our second Bagan sunset, at the top of a crumbling (and we think quite unsafe!) Pagoda. Stunning views were accompanied by a local kid trying to sell us a bottle opener. When A told him that we didn’t drink beer, he laughed, pointed to A’s stomach and said “you must do, you are a baby elephant”. Needless to say, he didn’t make a sale. V was laughing so much she almost fell off the pagoda. Note this is the second time A has been described as a baby elephant on this trip...the diet starts on our return.

Shwe Nan Yin Taw - after our trip to Mt Popa, we enjoyed our third and final Bagan sunset from this temple. Beautiful but we both felt sad to be leaving the following day.

One overriding observation we have had from our time in Myanmar is that most of the original buddha images or stupas were only covered in gold for the first time in the last few decades. Nobody has been able to explain to us why, but the locals clearly came into a boatload of gold about 25 years ago and saw fit to lash it all over their religious monuments...and they continue to do so today...

A tour of the Bagan monuments without a guide would have been quite dry and having one really brought to the stories behind the history and architecture. Our guide was lovely, keen to share his knowledge and very experienced. He planned the days so that we wouldn’t get “templed out” and would see as much variety as possible (for example, he told us about the six different types of architecture and showed us at least one of each). He was able to take us to some of his favourites, including Yar Hong Gyi which had just reopened after having been closed for a number of years. He provided more colour, energy and enthusiasm than the ever “reliable” guidebook.

We had three evenings in Bagan and spent all of them barefoot, facing west watching the sun set behind the hills beyond the Ayerarwady River. The sense of freedom, being allowed to clamber up these ancient religious monuments and then sit with our legs dangling over the sides, was incredible and added to our enjoyment. Again, thanks to our guide, we avoided all of the crowds at sunset. Seriously, the guy is a legend!

On a note about the crowds, this was our first experience of seeing serious numbers of other tourists in Myanmar. We appeared to be bringing down the average age of the Bagan tourists. Quite considerably. And upping the British contingent, for most were French (all tooled up in Quechua gear, which we’ve concluded seems to be obligatory for every French person the world over - JC, please can you confirm this?) or Israeli.

The fact that we spent 99% of our time barefoot meant one thing - very dirty feet. So dirty, in fact, that we think there’s a really possibility our feet are permanently stained. No kidding. A is even considering a medi-pedi when we get back to the UK. 

We used Bagan as a base to visit nearby Mt Popa, stopping off at a toddy and jaggery shack on the side of the road. Here, we got a ride on a cow-powered roundabout, which as a by-product also seemed to be producing peanut oil (okay, perhaps that should be the other way around!). It takes about half an hour (and a very dizzy cow) to produce about one litre of oil. We were also treated to yet more sky beer and an explanation of the process of how they make jaggary and various alcoholic concoctions. A was still feeling under the weather and it was quite early in the morning and so the fumes were not doing him any favours - but he still drank the lot. Star.

The jaggary was really tasty and so we stocked up on treats for when we return to work. Sorry colleagues, we got a bit hungry and so cracked open one of the coconut flavoured bags of jaggary. There’s still some left at the moment but we doubt it’ll make it all the way back to London. It could well be the ubiquitous Toblerone/ Milka treats after all. But it’s the thought that counts - and we thought of each of you while tucking in!

We didn’t go up Mt Popa itself but went up the 777 steps to Popa Taung Kalat, dodging the monkeys and monkey poo (barefoot, of course) along the way. There is approximately one monkey for every step up to the temple. The monkeys were everywhere. 

Before attempting the “barefoot monkey poo dance”, we visited the nat shrine in the village at the base of Popa Taung Kalat. In here are housed 37 nat spirits, the focus being on the local Mae Wunna, the local woman nat, the mother spirit of Popa. Belief in the nat spirits pre-dates Buddhism and belief in the nats is very important to the locals.

At the top of Popa Taung Kalat, we could see for miles, with the usual gold stupas dotting the landscape. There were also clusters of these around the top of the mountain and our guide told us that these were built using donations from wealthy benefactors. So many donations have been received over the years that, due to lack of space at the top of the mountain, the authorities have now banned any new construction. As a result of this, collections of gold stupas are now springing up around the lower slopes and the base of the mountain. At the top of the mountain, there are also a number of shrines to Pomin Gawng (remember the guy who had a penchant for checked trousers whose image we saw in Yangon?).

While in Bagan, we stopped in at Myinkaba, a small village famous for its lacquerware workshops. One of the owners of a local workshop talked us through the process of making lacquerware (usually from bamboo or teak). This was fascinating - we hadn’t known how long handmade lacquerware products took to make (and that’s before you even think about engraving or colouring it). There was a beautiful screen being produced, which we both loved. The price tag was considerably more than the amount of dollars we brought into the country, but the manager explained that we could pay a 10% deposit in cash and transfer the rest of the money to a Singapore bank account. Unfortunately, after the recent trauma of the Great Dollar Hunt, a further dollar hunt for even the deposit would have finished us off!

We were sad to leave Bagan and our wonderful guide, who was very excited about the following day. His eyes lit up as he told us that he was looking forward to carry on reading a book he’d obtained on the black market. The book was written by a former Myanmar army general, who was now living in the US, and it revealed the inner workings and corruption of the military regime. Our guide was gripped! His view for the future of his country was very positive and he was keen to tell us that the word “Myanmar” means “quickly and strong”. A great name for this country and its people. 
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