Temple overload

Trip Start Mar 03, 2005
Trip End Apr 08, 2006

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Flag of Myanmar  , Mandalay,
Thursday, February 9, 2006

I woke at yet another ridiculous hour, this time 4:15am in order to get the boat from Mandalay to Bagan. Upon finding a seat at 5am I was a little disheartened to see the huge number of package tourists on board, but on the bright side this meant there would be fewer stops along the way.

I slept for nearly an hour before waking in time to see a magnificent sunrise near Sagaing, and from this point onwards I barely moved for the rest of the day. I sat at a table on the deck and just watched as we drifted along the Ayeryawaddy. At times the banks were a wide beach, and at others they were low sandy cliffs. It was a really relaxing day and just how I imagined river life in Burma to be. We arrived at the small town of Nyaung U at around 6:30pm, and I forced myself into bed early knowing I only had a day and a half of temple siteseeing in Bagan.

* * * *

My only full day in Bagan was to be spent seeing as much as I possibly could, and simply becoming acquainted with the place. I had breakfast on the rooftop of the Eden hotel with just the third Australian I'd met in Burma before hiring a mountainbike at 8:30am and making for my first temple, the Shwezigon Paya, just outside Nyaung U. This was an impressive pagoda, one of the oldest in Bagan actually, however it was painted in gold which hid it's age somewhat.

I rode south alongside a huge covered walkway then turned north west to see Kyanzittha Umin, a temple cave with numerous frescoes from the 11th and 13th centuries, which is when the Mongols supposedly sacked Bagan. A local who spoke only minimal English showed me around as I'd forgotted my torch, which again exemplified the kindness of the Burmese people.

From here it was only a few hundred metres to the outskirts of Nyaung U, and from this moment until sunset I was always within sight of at least a dozen temples. They were of all shapes and sizes, rising up out of the dry, arid plains. I picked one of these temples at random (number 2101 to be precise) and climbed it for my first view over the plains. And what an incredible view it was! As far as the eye could see there were temples rising above the palms, with three or four huge ones dominating the horizon.

After letting the incredible view sink in for a few minutes I made for the closest of these large temples, Htilominto Pahto. This really was a huge temple, with massive hallways and four giant buddhas at the cardinal points. The were more frescoes here, something absent from the Khmer temples in Cambodia I'd seen so many of the previous year. The only thing which detracted from the atmosphere was the huge number of venders constantly harrassing to purchase their products. As at Inle lake, supply far exceeded demand.

I then crossed the road to Upali Thein, a coronation hall which had many beautiful frescoes. I managed to get rid of some weight from my wallet here as the venders were all keen to get their hands on some Australian coins! Among these vendors were two of the most beautiful women I think I've ever seen. There really was something special about the Burmese women; their tall slender figures, wonderful long black hair, faces smeared with thanakha, I'm not sure what exactly, but I certainly found them the most attractive of all Asian women!

After checking out a few smaller temples I made for Bagan's largest temple, Ananda Pahto. This massive temple was quite a sight, with a number of terraces and a huge golden corncob like spire. There were hundreds of small buddha statues in niches in the interior, as well as four huge teak doors which opened onto four equally as huge buddhas. I spent some time looking at this temple before coming across a lone vegetarian restaurant which was a real find amongst the temples and plains.

After a good feed I rode over to Old Bagan which is where I spent the next few hours. In order I visited Thatbyinnyu Pahto, the Hindu temple Nathlaung Kyaung (where a friendly young lady pointed out the carvings of Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma), I climbed Ngakywenadaung Paya, saw some frescoes in Pahtothamya, then visited Gawdawpalin Pahto, Shwegugyi, Mahabodhi Paya (modelled on the pagoda built in India at the spot where the Buddha gained enlightenment) and wound up at the golden dome of Bupaya, which overlooked the Ayeryawaddy

Not yet suffering from temple fatigue I made my out to one of Bagan's most famous pagodas, Shwesandaw Paya. The view from the top was the best I'd seen all day, with 360 degree views over the entire plain. I spent some time here, chatting with some local children who were very keen on my cheap Thai sunglasses.

From here I braved the sandy roads on my mountainbike to see two of the biggest temples on the central plain Dhammayangyi Pahto and Sulamani Kyaung. Dhammayangyi had some MASSIVE corridors, and hundreds of bats who'd made the place home were squawking and shitting everywhere. A young boy showed me a good viewpoint at this temple, looking west towards Shwesandaw.

Once I'd checked out Sulamani I rode further east to Thabeik Hmauk where a young girl showed me to the top up a very narrow staircase. She was obviously claustrophobic and scared of heights the poor thing. The views here of the sun setting behind Sulamani were superb, although I decided to make one last dash for one last temple to see the sunset, at Buledi.

I stopped at an Indian restaurant on the way back to my hotel, where I bumped into Olwyn, the Irish girl who'd joined us for dinner in Mandalay a few days earlier. She obviously wasn't persuaded by Susan to visit Hsipaw instead of Bagan! Accompanying her was an elderly French lady who was undoubtedly the oldest independent traveller I'd ever come across. We had a good chat over dinner before I made my way back to get some sleep. It was an exhausting day, but incredibly rewarding. Surely there can be no place in the world quite like Bagan, where literally thousands of stupas rise above the palms in a massive plain. I was so glad I had the opportunity to see it, if only for a day and a half.

* * * *

I forced myself out of bed at 5:20am the following morning for the 40 minute cycle out to Shwesandaw Paya in the hopes that the sunset that was so disappointing the previous evening would be forgotten thanks to a beautiful sunrise. The sunrise was better, but only just as there was heavy cloud cover again.

After shaking off a slightly annoying American girl and having a brief chat with a long haired dude about Dhaka and package tourists in Burma I made my way over to Mingalazedi, the tallest pagoda in the Myinkaba area. During the next hour I rode south through Myinkaba village to see Manuha Paya, where there were two giant buddhas, one sitting and one standing, both in enclosures that seemed far too small. I then continued riding south to Abeyadana Pahto, where a pretty young girl pointed out some frescoes, however by this stage I was quite exhausted so I began the long haul back to my hotel for breakfast.

I relaxed and checked my email before grabbing a new bike and retracing my steps from the previous day to pick up some souvenir paintings from Htilominlo Pahto. Unlike at Angkor, the vendors were actually inside the complex here, instead of happily harassing tourists outside. I then continued on to Old Bagan and was making good time until I discovered I had a puncture! Sure my mountain bike from the previous day was uncomfortable, but at least it's tyres were stronger than the road bike I'd picked up earlier that morning. Seeing Ananda Pahto nearby, I rode to the vegetarian restaurant where I ate the previous day in the hope that someone there could fix it while I ate some lunch. Unfortunately I didn't have time to wait, but my Irish friend Olwyn managed to find me again and we had a good chat over some veggies and rice.

I didn't see any more temples as I had to ride my punctured bike back to Nyaung U in time for my 3pm bus to Rangoon. I was disappointed that I couldn't spend longer in Bagan, although that was just another of the reasons why I knew I had to return to Burma. I boarded the bus outside the hotel, however I had to sit right at the back. It was a big bus too, seating well over 50 people. By the time we stopped for dinner at 7:30pm I'd slept for a few hours, but felt quite nauseus and had a splitting headache thanks to the bumpy ride. I continued to drift in and out of sleep once we got back on the road, although at no point did I feel 100%. Little did I know just how long the supposed 15 hour trip was going to take...
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