The land of a thousand temples

Our next destination after Mandalay was Bagan, another major tourist stop in Myanmar, and with good reason. Quoting from Lonely Planet’s description: “Bagan fills a 26-sq-mile plain of 4000-plus temples that date back centuries. It’s one of Myanmar’s most wondrous sights and rivals Cambodia’s Angkor Wat in terms of scope and jaw-droppability. ”

We weren’t sure exactly what to expect, but it sounded impressive and we wanted to make sure we had a chance to see it before we left the country.

But first we had to get there.

Ghost airport

After breakfast the next morning, we got a cab to Mandalay’s airport. We drove for nearly an hour, emerging from the dusty city streets full of the rumble and hustle of rusty buses, rickety cars, skinny trishaw drivers to yet another empty Burmese highway. The airport itself was also surreal.

Seemingly in the middle of no where, we approached it on a wide, sweeping, drive that was devoid of any signs of life. The airport looked new and modern and big enough to handle a good deal of air traffic. However, when we got inside, we found only a small crowd waiting in one end of the cavernous, pristine arrivals hall, where the gift shop and cafe nooks stood sadly empty.

The security check was essentially a glance at the outside of our passport, and although the airport had eight of them, all passengers were directed to the same gate. There we waited while flights were announced by clipboard-carrying airport staff calling them out to the crowd and two TVs suspended from the ceiling played the government sponsored channel (shows included a pair of hands playing songs on a piano for a half hour, a recording of a Buddhist ceremony and what looked like a tourism-type famous-sights-of-Myanmar infomercial). By far the most subdued and bizarre airport I’ve ever been to!

The land of a thousand temples

The flight to Bagan was easy. Before we knew it, we were descending over a green and yellow landscape and already catching glimpses of a few of the ancient brick pagodas the region is famous for. We had an easy ride to the hotel, and spent the rest of the day settling in, exploring the neighborhood and grabbing a bite to eat.

The next day was our only full day in Bagan. Ideally, one would have a bit more time to explore and soak it all in, but since we didn’t have this luxury, we opted to hire a guide and horse cart to make sure we saw as much as possible. Aung just happened to be the first driver/guide we met, but he turned out to be lovely, friendly and easy-going and we enjoyed the tour he gave us very much (phone number 0947208587 in case you ever happen to be in Bagan! 😉 ). It was also nice to see how healthy and cared for his horse seemed to be – in India the horses always seemed painfully neglected, skinny and threadbare.

Aung took us to 9 different sites over the course of the day (with a break for lunch in between). For those who are interested, I’ll include a list of the sites we visited below, but as amazing as each individual temple was, when it comes to Bagan, the sum is greater than its parts.

The landscape is just magical. The climate was very different from the north, with a touch of sun-baked partial desert to it like the American southwest or Italy’s Umbria. We were really enjoying trundling along the dusty, scrub-lined roads, cooking in the heat of the sun reflected of the stone courtyards of the gold gilded pagodas or escaping it in the cool, dark atmospheric tunnels of the ruins. But it wasn’t until we emerged from one such tunnel at the top of an old temple high enough to see the expanse of the Bagan plains below us that we were hit by the full majesty and beauty of the place. The entire landscape, as far as the eye could see, even on the distant edge of the flatlands where they began to blur into the far hills and river was dotted with hundreds upon hundreds of pagodas. The full effect of this sight is indescribable. Roman and I could only sit one those ancient bricks and let it watch over us. We didn’t want to leave, but were rewarded later with an even more spectacular vista from another building (Okyaung Gyi) at sunset.

The final highlight of the tour came after the sun had set. Riding through the dark, Aung took us to one last temple, where a ceremony was being held. We heard music as we entered but still were surprised when we rounded a corner and discovered about 25 people sitting around in one of the rooms. The majority of them were in front of a large buddha statue, and were the source of the hypnotic, soothing chanting that reverberated around and outside the temple. A few others were further back in the room, socializing, drinking and eating and smoking. We plopped down in a corner just to enjoy the scene, but soon were being handed tea, tea leaf salad and even a cigarillo by some of the lovely folks there. It was just magic.

With floating hearts, we finally left the temple to head back to the hotel. I was dreaming, enjoying the feeling of cool night descending as we moved through dark streets, when suddenly, something caught my eye. The profiles of two people on the side of the road looked awfully familiar. We asked Aung to stop and I hopped off the cart to go greet Elmer and Ohmar who had themselves just gotten to Bagan! Another happy crossing of paths and another lovely night of food, beer and conversation. 🙂 We also had another flight the next morning to our next stop – Inle Lake, so eventually the evening wound. At this point our intended destinations were diverging, so we said goodbye – till Yangon.

Our itinerary

These are the sites Aung took us too. Apologies for any spelling mistakes.

1.Shwezigon Pagoda
2.Kyansit Thar Cave
3.Tha Gya Hit
4.Ananada Temple
5.Menyein Gon
6.Nanpaya
7.Manhuha
8.Okyaung Gyi
9.Htilominla

Photo impressions

None of my pictures can convey the incredible vast vista or atmosphere of the place – I’m sure you can find much better with a quick search on-line. I have included a couple of my attempts to capture it, but most of these are just snapshots of some of the details of our time in Bagan.

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Young novice at Shwezigon Pagoda

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Tile floor inside one of the temple

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Roman bargaining with one of the vendors outside Shwezigon

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Old wall painting inside one of the temples

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Big buddha inside a shadowy temple

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Money in one of the donation boxes at (I am pretty sure) Ananda Temple

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Devotees entering one of the temple’s rooms

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In a wall alcove

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Door detail

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Roman ascending Menyeingon (I think) to take in the amazing view. None of the temples had lighting or hand rails or anything like that. Outside that patch of light it was practically pitch dark inside. Loved it. 🙂

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Temples as far as the eye can see!

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Temple detail

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Woman praying before a massive reclining buddha (note the eye and eyebrow…)

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Sunset from Okyaung Gyi. Another bigger-than-life sun!

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