My Trip to Burma: Beautiful Breathtaking Bagan Part 1 - Fascinating Pagodas, Impressive Lacquerware, and an Amazing Sunset

Vacation is supposed to be a time to relax.   Well, not today.  We set our alarm for 4:00 a.m., quickly got dressed, and checked out of our hotel in order to meet our driver and zip to the Yangon airport for our flight to Bagan.

The domestic terminal at Yangon International Airport is total chaos, but somehow, people seem to get from Point A to Point B.  We arrived in Bagan early and were met by our guide, Myint Naing.  His English was also heavily accented, but he was more comprehendible than our first guide, Myo. 

It was too early in the morning to check into our hotel.  Instead, we started sightseeing right upon leaving the airport.  

Even though Rangoon and Mandalay are more well known, most travelers to Burma are in agreement that if you had to limit yourself to one city in this country, it would have to be Bagan.  Burma’s ancient capital from the ninth to the 13th century, Bagan (formerly Pagan) is considered the soul of Myanmar, much like Sukhothai is the heart of old Siam. During the time Bagan was the capital, it became fashionable to build pagodas and temples, and noblemen competed with one another to construct grander and more elaborate ones. Poorer people built more modest structures.  The result: Bagan is one of Asia’s – indeed the world’s – great sights: 26 square-miles festooned with 4,446 of temples, pagodas, and religious monuments rising from the flat plain bordering the Ayeyarwaddy River. 

As an architectural showpiece, Bagan is rivaled only by perhaps Angkor in Cambodia.  In Angkor, most of the major monuments have now disappeared.  The temples of Bagan, however, remain relatively free from crowds, thankfully. 

The scale of the monuments is overwhelming.  Some temples that would be a main attraction anywhere else often fail to merit even a mention in most tourist guides.  It is impossible to understand through photographs (although we’ll try here) because its power lies in its sweep.  Even in person, walking among the pagodas, driving among them, climbing up them to watch the sun set, and even surveying the landscape from the vantage point of a hot air balloon, it’s still a little difficult to wrap your head around the scale of Bagan’s Plain of Temples.  It’s bigger than Manhattan.  It’s more than 8 times the size of the gardens of Versailles. When you look at one of the pagodas, you not only see that pagoda, but you see a thousand more over its shoulder. 

The greater Bagan area is divided into three main areas. There’s the town of Nyaung U, which is the main center.  About 5.5 km down the road is the historic city of Old Bagan. It has the greatest concentration of historic monuments.  About 4.5 km further south is New Bagan. Stretching inland from the river, the central plain is where you find many of Bagan’s finest temples.  The entire area, about 40 square kilometers, is known as the Bagan Archeological Zone.

I was expecting our guide to show us pagodas based on area.  Instead, he said he was going to take us through Bagan architecture by century, starting with the 10th and 11th centuries, and then showing how the architecture changed as time went on.  Myint was a very bright guy.  He was very into art and architecture, and his perspective was really wonderful.  

Our first stop was a quiet, no-name pagoda somewhere in the central plain.  He said this was a good place to start, so we could get a nice sweeping view of the landscape, while he talked about the history of Bagan.  That's our guide, Myint, on the left.

You enter and find yourself in a dark foyer, with a very narrow staircase leading up to the second level.  You have to let anyone on the second level know you're coming up, because you can't see if they're coming down, and there's no way you can pass each other on that stairway.   When you get to the second level, you're on a little terrace. The view from the terrace is indeed pretty impressive, the plain dotted with pagodas. 

On the terrace, Myint took out some maps and diagrams and gave us a brief overview of the history of Burmese architecture.  He then showed us the itinerary he had laid out for us.  We were excited to get started.  Before leaving, he told us to stroll around the terrace and enjoy the view.  We happily complied. 

Temples, as far as the eye could see

It was our first real view of Bagan.  It's pretty mesmerizing.  

Okay, time to navigate down this little stairwell.  First we had to wait for a few others to climb down.  First you go down a step or two, then you turn around and go down backwards.  It's the only way.  
 I was surprised to see other folks here.  Maybe it's not such a no-name pagoda after all.  Compared to some of the others we ended up seeing over the next three days, this one really had nothing distinguishing about it at all.  

It had a Buddha statue in it, of course.  All of the pagodas do, except those in which it was stolen or destroyed (earthquakes being the most common reason for destruction; Burma has had a lot of earthquakes.)

As we were leaving, I noticed some pretty intricate detail on the exterior.

I also encountered a really sweet, adorable dog.  I would see many, many more dogs during my stay in Burma, but I have to say, this particular dog made the strongest impression on me.  Not sure why.  I just really felt a nice connection to him.  This is exactly the kind of dog I would want to adopt if I ever decided to get a dog.

Our first big-name pagoda was the Thatbyinnyu Paya.  (Paya is the Burmese word for "pagoda".  The two words are interchangeable, really.)  This is one of the largest temples anywhere in Bagan and it dominates the skyline.  At 66 meters, it's actually the tallest pagoda in Bagan.  Thatbyinnyu takes its name from the Omniscience of the Buddha. (The word Thatbyinnyu means "omniscience") It was built by King Alaungsithu (he ruled from 1113 to 1163). It's a transitional temple, standing between the early style of the Ananda (we'll be visiting there soon) and the late style of the Gawdawpalin (we'll visit that one, too.)  It's one of the earliest double-storied or "double-cubed" temples. The main shrine is on the upper story and the traditional ground floor shrine is replaced with a solid-core structure to support the extra weight of the additional story above. Entrances are placed at each of the cardinal points, the so-called "four-faced" layout with the eastern portico sticking out a little further than the others, breaking the symmetry.  We see this in the Ananda pagoda, and in the later temples like the Gawdawpalin and the Sulamani (we will visit that one, too, later.  Only briefly, though.) We didn't go into this pagoda, unfortunately.  

Continuing our exploration of the really early temples, we passed by the Nathlaung Kyaung Temple just to the west of the Thatbinnyu.  It's the only remaining Hindu temple in Bagan.  It's one of the oldest temples in Bagan, built in the 11th century, built during the reign of King Anawratha, although some historians believe it was built in the 10th century during the reign of King Taungthugyi.  Whatever.  It's freakin' old.   It was originally built for Hindu Burmese Indians of the 11th century, including merchants and Brahmins in the service of the king.  The temple was closed, and we couldn't go in, but we could peer into it from the outside.  Many structures of the original temple have disappeared, although the main hall, which you see here, remains.  Originally the temple contained statues of the 10 Avatars of Vishnu, including Gautama Buddha, however, only seven remain today.  The brick temple was isolated and in disrepair for many years after it was damaged by earthquakes.

 The temple is set on a square template with steeply rising upper terraces. As the oldest temple in Bagan, its style influenced and inspired the numerous other Buddhist structures that followed.

Nathlaung Kyaung means "Shrine Confining Nats or Spirits", a reference to a purported time when King Anawratha tried to banish the worship of nats (spirits) in Bagan.  (You'll hear a LOT more about nats in future blog posts.)  The King is said to have confiscated all non-Buddhist religious images including indigenous Myanmar nats and Hindu devas.  Then he ordered them to be placed in this shrine as part of an effort to establish "pure" Theraveda Buddhism during his reign.  Eventually the King gave in to the cult of the nats and he standardized the current line-up of Burmese nats by placing 37 chosen images at the Shwezigon Pagoda.  In a few days, we'll visit Mount Popa and see, in a little museum there, life-size depictions of those 37 nats.  We couldn't go in, but you can see, adorning the outside (and covered with gratings) Hindu images of the Buddha.

Nearby were some very cute dogs, including a few puppies that I played with for a bit. 

 Near the Thatbyinnyu pagoda and right up the road, really, from the Nathlaung Kyaung, there is another 10th century pagoda, the Ngakywenadaung pagoda, which features the bulbous shape favored by the Pyus.  These cylindrical types of pagodas were found in the Sri Ksetra era.  In fact, the oldest surviving stupas are those at the city of Sri Ksetra, where you can see many bulbous type stupas like this.  (Unfortunately, this city is not on our itinerary.)  Their cylindrical, elongated shape influence the forms of Bagan's first pagodas.  They slowly became more bell-like, with squat middle sections and tapering spires, and they grew higher and larger, set on grand stepped terraces, as you'll see in the next few days.  The Pahtothamya Temple (our next visit) also has a stupa shaped like this. As you can see, it's kinda small.  Hard to believe this little thing has such a rich history.

The Ngakywenadaung pagoda was donated by King Taungthugyi during the 10th century.  It's 13-meters high.  It used to be covered with green glazed tiles, and many of them remain and can be seen. (There are four monuments in Bagan that are or were covered in green glazed tiles, and this is one of them.  We'll see one or two more in a few days.)

A short stroll away was the Pahtothamya Paya.  It dates back to the 10th or 11th century.  It is a low-set, heavy structure in classic early-period style.  The stupa is nothing amazing; it's typical of the city's oldest temples.

The entrance to the interior is through an arched antechamber.

A brooding Buddha sits in near darkness in the central shrine. 

This strategically placed little window is responsible for the light coming in to be focused on the Buddha's face and body. 
The temple is believed to be one of five temples built by king Taungthugy (931-964), although some historians suggest it was built by King Sawlu.  A floor plan is shown below.  You walk through the antechamber (on the right) and then you come to the  statue of the Buddha in the shrine. A gloomy and very atmospheric ambulatory leads around the shrine.  

The interior is dimly lit, typical of the early type of Pyu-influenced temples.  These temples usually had small, perforated stone windows.

The dim light was very atmospheric, and I took one of my best photos in here: Mark (he's a Buddhist) paying his respects.

We walked through the dark passages around the pagoda.  Our guide took out a flashlight, and the walls came alive with amazingly detailed murals, some of which are the oldest known in Bagan.  

This is pretty much what they looked like, although they look more intense when you add a little color in Photoshop!

What really struck me about all of this was how unguarded it all was.  Here we were, just the three of us, in a pagoda built over 1000 years ago, completely  by ourselves.  No admission fee, no video cameras, no alarms, no security guards.  Nothing in glass cases or behind plexiglass screens.  I mean, here I am, staring at and touching a marble statue that is hundreds of years old, unsupervised.   This is why I'm so glad I came here now, while this is all still possible.  Because once tourism gets really crazy (and it will), I fear that none of this will be possible.   So go now!

Next stop: the Ananda Pahto.  The Ananda is one of the most stylistically refined and impressive temples in Bagan, and the most revered by Burmese Buddhists. It was built around 1105 by King Kyanzittha, heralding the stylistic conclusion of the Early Bagan period and the beginning of the Middle Period.

It is considered the masterpiece of early-period Bagan architecture, a surviving masterpiece of Mon architecture.  Probably the finest, largest, and best preserved temple in Bagan.  During the 1975 earthquake, the Ananda suffered considerable damage, but it has since been totally restored.   

The corn-cob looking stupa, soaring 170 feet, underlines the fact that the shrine was designed by Indian architects.  It is crowned by a gleaming golden umbrella filial, called a hti. In 1990, on the 900th anniversary of the temple's construction, the temple spires were gilded.  You can see two of the gilded spires in the picture above.

The exterior base is embellished with bands of green glazed terra-cotta plaques  (554 of them) showing scenes from the Jatakas, episodes of the Buddha’s life, derived from Mon texts.  

Stone chinthes (leogryphs) stand guard at all corners of the building.

There's some pretty impressive stucco work along the rooftop

From time to time, the temple's exterior is whitewashed, making sure the place is always gleaming.

Door guardians, made of exquisitely carved and painted hardwood flank the entrances on the east and west.

When you enter the temple, you pass through a corridor where vendors are selling all sorts of items, religious and non-religious.

Books were pretty popular.  Hey, there's Hillary Clinton's book!

The floor layout is that of a Greek cross embedded in a square, and it is innovative in that it gives four entrances rather than the customary one.  The four grand entranceways lead to four beautiful gilded Buddhas standing in huge recesses, interconnected by corridors adorned with fantastic paintings and stone sculptures.  These are the four Buddhas who have been said to have attained nirvana. The Buddha statues on the north and south sides are original, and are posed in the teaching mudra.  The other two are replacements for the original statues which were destroyed by fire in the 1600s.  

The recess that contained the Western Buddha, Gautama, was  undergoing renovations and as behind a bamboo scaffold.  The picture on the right, which I took from a website, shows what it normally looks like.  It is posed in the "have no fear" mudra.  It's not an original.

The eastern Buddha, with arms by its side and hands outstretched, is off in that it doesn’t conform to any recognized mudra.  Between its fingertips is said to be herbal pill, perhaps symbolizing the cure from suffering offered by the Buddha’s teachings. Or it could just be a Tylenol.  It is also not an original. 
The north facing Buddha (Kakusandha) and south-facing Buddha (Kassapa) are both originals, and both display the dhammachakka mudra, a hand position symbolizing the Buddha's first sermon.


Our guide pointed out something very cool.  If you stand right at the base of the south-facing Buddha, he looks stern.  If you step back a few meters, however, he's smiling.  Pretty neat! 
The long hallways were lined with all sorts of Buddha images.

In a recess in one of the long hallways, a monk was meditating.  We left the Ananda and started heading toward the last pagoda of the morning, the Sulamani.  

On the way, he pointed out something pretty cool. He told us that some pagodas were rebuilt, and the original stupa was topped by a new stupa.  There was a ruin nearby showing the original, small stupa that was buried under the new one.  

About a mile away, isolated in the dead center of the Archaeological Zone, we spotted the Sulamani.  

Actually, we arrived at the entryway to the Sulamani.  You come upon an area where vendors are selling all sorts of souvenirs.

 Then you head through an arched entryway....

...and there up ahead is the majestic Sulamani. It was built in 1183 by King Narapatisithu. It’s not the biggest or the tallest, but many people think it’s the most beautiful of all Bagan’s monuments. The name Sulamani means “Crowning Jewel” or "Small Ruby". One of the leading modern authorities on the Bagan archaeological plain, Paul Strachan, calls it "the grandiloquent gesture of an empire at its meridian".  It’s a double-cube structure, with two stories of equal height, each topped by three terraces to create a pyramid effect. It strikes a nice balance between the horizontal planes of the Early period with the vertical lines of the Middle period.  The shikhara (the tower above the sanctuary) above is a reconstruction following the 1975 earthquake. 

The Sulamani was actually more than a temple.  The complex originally contained a large number of associated buildings, including an ordination hall, cells for the monks, and a library.

The exterior has fine plasterwork and unusual green and yellow glazed decorative tiles.  Only the first floor is open to the public. 

The exterior brickwork is considered to be some of the best in Bagan.

Each of the four major levels has inner ambulatories running along the perimeter, with niches for Buddhas. 

Unfortunately, as it is with most Bagan temples, ascent to the upper levels is prohibited.

Murals and frescoes  from the Konbaung period can be seen on the walls.   They are an 18th century addition. 

Our exploration of the early Bagan temples was done.  Time for lunch!  This was at a lovely restaurant with outdoor seating, called Treasure Cave.

The place was beautiful.  They had fermented tea leaf salad on the menu.  This is a uniquely Burmese dish that we had tried a few times already.  This version was really spectacular.  The sauce that it came with was a big factor.  I don't know what they put in the sauce, but man oh man, it was fantastic.

After lunch, we finally checked into our hotel, the Bagan Thande Hotel.  It was truly lovely. You get your own little bungalow, with a porch.  The view looks out into a small yard that is surrounded by other similar bungalows.  There were fancier ones, some of which were closer to the pool or to the river, but those were much more expensive and noisier.  Ours was perfect.  

The grounds were really nice.  Very leafy and lush, and very clean. The staff were unbelievably polite.  

The room itself was minimally furnished, but charming nonetheless.  Wifi was iffy, but that's how it is in all of Burma.  

What I really liked was the river view.  If you keep walking through the grounds, past the pool, to the outdoor restaurant and beyond, you're afforded a lovely view of the Ayeyarwaddy River.  So nice.

We relaxed in our hotel room for about two hours, and then Myint came back to get us and take us to a lacquerware workshop. Myanmar has been a center for fine lacquerware since 1563.  Bagan became the industry’s main hub in the 20th century, and in the 1920’s, the British founded a lacquerware school to foster the craft. Lacquerware can be expensive, because it can take a few months to complete even a small bowl.  A large object with elaborate designs can take up to a year of work.  It goes in stages, from the weaving of bamboo and rattan frames, through the molding and drying of the lacquer putty, to the careful engraving and polishing required to finish the pieces. The finer the detail and the more colors and layers of lacquer that are applied (15 coats is typical for a high-quality piece), the more it will cost. 

The owner, a very jovial guy sporting a huge mustache, was a real character.  I'm sure he's given tours of his workshop hundreds of times, and yet, even though it was just me and Mark visiting, he explained the entire process of lacquerware production with pride and enthusiasm.  He has many children, nephews and nieces, and quite a few of them work at his factory.  

He also was telling us how he went to a conference to represent Burma's lacquerware industry and he met President Obama there. He was very proud of that photo.

 It's a complicated process, and requires real patience and concentration.  I was very impressed with the skill and maturity of the young workers.  Some of the etching on the lacquerware is so small and intricate and detailed.  These people are real artists. 


We left the workshop around 4:45 so we could do what everyone does on their first night in Bagan: watch the sun set over the central plain.  It's one of Bagan's key experiences.  Unfortunately, the closing of many temples' upper terraces in 2013 for conservation purposes means that the choice of ideal sunset-viewing perches is a bit limited these days.  The most popular places like the Shwesandaw Pagoda, can get impossibly crowded.  Luckily, our guide was pretty savvy, and he took us to Buledi, a well-positioned large stupa off Anawratha Road between Nyaung U and Old Bagan.  Great views, but much less crowded.

 We left our shoes at the bottom (like you have to do at all pagodas), and raced on up.

We got to the terrace.  There were maybe 15 people up there.  Lots of space for us to get situated.  The view was pretty wonderful, with the whole archaeological plain spread out in front of us.

What can I say? Let the sunset photos begin:

 It was so peaceful and serene.  Everyone was just chilling and relaxing before, during, and after.  These Buddhist nations really have the relaxing thing all figured out.

Back to the hotel for dinner.  Unfortunately, unless you have some sort of vehicle, the only dining options you have are at the hotel.  We could have called a cab, but we were decided to just eat at the hotel restaurant.  It was a little expensive (by that, I mean still really cheap), but we didn't care.  We had barely spent any money at all.  They had some western dishes on the menu, and after a day of Burmese fare, I was ready for some good ol' pizza.  The restaurant overlooked the Ayeyarwaddy, although it was dusk and you couldn't see the river.  But the grounds were lovely and there was nice mellow entertainment - a guy playing some traditional Burmese type of xylophone, accompanied by a young girl singing - and a woman who manipulated a marionette while some recorded songs played over the speaker system.  A nice way to end a great day.  Tomorrow should be exceptional:  we start with a hot air balloon ride over the plain.  Can't wait!