Temple hopping in Bagan

After having spent a couple of days in Mandalay, I was very excited to head out to my top destination in Myanmar, Bagan. It is a place that I’ve been dreaming about with some kind of distant awe for years, ever since having seen the epic pictures of the temples of Bagan lit in a phenomenal red sunrise, viewed from a balloon, that has been spread around on the internet, and by magazines like National Geographic etc. It has always been very high on my bucketlist,  but I never actually imagened that I would ever go there myself. Yet, here I was, about to board a overnight train to just that destination.

The journey started out with buying a train ticket at the Mandalay station – a station where all signs are written in just burmese, including prices and counter-numbers etc, so that presented the first challenge. But after asking around a bit, I managed to find the correct counter and get myself a ticket in the “super-class” aka sleeper class wagon. A sleeper-wagon  ticket for this over-night trip costed 4000 kyats, or just about 2.2 euros.

In the night, I made it to the station and found the sleeper wagon (it was written in english on the actual wagon, thankfully!). My compartment had 2 beds, but I had the whole place to myself. The bed itself was actually not too bad, fairly comfortable and as clean as can be expected. But as soon as we rolled out of the station, the train started to shake violently, and it just keep doing so for the whole trip. This made sleeping very difficult, only made harder by the noise of the train rumbling across the tracks.

The trip from Mandalay to Bagan is about 200 kms through mostly very flat plains, and yet this trip took about 8 hours to complete, so as you can see the train was always going at very slow speeds. I was just thankful that I actually had a somewhat comfortable bed to lay in, and not a seating in the standard-class, which was just hard wood benches – spending 8 hours getting violently shaken and beaten into a wooden bench sounds like a truly horrible experience.

In 5:30 in the morning we finally rolled into the station in Bagan, or rather in the nearby town of Nyuang U, which is the main transport hub – containing both the train station and the airport, but not much else. It if located on the outskirts of the main temple-plain, a couple of kilometers from the towns of Old and New Bagan. I was scheduled to be picked up by a taxi driver from my accomodation, but due to some misunderstanding there was nobody waiting to pick me up, so I had to eventually give in to a very insistent and annoying taxi driver who also heavily overcharged. Unfortunately I didn’t have many options, and had to give in.

My accomodation was called “Bamboo House”, and is just that, a bunch of small but very cozy bamboo huts located out in a small village in between Nyuang U and New Bagan. It offers a very authentic experience, and an alternative housing experience. The huts are outfitted with western toilets, AC and nice beds. At this time of year there wasn’t many tourists around. In fact, I was the only guest staying at the Bamboo House hotel, so I was taken very good care of. The staff was extremely friendly and helpful, both in helping me get around Bagan, book E-bikes, cook me lovely dinner and anything else I wanted.

I only had 2 full days in Bagan so I didn’t have much time to waste. I did still have a small rest, since I hadn’t slept a lot during the train ride. Then the taxi driver who should’ve picked me up at the train station showed up, and being extremely apologetic. He then offered to drive me around for the day, taking me to some of the main sights and temples of Bagan. While I had initially planned on not hiring a guide for Bagan, it did seem like a good offer – and it did turn out to be a great decision.

We started off the tour by visiting the grand pagoda located just across from Thuntekan village. This pagoda is called Dhamma Yazika, and is fairly isolated from the other main temples of the region, but it does provide a great starting point for taking the many different trails throughout the plain to the other temples. The main pagoda is very grand, but also slightly damaged from the 2016 earthquake. Thus the main spire is encased in scaffolding  at the current time. Around Dhamma Yazika is a plethora of smaller pagodas, a few of which even offer roof-top access, giving some out of this world views of the whole area. More on this later.

We walked around the main pagoda, with my driver explaining me  a bit of the history of not just the Dhamma Yazika, but the Bagan region in general. We were alone at the temple for a while, but as we were finishing off, a group of locals arrived. They seemed curious and wanted to talk a bit, before eventually asking for a picture with the tall stranger – me. Again I felt like a superstar.

After leaving Dhamma Yazika, we drove off to New Bagan. First we visited the local market, because I needed to buy some slippers, which are very essential for pagoda-hopping, since you must take off your shoes when entering the pagodas. And you will be doing that A LOT here. After finding a pair of slippers in the right size (which was harder than expected, as someone who uses size 46 shoes), we visited what my driver claimed to  be one of his favorite pagodas. It was the Lawka Nanda pagoda. This pagoda is covered in gold, one of many pagodas in the area like that. It is not extraordinarily large or special in any other way, but unlike many of the other pagodas it is located right next to the Irrawady river. It is also slightly less touristy, exactly because it isn’t very significant, thus mostly skipped by visitors. But the locals congregate here. That might be why my driver liked it so  much. We sat around people-watching for a bit, enjoying the river-view from under the shadows of some trees.

It was still early in the day, so my driver insisted that I come visit his home which was also located there in New Bagan. I readily accepted his invitation. His home was rather humble, yet fully equipped with everything you could need. It had been built by himself. He lived with his wife and father in law. Mind you, my driver must already have been well past 60, and his father in law was in his early 90s. We sat around in their living room for a bit, talking. They keenly showed me pictures of their children, that no longer lived at home or even in Bagan. Just as my driver also took pictures of me and him together multiple times throughout the day, proudly sharing them with his kids.

I was served chinese tea, a local speciality apparently, and some food prepared by the wife. It was a great experience, getting a small view into ordinary Burmese life.

After our siesta, we set off for Old Bagan, and one of the most famous pagodas – the Ananda Temple. As we arrived at the temple, my driver received a call for a new job, he had to go pick up some other guests from the airport, and so I was left to explore the temple on my own. He would be back as soon as he had finished his assignment though.

The Ananda temple is grand, built in beautiful sandstone, with a big golden central spire. It is a beautiful temple to be sure, but I frankly didn’t find it all that interesting. I did still spend a good amount of time walking around photographing and taking in the sights and feels, as this was the first proper big temple I visited.

Right across from Ananda is the open plains of Bagan, criss-crossed by dirt-roads, bushes and dotted with smaller pagodas everywhere, in the  typical red stone style. These were the kind of sights I was most excited about. I still had half an hour until my designated pick-up time when the driver would be back, so I set out on a small expedition along some of the dirt roads, on foot, to see some of these amazing sights. It was very hot, but oh was the sights worth it. It is hard to describe the  magic of walking around among these pagodas for the first time. It truly felt like stepping into a fairy tale world. I love every minute of it, and was almost saddened by having to drive around with my guide for the rest of the  day rather than being able to roam freely on my own, but I took solace in the fact that the next day I would be on my own, able to explore everything I wanted.

My driver picked me up at the time we had agreed upon. Having told him about my own little exploration, he was thrilled that I had enjoyed the place so much. Our next stop would in fact be one the temples I had pinpointed as being of special interest for my own trip the next day. It was the Dhammayan Gyi temple. This temple is special because it is shaped not unlike a pyramid. It has a massive base, and is layered upwards. This means that rather than having just a central spire sticking up, the whole temple is gradually growing upwards. It makes this temple appear much more massive than the other temples. Inside, the temple does look much like all the other temples however. A simple square-shaped hallway system, with a buddah statue on each side.

That’s the thing with the temples in Bagan, while they may appear wildly different on the outside, they all mostly follow the same design on the inside. This also means that you quickly gain “temple-fatigue” if entering all the temples, because they quickly lose their magic. But observing the temples from the outside remains magical, as each temple has their own quirks.

After Dhammayan Gyi, we went back to Thuntekan and the Bamboo House for a afternoon break. My driver said that he would take me out later for some of the  best sunset spots in Bagan.

After having rested a bit, I decided to go checkout one of the tips I had gotten from a map-app, that showed that one of the pagodas at the nearby Dhamma Yazika pagoda had roof-top access. It was basically one of the only ones in all of Bagan, since pretty much all roof-tops were closed down after the 2016 earthquake. My trip through the village took me past a huge gathering of village kids outside the local school, and they were all very excited to see a foreigner, they came running to me, jumping and running around, speaking to me in Burmese. Even though we couldn’t communicate through spoken language, we shared joy and laughs just playing around.

I reached the temple that had been pinpointed as having roof-access, and halleluja, it was true! And not just was it true, but the view from this particular rooftop was absolutely majestic and stunning. The whole plain of Bagan was visible from up there, with trees and temples sticking up in every direction. All the main temples of Bagan were discernible, and many of the smaller temples were also visible in the lush landscape. I still to this day believe this might be the best view one could get of Bagan, as it looks exactly like the view from so many of the epic photos I’ve seen before.

Unfortunately I still had arrangements with my driver to take me to some of the best sunset spots he knew of. But I immediately decided that I would return here the next morning for the sunrise watching. After having taken in the view for a while, I headed back to the hotel, and took off in the hunt for the best sunset in Bagan.

My driver first took me to a small temple, another one of his personal favorites. I am not sure what the name of this pagoda was. A football field was located there, and the  local youth were in full swing  playing a game, with monks from the  various nearby pagodas spectating. Quite the odd sight for sure. The pagoda itself was incredibly small and insignificant.

We quickly headed off to the first actual sunset spot. A grand pagoda located next to the Irrawady river. The  Soemingyi temple. This place also offers a sort of roop-top view, or atleast you can climb parts of the walls for a elevated view of the surrounding area. This view, while impressive on its own, is nothing compared to the view you get at the pagoda near Dhamma Yazika. There aren’t nearly as many other pagodas visible from up here, and the main temples are further away and thus also less visible. I still stood there a while taking in the view, and also chatted a bit with some of the handicraft sellers that reside here. My driver told me to hurry up already, because we had one more stop to go, the final, “best”, sunset spot he wanted to show me – and the sun was almost setting already.

The final place he took me to is a hill that gives a bit of a elevated viewpoint, but it is also no match for the view you get near Dhamma Yazika. It was still a very nice sunset to be sure, don’t get me wrong. It is hard to not have a magnificent view anywhere in Bagan. At the hill were just me and 2 italian girls observing the sunset. Most other tourists seemed to head to the nearby Suleimani temple, which also offered a slightly elevated viewpoint from on of its walls, but that place was extraordinarily crowded.

Right as the sun had sunk below the  mountains in the distance, the heavens opened up, and a flood came down upon Bagan. Luckily I was in the car with my car, laughing at all the other people on their e-bikes and regular bicycles getting absolutely drenched. All the dirt roads also turned into a muddy mess. Quite the end to a magnificent first day in Bagan.

The next morning  I got up very early, in order to walk down to Dhamma Yazika and catch the sunrise from the rooftop I had found. Half expecting there to be other people at the temple, I was pleasantly surprised to find it entirely abandoned. And it stayed that way throughout the whole morning as I watched the sun slowly rise over the temples of Bagan. An almost life altering beautiful thing to witness. With such tranquility. There is no words.

The order of the day was to go out and explore more temples, all on my own. I had a long list that I had prepared back home, of the temples i definitely wanted to see. Like all the  other tourists here, I rented a e-bike, which is a scooter running on electricity, that is easy to drive and navigate around the dirt roads of Bagan. I set out for a full day of temple hopping.  Instead of describing everything in detail, I will just point out some of the highlights of the day, and throw in pictures.

My favorite temple of not just the day, but arguably the whole trip, turned out to be a small rather anonymous temple called “Tha Beik Hmauk Gu Hpaya”, not because of the temple itself per se, but because of the temple keeper family. I had multiple run-ins with them during the day. The very first one actually being one of annoyance, as one of the daughters of the family stopped me on my e-bike to attempt to sell me handicrafts very early on in the day. I had already dealt with a lot of annoying souvenir sellers and was actually fairly annoyed by this lady. I respectfully declined all the sales pitches and set out on my merry way again. Later in the day as I made it to “Tha Beik Hmauk Gu Hpaya”, which was on my list of pagodas to visit, as it does have a beautiful design. In front of the temple was a young girl preparing flowers and doing other cleaning work around the temple. We started talking a bit, and I asked to take her picture, to which she agreed. A little bit after that, another woman showed up – and behold – it was the same woman who had tried to sell me handicrafts earlier in the day. It was the sister of the girl I was chatting with. Their father was the governmental hired caretaker of the temple, so they lived here at the temple.

The sales-woman didn’t seem to recognize me, and also started talking to me. They offered to sell me a fresh coconut. They cut it open and prepared it on the spot. Then I sat on the steps up the temple drinking coconut juice and talking to these girls about their lives here at the temple and their dreams for the future. After a while I had to move on,  but the girls asked me to come back in the evening to watch the sunset, as there was a great sunset watching hill near the temple. I promised I would do my best to be there, although I had actually already settled with myself that I would be watching the sunset from Dhamma Yazika.

Alas, the girls had made an impression on me, and as the sunset came closer, I  ventured back to Tha Beik Hmauk Gu Hpaya. When I arrived, the small cousins of the girls had also come out to play. They were all very young – a baby of 2 months, a little girl of 2 years and a boy of 5 years. The non-sales sister was also present, and we quickly started talking again. The kids showed a lot of interest in me, and it wasn’t long before I was playing  around with them, and carrying the 2 year old girl around, as if I had been her uncle. In the end I completely missed the sunset, because I was fully occupied with these sweet kids and the sweet family in general. The mother of  the sisters came out and gifted me a bag of  burmese chocolate, which was a very thoughtful gift.

After the darkness started to fall, I had to leave the temple, because the roads are very dark at night. A bit unwillingly I left the temple and the sweet new friends I had made, knowing I wouldn’t see them again as I would depart early next morning. And so it goes that you meet and befriend new people.

Other than this little tale, the day was spent zipping all around Bagan visiting pagoda after pagoda, with just some small breaks for lunch and drinks on the way. In the end I managed to visit all the temples on my list, and a whole lot more that just presented themselves along the way. But the temple keeper family at Tha Beik Hmauk Gu Hpaya will forever be one of the most memorable parts about Bagan for me.

Bagan can only be described as one of the wonders of the world. It is one of the most unique and fascinating landscapes in the world, and you would do yourself a great benefit to visit atleast once.

IF YOU’RE JUST HERE TO HEAR MY RECOMMENDATION FOR A  SUNSET/SUNRISE SPOT, THEN GO TO THE ROOF OF THIS SMALL PAGODA NEAR DHAMMA YAZIKA. IT IS OPEN (SEPTEMBER 2018).

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