Waking early, our day began similarly to the previous one; eating an ample and leisurely breakfast. J wanted some cigarettes and I wanted to buy some extra water so we headed out to find our supplies. Not far along the road, there was a local shop selling all sorts of wares including washing powder, children’s toys, local snacks, drinks, smokes and fruit. Crammed full to the brim, it even had a few postcards and touristy souvenirs. Serving us, the owner asked us what we were doing that day in textbook perfect English. We responded that we hadn’t decided. Soon, we chatted to him about the temples we’d seen yesterday with our horse-cart driver the previous day. He then told us that he had a brand new car and he could drive us around anywhere for the day for 30,000 kyats. Sure! Why not.
He asked us to come back in 30 minutes as he had to call his brother to bring the car from their village. Back at the hotel, we asked the staff about the weather, as cyclone Mahasen was menacing off the coast and due to make landfall. Already, the sky was heavy with cloud and it was a little windy. However, they also said that it didn’t look like it would come too close to Bagan. Despite that, many locals were taking shelter.
Right on time, we arrived back at the shop as a new silver Toyota sedan was pulling up. Naing Naing, our driver and shop keeper, leapt out to open the rear doors for us to get in. That new car smell hit us. It was abundantly obvious that Naing Naing was proud of his car, and maybe just a tad overprotective. The seats were covered in a hard plastic sleeve, like those horrible sofa settings from the 1960s. Driving along, he barely hit 40km/h on the asphalt road, and on the dirt tracks, he crawled at what seemed to be almost slower than walking pace.
Since we had told him we had seen old Bagan and the area not far from it to the south-east, he suggested going towards the north to Nyaung-U, starting at Shwezigon Pagoda. It’s a huge gold zedi and one of very few made almost wholly of stone. There’s a legend that the people who built it stood in a seven mile long row stretching to the nearby quarry to relay the stone bricks to the site. Many pavilions contain various precious objects and shrines which we explored slowly. On the eastern side of the great stupda, there’s a 15cm indent full of water. It was made to allow royalty to view the hti on the top of the gold structure in the reflection of the puddle, so they didn’t have to tip their heads back to look so far up at it, risking their crowns to topple off their heads.
Though we had seen a few other travellers in Old Bagan, this was the first place where we saw many other tourists. Like me, people were wondering around with their SLRs firing away taking photos. On the corners of the great pagoda, stylised lions sit appearing as a single lion when view side on, but from the front appeared to wrap around the corner, conjoined at the head with separate bodies on each side. Ornate golden offerings lined the walkways. Many pavilions held stone Buddhas and golden reclining Buddhas. It was a large complex, busy with locals and travellers alike.
Off to one side was a cave-like temple that I had to squat-crawl to get inside. A gold Buddha covered in gold leaf sat at the alter with carvings on the surrounding walls. This was a place of perhaps the only unhappy incident I had in Myanmar. Inside this little temple were three older women, who I took to be pilgrims paying their respects. The encouraged me to come right in up to the alter. Next, they pretty much forced gold leaf into my hands to place on the Buddha. “Good luck! Good Luck! Happy Buddha! Happy Buddha!” Guiding my hand, they helped me put the gold leaf on the Buddha’s head, hands and feet. At first, I thought they were acting on good intentions. Then, they turned around and asked for 1000 kyats per sheet. They blocked my exit form the little temple, where J was waiting outside unaware of what was happening. As I tried to leave, they held my arms and insisted I pay them, getting aggressive and shouting, “You pay! 5 Gold! You Put! Now pay!” Wanting to avoid a scene, I opened my wallet where I only had 3, 1000 kyat notes and handed them over, explaining I had no more. Though clearly unhappy, they then let me pass.
Rattled, I found J, who had wondered off. He was shocked to hear what happened. Then the women returned inside waiting for another victim. Determined not to let this discourage me, we walked off to explore the temple further. However, we were met by our driver who was in a bit of a panic. “Sorry, but your hotel has a fire. We need to go back”. A what?!?! Fire? Holy moly. We had left my mobile phone recharging in the room when we left. Don’t tell me it had shorted and started the fire. The plug had looked a bit loose…
Hurrying back to car, we headed back where we found the area swarming with motorbikes and cars with most of the town’s people watching on. Smoke rose above the buildings with an acrid smell filling the air. Hotel staff met us as we pulled up and ushered us inside. “Fire is out. No worry. Everything is OK”, she explained, struggling to hold back tears. Walking past the swimming pool where staff were mopping up, we returned to our room that was completely unaffected. The fire had occurred in some rooms that were in a different wing of the hotel that were undergoing renovations. Apparently, a drill or electric saw had set off the fire. People had come from everywhere to put it out using the pool water to fill buckets and hoses to dowse the flames. From what we saw, it must have been intense, with the roof completely burnt, windows blown out and smoke damage visible on all the walls inside and out.
At reception, we asked if we could help, but we were told that it was all OK and to enjoy our day while they cleaned up. “By tonight, it will all be fixed”, she said. Surprisingly, when we returned later that evening, new glass had been fitted to the windows, and the roof was already being repaired. No-one had been injured. I was glad that though it was a potential disaster, the care and skills of the staff had made sure no-one was affected.
Resuming our day’s sightseeing, next was the impressive temple Htilo Minlo, which is on the road between Nyaung U and Old Bagan. Before we got out of the car, Naing Naing gave us a brief run down of the temple’s history. Apparently the temple’s name comes from a legend when the local king of the time was trying to decide which of his sons would succeed him. So he had his sons stand in a circle and stood a white umbrella on it’s end in the centre. He then let the umbrella fall. The son standing in the direction that the umbrella fell become the next king. This temple sits on the spot where the umbrella fell, and the name means, “the king favoured by the white umbrella”.
The exterior walls had intricate detailed scrollwork and carvings. Inside were huge, detailed, ink frescos, which are reportedly horoscopes of various events in the temple’s history. Huge vaulted galleries housed Buddhas facing the four cardinal directions. We spent a good half an hour exploring the painted corridors and terraces. The weather was starting to close in and the wind had picked up. However, it was still a blistering 40 degrees so the stiff breeze was very welcome.
With the clouds now building, we asked Naing Naing whether he had any updates on the cyclone. He said it was far away, but it would probably rain soon. Confirming what we had heard earlier, many locals had stayed home and took cover, just in case.
Having asked to visit some temples a little off the beaten track (well as much off the track as could be in the tourist packed Bagan), we took a side road off the little town of Wetkyi In to Gubyauk Gyi temple. Gubyauk means painted temple. From the outside, it appeared to be a simple, non-descript temple. Inside were beautiful paintings depicting the lives of the Buddha before he reached Enlightenment. Many looked as if they were painted yesterday. Lots of colours and designs filled the walls. The only problem was that no photos were allowed (even with no flash). The local gatekeeper, who had come around when he saw us arrive, kept an eye on me to make sure.
Not to worry, the set of next temples were close by. In fact, this next area was one of my favourites. Being alone (apart from our car and a few locals) in that ancient landscape littered with thousands of red bricks from temples and walls long fallen was simply inspiring. Spires of near-by temples rose above the sparse trees and dust adding scale to the view. We poked around a few of the ruins and temples, many without name, just numbers.
We parked under a scrawny tree where a local vendor tried to sell us postcards and wood carvings. Not interested, we said our ‘No thank yous’ and headed to the temple before us. Unusual for its inter-connected temples, Paya Thonzu temple’s name means three temples. The small square buildings were connected by a narrow, arched passageway. Naing Naing told us that the triple-temple was not finished, as end temples’ paintings were never completed, while the others were covered in gorgeous images of flowers, animals and birds.
Many pictures of Buddhas are also depicted as well as scenes from the life of Gotama Buddha, the historical Buddha. Interestingly, there are also images of Bodhisattvas (beings that dedicate their lives, and all future lives, to benefit all sentient beings until they achieve enlightenment before the Bodhisattva seeks their own liberation) attributed to Mahayana Buddhism, and not usually seen in Theravada Buddhism which prevails in Myanmar. Apparently, a separate sect of monks and priests lived in the area, explaining the curious pictures. Unfortunately, we could not take any pictures inside the small temple.
Walking up a little hill, we entered an impressive temple that looked similar to the Sulamuni temple. Thambula temple is named after it’s builder, Queen Thambula. However, an old stone engraving shows its name to be Thonlula, which is taken from the Pali language meaning “Moon of the three worlds”. Encircled by wides porches, it was set on a rise overlooking the plain dotted with many temples and various states of disrepair.
Inside the huge archway, two local artists were working away on bamboo scaffolds, performing restoration works on the temple’s many murals. They welcomed us inside and motioned for us to look around. With the extensive scaffolds, there wasn’t much room to move, with most of the statues and paintings obscured. But many original pictures were still visible and had beautiful detail of the Buddha and scenes from his life.
On the way to New Bagan, we stopped at Dhamma Yarzika pagoda that was in the process of being re-guilded. It’s a bell-shaped stupa said to be built on the site where the King of the time saw a line of smoke rising from the ground. Seeing it a good omen, he built this temple and enshrined relics of the Buddha. Different to other pagodas, it has a pentagonal base, instead of the usual square. On each side there were small temples covered in murals, four contained a statue of one of the past Buddhas and the last one had a statue of the future Buddha. J and I walked around its large terrace, but by this stage, the weather had broken and rain was falling steadily with the wind was blowing a gale. So our circumambulation was a bit rushed under umbrellas being blown inside-out, missing the opportunity to explore and absorb as much as we would have otherwise.
Arriving in New Bagan well past 2pm, the town seemed deserted under grey and gloomy skies. Our driver chose ‘The Green Elephant’ for lunch, where we were the only patrons. Thai curries and fragrant rice provided a satisfying lunch, though a little over seasoned and under spicy, clearly tamed down for tourists. But the beer was cool and refreshing. Even though the weather had turned, the temperature was still in the mid 30s with 100% humidity!
To finish our day, Naing Naing chose Manuha temple, where 3 enormous seated Buddha statues are housed. The tiled terrace leading to the temple was very slippery, now bathed in a few millimetres of rain. Three maroon clad monks were making their prostrations as we entered. Seeing us, they turned around, one said something to the others to which they giggled, and we were quickly the subject of their photos, taken on their smart phones. It was only fair as I took their photos too.
J and I explored the 3 chambers, marvelling at the huge Buddhas. Each was different, with slightly different facial expressions. The central Buddha is the largest sitting 46 feet tall, with the two Buddhas flanking him a mere 33 feet. Apart from the huge statues, the temple was fairly plain, with a smell of fresh plaster in places, and mould in others. As we were leaving, a young family arrived. Excited, the two young boys ran to one end, immediately clambering over the Buddha’s lap. Trying not to yell too loud, the mum told them to get off, scolding them, before settling down to her prayers. Some conversations need no translation.
Back in Old Bagan, we bid a very fond farewell to Naing Naing, agreeing to have him drive us to the airport the next morning, before we slid out of those plastic-coated seats. The rain was clearing, though the clouds still stood heavy in the sky. It was great to rinse the sweat and dust of our faces in the cool air-conditioning of our room. However, I had itchy feet, wanting to stretch after being in the back of a car for a large part of the day.
Nagging poor J to get up with the argument that we hadn’t even seen the Irrawaddy river, we headed out for a quick wonder around Old Bagan. At least the sting had been taken out of the sun with the cloud cover, and the air felt a little fresher after the rain. Through the Tharabar gate, we walked the little way down to the jetty, beside the Aye Yar River Hotel (which looked very nice). A crew of horse carts was waiting for tourists and did their best to get J and I in one for some sight seeing. But I was keen to walk.
Local kids were mucking around the dried up river shore. It was dry season, so the mighty river was subdued with much of the bank exposed. White cattle were grazing on the sparse grass growing in tuffs where the river would have flowed. Boats were on blocks undergoing repairs or repainting, ready for the wet season due any time now. A local man approached, wanting to take us for a trip in his little boat. Smiling, we politely refused, choosing instead to walk around the riverside. Looking across the wide waterway to the distant mountains, the banks of clouds seem to be unwinding exposing stretches of blue sky towards the western horizon.
A crumbly road lead off further westward to Bu Paya, a barrel shaped stupa set on the banks of the Irrawaddy. It is said to be the earliest Buddhist zedi built in Bagan, when the area was first settled by the Pyu community. The golden figure standing there now is a replica, as the original fell into the river during the great earthquake of 1975. Though not as remarkable as many of Bagan’s temples, with no murals or gold Buddhas, it was a lovely place. With the sun sinking behind the remnants of the distant storm, and the light turning a golden hue, J and I relaxed, enjoying the view and late afternoon atmosphere.
Nearby, the small town had a few stalls and restaurants. Must be time for a refreshing beer. We sat at a small table on the rear deck of one of the cafes with a cold one in the afternoon sunshine. Outside, the village had sprung into life with many motorbikes buzzing here and there. It was hard to believe this sunny afternoon was the same day as the one earlier.
Further along the road, we stopped in to check out Atwin Zigon pagoda and Myet Taw Pyay pagodas that sat side-by-side. Overgrown with weeds in places, and falling down in others, they were interesting structures to explore. The late sun had brought a return to the stinging heat, so the shady grounds of the deserted pagodas were cool and relaxing.
On the way back to the hotel, our last stop was to the graceful Gawdaw Palin temple. It is said it was built as a penance for a sin committed by the king that built it. Most of the walls had been whitewashed, which was a great shame as the few remaining murals were stunning. Gold Buddhas faced the four directions and many corridors ringed the main hall. Many hidden corridors were found after the earthquake, but they were gated off, out of bounds, as were the staircases leading to the upper levels. Pity, it would have been a wonderful view from up there, with the river close by.
Quickly refreshing ourselves, we hurried to the Ananda temple to meet Aye Aye, the lady we had met yesterday, who offered to have dinner with her. Arriving bang on time, the stalls were shut up, and the area deserted. We wondered up the path near by, looking for her. The whole temple area was very quite with very few locals anywhere. I guess people had stayed away from the storm warning earlier in the day. Not to worry, J and I headed back towards the hotel for a meal at the Sarabha II restaurant, with beer and pizza (I know – something too touristy), after a beautiful day. I wished we had more time in Bagan, as tomorrow we were on an early flight to Mandalay. Bagan is a true treasure, and I have to return one day soon.