Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Mandalay to Bagan, and 4,400 Temples

Up lateish, and it’s already damn hot as we head out. Unlike Yangon, where the temperature is up and down, here in Mandalay it seems to be consistently baking hot!

More clouds please!

The hotel

One of two generators the hotel has, you see these everywhere

We walk round to a Shan state food restaurant near the travel agent our hotel suggests. Most restaurants are open affairs with plastic furniture. This one has a couple of fans on the ceiling..


Then we try using the internet. Torturous speeds, give up as usual. If you want to imagine what it’s like, think 9.6k modem but trying to run modern graphical pages over it.

No accessing LP

I twig that we’re near the Nylon Ice Cream Parlour again, so we take away and eat on a saigar back to the hotel. It’s a battle to eat the ice-cream before it melts in the intense sun.

Taxi to the airport, and incredibly the road seems worse than when we arrived! Check in is the usual fun, then we realise that there’s absolutely nothing in the airport. It’s nice, new and clean but completely bare. The plane is another reasonable one, there’s been nothing like Nepal’s Cosmic Air or Indonesian “What is an exit row anyway” airlines here, they all feel fairly safe and efficient.

I’m disappointed to be flying to be honest, as I had really wanted to take a boat – it’s one of the classic highlights of Burma, a boat on the Ayeyarwady, and the journey from Mandalay to Bagan is the ideal length, about 9 hours, by fast boat, or 15 by slow. Unfortunately as it’s low season, the schedules are very infrequent, so daily in the high season has become once every two weeks for the fast boats, and twice a week for slow boats, but I don’t have the time to wait for it. Next time..

Flying over the Ayeyarwady River

Off the plane

We arrive at Bagan, or more correctly Nyaung U airport, apparently the only people getting off the plane (which is carrying on to Yangon) and cab to our hotel, the NK Betelnut. Lots of friendly staff here, and we’ve got a chalet sort of room.

The hotel

We take lunch nearby in the form of a Burmese “buffet”. We were the only people there, as they brought out dish after dish of food.


If we finished a dish, they would replace it. All the food was quite oily and salty, plus given the lack of other diners, it was definitely a worry in terms of how long the food had sat around.

Bananas and sugar ball sweets

Very cheap though – in general if one eats in a non-touristy restaurant, the price was 3-4,000 kyat (about a pound) for the two of us. In touristy places, the dishes generally cost about this per dish – still cheap, but very marked up.

After dinner we walk down past our local pagoda, where kids hassle us, for money but also because they are curious about Thuzar – she pretends to be foreign for a bit. We reach the riverside – and head into Sithu restaurant for a seat with a view and a beer as the sun goes down.

Looking west over the Ayeyarwady

The Long Day of Temples
Bagan, or the Bagan Archeological Zone, is a 42km square plain jam-packed with temples. Today we hire bicycles (3,000 kyat each for the day), and cycle around, which is the perfect mode of transport here, as it’s fairly flat and nothing is too far away. We’re staying in New Bagan, which is south of the main area, clustered around Old Bagan. In fact New Bagan was created when the government decided to move all the locals out of the the old town. It’s a 30 minute cycle ride up to the Old Town for us, passing lots of smaller temples, one of which we stop at:

Somingyi Kyaung
This was a small brick temple which was built in 1204. I chose here because there were no touts or people lingering – I wanted to get the hang of temple etiquette before having people hassling me. Shoes off, and we potter around the platform at the top. There’s a nice view over to the other temples in the area, but we need to get higher for the best views. Very few of the big temples allow people to clamber up any more – presumably tourists were destroying the temples by doing so.

First of many!

On yer bike

In general the cycling works well, though mid-day it does get awfully hot, which is why we’ve started fairly early. Also lots of the temples are away from the paved main road, so there’s a bit of cycling on dusty sandy tracks, fine until the sand gets deep and soft and we grind to a halt and have to walk!

Sulamani Kyaung and Thabeik Hmauk 150m east
Our first biggie, known as the Crowning Jewel was constructed around 1181. The terraces have a pyramid effect up above, and it’s quite grand.

Dhammayangyi Pahto
Next up, not far away on the same dirt tracks, one of the most impressive, and also a good “sunset” spot. There’s lots of debate here as to the best place to enjoy sunrise (which by policy I now don’t do) and sunset. Some say this is a good place to be, others suggest that you should just find your own peaceful spot and enjoy the view on your own. I certainly subscribe to the latter school of thought.

Built in the 12-century by Narathu, who when he was building it was assassinated by foreign agents, much to the happiness of the slaves working on the enormous temple. Out of spite (archeologists think) the central cavities were filled with rubble, no one knows what’s inside.

Approaching the temple

Shady rest

Ananda Pahto
52m high, and built between 1090 and 1105 by King Kyanzittha, this is supposed to be one of the best temples in the area, a must-see, so we almost miss it, and only by accident find the entrance at the back of the temple after we’ve given up on the place! It is one of the most ornate and better kept inside, for sure.

Beautiful patterns even on the floor

Poorly paid job

Looking up to the ceiling

Lunch at Sarabha II
Next time for a spot of lunch, which we enjoy at an LP-recommended place just at the edge of the walled old town.

Thirsty work


The food is okay, not of a very high standard, after all this is a highly touristy area.


In the afternoon we start by touring the temples in the old town. I should mention that the ones listed here are a tiny fraction of those present – I had just picked a few that for various reasons sounded interesting – hardly a meter of road passes without another pagoda poking out of the trees.

This was a cylindrical pyu-style bupa on the banks of the river which Thuzar remembers visiting as a child. It’s said to date back older than any other temple – the locals say it is from the 3rd century, although archaeologists say probably 850AD. The name comes from the gourd-shape of the stupa - Bu means gourd. In 1975 the big earthquake here totally demolished this temple, like many others, and so it was completely rebuilt.

Gawdawpalin Pahto
One of the tallest and most imposting, at 60m high

Mahabodhi Paya
Modelled after Bodhgaya’s Mahabodhi Temple in India where the Buddha obtained enlightenment. I will hopefully be visiting the original in a few weeks!

Shwesandaw Paya
Running out of things to say about temples!! This one is a quite nice temple, but the important thing is that it’s one of the few one can climb, and by being at the top, you are pretty much as high as you can be in this area.

Still happy..

One we can go up, yay!

The view..

Looking up

Looking towards Old Bagan

Over the central plain

And under the flowers again, before setting off to Nyaung U

We cycle along quiet Anawrahta Road, heading for Nyaung U, which is where most of the life in the area is. Suddenly I hear a hissing noise, which I think is coming from Thuzar’s bike. I’m mistaken, it’s my own, and the valve of the inner tube appears to have given up. I try to seal it with chewing gum and tissue, then we swap bikes (Thuzar is slightly lighter than me believe it or not) and hurry on the remaining distance to Nyaung U where we hopefully will be able to get the repair made.

On the apparently unnamed road that Lonely Planet calls “Restaurant row” a chap fixes the valve for us, we then pass through and back to Shwezigon, another that Thuzar remembers from before. Shwe means gold, and pretty much everything in this temple is gold-plated or coloured.

Shwezigon Paya
The temple was started by Anawrahta but not completed until the reign of Kyanzittha, and was supposedly built to house one of the four replicas of Buddha’s tooth from Kandy, Sri Lanka. The golden stupa’s bell shape became to prototype for virtually all other stupas across Myanmar. Also interestingly a pool was created on one side of the stupa and filled with water to allow Burmese kings to look up at the hti without tilting their heads back (which would have risked their crowns falling off).

Going in the heat and hassle get to me and I have a rant about the women selling crap in the temple. If you want a place treated as holy, and expect me to take of my shoes, then have some dignity of your own and don’t treat it like a marketplace.

Central stupa

Thuzar goes muslim to avoid the sun

Aroma and Floats
We’ve earnt a break now after being on our bikes the whole day, so we first stop at a café across from Shwezigon.

Relaxing in the shade

I enjoy a coffee float, Thuzar a strange strawberry thing.

Next dinner, back on restaurant row. We chose Aroma 2, which is an Indian restaurant, according to LP one of the top 5 in the country, which the owner is clearly very proud about. His family are from Benares but he was born here in Myanmar.


The food’s good

There’s very light rain as we enjoy our food, not enough to make it worth retiring inside for though, it’s actually quite refreshing.

Dinner done, we hardly feel like jumping straight back on the bikes (as with all good Indian food, we are completely stuffed), so we wander round the Zeigyo (market). They sell lots of 20-in-1 DVDs, where they’ve squashed loads of blockbuster movies on to one disk, but unfortunately none really appeal – sets like “Mel Gibson collection” etc.

Finally cycling the hour or so back by road, we are very tired, but stop briefly to catch the gorgeous sunset.

Once the sun is down, of course, the road is thoroughly unenjoyable and busy – not good when there are no streetlights, we don’t have lights on our bike, and a good proportion of the cars and buses don’t either! Heeeelllllllp!!!

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