After watching the sunrise over Old Bagan, we returned to Oasis Hotel for breakfast. Soon, our guide Win Thu came to join us and we headed off once again to explore the Bagan area. Before another series of pagoda hopping, our day’s first destination was the local market of Nyaung-U. As the main transportation and commercial hub of Bagan, the market of the river town Nyaung-U is a gathering point for the locals. Many locals from the surrounding villages would come for grocery and daily needs. Nyaung-U market offers travelers a great spot to learn about the daily lives of the locals.
We started our market stroll at the open wet market section.
It was great to see all the fresh produces from the area, as well as the smiles and laughter of the vendors.
Apart from produces, colourful flowers were also available.
Our eyes were overwhelmed by all shades of green.
Several kids were enjoying themselves behind the vendor stalls.
There were several vendors selling thanaka powder, a yellowish-white paste made from ground tree bark of thanaka trees. Thanaka powder is a very popular cosmetic paste which the local Burmese women put on their faces.
Moving away from the open area, we walked into the covered aisles.
The aisles were narrow and busy.
Also for sale included betel leaves, which the locals used to make paan shots with Areca nut and/or tobacco.
Bamboo shoots is a common ingredients for local cuisine.
A quiet corner of the covered market.
Some vendors had to attend to their stall and baby at the same time.
Many vendors were also having their meals at the stalls.
This shop had all kinds of dried fish.
In the dry goods area, merchandise such as clothing and slippers were sold along with spices.
In the covered area, there was also a small eatery.
Heading out to the open area where we arrived, we passed by more stalls selling local produces and spices.
Apart from temple and pagoda hopping, the Nyaung-U market certainly added an unique experience to our visit of Bagan.
The most remarkable and photogenic experience of our trip to Myanmar was undoubtedly watching the sunrise in Old Bagan. The romantic spectacle of hot air balloons floating over the plains of ancient pagodas has drawn every Bagan visitors to get up before dawn. We had high hopes for the experience long before we came to Bagan. Our driver came at 6:45 to pick us up at Oasis Hotel. He drove us to a pagoda in Old Bagan, and told us to walk up a staircase to the pagoda terrace. We turned on our head lamps and climbed up the narrow stair to reach the upper terrace. We were surprised to find that two out of four sides of the terrace were already packed with visitors. Without guessing which way to look, we stationed ourselves at a corner in the crowd and patiently waited for the sky to light up.
We stationed ourselves at a corner in the crowds and set up our tripod. Stars were still visible in the sky, and so as the flooded lights at some pagodas.
At a distance, what appeared to be Ananda Pahto looked gorgeous with the golden flood lights and the purple horizon beyond.
Ten minutes later, the foggy plain looked mysterious.
In every directions, silhouette of ancient pagodas and distant mountains formed an one-of-a-kind mystic landscape unique to Bagan.
A few minutes later, a cluster of hot air balloons appeared from the horizon.
At the same time, we had the first peek of the Christmas sunrise.
The hot air balloons went up just in time to catch the first glimpse of sunrise over Old Bagan.
The sunrise over Old Bagan was absolutely a stunning sight.
Watching sunrise of Old Bagan from the basket of a hot air balloon should be a remarkable experience. That would require us to book well in advance and cost each of us about US$500.
From the pagoda terrace, the hot air balloons provided the extra magic to the already otherworldly scenery.
Some balloons got pretty close to the spires of pagodas.
A hot air balloon seemed reaching the rising sun.
For several minutes, the entire Old Bagan appeared in layers of silhouettes.
The balloons gradually floated across the horizon while the sun rose up quickly.
On the other side, the scenery was dominated by ancient pagodas under the orange glow of the rising sun.
At 8:45am, about an hour and fifteen minutes since we first arrived at the pagoda terrace, dramatic low angle sunlight covered much of Bagan with a mystical ambience.
A group of locals walked towards a nearby pagoda under the early morning sun.
Silhouette of the distant Ananda Pahto was astonishingly beautiful.
At 9am, smoke from wood burning began to appear from the fields around us.
By 9:10am, most visitors had already left the terrace.
Down at the pagoda entrance, vendors were setting up their souvenir stalls for the day.
We quickly descended the pagoda and returned to the driver. We couldn’t wait to begin another day of Bagan’s temple hopping with our guide Win Thu.
Tourists and guidebooks often compare the ancient ruins of Myanmar’s Bagan with Cambodia’s Angkor, and so as their base towns: Nyaung-U of Bagan and Siem Reap of Angkor. Tourists arriving in Bagan may discover that Nyaung-U is nothing like Siem Reap. There is no designated Pub Street, massage parlours or fish spa for the tired feet. Several years ago we spent the night of New Year’s Eve in the Pub Street of Siem Reap, where bars and restaurants were packed with half drunk tourists. This time, we had an opportunity to spend Christmas Eve in Bagan. Unlike Siem Reap, Nyaung-U was much more peaceful. To celebrate Christmas Eve, we chose Sanon Restaurant, a social enterprise offering great food and non-profit training for the disadvantaged youth. After a satisfying meal, we walked around Nyaung-U to take in the peaceful atmosphere of the silent night.
On our way to Sanon Restaurant, we passed by a number of convenient stores catered for tourists. Most shops also offered e-bike rentals to tourists. Renting E-bikes is one of the most popular ways for tourists to do their pagoda hopping.
We were lucky to find a table after a bit of waiting at Sanon Restaurant.
The dining area was a pleasant open terrace.
We started our Christmas Eve dinner with a delicious cocktail.
We had a local dish: deep fried morning glory for appetizer.
One of our main dishes was also a local dish: Giant Irrawaddy Prawn and Catfish Curry. Flowing north to south, Irrawaddy River is the largest river in Myanmar.
After dinner, we walked past a book vendor in front of a restaurant. All books were non-fiction and half of them were in English.
It was a 15-minute walk from Sanon Restaurant back to Oasis Hotel. The street was peaceful and quiet. All actions seemed to be limited inside the restaurants and hotels.
Some of the local eateries were particularly busy, with customers gathered to watch football games on large televisions.
Located at a road junction, Sapada Paya stood quietly over Nyaung-U.
We stopped by a small playground at the base of Sapada Paya.
Despite there was no one around, up at the terrace of Sapada Paya we found a small altar with fresh floral offerings.
Finally we were back at Oasis Hotel, our comfortable base for our stay in Bagan.
No one was around in the garden of Oasis Hotel, though Christmas music was on.
We enjoyed a peaceful Christmas Eve and retired to our room early. The next morning we would get up before dawn. Our driver would pick us up to watch the magical sunrise over Old Bagan, probably the most well known and gorgeous scenery in Myanmar.
Watching sunset at Bagan Myanmar from the top of a pagoda has been one of the most popular activities for tourists. However, according to our guide Win Thu due to recent accidental falls of some tourists, the government temporarily banned pagoda climbing during sunset. Instead, Win Thu took us to one of the designated earth berm where we could still see dipping of the crimson sun over the plain of Buddhist stupas.
Leaving Ananda Temple behind, we moved on to a designated lookout in Old Bagan.
Obviously we were the first to arrive at the lookout. It was nowhere close to as crowded as watching sunset atop the most popular viewing spots in Angkor of Cambodia, but it was not romantic and peaceful as one may wish either.
The view would be much better if we could climb onto one of the pagoda for the sunset.
Yet, it was still enjoyable to watch the colour of the ancient bricks changed from brown to orange as the sun dipped lower.
Behind the lookout there was a wetland, sort of a rare sight in the rather arid plains of Bagan.
Some tourists arrived in horse-carts.
As sunset approached, the distant pagodas and temples turned into layers of silhouettes.
The horse-carts and ancient pagodas made a perfect picture.
An Ox-cart emerged from nowhere and stole everyone’s attention.
The scenery of pagodas reminded us the spiritual ambience of Bagan during the Bagan period.
Pagodas in partial ruins standing against a rural setting provoked a romantic feel.
Gradually the foreground turned dark just before the sunset.
Beyond the pagodas and mountains, the sun dipped rather quickly in front of the crimson sky.
The sun set rather quickly and just a moment later, it completely disappeared behind the distant mountains.
After a brief rest at our hotel, Win Thu came to pick us up for another temple visit. We went further down Anawrahta Road from Nyaung-U towards Old Bagan to visit one of the most prominent icon of Bagan, the Ananda Pahto (Temple). Built between 1090 and 1105 by King Kyanzittha, the wonderfully preserved temple is often considered to be one of the finest structures in Bagan. The iconic golden spires of Ananda were not always golden. In fact, they were gilded in 1990 on its 900th anniversary. The exterior walls of the temple, on the other hand, were whitewashed from time to time. Four large standing Buddha were housed in the temple, each facing one of the four cardinal directions. The north and south facing images were said to be the original which were crafted in Bagan style. The east and west ones were replacements after the original ones were destroyed by fire. All four Buddha images were made of teak wood and covered with gold leaves.
We took off our shoes before entering the entrance hallway. Led by our guide Win Thu, we walked into the courtyard of Ananda Pahto and were immediately amazed by the grandeur of the temple. The golden spires glowed under the late afternoon sun.
Before entering the temple, Win Thu took us to see the famous glazed terra-cotta tiles along the lower terraces of the structure. Hundreds of these well-preserved tiles depicted the Jataka tales (stories of previous births of Gautama Buddha in human and animal forms).
While we examined the glazed tiles, a large group of school students arrived into the temple courtyard.
Before going inside, we walked to the far corner to see the reflection of Ananda Pahto in a pond.
The first thing captured our attention as we entered the west entrance of the temple was the exquisite fresco.
Peeking through the pointed archway we could see one of the four magnificent standing Buddha.
Facing west, Gautama Buddha (present Buddha) greets visitors with a hand gesture of fearlessness. This is one of the later replacements for the original statue, showing carving details in Mandalay style.
The enormous teak wood doors at each of the four main entrances look splendid but should be quite heavy to operate.
The core of the temple is a solid cube surrounded by long passageway, connecting the four worship halls where the large Buddha stand.
Natural light lit up the passageway through pointed arch openings.
Fresco and relief carvings depicting the life of the Buddha are all over the walls of the passageway.
Buddha statues with different hand gestures, postures, and facial expressions convey a unique meaning and a stage in life of the Buddha.
Facing north, the Kakusandha Buddha is the fourth of the Seven Buddhas of Antiquity and the first of the five Buddhas of the present aeon. This statue is one of two original statues from the Bagan period.
On the other hand, the east facing Konagamana Buddha (the fifth of the Seven Buddhas of Antiquity and the second of the five Buddhas of the present aeon) is a later replacement of the destroyed original.
We exited the temple after checking out the south facing Kassapa Buddha. The Kassapa Buddha is the sixth of the Seven Buddhas of Antiquity, and the third of the five Buddhas of the present aeon.
Before leaving temple, Win Thu explained various forms of reclining Buddha, differentiating between when the Buddha was taking a nap and when he was attaining parinirvana upon his death.
The Ananda Pahto under the late afternoon sun was glorious. Despite we were barefoot, we still enjoyed walking around the temple compound to photograph the beautiful architecture.
At a far corner by a back exit, we stopped by a gate with a niche and small statue.
Looking back over to the temple, the sun was setting fast. We decided to move on to another spot to watch the sunset over Old Bagan.
It was still pretty busy at the entrance of the Ananda Pahto when we exited the compound. Behind us, the splendid golden spires of Ananda glowed under the western sun.
Considered as the first empire in Myanmar, the legacy of the ancient Bagan Kingdom is what drawn all visitors coming to the dry plains at the eastern bank of the Ayeyawaddy River today. With over 2000 ruined pagodas concentrated around a few villages, Bagan is truly one of the most wonderful place to visit in Southeast Asia. After seeing Shwezigon, probably the most active temple still popular with pilgrims today, we moved on to check out some of the less intact pagodas nearby.
The first was Htilominlo Temple. Built on the spot where King Htilominlo was chosen as the next king, Htilominlo was eventually named after the king himself. Topped with a sikhara, an ornamental tower originated from Hindu architecture in Northern India, the 46m pagoda is a majestic brick structure plastered with stucco carvings.
Built in the 13th century, the Htilominlo is about 46m tall. The temple was damaged by earthquake in 1975.
Among all the tourist souvenirs on display at Htilominlo, local puppets seemed to be the most eye-catching.
Well known for its detailed plaster work, Htilominlo is a popular temple among the 2000+ pagodas in the area. The sikhara at the top was under scaffolding during our visit.
There is one gilded Buddha figure at each of the four worship halls facing the four directions.
Each of the four Buddha figures is unique in appearance. Pilgrims usually visit all of them for the worship.
The four main worship halls are connected by vaulted corridors running around the core of the main structure.
The interior of the architecture is full of archways and vaulted corridors.
Some of the fading fresco can still be seen inside Htilominlo.
After an interior loop, we walked around the temple to check out its exterior decorations. Some of the beautiful plaster work and glazed terracotta plaques were still visible.
Across the road from Htilominlo, we reached a smaller building called Upali Thein. Built in the 13th century, this building houses some fine frescoes from the 17th century. The interesting roof battlements attempted to mimic a type of historical Burmese wooden architecture that can no longer be found today.
We were fortunate that the usually locked Upali Thein was open while we were there.
We wandered around a cluster of stupas nearby. These stupas varied in size and form, and were constructed in different eras.
In the past, constructing stupas in Bagan was considered a religious good deed of the donor. Stupa donors in Bagan ranged from businessmen to officials and even kings. Names and addresses of the donor were often presented at the entrance gate.
Constructing stupas was a competitive business in the old days among the wealthy class.
Today, most of the 2000+ surviving stupas and pagodas stand in partial ruins, except the most prominent ones that are still serving as places of worship for Buddhist pilgrims.
Centuries of competitive stupa constructions put Bagan at the top of the list of attractions for Myanmar.
Looking back at Htilominlo from afar, we could truly sense that our two-day feast of temple and stupa hopping would be a really special experience. Unlike Angkor in Cambodia where majestic temples are overtaken by the powerful rainforest, Bagan is a romantic landscape picture consisted of layers of pagodas scattered across the horizon.
For lunch, Win Thu took us to a local restaurant nearby.
There was no menu as all customers were given the same dozen or so small plates of local dishes and a large plate of rice.
Housed in a simple shed, the restaurant kitchen was filled with the scent of charcoal.
After a full day in Yangon, the second part of our trip would take us north to Bagan. In the 9th to 13th centuries, Bagan was the ancient capital of the Pagan Kingdom, the first kingdom that united Myanmar. Near the former royal capital Mandalay, Bagan is over 600km north of Yangon. We chose flying to save time. There are several local airlines that offer the service. We picked Air KBZ, one of the guidebook recommended private airlines, and bought our tickets online two months prior to the trip. To maximize the time in Bagan, we chose the 7:15 flight and left Yangon’s Loft Hotel before dawn. We arrived at Yangon Airport in no time. After checking in, we had a noodle breakfast at a cafe in the boarding area.
Among several eateries we ended up sitting down at Gloria Jean’s Coffee in the boarding area for breakfast.
Black coffee and Shan noodles represented a set breakfast with a local twist.
Approaching Bagan, we could occasionally see Buddhist stupas in the landscape down below. We were pretty excited as we approached the ancient capital of the Bagan Kingdom, where thousands of pagodas and stupas once stood on the dry plains near the Irrawaddy River.
After a little over an hour, our plane touched down at Nyaung U, the main town in the Bagan area. Nyaung U was also where we would base ourselves in the next two days.
The Nyaung-U Airport is a small airport that served only domestic flights. Upon arrival, all passengers gathered at a room to wait for their luggage to be carried in by airport staff. After picking up our luggage, we walked out to the arrival hall and was greeted by our local guide Win Thu.
Win Thu took us back to our hotel Oasis Hotel to drop off our bags, and immediately began our Bagan tour by visiting Shwezigon Pagoda, the largest Buddhist temple in Nyaung-U. All visitors of the pagoda are greeted by the chinthes, the traditional leogryph guardians of temples in Southeast Asia.
We took off our shoes and entered one of the two remaining entrance halls. The entrance hall was crowded with pilgrims, tourists and vendors selling all kinds of religious offerings.
The entrance hall is a stone-paved covered walkway leading to the central pagoda compound and the gold gilded central pagoda.
Before approaching the golden stupa, we stopped by a pavilion with statues depicting the Buddhist story of the Four Sights: when the 29-year-old Siddhārtha left his royal palace for the first time and first met an elderly man, sick man, dead man and an ascetic. The four sights led Siddhartha to realize the real sufferings in life, and inspired his decision to embark on an ascetic journey towards enlightenment.
In Shwezigon, there are shrines dedicated to local deities such as the Nat God. Like many local deities, Nat predated the arrival of Buddhism in Myanmar and still remained popular today.
Completed in 1102 AD, the golden pagoda of Shwezigon Pagoda is believed to house a bone and tooth of Gautama Buddha. The bell-shaped stupa represents the architectural tradition of the Mon people of ancient Myanmar.
Many visitors gathered around a tiny pool of water to check out the reflection of the golden pagoda. According to our guide Win Thu, the king also used the pool of water to inspect the construction of the stupa.
The pagoda has a central solid core, with steps at the four cardinal directions rising from the base up the terraces for pilgrim’s worship.
Shwezigon Pagoda is the largest and most popular Buddhist temple in the Bagan area today.
Win Thu led us to the back of the pagoda to check out the famous Chayar Tree. The tree is famed for its year-round blossom, unlike other trees of its kind which would only flower at a certain period of a year.
At the back of the pagoda, we also found a small building housing local deities that predated Buddhism in Myanmar.
Before leaving Shwezigon Pagoda, we passed by a number of small prayer halls that surrounded the golden pagoda.
We found our way back to where we came. It was time to move on to the next designations in Bagan.