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.
After sunset, the Shwedagon Pagoda transformed into a mysterious world of flickering candles and shimmering golden ornaments. We stayed at the open space in front of the Photo Gallery for a little while after dusk. We then wandered around the central stupa, where people were lighting up candles around the stupa base. We saw a constant flow of people arriving at the main terrace from one of its four main stairways. It seemed there were actually more visitors at compound after dark. At the compound, some people were worshipping and chanting, while others were chatting and taking photographs of themselves with the glittering background of the pagoda. At the end of our visit, we decided to walk down one of the grand covered stairways to descend the Singuttara Hill.
The view of the central stupa from the Photo Gallery was gorgeous no matter what time of the day it was.
At the northwest open space in front of the Photo Gallery, worshippers gathered to offer incenses, candles and other religious items in prayers.
At the nearby prayer hall, the large Buddha in golden robes looked peaceful under the soft lighting.
The golden prayer halls and chapels looked even more surreal in the evening.
The locals enjoyed posing for photographs at some of the golden worship halls.
At the base of the central stupa, the continuous ring of candles appeared like a stream of sparking fire flickering in the wind.
Just as daytime, the planetary posts were still one of the popular worshipping spots.
The covered stairway, or zaungdans, are often occupied by merchants selling all kinds of religious items from flowers to different kinds of offerings.
After sunset, the main terrace around the central stupa is still adequately lit up.
From the north gate, the central pagoda stood perfectly at the terminus of the perspective axis.
Some visitors preferred to stay away from the busy actions surrounding the central stupa.
At the outer perimeter of the worship terrace, the sacred Bodhi tree was highlighted with flood lights.
Colourful electronic lights are commonly used to create the halo ring for each Buddha statue.
Statues of the Buddha were everywhere in the ompound.
After the candles were lighted up, many people came to the ring of candles to pray and worship.
Some monks were meditating inside the small Buddhist shrines.
Same as worshipping in daytime, pilgrims came up to the planetary post and clean the altar with water.
After the visit, we took the covered stairway at the east gate to walk down the hill.
The east stairway is flanked both sides by shops selling souvenirs and religious items.
Back to the main east gate, we picked up our shoes and looked for a taxi to return to Downtown Yangon.
As the most sacred Buddhist site in Myanmar, the Shwedagon Pagoda is also one of the liveliest venue where the Burmese gather not only to worship but also to participate in all kinds of social and community activities. For the locals, Shwedagon is the place to chill out, to date, to spend family time, to chat with friends, to seek for advice from monks, and to mingle with foreign tourists. For us, the compound was the perfect place for people watching: devoted families worshipping their associated planetary post, kids amusing themselves with bronze bells and ritual tools, women reciting Buddhist mantras, monks meditating in front of the Buddhist shrines, children dressed in traditional costumes attending novitiation ceremony, large number of volunteers sweeping the marble floor, pilgrims lighting up candles and incenses surrounding the central stupa under the setting sun.
The terrace of Shwedagon has long been the centre stage for the people of Yangon. Since 1920, students, workers, civilians, and monks had took up the terrace to protest against all kinds of social injustice from colonial rule to the authoritarian regime. The most recent incident was the 2007 nationwide protest for democracy, when tens of thousands of monks and people marched from Shwedagon to the streets of Yangon demanding for change. Political figures also chose the Shwedagon as the assembly venue, such as Aung San (Aung San Suu Kyi’s father) addressing the mass in 1946 in pursuit of independence from the British, and Aung San Suu Kyi meeting with 500,000 people in 1988 demanding for democracy from the military regime. Religiously, this huge Buddhist site holds the sacred hair relics of the Buddha. Socially, the pagoda terrace is the iconic venue for national independence and democracy. Historically, the Shwedagon is one of the oldest Buddhist monument in the world. Culturally, the compound contains some of the Myanmar’s most remarkable architecture and national treasures. With its layers of meanings, the Shwedagon Pagoda is truly a remarkable venue for the people of Myanmar, and the single most important monument that defines the cultural and social identity of the Burmese.
Wearing a Burmese longyi and walking bare-feet on the marble floor of the Shwedagon is an unique Burmese experience for foreigners.
The Shwedagon is a popular place for Shinbyu parades, the traditional novitiation ceremony in Burmese Theravada Buddhism.
Throughout our visit, we saw a few Shinbyu parades at the marble terrace of the Shwedagon.
The Shinbyu parades offered us some of most remarkable moments of people watching.
At Shwedagon and elsewhere in Myanmar, gold is warmest colour.
Many pilgrims would light up candles and incenses at the altar around the central pagoda.
Local fruits are popular for religious offerings.
Meditation is a typical practice for Buddhists, and a common sight at Shwedagon.
Young children seemed enjoying themselves at the terrace while their parents were busy worshipping.
A kid trying out the bronze bell.
A devoted family worshipping at one of the planetary post at the base of the central pagoda.
A group of women reciting Buddhist mantras in front of a reclining Buddha.
Visitors and monks resting among figures of sitting Buddha.
Volunteers collectively sweeping the marble floor was a unique scene for us.
The volunteers formed a line and walked at the same pace to sweep the floor. During our visit, we saw the sweeping group several times at different locations in the compound.
Away from the main circulation space, some worship hall were less crowded, allowing visitors to meditate quietly.
Near sunset, many gathered at the open space in front of the Photo Gallery northwest of the central stupa.
Gathering people included young visitors carrying flower offerings for evening worship.
We also saw a large group of what looked like to be the Wa people. The Wa is an ethnic minority group living in Northern Myanmar and Southwestern China.
Myanmar is ethnically diverse, with 135 ethnic groups officially recognized by the government.