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.
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.
Like many Southeast Asian cities, the streets of Yangon are chaotic and energetic. While we checked out the colonial architecture in Downtown Yangon, we also encountered the vibrant Burmese street life that included mobile street vendors, roadside eateries, and wandering Buddhist monks dressed in pink robes seeking for donations. As a city of about 5.5 million, Yangon has the most diverse population in Myanmar, with Bamar the main ethnic group, along with Indians, Chinese, Rakhine, Karen people, etc. Such diversity is reflected by the distinct cuisines available in restaurants. With 135 ethnic groups, and bordering nations including India, China, Thailand, Bangladesh and Laos, the vigorous cultural fusion of distinct influences is strongly evident in the street food of Yangon.
Buddhist monks, including groups of young monks, could be seen throughout Downtown Yangon. They came out mainly to seek for food donations.
Fruits and snacks were sold everywhere on the sidewalk, including the pavement in front of the City Hall.
Despite of recent controversy, Ang San Suu Kyi is still to a great extent the symbol of human rights in Myanmar.
There was a street market along the east side of Maha Bandula Park.
Some vendors were selling dry goods but most were actually street food vendors.
Snacks and more food at the east entrance of Maha Bandula Park.
The pink robes of the Buddhist monks stood out against the old building facades of Yangon.
Plastic chairs, makeshift tents, and temporary tables of street food vendors were set up at side streets.
With the happy customers at the street food vendors, the city was filled with a somewhat laid-back atmosphere. Even dogs were having a relaxing time in the early afternoon.
We saw an abundance of fruit vendors at street corners in Yangon.
Lime, oranges, mandarin oranges, pineapples, bananas, dragon fruits, and grapes are the most popular fruit on the street.
Traditional longyi (a 2m long cloth sewn in cylindrical shape) is widely worn in Myanmar for both men and women.
Longyi comes in all kinds of patterns and colours.
Ang San Suu Kyi remains as the face of Myanmar.
Cold drink shops are popular in Yangon, offering soda, juices, and snacks.
Canopies of historical buildings provide desirable weather protection for street vendors.
Even the downtown area is full of a sense of community, with happy vendors and customers seem to know each other well.
This traditional bakery shop sells all kinds of cookies, sandwiches and bread.
Where the sidewalk was not wide enough, vendors spread their merchandise out to the street.
Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon, was the capital city of Myanmar (Burma) until 2006. With 7 million inhabitants, Yangon remains as the largest city in Myanmar. Because of our tight schedule, we only had a day to explore the downtown where decaying colonial buildings from the British era mingled with bustling daily activities of the locals, and the Shwedagon Pagoda, the religious heart and biggest tourist draw of the city. Before that, we decided to first get a taste of the Burmese culture through sampling the local cuisine. We weren’t particularly hungry, but would want to try out a well known noodle shop: 999 Shan Noodle House. It was a half-hour walk to the noodle shop. What’s better to get a quick Yangon impression than wandering its lively streets?
Venturing out of the Loft Hotel, we headed east towards the north-south thoroughfare Alan Pya Pagoda Street. Local shops lined along one side of the street, while the opposite side was dominated by the large Park Royal Hotel.
One of the first building we encountered on Alan Pya Pagoda Street was Thamada (President) Cinema and Hotel. Opened its door in 1958, Thamada was Rangoon’s most prominent cinema with a fully air-conditioned hall and a great example of the cuty’s Modernist architecture.
A number of snack vending carts were stationed in front of Thamada Cinema.
Other than skewers or salad, fruit is also common snacks in Yangon.
Renovated a few years ago, Thamada Cinema remains as a popular cinema in the present, drawing sell out shows from time to time.
Further down the road we reached the intersection of Sakura Tower. Built in 1999, Sakura is a 20 storey building built by Japanese investors and architects. It offers office spaces up to international standards, with a restaurant at the top floor. While the top floors struggled to find tenants in the first several years, Sakura is now totally full as Myanmar opens up in recent years.
Next to Sakura Tower, the 1910 Bible Society of Myanmar (British and Foreign Bible Society) was the heart of Christian evangelical society in the early 20th century. In the 1960s, the foreign missionaries were expelled from the country, and was restructured in 1964 under national organization.
The strip of Bogyoke Road at Sakura Tower was known as Rangoon’s “Cinema Row” in the past, a designated entertainment district. The Nay Pyi Taw Theatre with its iconic patterned facade was built in 1961. Movie was and still remains big in Yangon (formerly Rangoon). The modernist patterned facade was popular back in late 1950s and early 1960s in Southeast Asia.
Further down we reached a busy intersection of Sule Road and Anawratha Road where a network of pedestrian overpass allowed us to gain a raised overview of this part of Downtown Yangon.
The overpass was occupied with vendors. Pedestrians loved to stop by the railing for a look at the changing surrounding skyline. Looking north, the top of Sakura Tower perched over the tree crown in the middle, and the Sule Shangri-La (Trader Hotel) dominates the the left side with its 500 rooms. Built by Japanese and Singaporean architects, the hotel never really fulfilled its tourist potentials due to the West’s boycott on the junta government. Rooms were sold at discounted prices. interestingly, it did attract a number of NGOs and UN agencies to set ups their offices here, and so as foreign journalists and some tourists.
At the southwest corner of the pedestrian overpass, a new 20 storey office building was under construction.
Further south we could see one of the city’s most important monument, the Sule Pagoda. It is known to be one of the oldest monument site in Yangon, some said around 2600 years old. Sule Pagoda has been and still is considered to be the heart of Downtown Yangon.
After a moment above the streets, it was time for us to return to the busy street scenes.
As we approached 999 Shan Noodle House, we began to explore the network of small side streets behind Yangon City Hall.
All side streets were flanked by buildings dated back to British Rangoon.
It took us several minutes to reach the right side street of the noodle house. It was fortunate that we had portable wifi device and mobile phone which we could get on Google Map.
Food vendors could be seen on many of these side streets. Groups of children monks were also a common sight.
After a little over half an hour of walk, we finally reached our destination – 999 Shan Noodle House. 999 is a famous restaurant in Yangon specialized in dishes from the Shan and Kachin States at Northern Myanmar. These states border with Yunnan Province of China, which is also popular with rice noodle dishes.
The pig knuckle noodle soup was tasty, and the pork texture was just right.
Stir fry rice noodle with local spices was also a popular dish at 999 Shan Noodle House.
After lunch, we continued to walk down the side street towards Yangon City Hall.
At the end of the street we again passed by a food vendor. They seemed to be everywhere in Downtown Yangon, especially at the end of side streets.
Our driver Sangzhu dropped us near our hotel Trichang Labrang (赤江拉讓藏式賓館) in Barkhor Old Town. After dropping off our bags, we stopped by the eatery beside the hotel for a quick bite. The friendly eatery owners, a talkative young couple, were excited to welcome us and chatted with us. We ordered a Nepali platter, fried momo and two cans of local beer to celebrate the completion of our road trip. The momos were quite delicious, and went well with the beer made with Highland Barley. It was the last full day of the trip. After filling our stomach, we didn’t want to visit any attractions, but spent time wandering in Barkhor Old Town, checking out souvenirs, watching people, and photographing anything that interested us, until the dinner time. For dinner, we decided to try the Tibetan hotpot at “Our Tibetan Restaurant” (咱们的藏餐馆).
After returning to Lhasa, we stopped by the small local eatery next door from Trichang Labrang Hotel. The young owners were friendly and talkative.
To celebrate the completion of our 6-day road trip, we ordered some local beer and highland barley wine.
The most delicious snack we ordered was the fried momo (Tibetan dumplings).
For dinner, we revisited the “Our Tibetan Restaurant” (咱们的藏餐馆), the atmospheric courtyard restaurant nearby.
Again we ordered the highland barley wine (青稞酒). The wine came in an interesting bird-like pottery jar.
The main dish of the meal was the Tibetan hotpot. It came with vegetables, melons, beef, ham and yak meat.
We wanted to linger around Barkhor Old Town for a little longer after dinner.
In front of Jokhang Monastery (གཙུག་ལག་ཁང༌། 大昭寺), pilgrims, worshiped on the stone pavers as usual.
Other than pilgrims, tourists also gathered at the Jokhang forecourt.
In front of Jokhang main entrance, more pilgrims gathered to worship, including some Buddhist monks.
The sky was getting dark but the Jokhang forecourt was getting even more crowded.
Some pilgrims preferred to stay near the large flag pole in front of the Jokhang.
Around Jokhang, groups after groups of pilgrims and tourists walked the kora in clockwise direction around Lhasa’s most sacred site.
The kora route was flanked one side by souvenir shops and the other by the majestic facade of the Jokhang.
Along the kora route, many pilgrims were performing prostration the entire way.
Some tourists treated the pilgrimage forecourt as a public plaza and sat on the pavers to chill out among the pilgrims.
Among pilgrims and tourists, chilling out in the Jokhang forecourt included this large and gorgeous husky.
We would certainly miss the spiritual atmosphere of the Jokhang forecourt.
On our way back to Trichang Labrang Hotel, we passed by one last time the store where we bought our bottled water everyday of our Lhasa stay. The next morning, we would take the airport shuttle bus near the Potala and fly back to Hong Kong via Chengdu. Although short, it was a delightful experience for the three of us on the unique Tibetan culture and magnificent Himalayan landscape. Hopefully next time we could have more time and travel further to the western corner of Tibet.
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More blog posts on Tibet 2017:
JOURNEY ABOVE THE CLOUDS, Tibet 2017 (西藏之旅2017)
DAY 1: TOUCHDOWN ON THE ROOF OF THE WORLD, Lhasa
DAY 1: TRICHANG LABRANG HOTEL (赤江拉讓藏式賓館), Lhasa
DAY 1: KORA AT BARKHOR STREET (八廓街), Lhasa
DAY 2: FIRST GLIMPSE OF POTALA (布達拉宮), Lhasa
DAY 2: KORA OF DREPUNG MONASTERY (哲蚌寺), Lhasa
DAY 2: DREPUNG MONASTERY (哲蚌寺), Lhasa
DAY 2: JOKHANG MONASTERY (大昭寺), Lhasa
DAY 2 : SPINN CAFE (風轉咖啡館), Lhasa
DAY 2: NIGHT VIEW OF POTALA (布達拉宮), Lhasa
DAY 3: POTALA PALACE (布達拉宮), Lhasa
DAY 3: SERA MONASTERY (色拉寺), Lhasa
Day 4: KORA OF GANDEN MONASTERY (甘丹寺), Lhasa
Day 4: GANDEN MONASTERY (甘丹寺), Lhasa
DAY 4: TEA HOUSE AND FAMILY RESTAURANT, Lhasa
DAY 5: ON THE ROAD IN TIBET
DAY 5: MORNING IN SHANNAN (山南)
DAY 5: SAMYE MONASTERY (桑耶寺), Shannan
DAY 5: SAMYE TOWN (桑耶鎮), Shannan
DAY 6: YAMDROK LAKE (羊卓雍錯)
DAY 6: PALCHO MONASTERY (白居寺), Gyantse
DAY 6: WORDO COURTYARD (吾爾朵大宅院), Shigatse
DAY 7: ROAD TO EVEREST BASE CAMP (珠峰大本營)
DAY 7: EVEREST BASE CAMP (珠峰大本營)
DAY 7: STARRY NIGHT, Everest Base Camp
DAY 8: PANG LA PASS (加烏拉山口), Mount Everest Road
DAY 8: SAKYA MONASTERY (薩迦寺)
DAY 9: TASHI LHUNPO MONASTERY, (扎什倫布寺) Shigatse
DAY 9: ROAD TO NAMTSO LAKE (納木錯)
DAY 9: EVENING AT NAMTSO LAKE (納木錯)
DAY 10: SUNRISE AT NAMTSO LAKE (納木錯)
DAY 10: LAST DAY IN LHASA, Tibet
EPILOGUE: FACES OF LHASA, Tibet