A Plain Full of Pagodas and a Temple in the Clouds

That-byin-hyu Temple 3 - Gold Flake Buddha

A Buddha image coated in hundreds of layers of small gold leaves at the That-byin-hyu Temple

In an attempt to escape the swampy wetlands and torrential downpours that make-up the delta region surrounding the city of Yangon, the next activity on my itinerary was to move North into the (relatively) dry heartland of Myanmar to take in the temples and views of the sprawling geographical region known as Bagan.  This area first came into its own roughly a thousand years ago, during the middle of the 11th century, when the Burmese people, led by King Anawrahta, were in the process of adopting Theravada Buddhism (as opposed to either Hinduism or Mahayana Buddhism) as their primary religion.  King Anawrahta become so passionate about his new faith that he began to commission the construction of the first pagodas and temples that sparked a 230-year building frenzy, resulting in nearly 4,000 structures spread out over only a 26-square mile area.  Why the construction ceased near the end of the 13th century — or more specifically, what caused the downfall of those in power at the time — is largely a topic of debate, but the brick and stone temples that still remain today offer a lasting legacy to the fervor of the ancient kings from a millennium ago, and has, subsequently, become one of the country’s most visited sights.

When trying to describe the magnitude and scope of Bagan, it is tempting to liken it to other similar and more-famous temple complexes, such as Angkor Wat in Cambodia or Sukhothai and Ayuthaya in Thailand, but whereas all three of these nearby cities each have their own charm and unique character, none of them compare to the sheer number and immediate proximity of the various temples and pagodas in the dusty plain that is Bagan.  And it isn’t until you climb to the peak of one of the pagodas and look out that you realize just how numerous, and how tightly packed-in, the structures are that litter the landscape — it is an awe-inspiring sight.  Additionally, aside from a handful of small towns (New Bagan, Old Bagan, Nyang-U, and Myinkaba being the main options), the entire region remains largely undeveloped, allowing for a more intimate connection with the history and culture of the Burmese people.  Although Bagan is quickly becoming a popular tourist destination with the gradual easing of government restriction for visitors coming to Myanmar, it still remains one of the most breath-taking sights in this part of the world:

The view from Shew-san-daw Pagoda

Many of the temples have local “caretakers,” that will guide visitors up precarious staircases to take in the views across the temple-strewn landscape.  This vista happens to be from atop the Shew-san-daw Pagoda

Looking out from the That-byin-hyu Temple

Looking out from the That-byin-hyu Temple

The Ayeyarwady River and the surrounding mountains can just be made out in the distance

The Ayeyarwady River and the surrounding mountains can just be made out in the distance

Three local children, painted with the thanaka make-up that is worn by most women and children, who found my presence to be quite fascinating

Three local children, painted with the thanaka make-up that is worn by almost all women and children of Myanmar (and many men, too), who found my presence to be quite fascinating

With the rains brought on my be monsoon season, the Ayeyarwady River was running high and fast at this time of year

With the rains brought on by the monsoon season, the swollen Ayeyarwady River was running high and fast while I was visiting

Water jars are a common sight outside of any temple or residence, but I found this moss-covered pair to be particularly photogenic

Water jars are a common sight outside of most temples or residences, but I found this moss-covered pair to be particularly photogenic

Bu-paya 14 - Boats

An orchard of Dragon Fruit, which -- it turns out -- is as tasty as the name is intimidating

An orchard of Dragon Fruit, which — it turns out — is as tasty as the name is intimidating

The presence of the many temples and pagodas doesn't deter the locals from continuing to farm their fields, but it does offer then a nicer view

Although the presence of the many temples and pagodas doesn’t deter the locals from continuing to farm their fields and ply their trades, it certainly does offer them a nicer view while they work

The temples, shrines, and pagodas in and around Bagan are so numerous that it takes at least several days of touring around simply to see the highlights (I can’t imagine how long it would take to see all of the estimated 4,000 sights in the area, if that is even possible).  And although hiring a taxi to whisk you around is certainly a possibility, I found the best way to take in the entirety of the archeological region was to rent a bicycle, grab a few snacks, pack several bottles of water, and then to simply head out into the dusty plain with a map in hand (very important, for obvious reasons).  It is virtually impossible to provide a comprehensive guide to the temples of Bagan, but here are a few examples of the likely sights you’ll encounter along the way:

Exploring by bicycle is a largely solitary experience, but it still quite rewarding, as you get the chance glimpse the comings and goings of daily life for those who live and work in and around the Bagan area

Exploring by bicycle is a largely solitary experience, but it still quite rewarding, as you get the chance glimpse the comings and goings of daily life for those who live and work in and around the Bagan area

The tiled pathway leading to the Su-la-ma-ni Pahto

The tiled pathway leading to the Su-la-ma-ni Pahto

The view over the Ayeyarwady River as seen from the Bu-Paya

The view over the Ayeyarwady River as seen from the Bu-Paya

A seated Buddha image inside the Pya-tha-da Pagoda

A seated Buddha image inside the Pya-tha-da Pagoda

The towering Anada Temple, one of the highlights of the entire region

The towering Anada Temple, one of the highlights of the entire region

One of 4 massive golden Buddha images within the Ananda Temple

One of 4 massive golden Buddha images within the Ananda Temple

Ananda Temple 17

Even the floors are quite ornate inside many of the temples

Even the floors are quite ornate inside many of the temples

A keyhole window within the That-byin-hyu Temple

A keyhole window within the That-byin-hyu Temple

The reclining Buddha of the Shwe-san-daw Pagoda (also one of the best spots to watch the sunset)

The reclining Buddha of the Shwe-san-daw Pagoda (also one of the best spots to watch the sunset)

The Maha-Bodi Pagoda, the only Hindu temple amongst the thousands of Buddhist temples

The Maha-Bodi Pagoda, the only Hindu temple amongst the thousands of Buddhist temples

Detail of the walls of the Maha-Bodi Pagoda

Detail of the walls of the Maha-Bodi Pagoda

Entrance to the Shwe-zi-gon Pagoda, just outside the town of Nyang-u

Entrance to the Shwe-zi-gon Pagoda, just outside the town of Nyang-u

The golden Shwe-zi-gon Pagoda

The golden Shwe-zi-gon Pagoda

One of many smaller, sub temples the dot the land

One of many smaller temples that dot the landscape

Detail of the Gu-byauk-gyi Temple

Detail of the Gu-byauk-gyi Temple

The Mya Zedi as framed by the Gu-byauk-gyi Temple

The Mya Zedi as framed by the Gu-byauk-gyi Temple

The Hto-lo-min-lo Temple, one of the largest temples in the entire region

The Hto-lo-min-lo Temple, one of the largest temples in the entire region

The gold-leaf exterior of the Law-ka-nan-da Pagoda

The gold-leaf exterior of the Law-ka-nan-da Pagoda

The entryway to the Dhamma-yan-gyi Pahto, another excellent sunset-viewing spot

The entryway to the Dhamma-yan-gyi Pahto, another excellent sunset-viewing spot

Mount Popa, Myanmar:

From nearly any vantage point in the entire Bagan area, if you squint hard enough and gaze intently towards the mountains across the Ayeyarwady River to the West, you’ll notice that there exists is a tiny golden dot atop the highest peak that seems to twinkle and reflect the sun’s light across the plain as you change angles.  This isn’t an optical illusion, but is in fact a gilded temple set atop Mount Popa, the tower-like remains of an ancient volcano (technically known as Popa Taung Kalat).  The temple is said to be home to 37 “nat,” or spirit beings, making this a very sacred spot for the Burmese people, as well as a great day trip outside of the pagoda-hopping madness of Bagan itself.

If you happen to be visiting during the rainy season as I was, however, you’ll quickly realize that the promised views looking down over the valley, or the postcard-like images of the golden temple set atop its towering peak, can be quite elusive (if not downright impossible) due to the heavy cloud-cover and frequent rain storms — which, incidentally, also gave the temple a unique, mystical quality, as it seemed as though you were floating in the clouds, suspended in the sky.  Luckily, however, I also had a very patient guide to drive me up the mountain that didn’t mind spending that extra hour waiting for those few fleeting seconds where the clouds might part just enough to get a peak at the valley below.

The first peak through the clouds at the gilded temple atop Mount Popa

The first peak through the clouds at the gilded temple atop Mount Popa

The meandering pathway leading up to the top, which must be done on foot, incidentally (all 777 steps of it)

The meandering pathway leading up to the top, which must be done on foot (all 777 steps of it)

If the blanketing cloud cover didn't give the temple an "other-worldly" enough feel, the presence of hundreds of very aggressive monkeys sure did the trick

If the blanketing cloud cover didn’t give the temple enough of an “other-worldly” atmosphere, the presence of hundreds of very aggressive monkeys sure did the trick

Mount Popa 54 - Monkey

I was powerless to resist the “cuteness” factor of this touching scene

Looking back down towards the valley below

Looking back down towards the valley below

Nearing the top...

Nearing the top…

Mount Popa 49

Finally reaching the temple itself

Mount Popa 16

Mount Popa 24

The golden spires of the temple

Mount Popa 37

A small but colorful Buddha image, set amidst a column full of small alcoves, each with its own Buddha image

Mount Popa 34

Mount Popa 28

Mount Popa 42 - View

Looking back down over the cliff

Although I would have loved to have had enough time to visit additional sights within the country such as Inle Lake, Mandalay, and the Shan State, Bagan sadly marks the end of my Burmese adventure (the rest will have to wait for a return visit).  After Bagan, I have a layover in Singapore for a few days before catching that final flight back home, which will mark the end of my 2+ year Round-the-World trip.  But before I get emotional and begin to reminisce, I promised you a Food Post on Myanmar and I intend to deliver.  So start working up your appetites now, as this is going to be a tasty one.  Until then, cheers from the pagoda-laden plain of Bagan and the temple in the sky that is Mount Popa!

You knew that another shot of me was on its way, didn't you?

You knew that another shot of me was on its way, didn’t you?

About andrewamiet

I'm a 29 (now 31) year-old former desk jockey who is now making my way around the world, experiencing all of the sights, sounds, tastes, people, and culture that the world has to offer.

12 Responses to “A Plain Full of Pagodas and a Temple in the Clouds”

  1. OMG! These pictures are just awesome, the landscape is like being in another world. Great commentary, too!

  2. Greetings from Osaka 🙂 Another wonderful and informative post. I feel as if we are travelling with you…..

  3. I love the landscape! Also, you need to get that picture of the monkey and two babies published. What an amazing picture Andrew!

  4. I will certainly miss your postings from around the world. Enjoyed all of them. How your travels must have expanded your internal thoughts and actions. You certainly did the right thing by giving this gift to yourself of world experiences filled with lifetime memories.

    • I appreciate the kind words, Bev, and thanks for following along for this whole crazy trip. I’m actually back home in the US now (I’m still behind a few posts), and now that my trip is over, I’m beginning to look back and reminisce about what it is that I’ve been through. Although it is hard not to have doubts from time to time, the one things that I am sure about is that if I had to do it all over again (leave a good job, friends, family, etc.), I’d make the same decision in a hearbeat! This has been a life-changing experience, and something that I’ll look back upon fondly for the rest of my life!

  5. What an incredible landscape. I think I would have to stay and never leave if I ever visit there as I would be for ever thinking I haven’t seen that temple (temple nr. 2345:-)) yet! Thank you for another great post: great photos; informative; funny and which quite clearly show your enthusiasm and love for new places and experiences.
    Now for the food……

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