Pottering around Pagodas

Souvenir umbrella shop, Nyaung U
Steep stairs up Shwesandaw

It’s easy to imagine all of SE Asia as a lush and verdant landscape of coconut palms, banana trees and tangled vegetation (as seen in every Vietnamese war film that Hollywood ever churned out), but this part of Myanmar,  between Mandalay and Bagan, is surprisingly arid.  Lying in the rain shadow of mountains to the east and west it only gets about 5″ a year, and usually none between November and April, so by January the grass is scorched and sparse and with bald patches of reddish earth.  The low, bumpy hills are left to date palms and scrubby, stunted trees, but where the land is flat enough there are small fields of cotton, maize, tobacco, sesame, sunflowers and peanuts. The road we took from Mandalay appeared to be a shortcut rather than the main route, as it crossed several dry streams and one sizeable dry riverbed that would clearly be impassable in the rainy season.  Other cars were few and far between – most of the other traffic, such as it was, consisted of motorcycles and bullock carts, the latter trundling slowly along the verges piled with agricultural produce and often with the driver’s attention focussed entirely on the screen of his smartphone.


Tourist horse cart in Nyaung
We arrived in Nyaung U, a small town 5km from Old Bagan at 12:30 and fortunately were the first drop-off – the remaining passengers must have been going to New Bagan or one of the villages nearby, as nobody now lives in the archaeological zone of Old Bagan (the residents were forcibly resettled in the 1990s, and only a few expensive hotels remain).  Less welcome was the sudden change in the weather – no sooner had we settled into our room, with its terrace facing the swimming pool, than the light drizzle that had greeted us turned into a serious downpour.  As we’d managed to squeeze in breakfast before we left Mandalay we lunched off a couple of pastries we’d brought and stayed in our room for the rest of the day, only venturing to the hotel’s good but pricey Italian rooftop restaurant for dinner.
Nyaung U mark

The next day dawned wet and miserable.  This was not supposed to happen in Bagan in January, and I felt sorry for the considerable number of tourists who would have only stopped in Bagan for one full day – they would have no option but to trail around the pagodas in the rain, whereas we had the luxury of waiting.  Instead we set off to explore a rather muddy Nyaung U and suss out transport options for Old Bagan – we had a choice of taxis or horse carts.  Our hotel was conveniently located at the bottom of a road lined with restaurants aimed at tourists, travel agents and souvenir shops (although it was still a sleepy kind of road) so we checked menus and perused the shelves of the little convenience store before heading along the main road into town and diving into the warren of stalls and alleyways that comprised Nyaung U’s market, narrowly escaping a drenching when water-weighted tarpaulin gave way just in front of us.  Away from Restaurant Street, as it is known, this was real small-town Myanmar – I picked up a packet of crackers to eat with tin of tuna for lunch, but quickly replaced them on discovering the mouse-chewed hole in one end.

Pots for sale near Ananda  temple
The rain continued on and off the next day, but we managed to get as far as the river and the golden stupa of Shwezigon, Nyaung U’s premier archaeological site, although smaller pagodas in various stages of dereliction popped up every few hundred yards while wandering around the town.  As we ambled back to the hotel we  suddenly had to stop to allow a young horse to career out of a side road in front of us.  We shadowed it down the main road as it dashed to and fro, occasionally chasing or being chased by a dog.  It seemed pretty crazy – presumably it was destined to pull carts when it was older; perhaps it had decided to rebel against its fate.
Shwegugyi temple, Bagan
After two whole days in Nyaung U we decided that we would go to Old Bagan the next day, rain or no rain.  Luckily it was no rain, just cloud, so we engaged a horse cart for a one-way trip.  The driver naturally wanted us to hire him for the whole day, but I had read that it was possible to see the sights of Old Bagan on foot, especially when it wasn’t too hot.  We would cover the outlying temples and pagodas another day.  Although we had clearly said that we wanted to go to Old Bagan, the driver tried to make us get out at a pagoda some way outside the walls, saying that this was Old Bagan, and we had to stage a minor sit-in before he reluctantly took as far as the Tharaba gate.  Further he would not go, so we walked the rest of the way to Shwegugyi, our first temple in Bagan proper.
Burmese tourists near Bhupaya temple
There are a lot of temples and pagodas in and around Bagan.  Really, a lot.  2,000 is the current estimate, but that probably doesn’t include all the ruined ones, some just a course or two high – originally there may have been as many as 30,000 which suggests  level of pagoda building that goes way beyond hysteria.  Tourists are not expected to visit them all – there are certain’important’ ones that are larger, or more complete, or better ornamented, or representative of a particular style, and these are the ones to which tourists are shepherded.  Naturally,  these are also the ones where visitors have to run a gauntlet of tourist tat stalls in order to gain entry.  To be fair, some of the paintings and textiles are very good, but it does seem odd that vendors are allowed to set up stalls actually within the precincts of what are, after all, active temples.  I know some of our great cathedrals have gift stalls, but those are to raise money for the church – I can’t imagine independent T-shirt hawkers being allowed to set up shop inside St Paul’s.
Catering to Burmese day trippers by the Irrawaddy
With so many temples (all with one or more large gold Buddhas) and pagodas they do all begin to blur – no individual pagoda is unmissable, it’s the sheer number and density that makes the area so spectacular.   Of the ones in Old Bagan the one that stands out most in my mind is Bhupaya, mainly because it was on the banks of the Irrawaddy and provided a good vantage point for watching coach parties of Burmese tourists making their way down the embankment to buy snacks before embarking on boat trips.  That, and a temple for which we only saw the sign – the Nuclear Catastrophe Overcome Pagoda.
Gold Buddha in Ananda temple
We eventually made our way back to Ananda, the temple at which our horse cart driver had tried to eject us.  At this point the sun came out for the first time since we had arrived in Bagan – great timing, as the distances between the Old Bagan points of interest were greater than I had expected, and walking around in full sun would have been a killer.  But we then faced the problem of getting back to Nyaung U – all the taxis and horse carts at Ananda were waiting for their existing passengers.  After loitering at the roadside for over 20 minutes without any empty taxi or cart in sight I was beginning to wonder whether we should try to blag a lift from a fellow tourist when we spotted a horse cart pulling in to a shaded area in front of some shops opposite, and rushed over before the driver could disappear.  
Lacquerware workers
Taking a horse and cart to Old Bagan was OK, but to get around the outlying temples we decided to splash out on a taxi, and negotiated a price of 20,000 kyat (about £13) for half a day.  We told him that we wanted to go to Dhammayangi, Shwesandaw and Htiominlo and left the rest to the driver, who added Mingalazedi , Sulamani and Alo Pyi to our itinerary.  Sulamani and Shwesandaw stood out as the most memorable, Sulamani for its frescoes and Shwesandaw for the steep stairs up the exterior, from which we got our first really good view across the Bagan plain and a few hundred of its pagodas, and the giant reclining Buddha in a separate structure.  Finally we went to Myinkaba village for a nose around a lacquerware workshop, the workers sitting on the floor scratching intricate patterns into layers of different coloured varnish. 
Reclining Buddha at Shwesandaw

Our final day in Bagan was designated as a rest day, knowing that we would then have four consecutive days on the road and in the air to reach our next destination, and that the the minibus back to Mandalay might pick us up as early as 06:30.  So we just went for a final walk around the now dusty streets of Nyaung U, changed most of our excess kyat back into US dollars just in case we didn’t get an chance later (kyat are worthless outside Myanmar) and I took the opportunity for my first swim since leaving Chapora.  The water was surprisingly frigid, and I would have to pack my swimuit wet, but I didn’t care.


Frescoes in Sulumani pagoda
The next four days passed in a blur of travel – the minibus back to Mandalay, a flight to Bangkok and a hotel near the airport where we ended up dining off a salad cobbled together from the shelves of a nearby 7-11, a flight to Kuala Lumpur and hotel at KLIA2 airport (or is it actually a shopping mall with attached runway?) and finally a flight to Langkawi for a very special event.

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