Old Bagan to Nyaung U

Some grand sites

Photo of Old Bagan to Nyaung U, , Bagan

What we say: 4.5 stars

As with the Old City excursion, we commence near a moningya/cheese baguette filling station across from Ananda Pahto (monument 2171). Along with Shwe-zigon in Bagan and Shwedagon in Yangon, Ananda Pahto is one of Burma's most venerated shrines and has been a site of religious worship more or less since its founding. When this founding was exactly though remains up for debate – sources suggest any time from the late 11th century through to 1100. Regardless of when it was built, Ananda Pahto is considered to be one of the first "great" Bagan monuments.

Four enormous gilded Buddhas at the centre of the temple are the highlight, but glazed jataka tiles, a Buddha footprint, huge wooden doors and small sculptures contained within inner niches are all equally captivating.

The popular approach is from the east (shoes are left at the very first gate) through an area absolutely awash with souvenir sellers, and, like any of Bagan's most popular sites, this one can get very busy when the tour buses arrive. Allow sufficient time to wait out the crowds and finish your visit back under the shade of the tree to the west of the monument where you can take in the spectacle of the monument.

When you're done admiring, get on your bike/pony and head west along the main road till you reach the turnoff to the south to Htilo Minlo (monument 1812) and follow the dirt trail to one of Bagan's monster monuments, which, like many of the grandest, is at its most impressive from a distance, though also boasting murals and stucco at close quarters.

As with many two-storey monuments at Bagan, the upper story is officially off limits to casual visitors, but the ground floor corridors, murals and stucco make it still well worth a visit. You'll be approaching from the north (running a considerable gauntlet of souvenir hawkers) but the main intended entrance is from the east.

Htilo Minlo is thought to date to the 12th or early 13th century, but no firm evidence has been unearthed regarding this -- save a story that described King Zeyatheinkha being chosen to build the temple by his father after a white umbrella tilted in his direction. The monument follows the same design at both Sulamani and Gawdaw Palin with large stupas on the corners of each level at the temple rises and brick, almost battlements, in between.

Within you'll find interesting murals -- especially on the ceiling above the Buddha statues. They're very faint at times, and not all are original -- as with many of Bagan's monuments, additions were made over time.

The "battlements", combined with how Htilo Minlo has lost much of its exterior stucco, give it a real castle-like appearance -- only added to by the square wall with gates at cardinal points that encircles the estate.

Allow at least 30 minutes to an hour to explore the site and when you're done, follow the dirt trail that runs around the monument to the west, then down to Anawratha Road, take a right and follow it till you spy Buledi to your left.

Buledi (monument 394) is a bit of an off-track sunrise spot, so if you're thinking of catching it then, you'll need to slightly rejig this plan to start here -- as the bagutte place certainly won't be open at 04:00! If you are looking for an alternative sunrise viewing point with smaller crowds, Buledi is quite a good option as it offers quite good views from the ugly viewing tower to the east through to the riverside sites to the west.

While the construction period of this pagoda has not been exactly dated, it is believed to be contemporary to other 11th century temples. This is one of the few temples in Bagan that you can fairly reliably count on being permitted to climb to higher levels and was one of our favourite dawn viewpoints -- you'll want to be here by 05:00 to take in a full sunrise -- and don't forget to look to the west to see the temples lit up in the early morning light.

If you're not hitting up Buledi for sunrise is it worth the effort? We'd say yes if only because it is one of the few monuments you are allowed to climb for a loftier view of the surrounds.

Once you're done at Buledi, head back to Anawratha Road, take a right and start pedalling. It's 10-15 minutes on a bicycle (less for Olympians) and you'll eventually reach a copse of trees on your left and a dirt trail that leads to one of our small temple favourites, Gubyauknge (monument 1391).

Compact and somewhat hidden away, Gubyauknge has impressive exterior stucco and equally enthralling interior reliefs across its walls.

Set within a small grove of trees, circle the monument first -- the best of the stucco is on the southern wall -- and then, assuming the friendly keyholder has showed, explore the interior (torch essential). The walls are decorated with hundreds of votive Buddha images painted onto stucco walls along with Buddha icons set in niches around the walls. The decorative arches on the ceiling are also in fine condition in places, though in others the stucco has come off the surface entirely exposing the plain brick interior.

This is a very little visited temple -- the keyholder told us she goes days without having a single visitor -- which is a little difficult to understand, as it is well worth seeking out. Allow 30 minutes or so.

Further down the same trail you'll find Kubyauk-Gyi (Wetkyi-inn) (monument 298) which has a pyramid-styled tower (similar to the Mahabodhi) but the real attraction are the frescos within. Though extensively looted by a German vandal in 1899, the remaining frescos still justify a visit, though no photography is permitted within. Note the incisions made in the remaining frescoes -- these were made by the thief who was unable to remove the full slabs. Some of what he stole was recovered, but other pieces were purchased by the Hamburg museum and the whereabouts of others are unknown.

The last stop involves a long bike ride -- get back to the main road, take a left and take the first solid looking left you come to. Follow it through to the Nyaung U-Old Bagan Road and then take a right. Eventually you'll see the glistening spire of Shwe-Zigon Paya (monument 1) on your left.

For Burmese pilgrims, the glittering and golden Shwe-Zigon Paya rivals the Ananda for importance -- these are two of the most revered sites in all of Burma.

Begun in the 11th or 12th century, Shwe-Zigon Paya is believed by many to enshrine not one but two relics from the Lord Buddha -- in this case a tooth and a forehead bone -- both of which were carted across the Indian Ocean from Sri Lanka.

While this is a large site -- the entire compound encapsulates some 200 square metres -- this remains a very active site and at times can be very busy, but the advantage of this is it makes it an ideal time to observe religious practices and rituals.

A collection of shrines and other buildings within the compound are done in a variety of styles -- some Burmese, open-air affairs while another is an art deco building dated to 1948.

Last updated: 29th December, 2013

About the author:
Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton and he spends most of his time in Bali, Indonesia.
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