Old Bagan to New Bagan
Lots of pedalling but worth it
What we say:
You will need your own transport -- be it bicycle, pony or taxi. If you're doing it by bicycle, do as we did and start from New Bagan -- it means you're riding uphill the entire time but then it's an easy roll home at the end of the day.
First stop is the fairly minor (in the scheme of things) Sein Nyet Nyima stupa and Sein Nyet Ama temple (monuments 1086 and 1085) where it is very much temple before stupa. Sein Nyet Ama (the temple) sits upfront with Sein Nyet Nyima (the stupa) behind. The names mean "elder sister" and "younger sister" respectively.
It is unusual for a stupa of this size to not have stairways leading part of the way up from the cardinal points, but this makes it all the more beautiful for its uninterrupted curves. Instead, at each of the points there is a niche housing a seated teaching Buddha. Note also the beasties at the corners of each of the terraces that support the stupa.
Next stop up the road is Nagayon (monument 1192) -- the name means "protected by a snake". While this was not the original name of this site it does relate to a legend surrounding the temple – the site marks the spot where Prince Kyanzitta supposedly slept, sheltered by, you guessed it, a snake.
Believed to date to the 11th or early 12 century, the site is guarded by a large wall with smaller gateways at its cardinal points and the interior grounds have a very unkept feel to them, with spindly grass growing up between the pavers on the main walkway to the inner temple. The main temple has three terraces, with small stupas at each corner and at the centre of the middle level.
The gleaming white spire looks like a bit of an oddity, and it is -- the original collapsed in the 1975 earthquake.
A little further along the road on the other side lies Abeyadana (monument 1202). Believed to date to the late 11th or 12th century, Abeyadana is very well regarded for its frescoes with a Mahayana theme (contrasting with the Theravada images at other temples). Photography is forbidden inside, so you'll have to visit yourself or take our word for it.
Abeyadana is backed by an interesting legend that suggests it was built in honour of the queen of Kyanzitta (1084-1113), named Abeyadana, a princess who heralded from modern-day Bangladesh. The story goes that Kyanzitta was hiding from King Sawlu (1077-1084) at where now stands the Nagayon (see above) and planned to meet his lover Abeyadana there. She was late and he fell asleep. When she eventually arrived she found a naga hooded over the sleeping Kyanzitta to protect him. She screamed, which scared off the naga (not much of a guard!) and woke Kyanzitta. He took this to be a sign that he would be king and when he was crowned in 1084 he had this temple built in his wife's honour.
Legends aside, the main reason to visit here is for the impressive murals within. You must bring a torch though as the keyholder may not have one (or didn't have one the first time we visited).
You'll find Abeyadana midway between New and Old Bagan, just before the lacquerware village of Myinkaba. When coming from New Bagan the temple is on your left. Allow at least 45 minutes to really take in the murals.
Striking north from Abeyadana you'll reach the bustling lacquerware village of Myinkaba which has, you guessed it, an absolute shedload of lacquerware for sale, along with a bunch of small restaurants and tea houses. To your left there are two sites well worth investigating, with the more spectacular being the Manuha Paya (monument 1240).
The gigantic, decidedly robust-looking Buddha images here (three seated and one laying down) feel so over-sized and tightly constrained by their enclosures that they want to just stand up and burst out of the walls.
The main approach brings you to the three seated brick Buddhas (once covered with stucco and painted gold), with the largest at the centre. Legend has it the central image was donated by the Mon king for whom the temple was named, after he was defeated by King Anawratha, in the hope that he would never be fought again in future rebirths.
The rear reclining Buddha is equally enormous, but is thought to have been a far later addition to the site. Given that super-sized Buddhas were not a common characteristic of the primary Bagan period, it is thought that this was a far more recent (18th century) addition to the area. Regardless of age, this is a very popular pilgrimage site and can get extremely busy -- a situation exacerbated by the tight confines of each of the rooms. Watch your step after rain as the tiled outside floors here are slippery when wet and it's very easy to take a painful fall.
A short walk to the south down a dirt trail you'll find the Nan Paya (monument 1239) which is known for two things: its rare and beautiful stone bas reliefs and its seemingly shy but extremely persistent touts.
Perhaps for cost reasons, stone was very rarely used as a construction material in Bagan – relatively cheap brick was the preferred material, so it is unclear just why stone was used here. The exterior of the site is still primarily brick, but when you reach the inner sanctum, you'll see a collection of life-size Brahma images, which, for those who have visited Angkor, will immediately bring Khmer artistry to mind.
The vendors who have the small shops around the site here can double up as guides, but can be especially persistent when it comes to inviting you to their shop. If this sort of bait and switch bothers you, politely refuse a guide offer from the beginning.
With or without a guide, allow 30 minutes to explore Nan Paya then jump on your bike and keep heading north to reach the next site, Gubyauk Gyi (monument 1323) in Pali, or Kubyauk Gyi in Burmese. This moderately-sized monument just off the road between Old Bagan and New Bagan is the oldest accurately dated temple (1113) within greater Bagan and is also located near a stone inscription that forms a Rosetta stone across four languages.
Gubyauk Gyi is revered for two reasons: its exterior stucco work and its reputedly magnificent interior murals, the latter of which we were unable to see. We visited twice in the hope of having the keyholder open up the interior for us, but lucked out on both occasions.
The exterior stucco is impressive, both along the top of the walls and over the pillars -- you'll see large gaps, back to bare brick, where the stucco has fallen off.
Near opposite Gubyauk Gyi sits the Myazedi stupa and within that stupa's compound you'll find a pieced together stone inscription that records the donation of the temple by a prince to his ill father, Kyanzittha (1084-1113).
What is more remarkable concerning this inscription is that it's in four languages -- Burmese, Mon, Pali and Pyu -- and so it served as a Rosetta stone of sorts between the four languages and was especially useful with regard to Pyu. The stone is stored within an especially ugly stone enclosure near to the Myazedi stupa.
You'll need just 30 minutes to appreciate the exterior stucco of Kubyauk Gyi and the stone inscription -- add at least another hour if you're actually able to gain entry to observe the murals within.
Last stop before reaching Old Bagan proper is Minglazedi Paya (monument 1439). Believed to date to the 12th or early 13th centuries, Minglazedi Paya is one of the few Bagan sites you are still permitted to at least partially climb, although in this case it is more to admire the site itself rather than the surrounds -- though the latter is also possible.
Like a number of Bagan monuments, the Minglazedi Paya has brick "battlement" style walls around each of its levels and the tubular drains that frequently extend from the walls only add to its fortress-like appearance (though they are drains -- not cannons).
Minglazedi Paya is best known though for its Jataka plaques that commence on the stupa's lowest terrace and proceed clockwise as they ascend the stupa. Some of the plaques are quite damaged and appear to have been crudely cemented into place, and others have been removed to ummm Berlin (cough cough) but others show their glaze well and illustrate what a stunning monument it must have been in its time. The smaller corner stupas on the top terrace were also once covered with glazed ceramics.
If you really want to take in the full collection of the tiles allow 45 minutes to an hour to explore the site. While the lower reaches of Minglazedi Paya can be climbed, it isn't one of the better sunrise or sunset points.
Once you're done here, head out to the main road and begin the roll back down to New Bagan or the long pedal to Nyaung U.
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