Photo: Missed a few spots.

Old Bagan to Nyaung U

Compared to our Old Bagan Walled City loop, this trail is lower on monuments but higher on kilometres and is best done by bike. The starting point is the fabulous Ananda and the circuit finishes at spectacular Shwezigon, two of the most prestigious and celebrated Bagan temples.

The 11th century-built Ananda Pahto is considered to be one of the first "great" Bagan monuments and today is one of Burma’s most venerated temples. Four enormous gilded Buddhas at the centre of the temple are the highlight, but glazed tiles showing scenes from the jataka mythological tales, a Buddha footprint, fantastic light play in the temple’s surrounding corridors and small sculptures contained within inner niches are all equally captivating. One of the four large standing Buddhas is original apparently and note how the faces’ expressions curiously change as you approach the statues.

One of the cardinal point Buddhas at Ananda.

One of the cardinal point Buddhas at Ananda. Photo: Mark Ord

The popular approach is from the east (shoes are left at the very first gate) through an area absolutely awash with souvenir sellers. Like any of Bagan's most popular sites, this one can get very busy when the tour buses arrive. Allow at least 30 minutes.

Returning to the main road it’s around two kilometres until you reach a track south to Htilo Minlo, another large and spectacular site easily spotted from the road. This red, weather-beaten temple, standing alone and surrounded by trees, effuses character and comes with far fewer souvenir stands and local pilgrims. It's at its most impressive from a distance, though it does reveal murals and stucco work at close quarters. As with many two-storey monuments at Bagan, the upper storey is officially off limits to casual visitors, but the ground floor corridors, murals and stucco make it still well worth visiting.

Ananda Pahto is one of Burma’s most venerated temples.

Ananda Pahto is one of Burma’s most venerated temples. Photo: Mark Ord

Htilo Minlo is thought to date to the 12th or early 13th century. A legend describes young King Zeyatheinkha as 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 Gawdawpalin, though lacks the whitewash, with small spires on the corners of each level as the temple rises in steps with brick, almost battlement-like, connecting walls.

Within you'll find interesting murals -- especially on the ceiling above the Buddha statues – but they're very faint at times, and not all are original. As with many of Bagan's monuments, additions were made over time. Allow at least 30 minutes to explore the site and when you're done, follow the dirt trail that runs around the monument to the east, which emerges onto Anawrahta Road. Opposite and slightly to the right you’ll spy Buledi.

Interesting murals at Htilo Minlo, though faint and not always original.

Interesting murals at Htilo Minlo, though faint and not always original. Photo: Mark Ord

While the construction period of this pagoda has not been exactly dated, it is in a similar style to other 11th-century temples, though the surmounting stupa is more bulbous than pointed. Buledi stands slightly alone and is bare brick but lacks the vegetation of Htilo Minlo. When we first visited you were permitted to climb to higher levels and with fine views to the east and south is one of the best dawn viewpoints but on a 2016 visit it was off-limits.

From here you’ll need to head up Anawrahta Road for nearly two kilometres, looking out for a trail on the left leading to one of our favourite smaller temples, the little visited Gubyauk-nge. Compact and somewhat hidden away, Gubyauk-nge 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 key holder is around, 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.

 Stunning Shwezigon Paya, believed to enshrine two relics from the Lord Buddha.

Stunning Shwezigon Paya, believed to enshrine two relics from the Lord Buddha. Photo: Mark Ord

Further down the same trail you'll find Gubyauk-gyi with a pyramid-shaped tower (similar to that at Mahabodhi) but again the real attraction is the frescos within. Despite having been extensively looted 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 was stolen was recovered; other pieces were purchased by the Hamburg museum, while the whereabouts of the rest is unknown.)

From here you need to get back to the Nyaung U, Old Bagan Road and head right for a bit of a cycle up to Nyaung U’s Shwezigon Paya. Allow a good 20 minutes though there are plenty of cafes along Main Road. You should be able to see the glittering gold stupa of Shwezigon from some way off.

Monks collecting photo money.

Monks collecting photo money. Photo: Mark Ord

Begun in the late 11th or early 12th century, Shwezigon Paya is believed to enshrine not one but two relics from the Lord Buddha -- in this case a tooth and a forehead bone -- both of which were apparently shipped across the Indian Ocean from Sri Lanka. For Burmese pilgrims, the glittering and golden Shwezigon Paya rivals Ananda in importance and along with the Golden Rock and Yangon’s Shwedagon are among the most revered sites in the country.

This is a large site -- the entire compound encapsulates some 200 square metres – and it remains a very active one. At times it can be very busy, but it’s interesting to observe the goings on and religious rituals among the local faithful. Like Shwedagon, the temple’s been renovated and updated so many times it could be new and while lacking the rustic, crumbling charm of some of the remoter sites, it's not to be missed. The temple’s particularly spectacular late in the afternoon with the sun on the gold-gilded stupa. It’s also conveniently close to Restaurant Row, so when it's time to rest your weary backside, hitch up your trusty stead to the nearest saloon post and celebrate having done the entire day without getting a puncture.

Last updated on 11th September, 2016.

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