This temple tour is high on sites but short on distance, with a mere four kilometres or so separating New from Old Bagan. If you’re coming from New Bagan then bicycle power is ample though the route does undulate more than the Nyaung U to Old Bagan route, but if you’re doing it from Nyaung U, an e-bike may be a better option.
We'll starting in New Bagan and head out of town to the north, making our first stop at the fairly minor (in the scheme of things) Sein Nyet Nyima stupa and Sein Nyet Ama temple. Ama is the temple sitting upfront and Nyima is the stupa behind. The names mean "elder sister" and "younger sister" respectively. It is unusual for a stupa of this size not to have stairs 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 mythical beasties at the corners of each of the terraces that support the stupa.
Next stop up the road is Nagayon, meaning "protected by a snake" (naga). While this was not the original name it does relate to a legend surrounding the temple origins. The site is said to mark the spot where Anawrahta’s son, Prince Kyanzitta slept, sheltered Buddha-style by, you guessed it, a snake. Believed to date to the 11th or early 12 century, the site is today guarded by a large wall with smaller gateways at its cardinal points. The interior grounds have a rustic charm to them, with shrubs and spindly grass growing out of the walkway. 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 out of place, and it is -- the original collapsed in the 1975 quake.
A little further along the road on the opposite side lies Abeyadana, named after an 11th century queen (wife of Kyanzitta), who heralded from what is now Bangladesh. The temple is unusually decorated with frescoes depicting Mahayana themes -- contrasting with the Theravada images at most other temples. Photography is forbidden inside, so you'll have to visit yourself or take our word for it. You’ll need a torch and to find someone with a key at this little visited temple.
Abeyadana is around mid-way between New and Old Bagan, just before the lacquerware village of Myinkaba and on river side of the highway. The bustling village has a bunch of small restaurants and tea houses and makes a good spot to stop for a break.
As you enter the village though, a couple of temples to the left are worth a peek. The small Nan Paya is noteworthy for two things: its rare and beautiful stone bas reliefs and its 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 why stone was used here. The exterior of the site is still primarily brick, but when you reach the stone 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 deal bothers you, politely and firmly refuse a guide offer at the start.
Secondly check out the gigantic, robust-looking Buddha images at neighbouring Manuha Paya (three seated and one reclining). Over-sized and tightly constrained by their enclosures they look about to 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 a Mon king for whom the temple was named, after he was defeated by King Anawrahta, 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 an 18th century addition. Regardless of age, this is a very popular pilgrimage site and can get busy -- a situation exacerbated by the tight confines of each of the rooms.
Just out of the village to the north you’ll find the confusingly named Gubyauk-gyi as per another temple close to Nyaung U. Myinkaba’s one is a moderately sized monument just off the road and is considered to be the oldest accurately dated temple (1113 CE) within greater Bagan. Precise dating is derived from a stone inscription discovered nearby that, with the same text inscribed in four ancient languages, forms a Bagan equivalent of the Rosetta Stone. Text is in old Burmese, Mon, Pali and Pyu and the stone is housed within an unattractive enclosure near to the Myazedi stupa to the rear.
Gubyauk-gyi is also famous for its exterior stucco work and its reputedly magnificent interior murals, though sadly when we visited a key-holder was nowhere to be found. The exterior stucco is impressive though along the top of the walls and above the pillars you'll see bare brick, where the stucco has fallen off.
Last stop before reaching Old Bagan proper is Minglazedi Paya, dated to the 12th or early 13th centuries. Like a number of Bagan monuments, the Minglazedi Paya has brick "battlement" style walls around each of its levels and the tubular drains resembling cannons extend from the walls, adding to its fortress-like appearance. It’s best known 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 damaged and appear to have been crudely cemented into place while some are missing. Enough remain to illustrate what a stunning monument it must have been in its time.
By Mark Ord
Last updated on 11th September, 2016.