Burma/Myanmar – Bagan pagodas and temples (Shwesandaw, Shwezigon and Sulamani)

» Posted by on Jul 25, 2014 in Bagan, Burma, Featured, long trip, Myanmar

After landing in Bagan early in the morning, we went directly to the Shwesandaw pagoda, which offers an impressive view of Bagan and makes you understand why it is so popular. From the upper terrace, you can see hundreds of Buddhist temples and monuments. Bagan was once the capital city of the first Kingdom of Pagan. During the kingdom’s height between the 11th and 13th centuries, over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were constructed in the Bagan plains alone, of which the remains of over 2200 temples and pagodas still survived to the present day. To give you an idea, it’s like starting a new temple or monument EVERY week (on average) for 200 years.

While in Bagan, we went to the Shwesandaw three times (mid-morning, sunset and sunrise). The most enjoyable time is sunrise, when the hot air balloons glide over the plain. It’s very quiet as there is very few people and if you are early enough, the tourists stands are not “staffed” yet. The worst time to go is at sunset (more on this later).

Hot air balloons at sunrise over Bagan

Hot air balloons at sunrise over Bagan (from the upper terrace of the Shwesandaw pagoda)

Sunset from the Shwesandaw pagoda

Sunset from the Shwesandaw pagoda

Bagan is a very popular destination when traveling to Burma, don’t expect to be alone while visiting the maintained temples or monuments. A good example is the Shwesandaw pagoda (sometimes referred as the sunset pagoda in english guidebooks). It is as crowded at sunset as subway stations in Tokyo at rush hour. Literally  you can’t move and don’t even think putting down your tripod unless you come early. That was not a good surprise! From there on, we read the same guidebook as everybody else and we moved our timing accordingly: when the guidebook recommended to go at sunrise, we’d go at sunset and vice-versa (of course, if that made sense, picture-wise).

By doing this, we were able to find local people doing their normal activities. They have learned to avoid tourists too.

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Normally the reclining Buddha (Shinbinthalyaung) is also popular but we went at sunrise (when the guidebook recommend to go at sunset) and it was literally empty. We had plenty of time to setup our tripods and enjoy the hard work that is to photograph buddhas (because of their gigantic size, the cramped space they are encompassed into and the light conditions – very low light with highlights from doorways).

Reclining buddha (Shinbinthalyaung)

Reclining buddha (Shinbinthalyaung)

There are still active temples in Bagan and one of the most beautiful is the Shwezigon Pagoda. The pagoda is located in the nearby town of Nyaung-U. It is a prototype of Burmese stupas, and consists of a circular gold leaf-gilded stupa surrounded by smaller temples and shrines.

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In the same area, we ventured outside of the beaten path and we spent time exploring the Mingun village, where we saw how Burmese live and how they process the product of their harvest by hand (peanuts, bamboo…). We also spent some time at the Nyaung-U market.

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Another quiet village is the village of Minnanthu. Because it is not on so many guide books, it receives less tourists. It’s located southwest of Bagan. There, we visited the Sulamani temple. As you can see on some of the images, there were other tourists but also locals. The interior of the temple has a lot of very beautiful frescos and Buddhas. Another benefit of this temple is that it was relatively cool inside, so we did linger a bit.

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In late afternoon, we visited the village itself. Most tourists never wander there and we found a very active village with the Tayok Pye temple in the background. While walking around, we found this two goat herders (mom and son) watching over their goats. With a great sunset light and background, they were very happy to have their photo taken. A couple minutes later, a group of cows came around as a farmer was riding an ox cart back to the village.

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I took several pictures of details (carvings, frescos, murals, gold statues) that were present in many temples. I might do a post just on those, but here is an example of one small carving at the bottom of the Tayok Pye Temple.

This is a detail of the Tayok Pye temple carving.

This is a detail of the Tayok Pye temple carving.

Our hotel was right on the river and after coming back from our sunset/evening shoot, most of our group went to change for dinner but Tuan, my wife and I were looking around the hotel and we walked down to the shore of the Ayeyarwady river at the very end of the blue hour. Tourists boats cruise the river from Mandalay to Bagan. During the 3-day cruise, they stop for the night at the pier next to the hotel.

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As we rode our bus to get to our evening dinner, we passed an umbrella store, which had the umbrellas lit from behind. Luckily, it was across the street from our restaurant. While everybody else was getting settled at our table, we (always the same three) ran back to the road and shot the umbrellas.

Burmese umbrellas at night

Burmese umbrellas at night

Details of umbrellas at night.

Details of umbrellas at night.

After only two days in Bagan, we flew to Mandalay in early morning sun. Tuan, my wife and I had decided that we had enough time to do the sunrise (and more importantly the hour before the sunrise) before going to the airport. After a lot of help from our guide we had the directions to a an old temple that would let us climb to the top to have a higher view point. This one was not locked, as most of the old temples are, mostly because they are not safe. It was also conveniently located on the way to the airport.
We had arranged for a taxi to get us to the temple and our bus (with the rest of the our group) would pick us up on the way to the airport at a pre-determined spot at a very precise time. That was one of the couple times when we explored by ourselves (without our guide or bus driver). The directions to the temple were vague at best but our taxi driver had been briefed by the hotel concierge and our guide the previous evening and when we arrived approximately on location, he drove us as close as he could with his car to the right temple (the only one in that location that you could get in). It took a bit of searching in the darkness to find the hidden staircase that will lead us to the roof terrace. Once there, we had a great sunrise. The terrace had a 360-degree view of Bagan’s temples and monuments.

Sunrise of Bagan's temple

Bagan’s temples at sunrise

Sunrise over Bagan's plain

Sunrise over Bagan’s plain

Bagan's temple

Bagan’s temple

Right after that, it was time for us to catch up with our group and fly to Mandalay.

This trip is split in several posts: Shwedagon pagoda, Sule Pagoda, Kandawgyi Lake, Kyaukhtatgyi, Nga Htat Gyi and Botataung Pagodas.

All the images presented here are available for licensing or as fine art prints.