Thursday, January 12, 2017

Touring the Temples of New Bagan, Old Bagan, and in between

Due to airline schedules, we had to spend whole day traveling from Bangkok to Bagan.  We had a  morning flight from Don Muang Airport (where we saw this amusing take on Ronald McDonald as a Buddhist)

to Yangon, then 3 hour layover until our flight to Nyaung U.  On arrival airport near Bagan, we had to pay a Bagan Architectural Zone fee of 25000 kyat, for which we were given a card which, we were told, we might have to display from time to time. 

(Our guide took charge of those cards, showed them a few times over the course of two days).

There are three main communities in the vicinity of the field of temples: Nyuang U, where the airport is located; Old Bagan, which is close to many of the most important temples in the area (indeed, a number of them of IN Old Bagan); and New Bagan.  Some time ago, the government decided to expel all residents from Old Bagan, and compelled them to move to what is now called New Bagan: old Bagan remains an area for tourists, containing several higher-end accommodations as well as restaurants.  Our hotel, the Kumudara Hotel,  was a midrange place located in New Bagan.

From our very first arrival at the Kumudara, I could see that we would have great views of temples: it is what guidebooks mention as a selling point for the place.   For example, the night of our arrival we could see from our balcony the night-lit temples glowing in the distance;

here is the early morning from our hotel room window

There was a spot near our room where you would go out and watch the sunrise

The small dots just above the skyline in the lower left hand side of the photo are not flaws in the photo:  they show a number of balloons up in the air – this is apparently a popular albeit expensive way ($350 per person!) to see the temples, and morning is apparently the best time to do this because the drafts allow pilots to swoop down close to the temples.  There might be a dozen or so in the air at the same time.  This sounded like an extravagant expense to us.

Right out in front of our hotel
 several temples were visible within a few minutes walk,

including this pagoda with an interesting filigree at the top, an unusual configuration we had not seen elsewhere in the vicinity (or, indeed, in our later travels through Myanmar)

What the guidebooks do NOT mention about the location is the downside: Kumudara is at the outskirts of New Bagan, so it is not close to other restaurants, and its restaurant was pedestrian (and the breakfast, very weak).  It is a walk of several very dark blocks to the main drag of New Bagan (including a market that we never had the opportunity to visit), and Nancy was nervous about walking to eateries in the dark, so the first night, we had dinner at the hotel restaurant.

Our room was pleasantly sized,

with a balcony covered with pigeon shit but otherwise nice (two of the vistas shown above could be seen from our balcony).  The rooms of the hotel are set in several buildings surrounding an attractive garden and walkways

We had a large bathroom with a tub and shower area, but there was no shower curtain and I couldn’t keep the water from running around the bathtub and onto the floor.  For a mid-range accommodation, I found it very surprising that  no shampoo provided; there was a hot water heater and instant coffee (apparently with sugar included!), but no tea.   The room itself was dimly lit, as was the lobby.  The fact that wi-fi was available only in the lobby (and restaurant) comported with the hotel’s advertising, but I found that even that wi-fi went in and out.  At least the indoor part of the restaurant was well lit.

Breakfast can be taken in outdoor dining area or inside

The front desk was very accommodating front desk – for example, they secured our excellent guide and I give them credit for that.  All in all I thought this was a reasonably nice place to stay that I would recommend to others, noting however its limitations noted above.

We had been told that the hotel could provide us with a guide so long as we let it know on arrival, and we were more than satisfied with Thin Zar Soe, the guide that the hotel located for us.  (Contact the author for her contact information)

She came up with a good touring itinerary that kept us busy for a solid two days, with a good selection of things to see; she was enthusiastic about her work, spekaing not only about the cosmology and iconography of Buddhism, which appeared to be her own religious commitment (although she deflected a personal question in that regard), but also about the Nat spirits, whom = she made clear she did not herself worship
While we were in Bagan, we saw many women wearing the remnants of a tan paste on their faces, especially on their cheeks.

Thin explained that this a cosmetic that was prepared from the bark of the thanakar tree, also used as a form of protection from the sun.  I assumed that this must be a rural phenomenon but at the end of our timew in Myanmar we saw this on many if not most women in Yangon as well.

Our first temple visit was to Thitsarwaddy Temple

mostly for a view of the Bagan plain that was afforded from the roof of the temple - temples and temples and temples covering the plain as far as the eye could see.

Thin took this time to talk to us about the two styles of temple we would be seeing in Bagan.  The early style (like this one) were one story high, dark, with one entrance facing to the east.  The later style temples were two to three stories, with multiple entrances, and lighter and airier insdie

Similarly, we would be seeing examples of the following building types. 

Monasteries were buildings or complexes where monks live.   On religious holidays, such as the day we were sightseeing, people would go to monasteries in the morning to make offerings for monks.  (in contradiction to legal holidays when schools and banks are closed, Saturday and Sunday)

Temples were complexes of buildings used for worship, where worshippers (or we, as tourists) can enter

Pagodas were buildings that house a relic but cannot be entered.  In size orders, pagodas are the  largest such structures, and would have been built by a king.  Stupas are mid-sized structures, built by a wealth individual; zedi are the  smallest, built by people with fewer resources.

Our next visit was to the ShweZiGone Pagoda. 

It was contained in an 11th Century complex. This wooden door, created in 1089, has squares with a dancer in the middle, and musicians on sides

It contains an11th Century Buddha: made of bronze but hollow.  This Buddha shows its time of creating by the fact that the ears are elongated, but do not touching the shoulders.  The figure is thin, has defined knee caps, and has no clothing

Thin told us how the wooden statues in this gandakuri, or shrine, tell Buddha’s life story. 

He was born into wealth, and had no experience in or exposure to the harsher trials and tribulations of ordinary people.  But he encountered four omens, situations of people who were old, or sick, or dead, and thought about the fact that the future held this for him as well.  He cut off his hair and went into the forest to meditate.  Ultimately, he found enlightenment, and began preaching what he has found to disciples.  We would be seeing portrayals of this story time after time visiting religious monuments in Bagan and elsewhere in Myanmar.

This is a three-dimensional scene showing the enemies of Buddha from the Dobwi Pasak Mudra

This pole is a remnant of the Mon culture that was defeated when the Burmese invaded this area

The reclining Buddha below is in the resting position, not the nirvana position, because the Buddha touching a piece of rope.

Here, the Buddha was made in the 18th century, represented in the teaching position (he is presenting to his five disciples).  The three fingers in one hand represent the omens that had come to him — getting old, getting sick, and dying – while the three fingers in his other hand reflect three forms of suffering

Near the end of our visit we visited a small building containing a pair of Nat spirits.  Thin explained that the Burmese king who first accepted Buddism conceived the strategy of incorporating Nats into Buddhist cosmology, as a lesser form of worship within Buddhism, as a way of bring Nat worshippers along with his new religion. Here the Nat spirit father is shown below his son, with both the different heights and the different number of rings on their sleeves reflecting their relative rank

The spirit house found in this building

is typical of Myanmar, being much less decorated than a Thai spirit house.

This standing Buddha is an original from 11th century, having a jackfruit as a bun atop his head.

As we walked into the thirteenth century Htilominlo guphaya, Thin told us the story behind its construction. A king had five sons; he assembled them and told them that his successor would be the one to whom the white umbrella pointed; the winner built this temple to commemorate his good luck; the white umbrella theme could be seen inside.

A fair amount of the original decorated stucco remains on this building.  There were small statues of guardian spirits at the entrances to the temple

as well as these ogre heads in the decorations over the entrances. 

Thin told us a background story:  that at a time when food supplies were low, Shiva ordered some ogres to eat themselves, so that only their heads remained.  Then he took them into his heavenly abode, thus they are portrayed with only their heads.

This sitting Buddha has hallmarks that place its creation in the 13th century: the ears are long but not touch the shoulders: the Buddha is portrayed have some robes, but not elaborate ones

In the adjoining corridors, there are several niches with Buddha’s inside them; the white signs with black writing identify the donors

This sitting Buddha was made considerably later, in the 18th century, shown by his very short neck

Thin told us that the body is original, but that the head had to be replaced because it was made inter alia of precious metals, and so was the target of treasure hunters.  Note the white umbrella on the side, reflecting the founding story of the temple

Here are some paintings from the adjoining walls. 

This painting was done later (18th century), as shown by the inclusion of green pigment

This standing Buddha figure is wooden, made out of teak

After leaving the Htilominlo, we passed by a set of temples set on farmland  that struck my fancy

so I asked if we could stop for a quick look. 

Thin said she could not give me the names of these temples.  In fact, of the more than 3000 temples on the plains around Bagan, only major temples have names; the rest have only numbers The farmland is privately owned, but the  department of archeology owns all the ruins.

Lunch Break

At this point, we took a break for lunch at the Shwe Myanmar restaurant

After we found an empty table, loads of side dishes were brought out: bean curry, sour ginger, cooked tomato with peppers, fried tiny fish with pepper paste, cheese with spicy sauce, a  sweetish black bean paste

Then came a collection of meat curries, tending to be very bony and fatty.  For dessert, we were given bars of palm sugar candy mixed with tamarind. 

I resolved to find some of these to bring back as a treat for my office colleagues.

Here is a view of the open kitchen, which I passed on the way to the bathroom

An unusual feature of the receipt was that the payment of tax was actually reflected by the placement of several  sales tax stamps on the receipt (the receipt below was from later in our stay in Myanmar)

After lunch, we drove to the Ananda Temple, which Thin told us was the most important temple in the area.  The founding story was about a king who wanted to see the Himalayas.  A magician conjured mountains up for him; this temple was meant to replicate those mountains

These bas relief squares at the front of the main building depict gods paying homage to Buddha

Of the standing Buddha’s in this temple, two are originals from the 11th century, while two others are 18th century replacements. This 31 foot standing Buddha is an 11th century original.

The figures in the niches along side this Buddha tell of the stages of his life – the departure from being rich, the cutting of the hair, the meditation stage

There were even more niches in the corridors between the various standing Buddha’s – 100 niches with 1400 Buddha figures

The next Buddha is 18th C replacement made after the original was destroyed in fire

The hands are shown in the traveling position.

This next Buddha

is an original from the 11th century.  His smile seems broader as you move away from the statue

The hands are shown in preaching position.
The final standing Buddha, with hands in preaching position, is an 18th C teak replacement of an original that was made of too many precious metals that were looted by treasure hunters

On the right is the Burmese king who built the temple

 on the left the monk missionary who brought Thereveda Buddhism to Bagan

Next to the Ananda Temple was a 12th century stone monastery that we would like to have seen, but it has been closed to visits because of the earthquake last summer   

Note the nice wooden buildings including the high ones at the rear, all of which were off-limits to tourists.

Next we moved on to Dhammatangyi, one of the largest ruined temples in the area.

But it was never finished: Thin recounted the bloody history connected to the  temple: It was built by Narathu, a king who killed his father and brother in his quest for power, and chose to build this in penance for those killings.  He married Indian princess but killed her; her father took revenge by having Narathu killed.

This 18th Century sitting Buddha

is in what would ordinarily have been the middle level of the temple, but access to the inner courtyard blocked.

This resting Buddha (not the nirvana position, because he is touching rope) is an 18th century replacement

And this sitting Buddha is an 18th century copy of the 11th century original

Finally this sitting Buddha is an original, but has been  repainted

Its background is from the 15th century, as indicated by green paint
This small seated Buddha is from the 8th century

but I was struck by its unusual, almost Olmec face

As we walked around the grounds outside the main building, Thin explained that originally, all temples had walls like this

An unnamed stupa is visible through a chip in the wall

We drive by the Thatbyinyu temple without more than a pause

Built in the mid 12th Century, with two stories plus a series of terraces rising to a 201 foot-tell tower, Thin explained that this handsome building is not so interesting from the inside.  But while we were watching the sunset from the Law Ka Ou Shaung, we could see that the terrace were filling with people.  In fact, one of the young men who was watching the sunset at Law Ka Ou Shaung said he had tried to watch from Thatbyinyu the day before and that there was a nasty crush to see sunset, with folks almost pushing each other off.  This was a pretty strapping young man, so if HE found the press uncomfortable, it must have been pretty bad.
Apart from our sunset-viewing spot, our last temple visits were devoted to two small temples near each other in the village between Old Bagan and New Bagan

Manuha was an 11th century place, built by captive Mon king of that name

Inside was this (empty) rice bowl made of sandstone

Thin explained that the Buddha figures we were about to see reflected the stress that Manuha felt as a captive – they are large by comparison with the rooms in which they are placed, feeling almost as if they are in jail:

To see the first of these figures, we stepped through a small vestibule with the tiled word "welcome" in English

and entered a room that was barely large enough to contain this 46 foot seated Buddha

And a few worshipers

To see the second one, we entered this small door, through the green curtain,

into a dark space that confined this 33 foot seated Buddha even more closely than the 46 foot one above

Finally, there is a 90 feet long reclining Buddha; the fact that its head is facing north, looking west, tells you it is reclining in the Nirvana position (as opposed to the resting position, clutching rope, that Thin had previously pointed out to us.)

Near the reclining Buddha is this statue pair of King Manuha and his wife

Here are two scenes from Manuha's confined grounds.

Then we walked over to the Nanpaya Temple (nan means palace, paya means temple) from the 11th century.  The outside of this building is sandstone brick on outside, with red brick inside.
Light comes into the filtered through small windows set in brick

There are superbly preserved sandstone carvings inside that show Hindu gods paying homage to a Buddha figure in the center

which has, however, gone missing

Our final visit of the day was to the Law Ka Ou Shaung temple to see sunset

It contains a 12th century sitting Buddha

but the main reason to visit was to climb a narrow stone stairway to the roof of the temple to watch the sunset.  Access to the roof was access somewhat limited by stairway guardians, although in the end it was pretty crowded at the top by the time the sunset reached its glorious culmination.

We could look back at Thatbyinyu, to the right of the center of the photo below

where the crowds were accumulating on the terrace as subset approached

            five to left: primitive spire

            shwe sandoh: golden hair relic of Buddha

Here are some views of the temples to the north and east

and of the sunset:

It was getting dark by the time we headed for our hotel.  I asked about recommendations for restaurants where, unlike the Kumudara, we could get a good traditional Mjyanmar style dinner, and she suggested the River Front Restaurant in New Bagan; we paid our daytime driver 10,000 kyats to take us there and wait for us to take us back to the hotel.

In the gathering dark that was a view of the brightly lit Lawkananda Pagoda (none of my photos came out) along river just south of us, and of a pagoda on hill across the river.

For dinner, we had the Roselle Leaf Soup with fish (not very interesting), a very nice tea leaf salad which, surprisingly for us by comparison with what we get at Burmese restaurants in the US, had  no lentils, the night market si chet noodles with duck, and a vegetable satay.  For dessert, we were handed some small paper packets with thin, round wafers, three or four to a package, which Thin told me the next day were a tamarind candy made locally called tamarind flakes.  I was determined to find a place to buy some to take home.

No comments:

Post a Comment