This was a hard post to write, not because there weren’t things to talk about (there was too much to talk about and I tried so hard to be concise) but because each time I wrote a sentence, I’d wish that I was back in Bagan so badly. This brought back so many waves of nostalgia and longing for a country that is now thousands of kilometers from me. It’s not an exaggeration when I say that day in Bagan was probably my favourite day of my entire exchange journey.
So, after spending a night on a bus coming from Yangon, we arrived at the bus stop in Bagan at 4:30 in the morning, which was 2 hours earlier than when we were supposed to get there. Luckily, we only waited about half an hour before the driver that we had hired for a day was ready to start the day with us (it blew us away how early he was considering we weren’t supposed to get in until later). Our tour guide for the day was Mr. Kyaw Swe (WhatsApp # 95 9 204 3573). I found him on Trip Advisor and he had a ton of reviews so we thought, “Why not?” If you do some research before your trip, you’ll realize that a lot of the main temples are decently close together; you can technically walk to some of them (but given how hot and dry it is, it definitely isn’t advised). A lot of our exchange friends who went earlier ended up renting motorbikes, which is a popular way to get around. We, in the end, chose to go with having a driver and a car because we had heard of a lot of our friends getting into some motorbike incidents in other countries and we didn’t want to risk that in a country where trying to get healthcare not speaking the native language would have likely been more than difficult.
It was a little past 5 AM by the time we got all settled into Mr. Kyaw Swe’s car and exchanged introductions. He knew that the first thing we wanted to do was to see the sunrise and so, he said he was taking us to a place that was good for that purpose. He kept driving along narrow, winding dirt roads, and after a while of driving, he stopped the car, turned off the engine and announced that we were here. We got out of the car and realized we were in the middle of what looked like nowhere (it was also pitch black so we couldn’t see well to begin with). It looked like we were just parked in the middle of a dark, dusty field (which we were). Mr. Kyaw Swe led us towards a hill, shining a flashlight in front of all of us, and he led us to the top of that hilltop, which was a few steps of a climb. Then he said, “Now we wait.”
Around us, we couldn’t see much. The sky was dark, starting to turn purple at the horizon. We knew we would need to wait over an hour for the sunrise so we got comfortable, sitting at the edge of the hill in a pile of dust and dirt. In the distance, we could see flames going up and our tour guide explained that people were getting ready to launch the hot air balloons (Bagan is known for doing hot air balloons over the whole area at sunrise. A ride is about $500 for 45 minutes to an hour, so we chose to pass). We heard the sound of the flames and the big balloons starting to fill with air. We saw animals – dark shapes- — in the distance running around and making noises.
There was nobody around us for a long time. Slowly, as the time for sunrise drew closer, people started to find their own way to this deserted hilltop to catch the same sunrise. I was amazed by the small community of people – solo backpackers, couples seeking adventure – that gradually formed on this little dusty unmarked hill after a while. All these people who came from different parts of the world all to end up with the three of us there, at 6 in the morning, in the middle of nowhere in Bagan. Watching the same sun mark the start of a new day.
The sunrise was great and to this day, I miss the combination of excitement and serenity I felt sitting at the top of that hill. The sky became lighter and lighter and we started to see some of the hot air balloons take off in the sky. First, there was one, then two, and then we saw a whole crowd at different points in the sky. As the sun went up, the three of us finally got a sense of what was actually around us. We saw temples and shrines scattered here and there, all made of stone. Some were small, some looked huge. We ended up being one of the last ones to leave the hill after the sun came up, despite having been the first to arrive. None of us wanted to leave the moment. It was only after we left that we learned the place we were at was Yinmana Hpaya.
Our tour guide, Mr. Kyaw Swe, had a lot planned for us that day. Before meeting him in person, I had texted him with some names of temples that we really wanted to see. I told him that he could fill in the gaps with whatever else he thought was worth seeing.
That day in Bagan, Mr. Kyaw Swe did not disappoint and we ended up seeing 7 big pagodas/temples that day:
- Shwezigon Pagoda
- Htilomilo Temple (Oldest temple in Bagan)
- Ananda Temple (Deemed to be the most beautiful temple in Bagan)
- Thatbyinnyu Temple (Temple of Omniscience – the most powerful)
- Shwesandaw Temple
- Dhammayangyi temple
- Bupaya Temple
Plus, we also got taken to visit two monasteries, where we got to see and briefly talk to some young monks in training.
Our first stop was the Shwezigon Pagoda, which is essentially just a stunning gold stupa and very similar to the one we saw in Yangon for sunrise just the day before. This pagoda was built by King Anawrahta who founded the Bagan Kingdom in 1944. At the base of the pagoda sits a large golden lion at each of its corners. This one, just like its “sister” pagoda in Yangon, was very humbling to stand in front of and we were so blown away by how the gold looked in the early morning light.
Next, we visited the Htilomilo Temple, a two-story temple that dates back to the 12th and 13th centuries. The name actually gets its name from umbrellas, which is one of the core symbols of Buddhism that denotes protection. Legend has it that the king had stood a white umbrella in the middle of his five sons and declared that whichever the umbrella tilted toward was the one deserving to be his successor. It fell towards his youngest son, who later had Htilominlo built in tribute. As you can see in the pictures, even the images of the Buddha have umbrellas next to them. I was already in awe at the size of these stone buildings.
This was our first temple in Bagan where we would be exploring the interior of it. As with the temples in Yangon, you have to take off your shoes and socks. Mr. Kyaw Swe led us through the dim corridors and pointed out the carvings on the wall, the paintings (now completely faded) on the ceiling, and the different images and sculptures of the Buddha that we would see. He carried around this little booklet with him that had a lot of pictures and descriptions (mostly in English). He said that he had gotten it when he was studying to be a monk many, many years ago and now he uses it to explain ideas about Buddhism to his customers. He taught us how to identify whether a Buddha was “Chinese style”, “Burmese Style”, “Indian Style” etc. He pointed out how the ear lobes were designed, whether the lips were pressed flat or curled at the edges, what the hair looks like, and what the eyes looked like. It was so interesting to learn more from him and as the day went on, he never stopped trying to feed us with more knowledge on Buddhism. We fell in love with the stories he taught us and most importantly, his book. Throughout the day, the three of us would always laugh and say to him “We love your book.”
Ananda Temple was next. This was my favourite one (and was also Mr. Kyaw Swe’s favourite temple). I was absolutely blown away by the architecture; it looked like an ancient white palace that was just built in the middle of this ancient, dusty city. The temple’s most distinctive feature is the gilded sikhara, the tower-like spire on top of the pagoda. This temple was actually damaged during an earthquake in 1975 and since then has been extensively restored. The backstory behind the building of this temple is interesting. Apparently, the monks had told the King then about a legendary cave temple in the Himalaya mountains and they created a vision for him to see the temple and the snowy landscape. After that, the King decided to build that temple he envisioned in Bagan. After the Ananda Temple was completed, the King actually chose to have the architects executed so that a similar temple could never be replicated. That’s how special it was regarded to be. I loved walking outside of the temple, gazing up at the white walls of this grand temple. Its grandeur left me speechless.
Our tour guide really liked taking photos for us and always knew where to tell us to stand.
Inside was equally as interesting as the exterior – there is a central room that contains four 9.5 meter tall standing Buddha images. There are also hallways that run around that central room and its walks contain different images of the Buddha, all in different poses. Again, Mr. Kyaw Swe’s book came in handy and as we walked along the hallway, he would point out different images and find them in his book to explain it to us.
Next up: Thatbyinnyu Temple, with a height of just over 60 meters, is one of the highest monuments of Bagan and contains two primary stories, with a seated Buddha image located on the second story. It’s also commonly called the Temple of Omniscience (which ended up being a new word that we taught Mr. Kyaw Swe and one that he spent the rest of the day trying to practice and memorizing)
Mr. Kyaw Swe took us to the Shwensandaw Temple and the Dhammayangyi Temple next, which made sense logistically because they were right next to each other. The Shwensandaw Temple is typically very popular for sunrises because of how high it is (328 feet) and how there are staircases on the outside of the temple that lead to the top. Built in 1057, it is a white painted symmetrical structure consisting of a bell-shaped stupa set on a base of five square receding terraces. However, starting a couple of years ago, they banned the climbing of any temples and so, we just got some pictures in front of it. It was a little after noon by that point and the ground (including the grass) was starting to get unbelievably hot so it was hard to be outside under the sun for too long. We did, however, stop to buy some snacks from locals outside (On our first day in Myanmar we learned that both women and men smear a gold-like paste on their faces. It’s apparently their version of sunscreen and prevents sunburn. I think part of the reason many women use it is also for a form of beauty.)
Dhammayangyi Temple is the largest temple in Bagan and from a distance, it actually resembles the early step pyramids of Egypt. It was built in 1170 by King Narathu, who became King of Bagan after murdering his father and his brother who was supposed to be next in line to become King. Ironically, King Narathu was later murdered himself. The temple’s construction was never completed and was likely halted right after the death of the King that commissioned it. The sides at the base of the structure are almost 78 meters long, while the central core of the temple measures 25 meters long. There are four entrances that each contain a seated Buddha image on a pedestal. The Western area contains images of the Gautama Buddha and the future Maitreya Buddha, sitting side by side.
Our last temple stop of the day before sunset was the Bupaya Temple, which we added to the itinerary last minute. Bupaya Temple is a big golden cylindrical stupa that sits on top of a number of terraces. What we loved was that being at the temple gave us a great view of the body of water that had water flowing from the Himalayas. It was a nice switch up from the big stone structures we had been seeing all day.
To end off the day, Mr. Kyaw Swe took us somewhere for sunset that was not frequented by a lot of tourists. While we were there, waiting for the sky to change, a lot of locals came up to us to try to sell us their souvenirs. There were two kids that kept hovering around us to sell us their souvenirs, which were hand-drawn pictures that were done with crayons. They were so funny, repeatedly telling us that it was “just one dollar!” My heart would always break a bit seeing these kids out on the streets, begging for a dollar, and trying to make some money for their family.
The three of us talked a lot about privilege throughout that whole day. Our privilege back home, the privilege we have that allows us to go on exchange, and even the privilege that allowed us to make a trip to Myanmar kept staring us in the face the entire weekend. The sunset didn’t end up being extraordinary because of how cloudy it was, but we didn’t really care. Just being there, surrounded by our guide and the locals, was enough for us.
Finally, at the end of the day, we said goodbye to Mr. Kyaw Swe. If any of you ever find yourself in Bagan needing a tour guide, I would highly recommend him. He was so knowledgeable about Bagan and Buddhism and was great at making conversation. His car was another pro (if you want to stay out of the heat while you’re getting around). He was also the best photographer we could have asked for and was the reason we have so many pictures to remember our trip.
The next morning, we woke up early for our last sunrise and did a quick stroll around our hostel, seeing lots of dirt roads and new pagodas.
We had booked an 8 AM bus (with OK Express) back to Yangon and the bus company sent a shuttle to pick us up from our hostel and take us to the bus station. This wasn’t like our last bus to Bagan – it was much more crowded and everybody boarding the bus were locals. While it did get us to our final destination with enough time to spare before our 9 pm flight, I wouldn’t recommend the bus company. It ended up being a 10-hour journey and made too many stops along the way, seemingly at random points on a highway or in a town.
To end this post off, I want to stress that sometimes it can be the most unexpected that proves to be the most rewarding. Again, Myanmar was the only trip that I made where it previously wasn’t already on my travel priority list — I had no intention of going during my exchange. It was completely unexpected. And it was completely amazing.
One last note: while it’s clear that our guidebooks told us that the temples would be very humbling to stand in front of, I think the three of us were even more humbled by interacting with the locals. I liked that the interactions and conversations felt so genuine because the whole country was so untouched by tourism; nobody was trying to sell anybody anything. That day, we had lunch with Mr. Kyaw Swe and during lunch, my friend (Nick) turns to him and says, “I’m surprised you don’t have McDonald’s in Myanmar.” Mr. Kyaw Swe looked confused and didn’t really know what to say. We knew it wasn’t a problem with understanding what we were saying (his English was spectacular after having been a tour guide for 20 years). So, Nick googles a logo of McDonald’s and pulls it up on his phone. Seeing that he still looks confused, I turn to Mr. Kyaw Swe and ask him, “Have you heard of McDonald’s before?” All he says is, “I’ve never heard of that before, sorry. I don’t know what that is.”
That was a moment for me. Something I might even remember better than all the temples and ideas about Buddhism. I don’t know why it was so shocking for me. In my mind (and I’m sure in the minds of many North Americans), McDonald’s is the basic cheap, staple fast-food restaurant. People have it for the first time when they’re a toddler. It’s the go-to, inexpensive option. So for me, it felt so surreal to know that Mr. Kyaw Swe (and likely most people in Myanmar) has gone more than 40 years of his life without having even heard of the name. Just another example of our privilege and how we don’t even realize how big and blinding it can be.
Next few posts: Japan 🙂
Jules, I am speechless. Thank you, thank you, thank you so much for writing about this special trip and capturing all the details and stories I could never remember. I am so grateful not only for the incredible memories, lessons learned, and locals met, but more importantly, for the special people I got to share it with. You are a superstar.
Thanks, Jess! I’m so glad I got to relive this amazing trip through the post and through our amazing photos together!