Bagan, renowned as one of the most beautiful places in Myanmar with its myriad of ancient temples and pagodas. As the Buddhist capital of the first Myanmar dynasty from the 9th to 13th centuries, this was undoubtedly a place steeped in rich history. As someone hailing from a modern city like Singapore, I knew that a place like Bagan, which was quite the opposite of Singapore, would have so much to offer me in terms of new knowledge, sights and sounds. Naturally, I was overwhelmed with excitement when the opportunity arose for me to visit this historic place for two days.
My maiden trip around Bagan would involve visiting some common tourist destinations as well as some places that were not so common. This was made possible with the guidance of Ko Ko, an experienced Bagan tour guide with 25 years of valuable experience. So, I hopped onto the backseat of Ko Ko’s motorbike and off we went touring this magical place of Bagan.
Our first stop was a former Buddhist Monastery known as That Kya Mu Ni. This was a great place to kick start my Bagan adventures as it was an isolated and quiet place visited by very few tourists. It was here where I made my first steps towards understanding some of the rich history of Myanmar. Ko Ko explained to me that the Bagan dynasty was ruled by 55 kings, with the first being King Anawrahta. It was at this monastery where I managed to witness a few monks going about their daily activities and I got to understand just a little bit more about their lives. I visited the place where they resided and saw with my very own eyes the alms bowls and small metal tins that they usually use to collect food donations from the nearby villages. Some of my misconceptions about monkshood were also cleared on that day. I used to think that being a monk would be an easy process but I learnt that they too were subjected to examinations by the state government similar to what we students would have to go through. Furthermore, I used to think that being a monk would mean being cut off from human civilization and all forms of entertainment but I was proven wrong. Through visiting the monk’s home, I noticed that they had access to satellite television and enjoyed their entertainment during their free time just like us.
As the monastery was situated quite high up, scenic views were available all around the area. Ko Ko led us to this prime viewing spot near the monastery which provided a breath-taking bird eye’s view of the Ayeyarwady River. From there, we could see villages cultivating crops on the opposite bank as well as fishing activities taking place. The Ayeyarwady River has long been an important and historic part of Myanmar, with many ancient cities built near it due to its importance in the irrigation of crops as well as transportation activities. Thus, it was indeed surreal to just stop momentarily and witness this great river at its flowing best.
It was soon time for lunch and one unique dish that stood out was this traditional Burmese dish called Pone Yay Gyi. This dish has thousands of years’ worth of history behind it and has been considered a delicacy since the early kingdoms of Myanmar. Often used as a condiment in Burmese cooking, it is a fermented bean paste dish usually cooked with pork or garlic and onion. After trying it for myself, the paste comes across as thick and salty with a chalky texture. I would say that it is best complemented with a steamy bowl of white rice. While this dish might take a little getting used to for people who are trying it for the first time, I feel that the taste will slowly grow on you and most people will soon start to love it after having it a couple of times.
Beyond trying the dish, I was also fortunate enough to witness first-hand how the Burmese produced this indigenous soybean paste when I visited one of its production factories. It was there where I witnessed how tedious and tough the entire production process was. The first stage involved boiling the soybeans under hot fire where peanut shells were used for combustion as a more environmentally friendly method. Once the soybeans turned into liquid, it would be continuously stirred by hand for at least three hours before the paste hardened and is subsequently packed. It was indeed a back-breaking process and at that moment, just standing there and seeing the workers painstakingly stirring the paste with their sweat-filled bodies made me appreciate the dish a little more.
I then visited the famed Htitlominlo Temple which was known for the accuracy and precision of its brickwork. As one of the best-known monuments in Bagan built during the 12th century, the brick masonry is considered one of the finest in Bagan as the then King Htitlominlo wanted to show his generosity by building this highly labour-intensive temple. Furthermore, as one of the remaining symbols from the glory days of the Bagan Dynasty, this majestic and conspicuous ancient temple stands out as a great photo opportunity for photography enthusiasts.
Other than the Htitlominlo Temple, another ancient temple that I visited was the Sulamani Temple. This was yet another impressive temple that was built a few decades after the Htilominlo temple. Ko Ko explained to me that this temple is considered one of the most sophisticated and that its main difference was its wider corridors. As a result, this temple was considered more well-lit with better ventilation as well. The brighter surroundings of the temple also meant that the intricate murals on the temple’s interior walls were much more visible. Looking closer at these murals, there were many interesting ones such as the huge reclining buddha image and even one which depicted the prostitution business during the Konbaung Dynasty.
The sun was setting, and we decided to make our way to one of the sunset viewpoints to catch the Bagan plains at its most glorious moment. Upon reaching there, there were already crowds armed with their cameras forming, ready to capture the moment. As the sun started to set gradually, I too was mesmerised by the sight that greeted me and duly whipped out my phone to capture the moment. Just imagine, the bright glows of the fading sun coupled with the background of the many majestic pagodas in the surroundings. It was truly a magical sight to behold and one that I will keep in my memory forever.