Bagan, Myanmar

Undoubtedly one of the most important historical sights and one of the country’s greatest attractions, the archaeological zone at Bagan ranks among the world’s most revered ancient treasures.

The area is one of the major stops for the cruise ships that ply their way up and down the Ayeyarwady, adding to the throng of overland and air travellers, staying at nearby Nyaung U or New Bagan.

The best way to get a view of the ancient site and appreciate is scale is to enjoy the vast scene from a hot air balloon during sunrise, passing over the numerous and splendid ancient Buddhist temples of the Bagan Plain.

The great temples were built from the period of King Anawratha, in 1044 AD up until the Mongol Invasion of 1287 AD, and were the heart of a once mighty city. As with the more famous ancient site at Angkor in Cambodia, the ordinary wooden dwellings of the city’s infrastructure have entirely disappeared, with only the brick structures remaining.

Temples on Bagan Plain, Bagan, Myanmar

Following the 1975 earthquake, UNESCO, armed with a one million dollar budget, spent fifteen years on restoring the monuments. Unlike the site at Angkor, however, the Bagan site has not been awarded UNESCO World Heritage status because of the numerous subsequent and contentious restoration projects, which have taken place, with little regard to archaeological accuracy and the poor quality of some repair work.

Nevertheless, the monuments on the plain of Bagan remain a wonderful insight into the ancient civilisation of the Bamar people, and are well worth the exploration.

Of some 3,300 sites now excavated, and covering an area of 67 square kilometres (26 square miles), the most easily accessible site from the riverside is that of Old Bagan, with many more structures to be found on the central and northern plains as well as the area of Myinkaba.

Ananda Temple is one of the finest and largest temples of Bagan, fully restored after suffering damage in the 1975 earthquake. Built around 1105, this temple heralds the stylistic end of the early Bagan period and the beginning of the Middle period. There are four large wooden Buddha figures, two of whose facial expressions appear to change as you approach them.

Ananda Temple, Bagan, Myanmar

Dhammayangyi Temple, built during the 12th century by Kalagya Min, resembles a pyramid when viewed from the side with impressive mortar-less brickwork. The king demanded that the bricks fit together so tightly that not even a pin could fit between them, otherwise (it is said), he would have the workers hands cut off.

Htilo-Minlo Temple, a massive complex built in 1218 by King Nantaungmya, features traces of murals, original fine plaster carvings and glazed sandstone decorations.

Shwezigon Pagoda, Bagan, Myanmar

Shwezigon Pagoda was started by Anawratha but completed under the reign of Kyanzittha (1084-1113), its graceful bell shape becoming the prototype for Myanmar's pagodas. The Shwezigon, marking the northern edge of the city, supposedly enshrines one of the four Buddha tooth replicas from Kandy, Sri Lanka.

Upali Thein is one of few ordination halls still standing; most such buildings were wooden and have long since disappeared. It takes its name from Upali, a well-known monk, and features some brightly painted late 17th and early 18th century frescos.

Mingalazedi, known as the “blessing stupa”, was built in 1277 by Narathihapati. Noted for its many beautiful glazed Jataka tiles, it is an excellent spot for a pleasant afternoon view, located on the far western extent of the Bagan Plain.

Thatbyinnyu Temple, built in the 12th century by Alaungsithu, is Bagan’s highest building, at 61 meters. Its size and design make it a classic example of Middle Bagan period architecture.

Dhammayazika Pagoda, similar in appearance to the Shwezigon Pagoda, was built in 1196 by Narapatisithu upon a pentagonal terrace with five small temples, each containing a Buddha image. Gawdawpalin Temple, considered the crowning achievement of the Late Bagan period, is one of Bagan’s largest and most imposing temples. Badly damaged in the 1975 earthquake, its ensuing reconstruction was one of the largest such efforts undertaken after the earthquake.

Gu-Byauk-Gyi, dating from the 13th century, features very fine frescos representing scenes of Buddha`s life. 

MRAUK U

To the west of Bagan, on Myanmar's Bengal Bay coast, close to the border with Bangladesh, another of the country's important archaeological sites is the ruined city of Mrauk U.

Mrauk U, Myanmar

Dating back to 1433, this once mighty Arakan kingdom ruled western Myanmar and large swathes of Bangladesh from the city, holding an influential trading presence in the region, including early Portuguese and Dutch expeditions to Asia. 

The archaeological site's most important features are the Royal Palace, in which the modern museum is housed, and the temples of Andaw, Shittaung, Dukkanthein, Shwetaung and Laymyetnha. 

The city was subsumed into Burma in 1785, and was later annexed by the British Raj, whereupon it subsequently fell into disuse.

Htukkanthein Stupa, Mrauk U, Myanmar

NAT MA TUANG

Nestled between these two remarkable archaeological sites, Nat Ma Taung National Park, surrounds the mountain of the same name, formerly known in colonial times as Mount Victoria, at an altitude of 3,035 metres (9,957 feet), Myanmar’s second highest peak.

Aside from climbing the mountain, which can be achieved by any relatively fit person, the area is a premier birdwatching spot, home to the rare endemic White-browed Nuthatch. Other activities include trekking through the upland terrain, visiting and staying with local tribal communities.

 

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