Irrawaddy Cruise Mandalay-Bagan (2005)

Irrawaddy Cruise Mandalay-Bagan (2005)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The Mandalay-Bagan cruise in the Irrawaddy is the highlight of my trip to Myanmar.  Flanked by sculptured mud-banks sprinkled with stupas whose steep spires rise skyward as if in prayer, the river is tranquility personified. The boat glides gracefully.  Sunrise on the Irrawaddy is a magical experience. Almost every passenger on board is on deck, mesmerized by the silhouettes of the fishing boats against a blushing sky. The fireball scatters a million golden stars that dance on the undulating surface of the water.  It is an indescribable sight. As the sun travels up the sky, aquatic birds in huge flocks entertain you with their chorused virtuoso antics. The journey takes all of twelve languorous hours during which you unwind completely. The boat reaches Bagan at the twilight hour just after sunset. Bagan’s fabled payas line up in a parade as if in ceremonial welcome.


I had earlier traveled by train all the way from Yangon to Mandalay. Just as I entered Yangon station, an official had come straight up to me, mentioned my name and when I nodded, led me to my compartment. And there were several hundred other passengers in the station at that time. How did he spot me?  Then I realize that I was perhaps the lone Indian in the entire crowd.


I have no prior hotel bookings nor any fixed itinerary and this is February, peak tourist season. But then, Myanmar is so perfectly geared to visitors that my week-long travels through that country go off with clockwork precision.  After a couple of days in Yangon, where a visit to the gorgeous Shwe Dagon Pagoda is truly a treat, I am off to Mandalay, the ancient capital and thence to Bagan, the archeological wonder in central Myanmar. The best way to see Bagan is to float breezily above the stupas in a hot air balloon, if you’re willing to spend 250 US dollars for a one-hour ride. You could also pedal your way around in a hired bicycle which is what many tourists do. I choose the third option – of a clippety-clop ride in a horse buggy and trust the driver to find me a hotel and take me to the must-see spots, which he did, with practised ease.

Bagan is Myanmar’s ode to Buddhism, as Borobudur is to Indonesia and Angkor Vat is to Cambodia. Situated in the dusty central plains of Myanmar, Bagan is literally a forest of stupas – more than 2000 and still counting. From the moment you land, there is a never-ending procession of stupas of different shapes, sizes, height, colour, materials, vintage.  At first glance, the stupas seem to follow a single design, but on closer scrutiny, one finds many subtle and not so subtle variations to delight the eye. Many are made of brick, some of stones and a few grand ones like the Anand Pahto dazzle with their golden steeples.

Considering Bagan’s golden era lasted less than 200 years between the 11th and 13th centuries, it seems remarkable that so many stupas should have been built. Bagan’s glory began with Bamar king Anawratha’s ascent to the throne in 1044. This was a time when Myanmar was vacillating between Hinduism, Mahayana Buddhism and the then emerging Theravada Buddhism. Manuha, the Mon king of Thaton, a neighbouring kingdom was sent to convert Anawratha to Theravada Buddhism. The King was easily converted. Subsequently, he invaded and captured Thaton, bringing home numerous Buddhist relics and statues as well as Mon Bhikus.

Next morning, my guide-cum-cart driver takes me on a day-long ride through the various stupas, keeping up a constant chatter on their history and features. Thanks to British rule and now tourism, many Burmese can communicate fluently in English. Our first stop is Ananda Paya, Bagan’s oldest and most beautiful edifice. Its tower bears the unmistakable influence of northern Indian architecture. Built around the end of the 11th century, Ananda is perfectly proportioned and exquisitely symmetrical. Its distinctive feature is the ‘shikhara’ crown and the hti umbrella guilded in 1990 to commemorate the temple’s 900th anniversary.  Ananda Pahto was completed during the reign of King Kyanzittha who ruled for 29 years from 1084-1113. It was inspired by the stories told by eight visiting Indian monks who came from the legendary Nanadamula cave in the Himalayas. The Ananda sought to reflect the endless wisdom of the Buddha. Four impressive gilded teak Buddhas adorn the four cardinal directions.  The images facing north and south are contemporaneous with the building, while the east and west images are replicas of earlier statues destroyed by fire or temple thieves.

I learn that Ananda Pahto was heavily damaged in the devastating earthquake of 1975, but has been faithfully restored. In fact, the vestiges of the earthquake are to be found in many temples in this region. The walkway leading up to Ananda Pahto is lined with stalls selling handicrafts. Exquisite lacquerware, so painstakingly handcrafted, dazzle with their aesthetic designs and colours. The frame is made of bamboo fibre and then it is plastered over and lacquered. I pick up a bowl and press it between my thumb and fingers. It is so supple that you can almost bend it in half, yet so strong. It must have taken the craftsman several days to produce a single piece, yet because of the intense competition, the prices are ridiculously low. There are also very authentic-looking fake antiques, also sold for a song. But like all Asians, Burmese vendors love a bit of haggling.

After my short stop in Mandalay with its stately tree-lined boulevards and white-washed stupas, Bagan seems a lot livelier. My buggy rattles through Bagan’s high street dotted with eateries serving everything from Italian fare to Thai delicacies, pastries and puffs.  There is even an Indian eatery whose owner is third generation immigrant and more Burmese than Indian. All of them are decorated with cheerful paper lanterns and at night, the whole street wears such a festive look.  Street cafes seem to be very popular everywhere in Myanmar, although in terms of size, you could discount the Burmese cafes by a factor of ten. Tiny plastic stools, all brightly coloured, cluster around equally tiny plastic tables heaped with platters of steaming food. You might even relish the authentic Burmese fare provided you have not visited the local market. I had taken a stroll through the bazaar the previous evening and was struck by live specimens of fish, snakes and all kinds of creepy crawlies as well as disemboweled snakes with blood congealed on them – all local delicacies. In any case, being a vegetarian, my diet in Myanmar was both frugal and fastidious.

Dhammayangyi is my next destination. It is the largest shrine in all of Bagan.  This stupa has an interesting history. Believed to have been built by King Narathu in the 12th century, it was probably an offering to expiate the gods for his wicked rule. Narathu was notorious even by the standards of his day.  This shrine, shaped like a pyramid is entirely built of bricks. If the king could insert a pin between the bricks, woe to the mason, who was executed for this crime! Narathu had smothered his father and brother. He even executed one of his Hindu wives for her fetish for hygiene! But then, his nemesis came in the form of a Ceylonese attack that not only killed him but even sacked his kingdom. From then on, Ceylonese influence can be seen on subsequent stupas built in the region.

I make my way to the Maha Bodhi Paya, the mirror image of our own temple in Bodh Gaya.  Built in 1234 by Nadaungmya, this paya is a mirror image of our very own shrine in Bodh Gaya where Buddha is believed to have attained enlightenment. The square pyramidal base is crowned with a conical spire and a hti. The most striking aspect of this paya is the numerous – around 450 – Buddhas that are perched on the Gopuram, making it unique among the Bagan shrines. The Banyan tree outside the temple offers a welcome respite from the sizzling heat of the central Myanmar plains.

There are some very fine wooden monasteries in all the Burmese towns I visited. The one in Bagan is called Nat Taung Kyaung. Burmese are great believers in Nats or spirits which according to them, inhabit the shrines and villages. Nats can be good or bad. This wooden shrine is probably dedicated to one such Nat.  Unlike the temples or stupas, the monasteries were places where monks resided. Since monks were usually indigent and prevented from taking donations, the maintenance of these structures was left to voluntary donations. Even now, on the streets of Bagan I find groups of monks and nuns going around collecting frugal alms – usually a handful of rice – in a daily ritual.

Although the Bagan monasteries are similar to others in Myanmar, they are unique because they are built with durable wood made of tight grain which is not only exceptionally strong, but is also impervious to moisture. The Burma padauk tree, a fine grained hardwood tree is resistant to termite damage.  Teak or padauk buildings are usually built on platforms to provide safety from snakes and other wild intruders.

Gawdapawlin Pahto was built during the reign of two Sithu Kings – Narapatisithu and Naudangmya – in the late 12th to early 13th century. It is an imposing structure, also rebuilt extensively after the earthquake. Paul Strachan, the eminent art historian and an authority on Bagan’s architectural marvels, found this paya “tall, refined and quite elegant”.

Sulamani which literally means ‘crowning jewel’ is a late addition to the line of payas in Bagan. It was actually more than a temple, for the complex originally contained a large number of associated buildings, including a lecture and ordination hall, cells for the monks and a library. One archeologist is reported to have called it “the grandiloquent gesture of an empire at its meridian.”  Unfortunately, you’re not allowed to climb to the top of the paya which would have given a grand view of the surrounding countryside.

There are many shrines with exquisite murals on the walls as well as the roof. Some of the roofs are studded with a million Buddha frescoes while others sport scenes from Jataka tales. Replicas of these murals can be bought from the numerous budding artists who have colonized the steps of these temples. Unlike the Alchi monastery in Ladakh where murals are preserved by shutting out daylight, sunlight streams in through the arched windows and doorways, allowing enough room for an amateur photographer to capture these vignettes on film.

From my May Kah Lar guest house I have a vantage of view of life as it unfolds in Bagan.  It is bustling town. There is an incessant flow of traffic – ancient buses, some very modern ones too, horse buggies, trishaws, that quintessential Burmese version of the rickshaw, cycles. There are lines of nuns clad in pink going about collecting alms. And there are shops galore, selling everything from electronic goods to groceries. It is refreshing to see business and home merging into one another, with the entire family lounging around in the shop. Life in Bagan seems to move in a very relaxed pace and enjoying oneself seems to be much more important than making a sale.

No trip to Myanmar will be complete without a ride on that unique Burmese contraption called trishaw. It is a bicycle with a side car attached and is designed for maximum discomfort as much to the driver as to the passenger.  But it comes in cheerful colours and with loquacious drivers who can regale you with local lore.  I foray into residential neighbourhoods, soaking in life lived leisurely outdoors. Pretty women with streak of sandal coloured paste on their faces smile indulgently at my curiosity. During my three day stay in Bagan, I visited so many shrines that at some stage I thought I just could take not take any more.  My feet were sore from climbing innumerable stupas and my shoulders ached, weighed down by the camera bag.  Yet I cannot claim to have seen even a fraction of what this temple town has to offer.

(Published in The Hindu dated July 2, 2006)

3 thoughts on “Irrawaddy Cruise Mandalay-Bagan (2005)”

  • Hello there Sudha.

    Chanced upon your website from a link on Facebook, and a few hours later, here I am penning this short note to you.

    Why, you wonder. All through yesterday, I was charting out an itinerary for Myanmar, and one of the things I definitely wanted to do was sail on the Irrawaddy upstream, from Bagan to Mandalay. Reading through your article, I’m convinced even more that it be worth my while to do the journey.

    Perfect start to the day, I say, never mind that it is well past noon.

    Now, to get on with the other articles on your travels around the world.

    Have a lovely day.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *