Nine Horse Rock (Guilin, China)

One of the other famous sites along the Li River Cruise is Nine horse rock. If you look closely and are supposedly intuitive and bright enough, you can see 9 different horses hidden in the rock. In the 1960s, Premier Zhou Enlai reportedly took a cruise down the Li River and accurately identified all 9 horses, which served as a testament to his competency as a leader.

Horseback riding (Trinidad, Cuba)

Horseback riding up the mountain to a waterfall is one of the common activities to do in Trinidad, Cuba. I met a couple earlier in Cienfuegos who gave me a warning, though – their horses trotted the whole way, bouncing them fiercely up and down, and they were the sorest they’d ever been. If you’re riding a horse, you want to either be walking or running, but never in between.

To avoid the same discomfort (and in no small part due to the fact that I know how to slow the horse down, but not now to make it go faster), I went at a slow walk the entire way. All the other tourists kept passing me – bouncing, though, I might add! – and the cowboy guide I was with must have been bored out of his mind.

But I still got to the waterfall and the pristine pools below it fairly early, before it got swarmed with tourists. Maybe it took more time, but I like to think I’m a little less sore!

The Pagodas of Bagan

myanmar bagan pagodas horse cart ride

The ancient city of Bagan is one of Myanmar’s most-visited destinations for local and international tourists alike. First inhabited in the 7th century CE, Bagan has around 3,000 pagodas in a 16 square mile area, mostly dating from the heyday of the Pagan Empire from 1044 to 1287CE. They’re everywhere; if you stood in the center of Bagan and pointed in a random direction, you would come across pagoda –  or 10, or 20 – in all 360 degrees.

myanmar bagan pagodas overhead view

In many ways, Bagan is similar to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the famous temple complex dating from roughly the same period. But they also have completely different atmospheres, as Wiki Travel sums up well:

Angkor ruins are like a Chinese banquet where food is presented in spectacular servings with a suspenseful wait between items which are hidden beneath a curtain of forests. On the other hand, Bagan is served in Spanish Tapas style, the ingredients exposed to the customer and shown in small bite-sized servings, with the next attraction close and visible at hand, in shorter intervals.

With so many scattered pagodas (a word that includes both stupas, which are the mound-shaped structures that usually enshrine relics, and temples, which are buildings you can walk into), it would take a lifetime to visit and appreciate them all. But these are some of the more famous ones:

Ananda Temple

Sometimes titled “the Westminster Abbey of Burma,” the Ananda Temple dates from 1105CE and contains four huge standing Buddha images gilded with gold, along with countless other murals and small statues depicting the life of the Buddha. From afar, the standing Buddhas smile welcomingly, but as you approach his expression changes to a sterner mask, reminding you to take the teachings seriously.

myanmar bagan pagodas ananda temple gold standing buddha

The outer walls used to be coated with trails of gray from centuries of wear, but a recent restoration project has restored some of its former glory.

myanmar bagan pagodas ananda temple exterior renovation

Shwezigon Pagoda

Before the Shwezigon Pagoda was built in 1102CE pagodas were generally smaller in scale, so this pagoda is dubbed the “prototype of Burmese stupas.” It is believed to contain a tooth relic of the Buddha, and the location was chosen by placing the relic on the back of a white elephant and entrusting it to find a “holy place.”

myanmar bagan pagodas Shwezigon

Every four years the pagoda has to be re-gilded with gold, but I think the flaking gold leaf is beautiful as well.

myanmar bagan pagodas Shwezigon

Gu Byauk Gyi

A small temple with intricate frescos dating from the 13th century. Because the wall paintings are so fragile, no photography of any kind was allowed inside. So in lieu of a photo, here is a link.

The delicate temple was not at all helped by the fact that pieces of it were carved out and carted off in 1899. A German engineer named Mr. Thomahn (at least I think that’s what I had in my notes – curse my handwriting!) fell in love with the frescos so much that he decided to carve 1x2ft panels out and take them back with him to Germany. He was already about 5 panels in before people caught on, and the pieces are still missing. Come on, now, and we can’t take one (no-flash) photo?

Nanpaya Temple

A beautiful temple with Hindu influences, built by the Mon King Manuha as a personal place of worship when he was held captive in Bagan between the 11th and 12th centuries. It is one of four temples in Bagan that is made of sandstone, and it is lined with intricate stone carvings. It was pillaged throughout the years, though, with parts missing on some of the carvings because thieves thought that round stomachs and bulging body parts were hiding treasure.

myanmar bagan pagodas nanpaya rock carving missing stomach

Manuha Temple

Also built by the Mon King Manuha (how could you guess?) in captivity, using the money he obtained by selling his personal jewels. This temple looks quite normal on the outside, but you squeeze through one of its small doors and BAM, there’s a Buddha in your face. The Buddha statues fill up almost the entire room:

myanmar bagan pagodas manuha temple giant buddha

This was intentional, as it conveys the stress and discomfort that King Manuha felt while in captivity. Subtle details in the reclining Buddha in the back, like its closing eyes and its stacked feet, indicate that it’s a dying Buddha as opposed to a resting Buddha. The message is that the king would only be free in death, and indeed, he died without returning to his kingdom.

The dying Buddha with a human for scale:

myanmar bagan pagodas manuha temple reclining buddha

And just to get a sense of how cramped the rooms were:

myanmar bagan pagodas manuha temple reclining buddha

A floor plan from baganmyanmar.com:

myanmar bagan pagodas manuha temple floorplan with buddhas

Shwesandaw Pagoda

Known as the “Sunset Pagoda,” this is THE place to be for the sunset…or the one place NOT to be, depending on your perspective. I’m leaning toward the latter. It too is sacred and contains hairs of the Buddha, but most tourists are just interested in camping out on one of its four levels and taking pictures every 5 seconds as the sun goes down (sadly, I fall into this category. I won’t share my final picture count).

myanmar-bagan-pagodas14


These are only a few — and admittedly, most impressive — of the thousands of pagodas, and they each had such rich histories and wonderful artifacts. I imagine that each and every pagoda has some sort of story, whether involving the people who commissioned it, built it, or visited it throughout the years. I couldn’t dig out all these stories, but I could at least take a horse cart trip through the pagodas, in old school(ish) fashion.

myanmar bagan pagodas horse cart ride

myanmar bagan pagodas horse cart ride

Sadly, a few factors, like Myanmar’s controversial military government and alleged poor treatment/reconstruction of the ancient temples, have prevented Bagan from being listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But regardless of the whether it has that official title, Bagan has a magic to it that spans almost a millennium, and it deserves to be cherished and respected to the utmost extent.