Templo del Sol (Inca Trail, Perú)

The Templo del Sol is a polished tower with two strategically-placed windows. One points at the sun gate while the other points towards the opposing mountains.

On December 22nd, the winter solstice, the sun passes through the window facing the sun gate and signals the beginning of the rainy season. On June 21st, the summer solstice and the Incan new year, the sun passes through the other window. These two dates were very significant for the Incas, and they were celebrated with ceremonies involving mummies of kings and other important people, brought to the citadel via the Inca Trail.

Monkey Temple in Kathmandu

The stupa at the monkey temple in Kathmandu, Nepal

The Monkey Temple, formally known as Swayambhunath, is another big attraction in Kathmandu. It dates back to the 5th century CE, and is one of the most sacred Tibetan Buddhist pilgrimage sites. Along the way, it picked up the nickname of “Monkey Temple” because it’s overrun with monkeys (and it’s easier to say).

We first went to a place with huge golden Buddha statues, which we saw from the main road and assumed was the monkey temple.

Buddha statues on the other side of the monkey temple in Kathmandu, Nepal

Behind it was a room where people were making and lighting prayer candles:

Man lighting candles at the monkey temple in Kathmandu, Nepal

It only took us about 5 minutes to walk around the whole thing, and we encountered a few monkeys, but not many. We did see this wonderfully sassy statue of a miniature Buddha, but was that it?

Sassy buddha statue on the other side of the monkey temple in Kathmandu, Nepal

Thankfully, no. We walked around the hill to see if there was a way to get to the top, and came across a promising path.

Path up to the Monkey Temple in Kathmandu, Nepal

That led up a massive temple complex, with shops, cafes, winding paths, and stretches of open space almost covered by rows and rows of prayer flags. Now THIS was the Monkey Temple.

Prayer flags at the monkey temple in Kathmandu, Nepal

Prayer flags at the monkey temple in Kathmandu, Nepal

A wood worker at the monkey temple in Kathmandu, Nepal

The monkey temple in Kathmandu, Nepal

The stupa at the monkey temple in Kathmandu, Nepal

With more monkeys, as expected.

Monkeys at the monkey temple in Kathmandu, Nepal

On one side, I found a cafe with the smallest crack of a door, just visible in a corner between two shops.

The narrow entrance to the rooftop cafe at the monkey temple in Kathmandu, Nepal

It led to a rooftop with possibly the best panoramic view in all of Kathmandu:

The view from the rooftop cafe at the monkey temple in Kathmandu, Nepal

And on the other side, we found a wedding photo shoot, a karate class, and little monks throwing dough balls at monkeys:

Little monks throwing rocks at monkeys at the monkey temple in Kathmandu, Nepal

This is another one of those magical places that you can spend leisurely evenings exploring and come back to again and again. Glad we stumbled upon the real thing on the other side of the hill!

Thamel and Durbar Square in Kathmandu

Man posing in front of a Nepal flag in Durbar Square, Kathmandu, Nepal

After recovering from an exhausting night bus, my Nepal travel buddy and I set off to explore Kathmandu.

Thamel

Where did we start? The tourist district of Thamel, of course! Where all the trekkers go to buy their gear. The entire road is lined with mini REI boutiques selling knock off Northface and other high end brands. Fleeces, winter jackets, gloves, sleeping bags, hiking poles, boots – you name it, they’ve got it!

Outdoors shops in Kathmandu and Pokhara, Nepal

With fleeces for $7, you can imagine that the gear is not very legit. Some of it actually is fairly high quality, but you’ve really got to look hard. Most of the time, you find things like this: a Uniqlo knock off brand (I think the logo actually says”Enilohi” if you look at it closely) stamped with a North Face logo.

Knockoff Northface and Uniqlo in Kathmandu, Nepal

And regardless of what you buy, you have to wash it first before you wear it because of all the dust that settles in the shops from the streets!

Thankfully it doesn’t get extremely cold in March, so I already had most of the gear I needed. I picked up the remaining items I needed and a bunch that I didn’t (couldn’t help it, it’s hard to resist outdoors stores when you’re from Colorado). Check out a packing list of all the gear I took here (under construction).

Durbar Square

From Thamel we wandered down to Durbar Square, the site of the old royal palace and many temples in central Kathmandu. The area is very small, maybe just 1.5 by 2 NYC blocks, but it’s densely populated with historic buildings.

It costs 1000 Nepali rupees ($10) for foreigners to enter, but I read that there are smaller alleys on the West side that can be used to sneak in. We just strolled in through the main entrances more than once and nobody came to stop us either time, so it seems that they’re fairly lax about the ticket collecting.

Knockoff Northface and Uniqlo in Kathmandu, Nepal

It was already later in the day by the time we got there, but we caught some of the activity of the square: a flurry of pigeons that miraculously all disappeared by 6:30pm – do birds conduct daily migrations on timers?

Pigeons in Durbar Square in Kathmandu, Nepal

And a man posing with a Nepalese flag and handing out Nepalese flag stickers, as one does.

Man posing in front of a Nepal flag in Durbar Square, Kathmandu, Nepal

As the Durbar Square area is fairly small, we had already circled it once when a local man approached us and offered to guide us around for 1000 Nepali rupees ($10). We were skeptical, but he pulled out a small notebook of reviews and comments left by previous customers from all around the world, and we welcomed some knowledge of Nepali culture and history.

The Kumari

It turned out to be a good idea, because the first thing our new guide did was lead us into a small door behind us that we had all but ignored. We learned that the building was actually fairly important – it was the residence of the Kumari, a living, prepubescent goddess.

Image of a Kumari, courtesy of The Longest Way Home:

A Kumari in Nepal

The story of the Kumari goes something like this: throughout history, a goddess used to come down to give advice to the king. But in the 17th century, a king decided to make the goddess his wife and impudently touched her hand. This majorly offended the goddess, so she left and wouldn’t come back. In desperation, the king fasted, and the goddess appeared in one of his dreams to say that she could return, but only in the form of a female child. This child could be identified via certain qualities (with the aid of Wikipedia):

  • Neck like a conch shell
  • Body like a banyan tree
  • Eyelashes like a cow
  • Thighs like a deer
  • Chest like a lion
  • Voice soft and clear as a duck’s
  • Fearlessness in the face of rigorous tests, including being presented with the heads of 108 sacrificed goats and buffaloes, and being danced around and wailed at by men in masks

Once a girl is identified as the Kumari, she lives in the Kumari house and is taught the rituals and duties of being the Kumari. She only leaves a couple of times a year, including a holiday in September in which she comes out for a parade on a golden palaquine.

As soon as she begins her period, the goddess leaves her body and she returns to her family to reassume normal preteen, school life. I find this bizarre – if you’ve been heralded as a goodness for the majority of your life, during your formative years, is it possible to return to being a normal person?

There are multiple Kumaris across Nepal, but the one in Kathmandu is the most well known. Devotees can request to see her presence by asking one of her caretakers, and immediately follow up with a small gift in the donation box after she appears. The middle window at the top is where the Kumari sits to see her devotees.

The window of the Kumari at her residence in Durbar Square, Kathmandu, Nepal

We were able to see the Kumari, but no pictures are allowed. She is very well trained – her caretaker announces that she will appear, and then she comes to pose stoically on the windowsill for 15-20 seconds before abruptly and promptly leaving.

So bizarre!

Earthquake Damage

The other thing that the guide did was point out the extent of the damage that the April 2015 earthquake had on the old temples of Durbar Square. We noticed that the majority of buildings were still being supported by stilts, but he showed us pictures of the buildings before the earthquake struck.

Caution leaning buildings sign at Durbar Square in Kathmandu, Nepal

The empty space on the left used to be a beautiful wooden temple constructed with wood from a single tree. On the day of the earthquake, a blood donation clinic was set up inside.

Ruins of a temple at Durbar Square in Kathmandu, Nepal

These are all places where temples used to be:

Ruins of a temple at Durbar Square in Kathmandu, Nepal

Ruins of a temple at Durbar Square in Kathmandu, Nepal

Aside from a few of the main temples in the center of Durbar Square, little reconstruction had been done even though a full 2 years have now passed. The guide explained that due to government corruption, a lot of the initial clean up and reconstruction had been done by the people organizing themselves. And now the Nepali people have actually stopped reconstruction efforts by the government, saying that they’d rather have the money to do it themselves. After seeing the damage, we felt guilty about evading the ticket price. But our guide said that even though he knows some foreigners don’t have tickets, he doesn’t tell them to pay because he knows that the money largely isn’t being used for reconstruction.

What a beautiful place! And what tragedy, both in 2015 and still now to this day.

Stall at Dunbar Square in the evening, Kathmandu, Nepal

Bonus

Ah, and the last thing the guide pointed out, which we would have missed entirely: the roof beams of the one of the central temples have erotic imagery carved into them. All of the beams, all the way around.

These images supposedly ward off thunder, as the god of thunder doesn’t like sex. And since people traditionally married early, there was also a bit of an educational element to it too. At least, we were told.

Look at the bottom of the beams:

Temple poles with erotic images at Dunbar Square in Kathmandu, Nepal

Temple poles with erotic images at Dunbar Square in Kathmandu, Nepal

This one includes two horses (not dogs, as we were corrected) in the act too, for good measure.

The Golden Temple in Amritsar

Reflection of the Golden Temple at twilight, Amritsar, India

The Golden Temple in Amritsar is hands down my favorite spot so far, and the first tourist location that I think I’ve ever gone back to more than once. The beauty, the vibe, and the people make it a place where you could stay for hours and want to visit twice in one day.

I went a total of 3 times, all at different times of day:

The Golden Temple, Amritsar, India

Reflection of the Golden Temple at twilight, Amritsar, India

Reflection of the Golden Temple at twilight, Amritsar, India

The Golden Temple at night, Amritsar, India

Reflection of the Golden Temple at night, Amritsar, India

The Golden Temple (or more formally Harmandir Sahib, the “Temple of God”) is the holiest Sikh temple, as it houses the holy scripture. After the death of the 10th Sikh Guru in 1708, the holy scripture became the 11th and last Guru, and is treated like a living being (more on that later).

Everyone, regardless of caste, faith, or background is welcome to visit, eat, and sleep at the Golden Temple. This is reflected in the architecture of the temple: whereas most temples and shrines require you to climb up, the Golden Temple is sunk down so you descend stairs to enter. It was deliberately designed this way by the 5th Guru, to symbolically bring everyone down to the same level. In addition, there are entrances on all four sides, to welcome people from all neighborhoods and of all origins.

The only things that they ask are to

– Take off your shoes
– Cover your head (and shoulders and knees, as with other temples)
– Refrain from smoking, drinking, or engaging in other unpure activities within the temple

Sounds completely reasonable!

At the center is a literal golden temple where the holy scripture is kept during the day. There’s always a long line to enter, but it’s worth it because it’s as beautiful on the inside as it is on the outside. Pictures are not allowed, but the entire inside is embossed with gold and intricately painted. There are also live musicians inside, whose verses are broadcast throughout the entire temple.

This golden structure is surrounded by a large pool of water (or holy nectar) that also contains several large koi fish. Visitors are welcome to go into the water if they wish, and there are gender-segregated fenced off areas for people to strip down to their underwear and go for a quick dip.

Langar

The Golden Temple is famous for its Langar, the worlds largest community kitchen that serves free vegetarian meals for anyone who wants one. It’s not located in the central temple area, so I wasn’t able to find it the first time I went. But right outside the gate behind the Golden structure, there is a building to the left, with people handing out metal plates and utensils in front of it.

Langar, community kitchen, at the Golden Temple, Amritsar, India

All you have to do is file in to the building and grab a seat. Within about 10 seconds, various people (all volunteers) come by with water, chapatis (which you receive with both hands palms up), daal, kheer (a delicious sweet rice pudding), and some sort of vegetable curry (carrot, when I went). The two dining halls can seat 5000 people at once, and somewhere between 50,000-100,000 people are served every day, 24/7.

Langar, community kitchen, at the Golden Temple, Amritsar, India

Food at the langar, community kitchen, at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India

Dish washing

After the meal, you hand your dirty plates off to more volunteers, who have an efficient and effective dish washing system down to a science.

First, a line of men dump out the contents and collect all the dishes in a massive bucket.

Bucket of dirty dishes at the langar, community kitchen, at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India

Bucket of dirty dishes at the langar, community kitchen, at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India

Once the bucket is full, they carry it to one of the first troughs and dump all the dishes in the water. Immediately, the men and women (at different troughs – this, as with all other activities, is gender divided) grab the dishes and wipe them with soapy cloth, placing the finished dishes on a rack above the trough. The first 20 seconds is a cacophony of metal against metal and a flurry of activity and splashes. But miraculously, within a minute, all of the dishes in the trough are done and everyone patiently stands back to await the next bucket.

Dish washing trough at the langar, community kitchen, at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India

The water here is green because of the daal:

Dish washing trough at the langar, community kitchen, at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India

From that rack, the dishes are carried to the next stage, a trough of soapy water. The same thing happens there: volunteers along the side scrub each dish and the finished ones on the rack above, and then they are shuttled to another soapy trough. Repeat.

Finally, for the last stages, the dishes go through two more troughs of clear water to rinse them off. So in total, all the dishes and utensils are washed 5 TIMES! Talk about clean!

Stacks of dishes at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India

Kitchens

After helping out with the dishes for a while, I wandered into the kitchens to see how all the food was made. With so much food, you can only expect massive containers:

Kitchen pots at the langar, community kitchen, at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India

Small kitchen at the langar, community kitchen, at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India

I tried my best to be inconspicuous and stay out of the way, but one of the men approached me and happily said, “this is the small kitchen, do you want to see the large one?” And he led me to another kitchen with even bigger pots – you could literally boil a full grown man in them. Maybe even three at once. All of these pots are heated with wood stoves.

Large kitchen at the langar, community kitchen, at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India

Wood stove at the large kitchen at the langar, community kitchen, at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India

Then the man offered me a bowl of chai and patiently waited while I finished. He just dropped all his work so he could show a random guest around – this is the best place ever.

Guest houses

Anyone can sleep around the permimeter of the pool, but the temple also has guest houses where people can stay for free. There are three in total, with one reserved for foreigners. Not intentional segregation, but because there were incidents in the past where foreigners’ cameras and other valuables went missing.

Guesthouse at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India

Guesthouse at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India

Night Ceremony

Because the holy scripture is treated like a living being, it also has to rest! So every night at around 10pm, the following ceremony ensues:

A palanquin is decorated and carried inside the golden structure where the holy scripture is kept during the day:

Palanquin for the Holy Scripture at the Golden Temple, Amritsar, India

The holy scripture is placed on the palanquin and carried out:

The Holy Scripture put away at the night ceremony at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India

It is then carried up the stairs to the main temple (see the man in white walking up the stairs with the Holy Scripture on a pillow on top of his head, below), where its bedroom is located. It is literally a bedroom with a bed, on which the holy scripture is placed. And there it stays, until the morning ceremony when it is carried back out to the golden structure to be displayed.

The Holy Scripture put away at the night ceremony at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India

Once the holy scripture is at rest, a deep cleaning of the entire temple ensues. The banisters are wiped down, the carpets are shaken out and rolled up, and the floors are meticulously swept.

I swear, this has to be the cleanest place in all of India. Even during the day, with thousands of people milling about, the floors are completely spotless. I wouldn’t say they’re necessarily clean enough to eat off of, since it is a public space, and it IS India. But I would certainly have no problem rolling around or sleeping on them.


There’s the Golden Temple in a nutshell! I really loved this place. In large part because of what it is, but I also think it made a big difference that I took the time to try to understand it and explore. Just goes to show that knowing the story behind a place is important in order to fully appreciate it.

But in any case, the Golden Temple definitely has a magic that makes you want to go back again and again. If I find myself in India again, it’s definitely on my list of places to revisit!

Mumbai Recap

Marine Drive at Mumbai, India

Done with Sri Lanka and on to India! First stop: Mumbai.

Thankfully I have a school mate and former roommate who moved to Mumbai 5 months ago. She graciously let me stay with her and accompanied me around the city over the weekend. It was great to have a local friend, and some things (like getting a SIM card and buying train tickets online) would have been considerably harder without her. I couldn’t sing her praises enough, so suffice it to say that she’s thoroughly amazing!

She also has an amazing apartment with a sea view. Best accommodation ever? I surely think so.

Sea view in Mumbai, India

My first order of business was to see what there was to see. According to TripAdvisor, the top attraction in Mumbai was the Worli-Bandra sea link, which was…a suspension bridge. Granted, the Golden Gate Bridge is also just a bridge, but still not exactly what I came to see. The next most cultural things to see were the Gateway of India and the Shree SiddhiVinayak Ganapati Temple, so I put those on my list.

Gateway of India

I stopped by the Gateway of India on my first day, and found that it was basically a big open square with a gate. There’s a lot of cultural significance because the gate was built in honor of King George V and Queen Mary’s visit in 1911, and it IS quite elaborate, but…it’s just a gate. Then again, I guess the Arch du Triomphe in France is just a gate too. But anyway, the surrounding architecture in the area is quite gorgeous, since it’s also left over from the colonial times.

Gateway of India in Mumbai

Details of the gateway of India in Mumbai

Fun fact: According to Wikipedia, construction didn’t actually start on the gate until 1915, so when the King and Queen arrived in 1911, they only got to see a cardboard model. That dampens the significance of the gate a little bit…

Shree SiddhiVinayak Ganapati Temple

My friend and I also went to check out Shree SiddhiVinayak Ganapati Temple, which was filled with people but didn’t appear to have any special standout features. I checked the TripAdvisor reviews again later and saw that most of the good ratings had comments like, “the wishes I made at this temple came true.” So I guess it’s more religiously significant, which is sadly lost on me.

Haji Ali Mosque

We went to see the Haji Ali mosque as well, which is built out in the ocean. The walkway leading to it is lined with shops, and at low tide it’s possible to walk out on the rocks around it.

Haji Ali mosque in Mumbai

Marine Drive

Another popular hang out is Marine Drive, especially at twilight when the sun sets over the water.

Marine Drive at Mumbai, India

Sunset at Marine Drive in Mumbai, India

Thali

With the sights done, time for the second order of business – food!

The weekend was largely planned around meals, with this being the largest and most memorable of all: Thali at Shree Thaker Bhojnalay.

The restaurant served Gujarti thali, and the closest way for me to make sense of it is that it’s like a combination of dim sum and the small Korean starter dishes, but with Indian food.

Thali in Mumbai, India

Every seat had large metal plates that held a number of small metal bowls. People came by with various vegetable and sweet curries, as well as fried snacks and different kinds of rotis. After the rotis come rice, and then even more small metal bowls of dessert.

Thali being served in Mumbai, India

As soon as any bowl ran low, it was almost instantly refilled. Never have so many people been so keenly aware of the exact contents of my plate! This is all you can eat at the finest. So many things to eat that you don’t know where to start.


Overall, I couldn’t think of a better way to start off India, in a more westernized city with a good friend (who knows all the best places to go for food!). it was a great break from traveling on my own, and I’m extremely grateful for all her help and companionship this weekend.

On to see a little more of India!

Day trip to Sigiriya

Sigiriya rock fortress from a distance

When initially researching Sri Lanka I came across the Sigiriya Rock Fortress, but I crossed it off my list because it seemed too far North to visit. However, upon arriving at Kandy, I discovered that it was only a 2.5 hour car ride away. Guess Sri Lanka is a lot smaller and more compact than I thought! So day trip to Sigiriya, yes please.

The easiest way to get out to locations like Sigiriya that can only be reached by road is to hire a driver of some sort (tuk tuk, car, or van). Hiring a driver for the day might cost anywhere between $35-60, but it’s even more affordable if you find other tourists to join together and split the cost. There were a couple of other groups at the hostel I was staying at that were interested in going to Sigiriya, so I joined a Chinese couple and we shared a car for 6500 LKR ($43).

Most travel websites talk about leaving early for Sigiriya to visit before the sun starts to heat up at 10:30am. However, the couple wanted to see the sun set, so we left at 11am instead. As long as we wouldn’t be outside during the heat of the day, it was fine by me!

Along the way, we stopped at a few smaller attractions, including a spice garden and the Dambulla cave temple. There are a series of more than 80 caves, but the 5 biggest ones are the only ones that contain Buddhist statues and are open to the public.

Dambulla cave temple paintings

Dambulla cave temple statues

We arrived at Sigiriya at about 3pm, which left us plenty of time (perhaps too much) to hike through the gardens and climb the rock before sunset at 6:30pm. I guess that was just as well, because the entrance fee, at 4500 LKR ($30) for foreigners, is pretty hefty. For a bit of comparison, the three nights that I stayed at a hostel in Kandy only came out to $27. There’s insane price discrimination for foreigners (4500 LKR/$30) and locals (50 LKR/$0.33). But I get it, and the money is hopefully going towards preservation.

The park surrounding the rock fortress is large, and you have to walk for quite a ways through moats and gardens to get to it. Since I didn’t opt for a guide, I’m depending on Wikipedia, which says that the site was selected for a capital in the 5th century and the gardens are among the oldest landscaped gardens in the world.

Apparently other critters are quite fond of the gardens as well:

Wasp warning at Sigiriya rock fortress, Sri Lanka

Sigiriya is also called “the Lion Rock,” as the king built a lion gate on one side. From what I could tell, this “lion gate” consists of just the paws on either side of the stairway. How did they ever get on top of the rock without this stairway??

Lion gate at Sigiriya rock fortress, Sri Lanka

On top of the rock, the outline of the palace (which is all that is left) seemed to be fairly small, maybe the size of a large living room + dining room. I guess there’s only so much flat surface on top of the rock, after all. But there were plenty of additional gardens and landscaping.

The view of/from the top:

View from the top of Sigiriya rock fortress, Sri Lanka

Top of Sigiriya rock fortress, Sri Lanka

We found a place to sit and wait for sunset, and were joined by plenty of monkey friends. They were everywhere!

Sunset with a monkey friend atop Sigiriya rock fortress, Sri Lanka

Sunset with a monkey friend atop Sigiriya rock fortress, Sri Lanka

Since we knew that it would get dark fast after the sun set, we booked it back down the rock as soon as the sun approached the horizon and made it to our car before it got pitch black. We still had the same long ride home, but we crashed in the car the entire way back.

A great day trip, overall!

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.

The Shwedagon Pagoda

myanmar shwedagon pagoda stupa sunset

The Shwedagon pagoda was on our itinerary a total of three times: once for sunset on the evening when we first arrived, a second time the morning after to see the sunrise, and a third time for sunset again the day after that. The first and second attempts never came to be, partly because of disorganization and partly because we were lazy. So this was our last chance!

Unfortunately, once again, we weren’t doing too well. The travel agency decided that our first order of business when we returned to Yangon should be to settle all outstanding payments, so we spent an hour of the afternoon waiting for MasterCards to be rejected and Visas to be processed. Then we drove in circles around the city center to catch a glimpse of some of the old colonial buildings, and by the time we were finally set to make a beeline for the Shwedagon pagoda, we found ourselves very firmly and helplessly locked in rush hour. Rush hour in Yangon is pretty terrible. 10-minutes-to-crawl-through-one-block terrible.

Miraculously, we actually did make it to the Shwedagon pagoda before the sun went down! We took off our shoes, as is required at all pagodas and religious sites, and left them on the bus (all except me since I, for whatever reason, thought I would be cool and carry them in instead. They did come in handy for the trip to the bathroom though) and then rode three flights of escalators up the hill through the Western entrance.

myanmar shwedagon pagoda west entrance lions

The first thing I did was commit a religious faux pas. Our guide excitedly told us that we were in luck because we had the opportunity to receive good luck charms from famous visiting monks. She led us up onto a side terrace near the entrance, where she clasped her hands together, bowed, and spoke in Burmese to a monk that was handing out colorful woven bracelets. At a complete loss for what to do, I attempted to do the same thing (minus the Burmese) – except I forgot that I had my flip flops in hand, and as I bent forward the soles of my shoes fell onto the ground. I might as well have just been wearing them. The monk gave an angry shout, and our guide quickly grabbed the shoes and placed them, soles together, at the bottom of the terrace. This apparently did not ruin my chance to be bestowed with luck, but now I have the additional honor of being chided by a monk — and a famous one, at that.

myanmar shwedagon pagoda good luck charm

Having already visited two pagodas, the Sule Pagoda and the Shwemawdaw Pagoda, I had concluded that pagodas were generally all fairly similar, if you couldn’t read Burmese and didn’t seek deeper religious significance. But I couldn’t have been more wrong in regards to the Shwedagon pagoda!

In addition to the massive, 326-ft stupa in the center (unfortunately covered with bamboo mats to re-guild the golden surface every four years), the enclosed hilltop is covered in smaller stupas, Buddha images, and ornate buildings.

myanmar shwedagon pagoda stupa sunset

myanmar shwedagon pagoda temples and stupas sunset

myanmar shwedagon pagoda gold buddha images

myanmar shwedagon pagoda sunset stupa

It’s grander in scale and richer in history than the other pagodas by orders of magnitude, but I think the atmosphere is what really sets it apart. It’s at once a destination for deep, meditative prayer and a place to set up a picnic and people-watch all afternoon. Wiki travel guide says it best:

“Unlike other sites, it has at once a spiritual as well as a secular feel about it. Children run up and down singing songs, monks sit on the steps chatting, young men cast amorous glances at women, women stand around gossiping, all while others are deep in prayer in front of whatever shrine has significance for them.”

myanmar shwedagon pagoda temples and stupas

We only had an hour, but some of the marvelous things that we saw include:

The Chan-Thar-Gyi Buddha image, the largest concrete image at Shwedagon Pagoda. Because it’s winter, it was covered in a shawl to keep it warm. But devotees could also pull a lever (see the monk in the bottom left) to fan it in case it needed a little fresh air!

myanmar shwedagon pagoda Chan-Thar-Gyi  buddha image covered fan

King Singu’s Bell, commissioned in 1778AD and weighing 24 tons. After the British conquered Yangon, they decided to carry this bell back as a war trophy. However, it fell off the train along the way and got stuck in the mud, so they gave up on that idea. It lay abandoned for two years, until the Burmese asked for it to be restored to its original location.

Probably figuring that it was more trouble than it was worth, the British government granted the request but warned them that it was difficult to transport. “Not a problem,” replied the Burmese, who strapped the bell with bamboo and simply waited for it to float up during the coming rainy season.

myanmar shwedagon pagoda king singu's bell

Planetary weekday posts: all around the central pagoda are mini-shrines labeled with days of the week, and it brings luck to find the shrine corresponding to the weekday on which you were born and pray and/or pour water on the statues at said shrine. For planetary reasons I don’t understand, Wednesday is the only day split into morning and afternoon, and there’s also a shrine for an unidentified “Rahu.” Being Westerners, none of us knew which weekday our birthdays were on, but a quick iCalendar check yielded Thursday for me. (Did you know that iCal goes back all the way back to 1953 and beyond?)

myanmar shwedagon pagoda planetary post thursday corner

I wish we could have stayed to people watch! But I guess you can’t ask for too much, at least we made the sunset. I sure walked out with a lot of bestowed luck, so here’s to an auspicious 2015, Year of the Goat!