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The Magical Environs of BAGAN
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Good Time To Visit: The Whole Year
Visited: 5146 Time

      There is no doubt that Bagan, with nearly 1000 years of history, is the richest centre for Buddhism and culture in Myanmar. There are many treasures to be seen in its vicinity, none of them more than a few hours away by car. Some are better known than others but all are worth a visit. Right in Bagan but not so well known is a beautiful carved teak monastery on the riverbank surrounded by tall, ancient trees: Nat Taung Monastery of Taungbi village, built in 1781 by two monks who had come from Nat Taung village near Monywa. It is rare to find a wooden monastery that has lasted more than 200 years.

      South of Bagan, about 90 minutes away by car, is the famous Yoke Son Kyaung in the town of Salay. Yoke Son means “illustrated” in the Burmese language. This beautifully designed monastery was built in 1882 for the sayadaw (abbot) U Guna by the family of U Po Gyi, Daw Shwe Thet and their children. It is supported by more than 150 pillars and raised 10 feet off the ground, in the typical style of wooden buildings in Myanmar, whether religious or secular.
      The monastery is decorated with high-relief carvings showing scenes from folklore and from the 550 Jataka Tales of the past lives of the Buddha. The sculptors selected themes that would remind pilgrims about the virtues of good Buddhist life. The scenes are ranged on the veranda railing along the front of the monastery.

      Inside is a large chamber used as a museum with a marvelous display of antique gilded book trunks and cabinets, where religious texts on palm leaf were once stored. There are also several Buddha images and shrines in the museum.
      A smaller monastery in the compound next to Yoke Son Kyaung has a small collection of beautiful old book cabinets and shrines; unlike Yoke Son Kyaung it is not under the care of the Department of Archaeology, so it is somewhere in disrepair.
      Mann-paya means an image made from lacquer, and a rare example called the Shinbin Maha Larba image is located in Salay. At 18 feet high, it is believed to be the largest of its kind.

      The image was created in the style of the Bagan era and is believed to be from the same period. When the Ayeyarwaddy River overflowed on 1888, it was washed away from its original site, presumed to have been upstream in Bagan. When it floated by Salay, the local residents rescued it from the river. On closer inspection it was discovered to have been made with lacquer sap mixed with sawdust. Both the style and material suggest that it was made in Bagan during the period of its greatest glory.
      Narapati Sithu built Shin Bin Sar Kuo to mark the spot.
      The uppermost parts of the main walkway are lined with painted high relief figures showing scenes from the Buddhist tales. There are also wall paintings just below the line of figures, as well as on some parts of the ceiling.

       Interestingly, among these paintings can be seen the styles of three different periods: the Bagan style of the 12th century, the Pinya/Inwa style from the 15th century, and in another chamber, late 19th century paintings. Some of the 12th century paintings are exact copies of those found in older temples of Bagan.
      Slender teak pillars in red and gold support the roof in large open halls and along a walkway leading from the back of the main shrine. The wooden ceilings are also lacquered in red and decorated with beautiful lotus-shaped traditional motifs in gilded carved wood set with glass mosaics.

       Shin Bin Sar Kyo is a beautiful place, definitely not to be missed. The pagoda festival takes place from the 14th waxing moon day to the full moon day of the lunar months of Waso (July-August).
      Between Bagan and Salay lies a sleepy little town called Sintgu. Here, hidden away in a remote compound on the road to Taung Min Myauk Min shrine, is a massive cream-coloured brick monastery cream-colored brick monastery in the colonial style, simply known as Shwe Kyaung, or Golden Monastery.
       It is a magnificent piece of architecture, inside and outside, with a beautiful marble image and shrine room upstairs. The throne of the image is ancient, with wonderfully intricate glass mosaic inlays.

      Between Bagan and Salay also lies Chauk, another important town, but not so much in a cultural sense. It is an oil refinery centre for the region, processing its own oil as well as oil from the famous fields of Yenanchaung.
       Northeast of Bagan and across the Ayeyarwaddy River via a new bridge is Pakokku, a typical Burmese town with a strong religious aspect. There are numerous monasteries that serve as collages for monks, who upon graduation scatter all over the country or beyond, wherever duty calls.
      For centuries these places of Buddhist learning have produced the strongest network for Myanmar civil society, with connections forged between the generations of alumni all over the country, and now in many parts of the world.
      Pakokku is also one of the biggest centres for woven cotton in Myanmar, producing homespun fabrics, beautiful sarongs and thick cotton blankets woven in colorful squares. They are famous all over Myanmar as thahtay warda (principle of getting rich) blankets, a name taken from the title of a song that was popular just after Myanmar gained independence in 1948. With so many monasteries in town, another flourishing industry is making leather slippers for monks, as well as the more dainty velvet slippers for the secular trade, both distributed all over the country.
      Thiho Shin Pagoda in Pakokku is enshrined with an ancient image presented to King Alaungsithu of Bagan in 1117, by a king of Ceylon (called Thiho in the Burmese language), now known as Sri Lanka. There are three standing Buddha images enshrined here, the middle one a gift from Thiho presented nearly 900 years ago. Two Buddha images stand on either side of it, donated by the headman of Myin Thar village in 1816 while minor repairs were being made to the first image. Thiho Shin Pagoda Festival is held from the 8th waxing moon day to the 10th waning day of Nayon (June-July).
      A small temple at the back of Thiho Shin Pagoda has interior walls and domed ceiling covered with wall paintings in the style of the post-Bagan era. The colors are fresh and the execution is fine. Some yards away is a small brick building in the compound of a monastery, with beautiful and colorful wall paintings; the trustees of Thiho Shin can give directions on how to get to it.
      Another famous religious site in Pakokku is Shwe Gu Pagoda. The original stupa is believed to have been built by King Alaungsithu, and years later a wealthy donor repaired damage caused by the passage of time and also added an adjoining teak prayer hall. In 1917 the hall was destroyed by fire and a wealthy couple from Pakokku built new shrine rooms and brick pavilions around the stupa.
      In 1904 a devout businesswoman from Pakokku commissioned a team of father and son sculptors to crave from five blocks of yamanay wood, which is strong but light and mostly used to make marionettes. The whole piece took four years to complete, and in the end measured 12 feet 10 inches high, 5 feet 10 inches wide, and 6 inches thick.
      Among the eight layers of vines and leaves entwined to look like layered lace, there are 12 scenes out of four Jataka Tales, with figures of humans, celestials, birds and animals. This tagei piece is famous all over the country, and for years pilgrims and craftsmen have been coming to Pakokku just to see it. The scenes are so lifelike and dramatically portrayed which famous classical playwrights and dancers came to inspect it in order to improve their onstage presentations. Shwe Gu is a beautiful pagoda and there are many interesting shrines, images and halls apart from this classic sample of Burmese craft.
      Pokokku is also home to a large old wooden monastery called Alair Kyaung; it is big enough for hundreds of monk students, and one can imagine how vibrant and energetic life must have been here, once upon a time. There are many more similar colleges of this kind, built with substantial materials and carrying on the tradition of in-depth study of the Buddhist texts.
      Just 30 minutes by car from Pakokku is Pakhan Gyi, an area that has revealed vestiges of successive ancient inhabitants, from Stone Age tools to jewellery left by the Pyu civilization. The ancient Shin Ma Taung Pagoda was damaged in the great earthquake of 1975 and a small gold image came to light, with writing at the base in a mixture of Sanskrit and Pali that scholars have identified as dating from the 8th century.
      It is said that during the Bagan era Pakhan Gyi was an important military outpost. Attached to it is the ancient legend of Prince Kyay Swar who was killed by his brother after both were sent here by their father to build canals and improve the farmland. Local legend says that upon his death Kyaw Swar became U Min Kyaw, a popular spirit of the Burmese animist tradition. Other myths tell of this spirit originating from a different persona but the Pakhan Gyi folks are convinced that it was this prince, who had been a respected administrator, who is now worshipped as a spirit and that his dubious fame as a patron of gamblers could not be true. Whatever one may thick of this Pakhan Gyi was once a city of substance: a solid gateway of brick that very much resembles Tharaba Gate in Bagan. The Pakhan Gyi Museum has displays of ancient artefacts found in its vicinity.
      Pakhan Gyi and the surrounding areas once boasted their share of magnificent monasteries, but one of note remains almost in its original form. It was donated in the mid-19th century by U Po Toke, a local man who was born poor but through honesty and hard work made his fortune. He was later appointed an agricultural officer by King Mindon.
      U Po Toke had to apply to the king for permission to cut the trees necessary to supply the 253 whole logs needed for the pillars of the monastery. Not only was he granted permission, but also the wood needed for the whole construction project was donated by royal order. The teak logs were dragged from the northern jungles to this place by teams of elephants.
      Sithu Shin Pagoda in Pakhan Gyi, a well-known pilgrimage site to locals, is enshrined with a small Buddha image reputed to be hundreds of years old and made using a combination of scented woods, kept inside a gold cup and locked inside an elaborate glass case. Through the years devotes have donated their rings and other pieces of jewellery, and these are attached to the cup with gold wires.
      It seems the magic of Bagan has also spread over its environs in these small towns, typical representatives of the conservative and devout lifestyle of Burmese Buddhists.

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