Like the Nile in Egypt, the Irrawaddy River is an important gift to the people of Myanmar that gave rise to the ancient royal capital of Mandalay and Bagan. However, traveling to this region in the country’s central dry zone is not just about the ancient cities, but also discovering village life and learning about the people of these communities that have followed the same traditions for centuries.
Many visitors to the region choose to fly or take a luxury cruise between the two royal capitals, but we decided to travel overland, by a motor car which gives us the opportunity to truly explore the internal attractions. During the journey, we not only get to visit ancient temples and cruise down the Irrawaddy, but we did also learn about an endemic tortoise species, fascinating local people, and a forgotten pottery town that was once the gateway for the British annexation of Burma.
Visiting Minzontaung Wildlife Sanctuary, home to the star tortoise which is indigenous to the dry zone, was now a major site to the visitors to learn more about this endangered tortoise species. At the entrance of the Sanctuary, we saw a breeding center where we helped feed the lovely tortoises and saw how they are kept, before their reintroduction into the wild. To complete the tour and to understand how the whole system works, the friendly staff from the sanctuary took us to the baby tortoise pens for a glimpse of these tiny creatures.
After the Sanctuary we continued our journey through rural Myanmar to Yandabo village, which makes a living from producing beautiful red earthenware pots. A remote village with only 200 houses, Yandabo also has an intriguing history. In 1826, under a tree on the banks of the Irrawaddy, the Treaty of Yandabo was signed, which ended the First Anglo-Burmese War. With the British in Yandabo – which was only 80 km from the capital Ava (Inwa) – the Burmese were forced to accept the British terms, leading to a long period of colonial rule.
The best part of our stay at Yandabo was the Yandabo Home, a small boutique hotel that lies on the quiet banks of The Irrawaddy. From there, we easily walked around the villagers’ houses and watched them patiently making the pots and firing them in their kilns. In the late afternoon, we took a 15-minute boat ride to visit Pan Nyo village and observe flocks after flocks of buffaloes returning from the fields descending into the Ayeyarwaddy River for a nice cool bath. Then, walked into the Panyo village along the banks of the Irrawaddy River and enjoyed the stunning sunset from a hill overlooking the mighty River.
The next morning, we continued to Pakkoku and visited the local market, a slipper factory, and explored where the famed Pakkoku blankets are made. A private boat will then be waiting at the jetty in Pakkoku for a leisurely trip down the Irrawaddy, with lunch served on board. Along the way, we visited a Kyaukgu Umin temple, a place that rarely sees foreign visitors. After the temple visit, we continued the cruise to Bagan, where the famous plain of ancient temples and stupas awaits us.
Top Things to do in Bagan:
Bagan, Myanmar––home to over 2,200 temples is now more than a major tourist attraction and an oldest archaeological zone since it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site by the UN at the Azerbaijani capital Baku last month. Here is the list of top things to do in and around Bagan by Myanmore:
1. Watch the Sunset
There is nothing like watching the sunset over the pagodas in Bagan, but it can be tricky to find a nice elevated spot for doing it. Due to the severe earthquake a few months ago, the only two places you can now watch the sunset and sunrise are Shwe Gon Char pagoda and Nan Myint Tower (Bagan Viewing Tower) next to Aureum Palace Hotels & Resorts.
2. Learn how lacquerware is made
There are many lacquerware “factories” and shops in Bagan with varying quality and price levels. One of our favourites is Maung Aung Myin Art Gallery Bagan, go and see the whole process and learn about a craft that has been passed on in generations. Other great places to visit are Golden Bagan, Bagan House, and Jasmine Family Lacquerware workshops.
3. Rent an E-bike and be your own guide
Go to the nearest (or cheapest) E-bike rental place. The price for one bike for a full day was 8,000 MMK for us. Drive around on small sand roads and explore the less visited pagodas in between your stops at the most famous ones like Ananda Temple, Dhammayangyi Temple, Gawdawpalin Temple, Shwesandaw Pagoda, Shwezigon Pagoda and Thatbyinnyu Pagoda. Don’t forget to ask for a helmet and check so the head and tail lights are working before taking off with your E-bike. And most importantly, don’t forget your camera!
4. SWE DAW LAY SU (Four Tooth Relics) – Finish in one day to make your wishes come true
Take the opportunity to discover one of Bagan’s famous legends as you pass the tracks of King Anawrahta and his precious white elephant. The tale has it that the King was given a replica of Lord Buddha’s tooth, which he placed on the back of a sacred elephant before he set him free. This elephant stopped at four places around Bagan on which later the King had stupas built. The four places are Shwezigon, Tant Kyi Taung, Tu Yin Taung and Lawka Nandar. It is believed by the local Burmese that visiting and paying homage at all four of these places in one day makes your wish come true.
5. Climb the 777 stairs of Mt Popa (Taung Kalat)
A well visited place by locals and tourists. The Buddhist monastery is situated on top of a rock pedestal (Taung Kalat) and the foot of Mount Popa and gives you a great view over the area. Don’t have open pockets with food or loose things as the monkeys tend to try and grab things, luckily there are salespersons and stair cleaners with slingshots fencing them off. Cleaners will ask for a tip for keeping the stairs clear of monkey poop and other trash, but are also frequently seen throwing trash off the fence, but at least the stairs are clean. Please write to us about your experiences in and around Bagan via [email protected], and we’ll make sure to add the good stuff!
Kyi Sin is from Sales & Communication of Khiri Travel Myanmar and has shared his experience traveling within Myanmar in a monthly column.
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