Myanmar / Burma Travel Update
Since I was there, the situation in Myanmar/Burma has changed a lot. In February 2021, a military coup sparked widespread civil unrest and armed conflict.
The U.S. State Department currently advises: "Do not travel to Burma due to civil unrest and armed conflict." You can find their full travel advisory and security alerts here. And you can find the British Foreign Office's travel advice for Myanmar / Burma here.
It’s drafty and dark, and It feels like you’re walking around the deck of a ship. And there’s a good reason for that. The pagoda is made entirely of teak, a timber long prized in shipbuilding and boatbuilding. It’s held up by 267 massive posts of teak, the largest of which is 60 feet high and 9 feet in circumference. The floors and walls are also made of teak. Making this today would be prohibitively expensive even if you could still find solid teak trunks like this anymore.
The history of the Bagaya Monastery (Bagaya Kyaung) is a bit hazy, and sources often contradict each other. As far as I can work out from conflicting information that’s available, a monastery was originally founded here during the reign of King Min Hkaung (1401-1422), during the Ava dynasty. Since then, there have been a number of iterations, with rebuilding thanks to the ravages of fires, earthquakes, natural wear, and the whims of local rulers. In 1991, the government came in and refurbished it, added concrete stabilization, and made it suitable for continued use.1
As with so many words and names in Burmese, it’s transliterated in different ways into English. You might also see it written as Bargaya.
And adding to the confusion is that there’s another Bagaya Kyaung about 10 kilometers away in Amarapura, which also has intricate teak woodcarving.
This was once a bustling royal capital. Or, rather, several capitals, with the region serving several Burmese kingdoms. Now, it’s mostly rural, with what were once opulent stone pagodas and palaces destroyed by earthquakes and now overgrown.
The palace grounds are now mostly gone, but besides being surrounded by rice paddies now, Bagaya Monastery is well-word but still in working condition, albeit sparsely inhabited. Being constructed of wood was a curse when it came to fire, but it has proved a virtue for surviving the earthquakes like the one in 1838 that destroyed nearly all of the royal palace nearby, leaving only part of the famous leaning watchtower.
Intricately carved wood inside and out are its main decorations, and if you have any appreciation for wood carving, you’ll find this extremely impressive. Wood carving is deeply embedded into the Theravada school of Buddhism, and its practitioners were highly respected.2 Throughout the monastery you’ll see recurring motifs, including several example of a Galon, also known as Garuda or sunbird, a crowned mythical eagle. (To my untrained eye, they look like peacocks, but experts say otherwise.)3
The main shrine, on the other hand, is unusually modest. Here, it’s the walls and columns and doors that speak to the care and skill of the builders.
The layout of the central core is quite similar to the Shwenandaw Golden Palace Monastery in Mandalay City, but it’s much less ornate and isn’t entirely covered with gold leaf.
The main wooden structure remains in place. In 1991, it was refurbished by the Mandalay Archaeology Department, adding some stone steps and structure to help bolster it. They presumably also added the red corrugated roofing.4
Photos of Bagaya Monastery / Bagaya Kyaung
What to Know Before You Go
To get to the temple, you’ll first have to arrive at Amarapura, probably by boat. The most common and convenient way to get to the monastery is then by horse cart. Scooters might also make it, but could struggle in the muddy conditions. You’ll go past the leaning watchtower on the way, as well as some other old ruins.
More About Bagaya Monastery (Bagaya Kyaung)
- Located in Inwa, Myanmar, also known as Ava or Innwa
- Built entirely of teak wood
- Features intricate wood carvings with floral motifs, animals, and mythical creatures
- Stands on 267 teak wood posts, some measuring up to 60 feet (18 meters) in height and 9 feet (2.7 meters) in circumference
- Served as a center for Buddhist learning and meditation
- Kyaung translates as “monastery”
One of the most striking features of the Bagaya Monastery is its teak wood construction. The entire structure is built from this durable material, showcasing the exceptional craftsmanship of the time. The monastery’s exterior and interior are adorned with intricate wood carvings, depicting floral motifs, animals, and mythical creatures that provide insight into Myanmar’s artistic heritage.
The monastery is supported by 267 teak wood posts, with some towering at an impressive 60 feet (18 meters) in height and 9 feet (2.7 meters) in circumference. These posts are a testament to the remarkable engineering skills of the builders.
One interesting design feature to note concerns the balustrade. As a primary design element, balustrades are important in Burmese wooden monasteries and are often donated by dignitaries or wealthy donors, who then have the right to influence its design. In this case, the balustrade was made possible by a gift from the King’s councilor.5
Inwa is easily accessible from the Mandalay Region, either by road or by boat across the Myitnge River, making the Bagaya Monastery an ideal stop for those interested in Myanmar’s history and architecture.
Inwa, also known as Ava or Innwa, is an ancient city in Myanmar located near the confluence of the Irrawaddy and Myitnge Rivers. Established in 1364, Inwa served as the capital of several Burmese kingdoms over the centuries. The city was the capital of the Ava Kingdom, which is why it is sometimes referred to as Ava. Today, Inwa is an archaeological site featuring numerous pagodas, monasteries, and other historical structures, such as the Bagaya Monastery.
- Ei Thander Kyaw and Tomo Inoue, “Conservation Priorities Based on Current Conditions of Wooden Monasteries in Myanmar,” Geijutsu Kogaku: The Journal of Design, (Vol. 34, 2021): 59.
- Irene Moilanen, Last of the Great Masters?: Woodcarving Traditions in Myanmar – Past and Present (Jyväskylä: University of Jyväskylä, 1995).
- Irene Moilanen, Last of the Great Masters?: Woodcarving Traditions in Myanmar – Past and Present (Jyväskylä: University of Jyväskylä, 1995), p.65.
- Ei Thander Kyaw and Tomo Inoue, “Conservation Priorities Based on Current Conditions of Wooden Monasteries in Myanmar,” Geijutsu Kogaku: The Journal of Design, Vol. 34, 2021: 59.
- Aye Mya Mya Sein, “Approaching to the Typology of Ancient Wooden Monasteries in Late Konbaung Period,” Yadanabon University Research Journal (Vol.12, No.2): 75.