Fuelled by a meal of deep-fried locusts the night we’d arrived, our second day in Myanmar (formerly Burma) was about one thing only: Schwedagon Pagoda. ‘Schweddy,’ as one friend affectionately nicknamed it, is a huge Buddhist temple adorned by 3,000 rubies, 8 tonnes of gold plate and is topped off with a 76 carat diamond at its 100m tip. It is by far the most incredible structure in Yangon, the capital.

Reading week at HKU is officially time dedicated to studying. Unofficially, of course, it means nothing but travelling for us Exchange students. A whole week without lectures to miss. There’s work to catch up on, for sure, and studying to do, but it’s better to cram that into the surrounding weeks and make the most of the Reading Week itself by getting out into the world on our doorstep.

Schweddy, and the boulevard leading up to it, was utterly rammed with people. We were lucky to be there in the midst of a religious festival, so thousands of Buddhists were making their way to the Pagoda from across the country to pay respects, meditate and feel closer to enlightenment. Joining that throng of people was electrifying – hawkers made beelines for us as tourists but were all so disarmingly friendly that it was somewhat off-putting. We felt bad turning down their plastic bags for our shoes – you need to be barefooted in pagodas – but strode on regardless, shoes in hand. The structure itself, towering over us all, was stunning. Huge, towering golden opulence, visible from miles around and surrounded by hundreds of smaller temples and shrines nestling in its shadow. An awe-inspiring, if not commercialised (and busy!), sight.

Dashing home through monsoon rains, we eventually managed to find taxis back to our Hostel, Little Yangon on lower 39th Street. Bags collected, we were then tucked safely away onto an overnight bus north to the city of Bagan. Arriving at 4am after a long, mostly sleepless journey, we were exhausted. Get VIP buses if you can – they only cost a few thousand kyats (which I believe is pronounced ‘chat’) more and are definitely worth it for a good night’s sleep.

Seeing us milling around, bleary-eyed, a lone taxi driver thankfully took pity, ferrying us from the drop-off point into the town itself, finding us a hostel (the Eden III) and helping us stow our bags inside before driving us back out into the rapidly approaching morning. We wanted to make the most of being awake so early… So, after a steep climb up the tallest pagoda in Old Bagan still open to tourists (they’d had a severe earthquake earlier in the year and many pagodas were unsafe still to climb) we were treated to an incredibly special view: sunrise over the 3,000 pagodas of Old Bagan.

The first people there, we set up to look to the East as dawn approached. The temple filled with tourists the closer we got to 5:30am – we’d been lucky to get there early for good spots. I set an iPhone timelapse in motion and waited, DSLR at the ready for what was to come with shoes removed – left outside the pagoda out of respect. This is what we saw:

As the sun rose, mist began to steam from the lush vegetation of the drainage basin. Pagodas punctured the canopy in amongst the taller trees, muted reddish browns more common against the green, but glistening gold occasionally present too. Finally, sun streaks spilled over the scene, bringing the dark plain to life and bathing us all in orange light. I cannot emphasise this enough. The view was simply breathtaking. Well worth the wait. It was – and this is no exaggeration – by far one of the most wonderful and profoundly beautiful visual experiences of my life so far: an utter joy to behold in the early hours of a late summer’s day.

Suffice to say, I took a LOT of photos. 2,000 in total on this trip, to be exact. Luckily for you, I’ve only posted the best ones here.

Why do they build all of these pagodas then? That afternoon after some much-needed naps, we met Coco, who explained it all to us as we climbed a smaller pagoda to watch the sunset from a different angle. Apparently, kings and other aristocrats created these stunning temples to crudely ‘buy favour’ with and impress the people, all with the intention of reaching Nirvana through the contemplation in such spiritual places. Each wanted his contribution to be bigger, or more numerous, than the other, so thousands now litter the landscape, punctuating every skyline and offering ample opportunity for exploration as you drive along on electric motorbikes.

We got six bikes from our Hotelier’s sister next door for 5000 kyats (around £3.50) each day. The prices here are just ridiculous – as a tourist, your spending power is sky high. We all managed the bikes well and no one hurt as we cruised the streets and dirt tracks, exploring and photographing as many pagodas as we could – despite there being very few rules of the road, save for the liberal use of the horn! So, naturally, the Italian in our midst faired fine…

After the paradise that was Bagan, it was going to take a lot for the next destination to beat it. I can’t do the whole trip justice in one post, so I’ll save our explorations of Inle Lake (Inlay) for the next one with many more photos of what we saw.