Nyaung U’s most important stupa is the early twelfth-century Shwezigon Paya, one of the few religious structures in Bagan to be built from stone. Still an active place of worship, it’s said to contain three different relics of the Buddha: a tooth, a collarbone and a frontlet (headband). The design of Shwezigon was a prototype for many later pagodas within Myanmar: the circular stupa sits on three square terraces, each level bearing clay plaques decorated with Jataka scenes, and an octagonal base. On each of the four sides is a shrine containing a four-metre standing Buddha made of pyin-zá-làw-ha (an alloy of gold, silver, lead, tin and bronze).
A building on the southeastern side of the complex, often locked, contains statues of the 37 nats (spirits). The decision to allow nat figures, very popular among ordinary worshippers, into this temple was an important step in hastening the adoption of Theravada Buddhism.
There are also a few “cave” sites around Nyaung U, including Thamiwhet Umin and Hmyatha Umin, which are tunnels designed for meditation and carved into the sandstone hills about 1km southeast of the town. They are interesting for the way in which the builders worked with the landscape. There’s another similar complex, Kyansittha Umin, which is less off the beaten track, and just north of the main road as you head towards Wet Kyi Inn village.