Myanmar: Legendary Cities to Mountain Lakes
by ANDY ALPINE
My eyes opened to the sun reflecting off the golden contours of the Shwedegon Pagoda. It was just after sunrise, and the view overlooking the royal lake from our room at the Kandawgi Palace Hotel was breathtaking. With Schwedegon's spire reaching towards the sky, I felt that I was looking at the spiritual heart of Myanmar, the country also known as Burma.
After more than 30 years, my dream of visiting this country of Buddhist shrines and sparkling rivers was being fulfilled. As a graduate student in international affairs, I had written my master's essay on Burmese neutrality during the Cold War. At that time, actually visiting Burma was way beyond my financial abilities. Thirty years later, as the publisher of this travel magazine, I finally had the chance.
The largest country in Southeast Asia, Myanmar stretches from the Himalayas in the north to the tropical jungles on its southern border with Thailand. Since the military coup of 1988, the nation has been officially called the Union of Myanmar, having changed its name from the Union of Burma.
Travel to Myanmar has taken on political connotations. Several international groups have stated that the Myanmar government has a poor human rights record and consequently they have advocated boycotting travel to the country.
In my view, it's an individual's decision. I believe that bringing international travelers - and their money - into the country helps the Burmese people economically and fosters an exchange of information.
Heart, Grace and Beauty
I can only tell you what I experienced during my 11 days in the country. One of my guides was, from her one salary, supporting an extended family of 12. She was paying for her uncle's heart medicine and sending her niece to a private high school. We also spent several hours with the assistant manager of our hotel on Inle Lake discussing work ethics and family life. I found Myanmar to be a jewel, and its citizens some of the most gracious, friendly and peace-loving people I have ever met.
After a short stay in Yangon (Rangoon), the capital of Myanmar (we would return at the end of our trip), my wife Daya and I moved on to the mythical city of Mandalay, the former capital.
It felt like a cultural and religious center from the moment we arrived. Dominated by a massive hill at its center, the city has large Buddhist monasteries and stupas everywhere you turn. It is said that more than 60% of all the monks in the country live in this area.
At Mahandayon, a famous Buddhist monastery, we witnessed over 1,000 monks in their procession to the dining hall for their one daily meal. In this sea of ochre robes and shaved heads, each monk held the "begging bowl" from which he eats.
In Mandalay, we traveled alternately by car, boat, and horse-drawn carriage, visiting the 200-year-old U Bein teak bridge, the former royal capital of Ava and the Nanmyint Watch Tower - nicknamed "the leaning tower of Ava." We also admired the ornate wood-carvings and teak posts of the Bargayar Monastery and the Kuthodaw Pagoda, known as the world's largest book, consisting of 729 marble slabs engraved with Buddhist scriptures.
Mandalay is also a city of artists, and we were able to see and hear the craftspeople at work - the click of a silk weaver's loom ... clink from a sculptor carving a marble Buddha ... rhythmic drumming of wooden mallets pounding precious metal into gold leaf.
Gold leaf is everywhere in Myanmar, since the faithful place it on Buddhist images for good luck and karma. At the Mahamuni Pagoda, I participated in the ceremony as well. According to ritual, you place the gold leaf on the chest of the Buddha image if you want happiness; on the head if you want everything to be good; or on the locale of a specific ailment if you want to be healed. I placed my gold leaf on the Buddha's chest.
Rather than flying from Mandalay to Bagan (Pagan), we decided to travel by boat along the Irrawaddy (Ayeyar-wady) River. For the one-day journey, we traveled aboard the RV Pandaw, built in 1947 and designed like the original river paddle steamers. Walking in bare feet on the old wooden decks, I felt connected to the time before World War II when the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company operated some 600 vessels - the largest privately owned fleet of ships in the world.
Gliding along the Irrawaddy River, we passed small villages and endless fishermen - every moment was a perfect photo op. The upper deck afforded a 360-degree view as well as the most comfortable deck chairs (acquired at auction from the Queen Mary) for reading and snoozing.
Since we were traveling during the dry season, the captain constantly had to maneuver around sandbanks. According to the company manager on board, the law of the river said there would be free drinks for all if we ran aground. Because of the captain's skill, we never got to test out the proposition.
Nearing Bagan, the excitement on board increased when we began to see the remains of ancient temples and pagodas along the river bank. Covering over 30 square miles, the archeological zone encompasses over 2,000 temples, shrines, and monasteries, mostly dating from the 11th to the 13th century.
Overlooking the Irrawaddy River, our hotel was a short drive from the temple sites. Although most of the time we toured with our guide from Diethelm Travel, we also rented bicycles one morning and rode to some of the smaller, less visited sites.
Although I had seen pictures of Bagan, I had never expected the breathtaking expanse of its plain. We began with a climb to the top of the Ywa Haung Gyi Temple to witness the sunrise. As far as the eye could see, the morning light reflected off the golden shapes and red-brick facades. Everywhere I looked, I saw a temple, stupa or monastery, each inspiring awe.
One afternoon we visited the Myingaba Gu Byaukgi Temple, which had fine murals depicting the life of the Buddha. Our guide, who had originally studied physics, had worked with UNESCO to uncover these paintings, which had been plastered over. He described the joy of watching these masterpieces being brought back to life after so many years of obscurity.
Bagan is worth as many days as you can find. Some temples deserve more than one visit, such as Ananda, where the niches on the high walls contain 1,224 Buddhas. Viewing them, I felt the same spiritual exaltation I had experienced when I'd seen the stained-glass windows of Char-tres in France. In addition, two of the large Buddhas (the ones that face east and west) seem to look right into you when you are close-up. As you walk away, the images seem to smile. Honestly.
The Pindaya Caves
After Bagan we flew north to the Shan State to view the unique Pindaya Caves and to experience several days at Inle Lake.
For me, large caves are always impressive - especially when they are well lit. In addition to an immense system of caverns, Pindaya has thousands of statues of the Buddha placed by pilgrims over the centuries. Walking among these figures - many larger than life-size - was like being in a maze. In fact, one area provides the visitor with opportunities of reaching dead ends - symbolic of difficulties along the spiritual path.
After the meditative showcase of the caves, we were treated to the pastoral drive to Inle Lake. The waterway is known for its floating gardens and "leg rowers" - like gondoliers, except they use their legs to paddle - a unique form of aerobic exercise to say the least.
My observation was that they always had the same right leg wrapped around the oar - but maybe they changed legs on alternate weeks, just as my old athletic club in New York had made us change direction around the banked track each week to balance our ankle muscles. I forgot to ask.
The industrious Intha people who live on and around the lake grow fruits and vegetables year-round on floating islands. Only several feet thick, the islands are made from a fertile blend of marsh, soil and water hyacinth, all attached to the shallow lake bottom with bamboo poles. Every few years the islands are completely broken up, and new ones are constantly being created.
Inle Lake also provided us with the opportunity of visiting Nga Phe Kyaung. Built on stilts over the lake, this wooden monastery is famous for its jumping cats, trained by the monks to leap through hoops. The visit turned out to be very rewarding, not just because of the loveable felines, but also on account of the Shan-style Buddhist carvings and the chance to interact with the monks (everyone loves to talk about their pets).
Returning to Yangon for the flight home, Daya and I felt the desire to revisit Shwedegon Pagoda - the urge was irresistible, drawing us like iron filings to a magnet. It was Sunday evening and the temple was packed.
As the sun set and a cooling breeze started to blow, families with children, flirting teenagers, groups of monks and solitary figures walked and strolled around the central stupa, often stopping to kneel and pray. As I walked I felt my heart being polished by the Burmese people. This procession around the Pagoda brushed my heart with smiles, internal peace and reverence.
All of the travel arrangements within Myanmar described here were expertly handled by Diethelm Travel Ltd, Myanmar. For more information, see their website at http://www.diethelm-travel.com by telephon at 011-95-1- 527-110, or -527-117; by fax at 011-95-1-527-135; or at 1 Inya Road, Kamayut Township, Yangon, Union of Myanmar.
Photo courtesy of Daya Alpine.