The land of a million pagodas and mysterious locales, Myanmar only recently opened its doors to the world. I’d been waiting for years to make this trip. Lots of well-meaning well-wishers advised me, “Don’t go. It’s not safe.” I’m glad I didn’t believe them. My 9-day sojourn in the country with three women friends convinced me that Myanmar is a safe as it gets. In Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake, the common people were warm, friendly, humble and non-interfering. We were the only tourist-pilgrims from the land of the Buddha. The rest were white-skinned observers - though I did notice the rare ones kneeling in prayer.
We had made the arrangements on our own because we were fed up with travel agencies, especially those catering exclusively to women. Booking the international tickets and hotel rooms was a cakewalk. The internet is a great enabler. We even booked the domestic flights and hot air balloon ride at Bagan before our departure from India. Air India flies you to Yangon from Kolkata in a couple of hours, but being southerners we chose the Singapore and Kuala Lumpur route. The air fare from Trivandrum to Yangon was a mere 20k and the food on Silkair was sumptuous. My friends travelled Malaysian Airlines from Bangalore and Chennai. Visa on arrival is possible but we didn’t want to take any chances, so we obtained e-visas in advance.
A few days prior to our departure we made arrangements for taxi services at all locations. Peacock Travels was the chosen agency and they turned out to be just perfect. They provided us excellent 7-seater vehicles at Yangon, Bagan and Inle Lake at fairly decent prices. At Mandalay we had hired a private driver based on some internet reviews and he too proved to be dependable. We had our meals wherever we pleased and ate samosas and onion fritters by the roadside. The veggies among us had some difficulties, but on the whole we were well fed. Rice is the staple diet and the curries often have green chilles. Plenty of river fish, fresh vegetables, Thai-style dishes. The biggest let-down was a mutton biryani served in an Indian restaurant at Nyaung Shwe, near Inle Lake.
Myanmar is one of the few countries in the world where the Indian rupee goes a long way. A humble rupee will fetch you 20 kyats. But you need to pay 800 kyats for an ice-cream. Notes below 1000 kyat are virtually useless. The US dollar is accepted everywhere, so you don’t need to change much currency.
The military is firmly in the saddle but the monks seem to be powerful too – hard power and soft power going hand in hand. On a busy street in Yangon we saw a huge life size portrait of Aung San Su Kyi.
No, it’s not the capital. That honour goes to Naypyidaw, which was consecrated in 2005. But Yangon is where the international flights deposit the tourists, so that’s where we landed. We stayed at the Rose Garden Hotel which is centrally located, cozy and comfortable.
There’s a lot to see in Yangon. The old British colonial buildings, the gilded pagodas, the museums, the Kandawgyi Lake, the Bogyoke Aung San Market, and the resting place of India’s last emperor, the sufi saint Bahadur Shah Zafar, who died in exile in erstwhile Rangoon in 1862. At the mausoleum of the last emperor we saw pictures of Prime Minister Modi’s visit.
The masterpiece is of course the 2500 year old gold-laden Shwedagon pagoda that draws tourists like a powerful magnet. The Golden Rock Pagoda or Kyaikto (a miracle rock that appears to be suspended in mid air) is a few hours’ drive from Yangon but we simply didn’t have the time.
The Sule pagoda is where we headed first. It is in downtown Yangon and contains a hair relic. There are detailed scenes from the life of Siddhartha Gautama. The most poignant scene is where his wife Yashodhara prostrates before his Buddha incarnation and caresses his feet with her long tresses while their infant son watches.
Then we drove to the Chaukhtatgyi which houses a magnificent reclining Buddha, with 108 sacred symbols carved on the soles of the feet in red and gold. The image is almost feminine with beautiful glass eyes, baby-doll eyelashes, red lips, painted finger nails, and even eye shadow! The robes are magnificent.
The Nga Htat Gyi located nearby is impressive too. Built in 1900 it contains a huge seated Buddha image. There is a stunning mural painting of a long line of followers of the Buddha, with the Buddha and the first few followers (statues) seeming like they are emerging from the painting.
Before the sun went below the horizon we reached the Swedagon pagoda, the holiest of holies. The soft golden glow was worth dying for. We hung around there for hours. We also participated in the oil lamp ceremony (at no cost). Where I come from we call it 'chuttuvilakku'.
A week later we returned to Yangon and visited the Botataung Pagoda. Botataung, literally means ‘1000 military men’. The pagoda, located on the Yangon River waterfront, is believed to have been built by the Mon around the same time as the Shwedagon Pagoda and houses a sacred hair of the Buddha. It was destroyed in World War II and later rebuilt. Don’t miss the Buddha bronze – it’s a real stunner. The pagoda interiors have exquisite mirror work cut out to dazzle, glow and glitter. And there is a life-size Buddha pulling out eight hairs from his head to provide relics to his followers for use in future pagodas.
I had long believed that mirror-work in temples was typical of western India, but to my complete surprise the pagodas in Myanmar had astoundingly beautiful and intricate designs on a colossal scale. Resplendent interiors in mirrors and gold leaves greeted us everywhere. The intricacies of the woodwork, mostly in majestic teak, have to be seen to be believed. The simplicity associated with Buddhism was perhaps a figment of my imagination.
BAGAN AND THE BALLOONS
Bagan has the largest collection of Buddhist pagodas in the world – over 2000 they say – and presents one of the most spectacular archaeological sites in Asia. Located on a dry plain on the banks of the Ayarwaddy River, it is said to have been founded in the 11th century by the legendary King Anawrahta. (Later Ava or Inwa became the capital in the 14th century.)
We flew from Yangon to Bagan, landing before noon. We had lunch, checked into the Bagan Hotel River View, which really had great views of the Ayarwaddy, and toured the pagodas in the afternoon. Our hotel was right behind the Gawdawpalin pagoda which was beautifully lit up at night. At sunset we took a river cruise and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
Before sunrise the next morning we were picked up from our hotel and driven to a vacant field for our hot air balloon ride. We had picked the Golden Eagle company, which turned out to be a good bet. The pilot was experienced and the takeoff and landing were incredibly smooth.
The view of the pagodas from the top was mind-blowing. The golden rays of the rising sun cast a spell over the plains and the river and made everything look so beautiful. The cost of the ride was prohibitive but in the end we didn’t mind so much. And yes, there was champagne after landing, to keep up an age-old tradition we were told. We were ferried back from the landing site to the waiting car and returned to our hotel in time for breakfast. Our hired vehicle soon arrived and we went off on a tour of the pagodas.
Some of the pagodas we visited are Ananda, Htilominlo, Thatbinnyu, Shwesandaw, Shwezigon, Sulamani, Dhammayangyi, Lawkananda, Gu Byauk Gyi, Dhammayazika and Mahabodhi. The last is said to be modelled on Bodh Gaya. The sites are linked by dusty lanes and kuccha tracks. There are clear signposts warning visitors not to climb the unsafe structures, but tourists are typically careless and irresponsible (see below).
Nathlaung Kyuang, the only Hindu temple in Bagan (dedicated to Lord Vishnu) is in a state of utter neglect. No worshippers, no visitors excepts bats, and zero maintenance. This in an area where the Archaeological Society of India can do wonders – if the goodwill and political will on both sides is adequate.
The Ananda Temple, built in 1100, has four, nine-metre high Buddha images made of solid teak overlaid with gold leaf. The images in the east and west are 18th century replacements, while the other two are originals. The structure is reminiscent of Indian temple architecture.
Dhammayangyi, the largest of all the temples in Bagan, was built during the reign of King Narathu (1167 - 1170), ostensibly to atone for the sin of patricide. Thatbyinnyu is the tallest temple. The Shwezigon Pagoda dates back to 11th century. The Sulamani temple with its red tinge presents a spectacular sight.
The list of pagodas is long, long, long. (I promise to post details later – when the rat-race demands less of my time.) Some of them have amazing frescoes but they are badly in need of protection and maintenance.
Mount Popa is a day trip and a long climb, but we couldn’t make it. During World War II, the Indian National Army (INA) of Subhash Chandra Bose had some close encounters in this region.
George Orwell, Rudyard Kipling and numerous others had written about Mandalay. Subhash Chandra Bose had been jailed here, not to mention Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who spent six years here from 1908 to 1914. The less troublesome guys like Gandhi and Nehru were jailed in India, and the firebrands were sent to faraway places. I must say the British in those days had amazing foresight. Remember what they did to the last Mughal?
Mandalay was the capital of erstwhile Burma when the British marauders came along in 1885 and exiled King Thibaw Min to Ratnagiri in Maharashtra. He died there in 1916 following 30 years of exile. His widow made several requests to repatriate his mortal remains to Burma but the British refused. In 2012, after nearly a hundred years, the President of Myanmar visited Thibaw’s burial site in Ratnagiri.
We flew from Bagan to Mandalay. We’d been told that the local flights are pretty chaotic but we didn’t face any problems. We noticed that computers have minor roles and almost everything is done manually. There are ready to use boarding passes and stickers are pasted with seat numbers, while baggage receipts are simply stapled on.
The Mahamuni pagoda probably dates from the 14th-century, though it is said to be a true likeness of Gautama Buddha cast in his lifetime. Since then it has been ritually covered in layers of gold leaf, a practice which continues to this day. Gold abhishekham seems to be the norm in Myanmar, for gold leaf is sold on every street and you are supposed to stick it on the Buddha idols. But wait a minute! There’s a catch! Only men can enter the sanctum sanctorum. Like Lord Ayyappa in Sabarimala and a host of other Hindu gods, who prefer women to keep their distance, Lord Buddha in Myanmar seems to be a chip off the old block. But there are rare exceptions, where women vendors, keen to sell their gold leaves, facilitate the ritual in minor pagodas on the sly. To my utter surprise the Ashoka emblem was everywhere!
The Kuthodaw Pagoda contains the world's largest book, comprising 729 stone slabs that are inscribed with the entire Tripitaka, the sacred Buddhist scriptures.
Mandalay Hill turned out to be more impressive than I’d expected. There's an escalator to facilitate the climb and the views were superb.
We also visited the Shwe Nan Daw monastery which was once part of the palace complex of Amarapura and was later shifted to Mandalay. When King Mindon died his son Thibaw dismantled the structure and built the monastery. While the royal place did not survive the destruction of World War II, the monastery survived. The 10 jataka stories are well preserved. A picture of King Thibaw and Queen Supayalat served as a grim reminder of Britain’s excesses and Burma’s tragedies.
AMARAPURA, INWA, MINGUN AND SAGAING
Before sunrise we reached the U Bein Bridge at Amarapura. It is said to be the world’s longest teak bridge built from over a thousand teak columns taken from the royal palace in nearby Ava (Inwa) in 1847. The footbridge is nearly a mile long and crosses a shallow lake to reach a small farming village.
In the semi darkness, inadequately protected from the cold weather by a flimsy shawl, I walked a little distance and then retraced my steps. If there had been more water in the river I would have been terrified. My companions walked longer distances but reaching the end of the rickety bridge was well nigh impossible. Coming back to safe territory I walked into a riverside pagoda and paid my respects to the Buddha. Then I walked on the dry riverbed below the bridge and took pictures of my friends as they returned from their morning walk.
Later we drove to Mingun to see the famed Mingun Bell. Cast in bronze in 1805 it weighs 90 tons and is considered the world’s largest ringing bell. The flowers sellers on the roadside presented a quaint picture. The Mingun Pagoda supposedly has the world’s largest stack of bricks. It is an unfinished stupa commenced by King Bodawpaya.
Sagaing Hill has hundreds of monasteries, nunneries and meditation centers. We reached Sagaing in time to enter a monastery and see the female monks (I don’t know if they are supposed to be called nuns) line up for their noon meal. It was an unforgettable and sobering experience.
Then we drove to Inwa (formerly Ava), the ancient capital, where we were treated to a ferry ride and a horse-cart tour. We had lunch at a local restaurant after the ferry ride and before the horse cart journey. There were some impressive ruins, with fallen pillars and a Buddha statue sitting under a massive tree.
Bagaya Kyaung, a living monastery built in teak in 1834 has 267 tall and massive teak columns the largest 70ft high. Young monks study in the main hall.
We went to see the leaning watchtower but didn’t dare climb the steps. It looked as if it would topple any moment. The elderly local who was driving our horse-cart knew one single English word: OKAY! He kept repeating it with varying inflections and a genial smile. When he pointed to the watchtower and said 'okay!' we thought it wasn't okay at all!
We took a flight from Mandalay to Heho. From Heho we drove to Nyaung Shwe, a little village on the edge of the Inle Lake. That’s where we had lunch, and the unique mutton biryani I mentioned earlier. OMG! Never again!
We visited the Bawrithat pagoda and the amazing Shwe Yan Pyay monastery with its 200 year old teak Ordination Hall. The oval windows and intricately carved wooden ceiling are unusual. On the right of this hall there is a modest building with a mind-blowing interior adorned with thousands of Buddha images, each in its own niche, donated by visitors from around the globe. I read many of the names – there were none from India.
We stayed at the Prisitine Lotus Resort and Spa. The resort with its boat-shaped rooms is exquisitely deigned but the lake is still a good 10 minutes away. Narrow inlets of water (man-made?) appear outside the rooms. At night we saw fires on the hillsides and we were warned that it is controlled-burning – whatever that means – and there was nothing to fear.
The next morning a boat picked us up and took us around the lake. The air was cold at the outset but soon the sun came down on us with a vengeance and we had to cower under umbrellas and swathe ourselves in thick shawls. Inle Lake serves 64 villages, and pagodas and monasteries are everywhere. Most houses are built on stilts on the water’s edge. Weaving of silk and lotus fibres, silver-working, boat-making and cheroot-making are some of the local cottage industries. I bought a few trinkets just to make the sellers happy. Much of the trading is done by women and girls and the men seem to take a back seat.
We saw the Intha fishermen who are reputed for their one-legged rowing technique, the lotus weavers with their spindles and looms, the Indein pagodas and the Phaung Daw Oo pagoda. It was a joy ride through and through.
The Phaung Daw Oo pagoda hosts five gold-leaf-covered Buddha statues. The gold leaf covering has become so voluminous that the images bear no resemblance to the Buddha!
Cost of the Tour: 8 nights and 9 days in Myanmar cost us barely INR 50k per head, despite living in fancy hotels, hiring big-sized vehicles, and eating at decent restaurants. The international and domestic flights amounted to another 50k. It was the hot air balloon that really made us go up in smoke!