Myanmar (formerly Burma)

“The Road to Mandalay”

April 2012

“This is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any land you know about” -   Rudyard Kipling (1898)

 

The south-east Asian country of Myanmar (until 1989 known as Burma) is a country replete with a tradition and history that has remained half-hidden from the outside world for many decades. This self imposed isolation and xenophobia which is enforced by the ruling military junta controlling the country, led to a tourism boycott that has only recently been lifted. This seminal scenario enables the adventurous visitor to enjoy a plethora of treasures that have remained untouched by the scourge of mainstream tourism. Magnificent temple complexes that match any on the planet await your exploration, where the only other visitors you'll encounter are local Burmese eager to engage you in conversation. Predominantly Buddhist in its religious affiliation, Burmese culture - being a synthesis of its two large neighbours India and China - has a unique and diverse character all of its own. Myanmar without doubt presents somewhat of a contradiction; whilst some may find the syllogism of its Orwellian overtones distasteful, others will be enveloped by the magical spell that Myanmar casts over many an open-minded visitor – the choice is yours.

 

A Brief History

 

The general area that encompasses modern day Myanmar has been inhabited, according to archaeological evidence, since at least 2500 BC. Early inhabitants such as the Pyu and the Mon have left ephemeral glimpses of their culture through the discovery of the remains of their art and architecture. The grouping we recognise today as the Burmese migrated south from the Himalayan region around the 8th century AD.

 

Myanmar’s golden period began in 849 AD with the founding of the Kingdom of Bagan. During the next 400 years the Kings of Bagan instituted Myanmar’s first centralised government and established Buddhism as the main religion. Bagan rapidly became a city of magnificent temples and the capital of the first Burmese kingdom to encapsulate most of what we now identify as modern-day Myanmar. Bagan’s atrophy came about in the 13th century with the invasion by Kublai Khan and his Tartars, who swept in from Yunan in China and completely overran the region. Over the following five centuries various ethnic groupings established kingdoms across the country, in the process each founding a new capital city in their region of influence.

 

The beginning of the 19th century saw the rulers of Myanmar come into conflict with the British who were firmly entrenched in neighbouring India. A series of cross border skirmishes resulted in a declaration of war by the British, and by the middle of the century, ostensibly motivated by the need to protect their Indian possessions, Myanmar had become effectively just another part of the British Raj.

 

The onset of the Second World War saw Myanmar become the stage of heavy fighting in the conflict between the British Allied forces and the Japanese forces, the Japanese eventually overrunning Myanmar in mid 1942. The conclusion of the Second World War saw Myanmar emerge as a British self-governing protectorate, but a few years later on the 4th January 1948 Myanmar declared independence and relinquished its membership of the British Commonwealth.

There now followed decades of instability, internecine conflict and political turmoil- during this time the country flirted briefly with democracy. From the 1960’s to 2010 the real power lay in the hands of the military. The elections in May 1989 saw the rise to prominence of the charismatic leader of the National League for Democracy Party, Aung San Suu Kyi. In July 1989 the military junta placed Suu Kyi under house arrest, where she was to remain interned until July 1995. During this time of detention Suu Kyi was awarded numerous accolades, including the Nobel Peace Prize for her selfless role in Myanmar’s pro democracy movement. Her status now as a global democracy icon was a constant thorn in the side of the ruling military junta. Another two periods of detention followed from 1996 to 2002 and from 2003 to 2010. In early 2012 following a loosening of the military’s grip on the country, Suu Kyi was finally able to take her rightful seat in the Myanmar parliament. Despite the gradual move towards democracy and modernization, Myanmar still remains today introverted and secretive and additionally one of the world’s poorest countries.

The Journey

It’s a miserably cold and rainy day as I depart London and head off to begin a couple of weeks of adventure and discovery. A twelve hour flight to Kuala Lumpur is followed by a two hour flight to Myanmar’s capital city of Yangon (formerly Rangoon). As with all foreign travel the first port of call is usually to the bank to obtain some local currency. With an exchange rate of 1,350 Kyats to the GB pound, plus the fact that bank notes are only issued in small denominations, changing £300 results in the receipt of wads of notes, so much so that the bank gives you a carrier bag to keep it all in!

The morning tour of Yangon commences with probably 'the' highlight of the entire trip. The Shwedagon Paya is one of the great wonders of the Buddhist world and is the most sacred of all the Buddhist sites in the country. Having been rebuilt many times down the years the temple complex in its current format dates back to 1769.The temple platform is a visual cacophony of technicolour glitter, an assault on the senses. Shwedagon consists of one mighty gold covered stupa (a solid tapering cylindrical cone) which rises to a height of 98 metres and is surrounded by another 68 minor stupas. A myriad cluster of smaller stupas, temples, pavilions, shrines, Buddha statues, nat images and offering zones make up the main temple platform area. The central stupa is reported to be covered with in excess of 50 metric tonnes of gold leaf. Perched atop the stupa is a finial studded with thousands of diamonds and other precious stones. The atmosphere at Shwedagon is magical - devotees making offerings, the heady aroma of burning incense, families making a once in a lifetime pilgrimage - all pervaded by an ambience that is serene, exciting, spiritual and unique. To attempt to describe its sheer beauty and magnificence is an impossible task; Shwedagon demands your attention and then rewards you with the experience of a lifetime.

 

Yangon has some wonderful architectural relics from its colonial past; amongst these is the Strand Hotel. Constructed in 1896, The Strand is a colonial splendour from a bygone era - a glorious outpost of the British Empire. Rooms cost $300 a night, beyond the budget of many visitors to Myanmar let alone any local Burmese.

Chaukhtatgyi Paya is the repository of one of Myanmar’s largest reclining Buddha figures. The giant egregious image measures 70 metres in length, its serene features are embellished with a crown encrusted with diamonds and other precious stones. It would appear that with Buddha images the adage `size does matter` most definitely applies.

A short one hour flight from Yangon takes us to the town of Heho, which is a convenient starting point from which to explore the idyllic setting of Inle Lake. Situated on the Shan Plateau and surrounded by hills Inle Lake is an outrageously picturesque location, it is a home as well as a working environment to local communities of fishermen, artisans and farmers. Vegetables and flowers are grown on the lake in floating gardens and these gardens are formed from mud and seaweed arranged in rows that are then anchored to the bed of the lake using long bamboo poles. The lake is also the habitat of a rich variety of wildlife. The community houses are simply made from wood and woven bamboo raised above the water on stilts. Our relaxing trip on the lake is undertaken in a long fishtail boat - the ubiquitous mode of transport here. Around the lake shore are numerous temples and monasteries and below I talk about some of the more important and specious ones that I visited.

The Phaung Dow Oo Pagoda is home to five stubby Buddha images. These images have become deformed down the years as devotees adhere sheets of gold leaf to them as a sign of devotion. The Nga Phe Kyaung Monastery, constructed in 1853, is a wooden structure built on stilts above the water. It is nicknamed the 'Jumping Cat Monastery' because the resident monks taught some cats to jump through hoops; a great piece of tourist PR that encourages every boat on the lake to make an inquisitive stop there. The lake shore is also home to many artisans who ply their trade for locals and tourists alike. The artisans include: silk weavers; cheroot makers; blacksmiths; silversmiths and boat makers.

 

The western shore of the lake is the repository of the remarkable pagoda complex of Indein. This site of over 1,000 stupas is known locally as the Burmese Angkor after the famous site of Angkor in neighbouring Cambodia. Innumerable stupas in various states of repair - some dating back to the 17th century and some of modern construction – cover the landscape. Some are tumbling down ruins covered in undergrowth, whilst others are brand new with their exterior covered in gold leaf that glistens in the sunlight. Many of these stupas are private tombs and the wealthier you were, the more grand and ornate the structures. Indein is an atmospheric location and you can amble around and obtain some captivating photographs.

 

A common site are processions that accompany the shinpyu or Novitiation Ceremony. Dressed in exquisitely beautiful clothes and riding a horse, a young boy heads a parade of proud relatives and friends all dressed in their Sunday best bearing offerings and presents. Music plays, people dance and sing whilst bystanders, cameras in hand, cannot help but smile. This celebration precedes a young boy becoming a novice monk. He is usually between 5 and 15 years of age. A novice will ordinarily reside for a week or two in the monastery and a family earns great merit when a son is inculcated.

 

Shwe Yan Pyay is a late 18th century monastery where novice monks are inducted into a rigorous educational regime, which on this day is sorely interrupted by a number of camera totting tourists!

 

The train journey from Shwe Naung to Aung Ban was in, or at least described as, a first class carriage -  a relative term in comparison to travelling by cattle class. The 40km journey is a taken at a leisurely pace at 20km/hour; a rock and roll roller-coaster experience that may defy laws of physics - the engine and carriages miraculously stay upright and on the tracks for the duration.

 

The Myinmathi Cave near Kalaw is one of nature’s wonders; the limestone cave has a wondrous display of stalactites and stalagmites - in addition there are thousands of Buddha images deposited there by the faithful. As with so many attractions in Myanmar our group had the entire cave system to ourselves. Situated high up on the western edge of the Shan Plateau, the town of Kalaw was a former hill station for the colonial British to escape the heat of the plains- although not on our visit as the temperature was up around 38 degrees. Surrounded by pine forests and rugged mountain scenery the conurbation of Kalaw exudes a relaxed and tranquil atmosphere. It's currently cultivating an image for itself as a trekking base from which to visit the local hill tribe people. Our walk to the hill tribe village of Painebin started at 7 o’clock one morning; a leisurely two-hour stroll through rugged mountain scenery. The hillsides have tea and coffee plants on them together with, mango, papaya, jackfruit and many other exotic crops. Painebin is inhabited by the Palaung people who, still wear traditional costume, maintain their distinctive ethnic culture and speak their own local dialect. There were many photo opportunities, which resulted in some of the best portrait photographs captured during our trip. The afternoon was taken up with a tour of Kalaw’s main sites of interest:  several stupas; a monastery and retail therapy in the local market.

 

We left Kalaw and set out on `The Road to Mandalay’ and a very rough road it was. It was being re-laid and the entire operation is being undertaken by hand - no mechanised equipment is used. The men do the digging and the women carry away the debris; hellish hard work in itself especially with temperatures in the mid 30 degrees. These hard working road labourers earn around 3,000K (£3.00) per day. The bone-shaking 7 hour journey along this road is made bearable by the distractions of the  scenery, heavily forested mountains, hairpin bends and sheer drops into the valley below. We drove through villages where time has seemingly stood still. Locals move goods around in wooden carts pulled by oxen and farmers till their fields using a pair of water buffalo. We arrived in Mandalay at 3pm and it’s now a sweltering 42 degrees.

 

Mandalay is situated on the Ayeyarwady River(formerly Irrawaddy) and it was the last capital of Myanmar before the British took over. Located just a short relaxing boat trip up river from Mandalay is the village of Mingun. Here lies what would have been the world’s largest stupa had its builder, King Bodawpaya not died in 1819, thus bringing his project to a dramatic halt with only the base having been completed. Made up of 1 million bricks and standing 50 metres high, it stands at about a third of the stupas intended finished height. A powerful earthquake in 1838 caused a massive split in the monument as well as reducing part of it to rubble - what you see today is probably the world’s  most impressive pile of bricks! Despite its dilapidated state, Mingan Paya represents an impressive monument to an unrequited grandiose vision. A hard climb to the top of the platform (no shoes allowed) will reward your efforts with a majestic view of the surrounding area.

Mingun is also the site of several other religious monuments including Hsinbyume Paya. Built in 1816 this stupa is painted a shimmering white. Its seven terraces represent the seven mountain ranges that surround Mt Meru - the most holy of mountains in the Buddhist faith. The paya was fully restored in 1878  as it was also severely damaged in the 1838 earthquake. The Mingun Bell was cast in 1808 and intended to be hung in King Bodawpaya’s completed stupa. It weighs 90 tonnes and measures 4 metres high and over 5 metres in diameter - it's claimed to be the largest un-cracked bell in the world.

 

Situated in the centre of Mandalay is the aptly named Mandalay Fort. The original fort (completed in 1857) and all its buildings were destroyed during the Second World War. Amid fierce fighting, a fire engulfed the traditionally built wooden palace buildings and all that remains from that time are the original enclosure walls and the moat. The massive square enclosure walls rise to 8 metres in height, are 3 metres thick and extend for 2 kilometres along each side - all the buildings you see today inside the enclosure are modern reconstructions. The Shwenandaw Kyaung (or Golden Palace Monastery) is the only original building from Mandalay Fort to survive Second World War destruction; it was dismantled and reconstructed outside the fort walls in 1880. It was constructed from teak with exquisitely carved panel work; at one time the structure would have been covered with gold leaf and decorated with glass mosaics. Some of the gold leaf is still visible although quite a number of the carved panels have been damaged or otherwise surreptitiously removed. This fragile structure gives a rare glimpse of what the other buildings within the fort enclosure would have looked like. Shwenandaw Kyaung would originally have been part of the fort palace complex.

Kuthodaw Paya has been called `the world’s biggest book`, situated around the temple’s main stupa are 729 individual marble slabs on which are inscribed the entire Buddhist scriptures. Each of the marble slabs is contained within its own small individual stupa. It is estimated that one person reading for 8 hours a day, would take 450 days to read the entire `book`.

Mandalay Hill is a natural focus for the city, a lodestar visible for miles around. From the summit, 230 metres above the surrounding flat plain, there are spectacular 360 degree views. The summit is home to several shrines, as well as a monument to the British regiment who retook this strategic hill from the Japanese amid ferocious fighting towards the end of the Second World War in 1945.

 

Amarapura lies 11km south of Mandalay and was the country’s capital from 1783 until 1863. Today its best known attraction is U Bein’s Bridge. Built in 1849 with over 1,000 teak wood posts, the bridge spans the 1.2km across Lake Taungthaman and remains to this day the longest teak wood bridge in the world.

 

A few km south of Amarapura is the ancient city of Ava which was the Burmese capital from 1364 for almost 400 years. There are many sites of interest to visit here including some pagodas and a monastery but the highlight is the city watch tower. This 27 metre high masonry structure is all that remains from the royal palace complex. The upper section of the tower was shattered by the earthquake in 1838 and the remainder of the structure now leans at a precarious angle – it has acquired the epithet `the leaning tower of Burma`.

 

Although Myanmar’s tourist industry is still in its infancy with most of the sites visited free of tourist paraphernalia. On the odd occasion you may alight upon some budding entrepreneurs eager to engage with the small trickle of tourists that the country attracts – the ancient city of Ava is one of these places. The young salesgirls here had all the chat-up lines in an effort to endeavour to sell you a souvenir; `you are very handsome` certainly put a smile on my face; `maybe later` gives you an escape route; but my favourite was `see you later alligator in a while crocodile`.

 

Among the many artisans workshops visited on the trip probably the most fascinating was the goldsmith’s workshop. Here they produce the gold leaf that is ubiquitous in every stupa and is assiduously applied to the Buddha images by the faithful as a representation of devotion. The work is all undertaken manually and the effort expended, defies belief. The raw gold is pounded until it is reduced to a flat sheet, it is then split into small pieces and each piece put into a deer skin jig. The jig is then pounded by hand with a jack hammer for periods lasting anything from 30 minutes to 5 hours until the gold is reduced to a diaphanous consistency. Packets of this gold leaf are available for purchase at pretty much every stupa across the country, making its production an especially large and highly important enterprise.

 

The former British hill station of Pyin Oo Lwin is situated two-hours drive from Mandalay and it was here that the British came to escape the heat of the Burmese summer. Today it is where the well heeled of Mandalay come for their weekend vacations. The botanical gardens are a relaxing distraction from the rigours of touring. Developed by the British in the early part of the 20th century, the beautifully manicured gardens are a magnet for local families on weekends and holidays. The 237 acre site features large flower beds, walking trails, a picturesque lake, an animal sanctuary and an information centre detailing the local plants and wildlife. Pyin Oo Lwin still retains some of the legacy of its colonial-era buildings constructed by the British to remind themselves of back home; sadly these beautiful buildings are slowly being demolished in the inexorable progress towards modernity. The town’s clock tower was a present from Queen Victoria and its chimes mimic those of Big Ben.

 

Bagan is Myanmar’s show-piece site and undoubtedly one of the archaeological wonders of the world. Spread out over the vast Bagan plain is a forest of over 3,500 temples and stupas many dating back over 1,000 years. The architectural design of the buildings at Bagan can be generically categorised as either solid bulbous stupas (payas) or hollow square temples (pahtos). The formerLooking across the Bagan plain at the forest of temples stretching in every direction would customarily house a Buddha relic (a hair, tooth or bone), whilst the latter would contain a Buddha image. These structures are spread across the plain in all shapes and sizes, from tumbled down evocative ruins to huge and gloriously preserved structures. They punctuate the landscape as far as the eye can see in every direction. What is extraordinary about Bagan is that the religious fervour that produced this enormous collection of buildings lasted a mere two and a half centuries. This frenzy of construction began in the early 11th century and was abruptly ended in the mid 13th century when Bagan was overrun by Kublai Khan and his Mongol hoards. Given that the Bagan complex is spread out over an area of 40 sq km, it was only possible to scratch the surface in terms of exploring the overall site.

The magnificent Ananda Pahto, built around 1105, is one of the largest and best preserved of Bagan’s temples. The exterior base and terracing are adorned with beautifully glazed tiles depicting stories from the life of the Buddha. The gilded temple spires rise majestically and glisten in the sunlight and the central spire towers to a height of 51 metres. The temple is designed with a floor plan in the shape of a Greek cross. Inside there are four 9.5 metre high standing Buddha images made from solid teak. The elegant bell shaped Shwezigon Paya was completed around the turn of the 12th century and its design has become a prototype for virtually all subsequent stupas in Myanmar. Shwezigon was reputed to have been built to enshrine one of the four replicas of the Buddha tooth that today resides in Kandy in Sri Lanka. Enamelled panels around the base of the stupa show scenes from the previous lives of the Buddha. Manuha Paya is believed to have been built around the middle of the 11th century - its floor plan being a rectangular box topped by a smaller rectangle. Inside the temple are four large Buddha images that seem too large and cramped for their enclosures within the temple structure. King Manuha who built this temple was imprisoned in Bagan and the temple’s style of construction is said to represent his discontentment at his captivity.

 

One of the innumerable highs of our stay in Bagan was to view the sunset over the plain. Shwesandaw Paya was built in the mid 11th century and is believed to enshrine a Buddha hair relic. It is one of the highest accessible structures in the area and has become a popular sunset-viewing point. Gazing in awe from its terraces, the myriad of temples that stretch across the landscape are cast into evocative silhouette as the sun sinks towards the horizon and turns the sky an ever increasing shade of red. The ubiquitous click of camera shutters permeates the air as budding photographers attempt to capture the perfect sunset picture.

 

The preceding paradigms are a brief representation of the many monuments visited at Bagan - too many to list here. To fully appreciate the scale and sheer beauty of Bagan really requires far more time and exploration than was available on this particular trip; that time has to be counter-balanced against the perception of becoming templed-out, or heaven forbid stupa-fied.

 

After a brief flight we arrive back at our starting point of Yangon for the final day of this wonderful trip. There could be no finer place to conclude this trip than to revisit Shwedagon Paya - as evening fell and the sun casts its last rays on the orange dome the atmosphere was electric. As darkness descends the pagoda is illuminated with floodlights, everywhere people pay their devotions with flowers, candles, prayers and the heady smell of incense permeated the air. Opportunities to take wonderful photographs are endless, the atmosphere is magical and the experience bulldozes the senses.

An Overview

Myanmar undoubtedly is a fabulous destination to experience. The people are friendly, the photographic opportunities endless, the food wonderful, the weather great and the country boasts some of the most amazing sites you could ever wish to visit. To be privileged to visit magnificent attractions that are untainted by mass tourism plus the restrictions that this tends to engender, enhances the overall enjoyment. The country is full of surprises to delight you and exceeds all of your pre-conceived expectations. It would be remiss of me not to mention the moral obstacles that may obstruct the path to a potential visit, but this should not be allowed to cloud the obviously wonderful experiences Myanmar has to offer. The potential to attract large numbers of visitors in the future is clearly evident, the trick is to go visit and explore before that becomes the reality.

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