Pictured above: Shwedegon Temple in Yangon, Myanmar
Myanmar- the name elicits a variety of emotions for the reader; from thoughts of romantic Mandalay to the genocide of the Rohingya in the north, and all the confusion in between ("I've never heard of Myanmar, but I have heard of Burma...") There are few countries in Southeast Asia where we have yet to tread, and up until two weeks ago Myanmar was one of them. Luckily they now have e-visas for US citizens and to be honest the immigration line at the Yangon airport was among the best experiences I've ever had in passport control.
Our first impression was that we were back in a country that smiles! Ah, Southeast Asia, how we missed thee. Our second observation was that most people we encountered who were from Myanmar, both men and women, were wearing sarong-like skirt wraps. Come to find out these are called longi (long-gee) and are mostly hand-woven in traditional fashion, tedious thread by silk thread.
On our drive to our hotel we saw the great, golden (literally plated with gold) Shwedegon pagoda lit up in the distance. This jewel of the city would be populated by tens of thousands of monks over the course of the next few days as the clergy gathered to celebrate the calendar new year and listen to talks from the learned. The following day we entered the grounds of the great golden pagoda and walked her circuit. It is customary in Myanmar to remove your shoes before approaching the grounds of a temple and we learned quickly that wearing sandals would be necessary to keep our sanity.
The Shwedegon pagoda has a long history, lots of riches, and some supposed Buddha relics. Our travels around the world to other Buddhist countries have demonstrated how great many of the Buddha's teeth have been dispersed throughout the realms of the faithful, but at Shwedegon you are also so lucky to be among hair and bone relics. A lot of myth surrounds how these came to be here, but yet here they are.
On this trip I either learned or was reminded that there have been many incarnations of the Buddha. He is not always a human, but has also been a number of animals including elephants, tigers, dogs, and many others. I got conflicting information from tour guides about how the identity of the Buddha is determined along with when the next Buddha is expected. One guide said that there will be no more incarnations and the other gave a different, yet vague, response.
We booked our holiday with One Stop travel, a company highly recommended on Trip Advisor forums. Bless up, because they were fabulous. They booked all of our domestic air travel for us (which is recommended over spending entire days on public buses or in shared taxis) for next to nothing. Rates on hotels were cheaper through them along with our fantastic hot air balloon ride at our next stop in Bagan.
Bagan has been a dream to visit for many years. Like Angkor Wat in Cambodia, it is an area comprising thousands of temples and pagodas. Once upon a time there were over 10,000, but now only 2,000 remain. Still it's a sight to behold, looking over the vast expanse of flatness to see the ornate pagoda tops jutting forth from the earth. On our second day after the hot air balloon we rented an e-bike and zipped around the small roads exploring clusters of pagodas. Although there were many tourists with it being peak season, you could easily find yourself in a cluster of temples by the side of the road with no one else about. It felt like we were discovering some of them for the first time in centuries, although they were so well maintained that this was clearly untrue. Bagan is an earthquake zone, unfortunately, and an earthquake in 2016 destroyed a number of the pagodas and severely damaged some of the star attractions. It's incredible that 1/5 of the originals still remain.
Inle Lake was our next stop in Myanmar, and we flew there as well. Upon arrival we were whisked away by car to a nearby, newly discovered (within the past couple of decades anyway) place called Kakku pagodas. Apparently it was buried in the jungle until it was rediscovered and then uncovered a few decades back. We picked up our Pa-oh guide as required by law and were on our way. The Pa-oh is a tribal group related to the Karen tribe of Thailand, and this area was definitely nearing the Thai border with Chiang Rai. The cluster of 2500 pagodas was incredibly beautiful and our Pa-oh guide was full of interesting facts about his people and the area.
Pictured above: Kakku Pagodas
Inle Lake was composed of a unique community of people who had built their lives on the water. Homes were built in the relatively shallow lake on bamboo stilts and the more traditional ones had walls of woven grass and also thatched roofs. We saw a temple, a monastery, and a market, all places of congregation for locals from the many villages that have made this lake a home. In order to grow produce, there was a huge area of floating gardens as well. We saw tomatoes, corn, beans, and peppers being tended as we chugged along in our longtail boat. In conjunction with the rice farming nearby and fishing the lake, this "floating" community is nearly self-sustaining. Definitely a special way to lead life.
Finally we ended our journey through Myanmar in Mandalay, where we met up with Annie, a former science colleague of mine here in Kyiv. She's now living in Bangkok and it's just a 1 hour hop to Mandalay for her. We spent our full day exploring some of the cultural gems of the Mandalay area, starting off with a district known for carving all sorts of Buddha statues. Some leave the faces un-sculpted so that the buyer can choose the Buddha expression on the face. Probably my favorite experience of the day included our early stop in Amarapura at Maha Ganayon Kyaung Monastery where we watched hundreds of monks, from a few years old to ancient in years, line up to receive their daily meal. After 11am monks (at least in Myanmar) are not supposed to eat solid food, but are allowed to drink anything they want (other than alcohol) or smoke. I imagine they probably take up smoking at a very young age. Another top visit of the day was the place which is known in Mandalay as the "largest book." What this means in reality is there are many tablets carved with Buddhist scriptures, each housed beneath a pagoda. The pagodas were beautiful to walk among as they were painted white and the locals were like little splashes of color among them.
Pictured above: Young monks lining up for their meals in Amarapura near Mandalay
Take-aways from our visit to Myanmar: Asia is such a unique and diverse continent and we miss being able to experience the tastes, culture, and visual stimuli that a walk through an Asian city brings. The people we met in Myanmar were incredibly friendly and helpful. I found myself sick with something flu-like on our very first day and was thus unable to take full advantage of getting out and about to explore, but hotel staff, the doctor at the small clinic we visited, and anyone we encountered on our journey was overly concerned about my health and well-being. This country is not only Buddhist although there is a religious majority. We saw several Christian churches, heard the call for prayer at a nearby mosque, and of course there is the unfortunate fighting (some even say genocide) taking place in the north of the country targeting the Rohingya Muslim group. Why did we travel to a country whose government is engaged in possible genocide at this very moment? First of all, we had already planned the details of the trip months in advance (in true "me" fashion), but also the everyday Burmese people that you come into contact with have nothing to do with the situation that they find their government a part of. Why risk hurting the general population and removing the cultural exchange that takes place when we meet people different than ourselves just because the government has issues?
Of course when people ask what was my favorite part of the trip? Definitely our day exploring Bagan on the e-bike. If you ever get the chance to go then you absolutely should!