Because of its current political problems, Myanmar is not a widely popular tourist destination. Yet those who have braved the negative publicity often consider it as one of Asia's hidden gems. As we ourselves
discovered, it was so easy to get caught up in the beauty of this country: its golden temples, its ancient cities, and the warm smiles of its people.
Yangon. As we drove through the wide boulevards, past the old colonial architecture of Yangon, we felt as if we had stepped back in time. Occasionally, a golden spire would jut above the trees, a reminder that Yangon was home to hundreds of Buddhist temples, including the spectacular Shwedagon Paya.
The legend surrounding Shwedagon Paya dates it to the 6th Century BC, when two Burmese brothers journeyed to India in search of his enlightened teaching. They brought back eight of the Buddha's hairs, upon which
the temple is supposedly built.
It is today, still the most sacred of Buddhist sites in Myanmar. The present structure, after much enlarging and rebuilding over the centuries, consists of a massive stupa that rises 100 meters and topped by a diamond-encrusted orb, surrounded by several smaller zedis, shrines and pavilions. Almost every corner of the complex is decorated
with intricate carvings painted in gold and exuberant reds, blues, and yellows.
This magical temple must be visited for its unique atmosphere as well, at once serene yet bustling with activity. There is an almost continuous stream of devotees circling the base of the stupa.
Monks in their deep red robes sit in quiet contemplation. The smell of burning incense gently wafts through the breeze. Men and women, clutching beads, kneel in prayer on the white marbled floor. Indeed, Shwedagon is not just a sight but also an experience.
Mandalay. The overnight train ride from Yangon to Mandalay is not for the faint-hearted; it's crowded, bumpy, extremely humid in the evening, and chilly in the early morning. But the sight of the Myanmar countryside waking up to the rosy, misty light of dawn did make up for our sleepless night.
Immortalized by British writers in the 1800s, Mandalay was the last ancient capital before the arrival of the colonizers. Today, it remains an important cultural and religious center,
with several important monasteries and temples. The city is named after Mandalay Hill which rises 230 meters above the plain and offers visitors a good view of the surrounding countryside.
Perhaps our most remarkable experience in Mandalay was the early-morning face-washing ceremony at Mahamyamuni Paya. The object of this daily ritual was the revered Mahamyamuni image, brought to Mandalay in 1784, following King Bodawpaya's invasion of Rakhine. Despite the ungodly hour, the temple was crowded.
We sat amidst the devotees and their offering bowls filled with fruits and flowers, watching the monks lovingly cleanse the sacred image. We were touched by the kindness of the women who even invited us to participate in the offering rituals. After the ceremony, the men applied gold leaf on the image's hands and feet, while the women sprinkled the ceremonial water
on their clothes and hair, just like perfume.
Mandalay was also a good base from which to explore the ancient royal cities of Ava, Amarapura, Sagaing and Mingun. Hiring a car for the day enabled us to see several interesting
temples and graceful wooden monasteries. To see Mingun Paya however, we had to take an early-morning boat ride across the Ayeyarwady river, a wonderful experience in itself. The unchanging character of river life, made even more serene by the morning mist, brought home the timeless quality of Mingun, the ruins of what would have been the
largest stupa in the world.
Pagan. Without a doubt, the highlight of any trip to Myanmar is definitely the ancient capital of Pagan. Arriving at sunset, we were greeted by the beautiful reddish glow of the temples lining the main highway. But it was only after we had climbed up one to get a better view, that we realized how the temple ruins extended as far as the eye could see.
Built from the 11th-13th centuries, the temples of Bagan numbered over 13,000 during its heyday. Today, only about 4,000 remain as a testament to the religious fervor of the ancient Burmese kings. While transport options in
Pagan were numerous, the most romantic way to see the temples was on a horse-drawn cart. Dust rising in the wake of turning wheels added to the atmosphere of being in an ancient land. And as the
massive Dhammayangi, and the graceful gilded spires of Sulamani and Thatbyinnyu came into sight, we could not help but wonder what spirit inspired their builders to create such amazing structures.
A good horse-cart driver can offer some local insight that guidebooks often do not cover. For instance, we learned that the reason the small temples
look suspiciously like the major ones is because these were models for evaluating design and structure. Our driver was also invaluable in helping us find a shop selling Burmese lacquerware at reasonable prices (only later did we find out that he was trying to get into the good graces of the proprietor and his pretty daughter) and a rarely-visited
temple which offered an excellent view of the sun setting over the plain.
As we watched our last sunset over Pagan, we realized just how right Kipling was in saying there was no land like Myanmar, for we too had fallen under its spell.