Land of the Pagodas
Updated: Apr 23
In the fall we travelled to Myanmar (Burma). It sits at the left edge of Indochina, wedged in between the much larger countries of India and China and shares its border with three smaller neighbors as well.
It’s a place with a troubled past; it has only recently come out of fifty years of isolation and military dictatorship. And it’s a place with a complicated present; the UN’s International Court of Justice recently censured Myanmar for its treatment of the Rohingya ethnic minority. Is it ethical to travel to such a place? Knowledgeable people argue that engagement of outsiders with the people of Myanmar can be a force for good. Exposure to outside ideas can positively influence local viewpoints over time, and travelers’ expenditures help locals’ livelihoods. And, importantly, Myanmar’s people are not their government.
A thoughtful collection of essays on ethical travel considerations was published by the New York Times in 2019, (www.nytimes.com/2019/05/16/t-magazine/ethical-travel-reporting.html).
We found the people of Myanmar to be open and welcoming. We spent most of our time, and kyat (dollars), with individuals and small businesses. We were fortunate to have an accomplished Burmese photographer as our guide, who’s led world-class photographers throughout his country for decades. And we enjoyed spending time in a beautiful place that is off the beaten track.
Yangon is the commercial capital – a big modernizing city that retains a good bit of its cultural heritage. Interspersed between skyscrapers and busy thoroughfares are ancient temples and Buddha statues, humble street markets, and monasteries / nunneries helping to care for and educate those less well off. The city is close to the sea on a tributary of the storied Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River. We found the quarter along the river to be a great place to start exploring.
A bit of color in the sky is reflected on the water at Yangon’s Dal river crossing
We were up before dawn one morning to wander through Yangon's Thiri Mingalar fish market, a wonderful mix of sights, sounds, smells (!) and unceasing activity: boats pulling in and out of the river docks, fresh-caught seafood being cleaned, bought and sold, and large blocks of ice being crushed and distributed to keep the perishables palatable. You had to be careful where you put your feet though, the ground was slippery with a breathtaking mixture of fish guts and ice water.
Fishmonger looking to make a sale, or two
We saw something of Yangon’s cultural heritage as well, including a requisite visit to the prominent Shwedagon Pagoda. It is a beautiful, massive Buddhist stupa that towers over the city. According to legend it was built more than two thousand years ago and is said to contain eight hairs of Gautama Buddha – the founder of Buddhism. Befitting that pedigree the stupa is completely plated top to bottom in gold leaf. That’s an auriferous mountain, requiring some 22,000 bars of solid gold to do the job! It is Myanmar’s Fort Knox, except that the gold is out in the open rather than hidden away in a vault. The photo below showing only a portion of the pagoda gives an idea of its tremendous scale.
Monks descending Shwedagon Pagoda
Buddhism is the majority religion of Myanmar and, of Buddhist countries, it is perhaps the most religious in the world. It has more monks per capita than any other and many worshippers ‘tithe’ a quarter of their income. That’s a lot, and it helps explain how the country came to be known as the Land of the Pagodas. We saw gilded pagoda spires, giant Buddha statues and historic pilgrimage sites everywhere we went.
From Yangon we traveled to Bagan. It’s on a broad plain of the Ayeyarwady River where some 2,200 ancient Buddhist temples are scattered about cheek by jowl. At least twice that number were built between the 9th and 13th centuries but over time the natural meandering of the river, earthquakes, and neglect has taken half of them away.
Bagan is quiet and peaceful – a nice change from the hurly-burly of Yangon and a wonderful place to wander. The most humble, nondescript site can offer surprises of great beauty. A favorite of mine was a small one-room temple with a statue of Buddha meditating. There was a hidden opening that let in indirect sunlight, which caused the whole room to glow in the afternoons.
Buddha meditating in Earth Witness mudra
I love the story behind the statue’s mudra (its posture and hand gestures). Called Earth Witness mudra, Buddha sits in meditation with his left palm open in his lap and his right hand touching the ground. Legend has it that a demonic king was disputing Buddha’s enlightenment, calling forth many false witnesses to testify against him. The king challenged Buddha to rebut the claims. Was there anyone who would testify otherwise? Buddha sat calmly in silent meditation, then reached out his right hand to touch the ground and the earth itself roared “I BEAR YOU WITNESS!”
There’s a lesson in there somewhere, I’m sure of it.
Early morning sun lights up the plain of Bagan
From Bagan we traveled on to Mandalay, which also sits on a bank of the Ayeyarwady River. The city was all but destroyed during World War II. Its charm now – and there is plenty – is about the river and the people living alongside it. And Buddhist sites just far enough outside the city to have survived the war.
Upriver a short boat ride away from the city are the Mingun Stupa and Hsinbyume Pagoda. The stupa is massive. Construction was begun in the 1700s to build the largest in the world but it was subsequently left unfinished to avert an inauspicious prophecy. Only one third complete, it was then damaged in the 1800s by an earthquake and is said to be the largest pile of bricks in the world. That characterization is unfair. Unfinished and severely cracked, it remains an imposing and impressive structure.
Novice monk, Mingun Stupa
Nearby is the Hsinbyume Pagoda which offers beauty on a smaller and more delicate scale. Its design is unlike any I’ve seen before. Entirely white, it has seven concentric terraces that rise up to the central tower of the pagoda representing the seven mountain ranges that rise up to meet Mount Meru, the mythical mountain at the center of the Buddhist cosmos.
Local boys liked to hop along the top of the terraces. I thought they were more evocative of waves being jumped rather than mountain peaks.
Jumping the ‘waves’ of Hsinbyume Pagoda
With our hunger for historic cultural sites sated for the moment, we visited a fishing village on the outskirts of Mandalay. The homes were built on stilts to survive the annual monsoon flooding of the Ayeyarwady. Kids bathing and playing in the river, fishermen casting nets from longboats in the warm light of the setting sun – it all made for a beautiful, peaceful setting. We were there for hours.
Net-fishing on the Ayeyarwady, under the setting sun
From Mandalay we traveled to Hpa-An, not far from Myanmar’s eastern border with Thailand. It’s an area of lush rice paddies pierced here and there by near-vertical mountains. (The juxtaposition of horizontal to vertical, with virtually no topography in between those extremes, is striking.) The mountains host many natural caves, which have drawn Buddhist pilgrims to them for centuries.
Nun descending, Yathae Pyan Cave
Inside the caves are a diverse assortment of stupas and statues, many covered in gold leaf – beautiful! We visited several of these sacred pilgrimage sites.
Further north along the Thai border is the city of Loikaw. From there, traveling up into Myanmar’s eastern highlands required registration with local authorities due to a history of civil unrest in the area. We visited remote villages deep into the mountains where people largely retain their old ways of life. We met with several in their homes where we traded stories about each other’s families, broke bread, had our fortunes told, tried the local hooch (warm, fermented-millet wine), and made more than a few photographs. It was good. It’s a fascinating, less-traveled area.
Kayan woman at cook fire, Pan Pet village in the remote highlands of eastern Myanmar
From Loikaw we returned to where we started, to Yangon, for a final bit of walkabout before leaving the country. We thoroughly enjoyed our stay in Myanmar and intend to return.
For those considering travel to Myanmar, we highly recommend doing so with Win Kyaw Zan at https://asiaphototravel.com.
Nyaung U village market, Bagan