Let me share with you what I saw in seven days in Myanmar, and some reflections.
The pictures are at
The highlights of the trip were
* Seeing a solid gold, 100-meters high pagoda. The diamond orb at the top has 4,351 diamonds.
* Seeing some of the 2217 pagodas, temples, and monasteries in Bagan, built in the 11th to the 13th century.
* Having my own veranda at the best hotel in Bagan, on the banks of the Ayeyarwady River, all for US$34.
* Watching the sunset from a boat on the mighty Ayeyarwady River.
Myanmar is an amazing and fascinating country. Juxtaposed are medieval piety, life essentially in the 1950's, with genuine and friendly people.
I flew from Bangkok to Yangon, the capital, on Bangkok Airways. I purchased my ticket from Teng Tuck Tours in Bangkok, US$135 round trip. Only the Chinese side of their web site, http://www.tengtucktour.com/index.html works.
>From the air, Myanmar appears to be nothing but trees, rice fields and lakes. There are no jet ways at the airport.
I had never been to Myanmar so I read a lot on Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree. Someone said he has a granddaughter (adopted) in Yangon who is a tour guide. After establishing I had not been an axe murderer, I got her phone number. She answered on my first try. S is 20, pretty and speaks English perfectly.
First we went to Shwedagon, all 20 tons of solid gold in a 100-meter high pagoda. (http://www.pbase.com/image/29980927) This towering pagoda dominates the skyline of Yangon. Shwedagon was first constructed about 2,500 years ago and believed to contain many important relics, including 8 hairs from the Buddha himself. All around the main pagoda on the 46 hectares (114 acres) of land surrounding the Pagoda are other pagodas, temples, and pavilions for worshippers. Near the top of the pagoda is The Umbrella which is made of 500 kilos of gold and 83,000 items of precious stones. The vane at the top is made of 419 kilos of gold.
The place was teeming with worshippers, monks and nuns. Monks wear red robes but nuns wear white robes with a white sash. (http://www.pbase.com/image/29980914) People worship on the day of the week they were born. There are wishing wells for all types of requests, from passing an examination to finding a spouse.
Admission is US$5 for foreigners. Shoes and socks are not allowed anywhere in the Pagoda grounds.
Next we went to Chauk Htat Gyi, the Six-Storey reclining Buddha. This Buddha is 68 meters long and 18 meters tall. The cover for this Buddha has been contributed by worshippers from around the world. Their names are inscribed on the sheltering frame. (http://www.pbase.com/image/29980897)
In the center of downtown Yangon is Sule Pagoda, also believed to be over 2,000 years old. It is in a traffic circle. At one corner is Yangon's City Hall. At another is a Mosque. At yet another corner is a Christian Church. At the fourth corner is Myanmar Travel and Tours.
It turns out S's father is the deputy general manager of Myanmar Travel and Tours (MTT), the official travel agency of the government. We went into the office to change money and I got a terrific exchange rate at MTT. Inside the building it was so dark it was difficult to see anything.
In Yangon there is a commuter train that circles the city and for foreigners the fare is US$1. S wrote down something for me and I went to the train station. It is just like train stations in Russia. There is no air-conditioning and there are many people milling around. I produced the slip of paper and somehow made it to the right office to buy the ticket. I brought along a copy of my passport. It took some time but finally I got my ticket. Train platforms are numbered but in Myanmar they do not use Arabic numerals. Fortunately at the train station platforms do have numbers. I was the only foreigner on this train. The cars look ancient. There are no lights in the cars, just stubs of exposed wiring. All the windows are wide open for ventilation. (http://www.pbase.com/image/29980952) The seats are wood benches along the windows. The train got going but it never traveled at more than 20 miles per hour (30 km/hour). The tracks are overgrown with grass. Along the way I saw people living in shacks as well as gated mansions. Sometimes I saw people sitting on the rails. As in Russia, vendors come through the cars. The most impressive sight was women vendors who have one-meter wide baskets on their heads. They were loaded with fruit. A man sat opposite me, taking his flip-flops off and putting his feet on the bench, a posture that would have brought a rebuke from my mother. A lady selling mangoes gave him one and he rip into it barehanded and devoured the mango. I found out why the lady gave him a mango. She needed help in getting the basket on her head. She squatted down and the man put the basket on her head and she sauntered down the steps onto the platform.
After about an hour of the three-hour ride I hopped off the train and caught a taxi back into the center. The 45-minute ride was 1,500 kyats (US$1.60) and included a stop to get air into one of the tires.
I stopped at Bogyoke Market. Formerly the Scott Market, it is hundreds of booths selling everything from jewelry to clothing to souvenirs. How can such a poor country support that many jewelers? Myanmar has one of the lowest per capita Gross Domestic Product of any country in Southeast Asia: US$1,700; Thailand US$7,000; Vietnam US$2,300; Cambodia US$1,600.
People in Myanmar say you have not been to Myanmar if you have not been to Bagan. Bagan was the first capital of a united Myanmar from 1044 C.E. until Kublai Khan ravaged Bagan in 1287. In this period the people learned to plant two crops of rice a year and everyone was prosperous, hence the large number of monuments.
I had plane tickets and reservation at the best hotel in Bagan but no idea of how to see the 2217 monuments in the 16-square mile (42 square km) Bagan Archaeological Zone. S's father made one call and had a guide waiting for me at Bagan Airport.
My guide in Bagan was Mr. Aung. I had reservation at the Thiripyitsaya Sakura Hotel. It turns out Mr. Aung was born at the Thiripyitsaya Sakura while his father worked there and he lived there for 15 years and still knows most of the staff. I was able to check in at 8 am and checked out at 4 pm. The Thiripyitsaya Sakura is the most prestigious hotel in Bagan, with 24 acres (9.7 hectares) of immaculately manicured grounds and right on the Ayeyarwaddy River (http://www.pbase.com/image/29980917).
One time my car pulled up at the reception building of the Sakura and one of the receptionists came out and handed me the key to my room.
The most impressive monument in Bagan is Ananda Temple (http://www.pbase.com/image/29980880). Built in 1090 C. E., it is a copy of a temple in India. In contrast to a pagoda which is a solid structure, a temple has corridors. Rectangular Ananda Temple has three corridors, the innermost for monks only, the second for royalty and the outer corridor for common worshippers. Along the corridors are thousands of alcoves, each with a Buddha statue.
Facing the four directions are four 40-ft (12 m) high Buddhas, each with a different gesture. Two are originals and two are replacements.
We visited a monastery adjacent to Ananda. Here are some well preserved murals, some depicting the naked wives of the artists.
This is the most spectacular pagoda in Bagan but unlike Shwedagon in Yangon, it is gold leaved and not solid gold. This picture (http://www.pbase.com/image/29980942) shows one of the problems with monuments in Myanmar. Insufficient care is given to preserving an ancient atmosphere. Electrical wires are everywhere. Shwezigon was completed about 1085 C. E. and contained important relics.
A cruise on the Ayeyarwady River
Late one afternoon we went on a cruise on the Ayeyarwady River. The 2170-km long Ayeyarwady is the life blood of Myanmar. The boats are like the long boats in Thailand. We boarded the boat at Bupaya Pagoda. At this point, the Ayeyarwady River is in two channels and about 3 miles (4.8 km) wide. We saw boats delivering bamboo from Upper Myanmar and boats transporting teak logs. We saw villagers swimming, bathing, fishing and washing clothes in the river (http://www.pbase.com/image/29980886). There was even a paddle wheeler brought from Scotland, now a floating restaurant. We went as far as Nyaung Oo where we could see Shwezigon Pagoda.
The Market at Nyaung Oo
One of the highlights of my time in Bagan was the visit to the market in Nyaung Oo. The government cleared residents out of Old Bagan and now the largest settlement is in Nyaung Oo. This sprawling market has booths selling everything, from household goods to food. I bought a couple of the woven shoulder bags. There is a tremendous amount of fresh produce. There is also the tree trunks for making thanka, the white powder most women wear on their faces. It is a natural suntan lotion. There is no refrigeration and flies are on everything. I especially like this picture of an ancient woman smoking a cheroot (http://www.pbase.com/image/29980915).
>From Mingalarzedi Pagoda
The series of pictures in my album from Mingalarzedi Pagoda illustrates how densely Bagan is populated with monuments (http://www.pbase.com/image/29980912). I also have a picture taken just before I landed in Bagan that shows the numerous monuments.
The Bagan Archaeological Museum
Built in 1997, this is a huge museum. The main hall is most impressive. The columns and the ceiling are covered with gold-leaved lacquer. This is as impressive as the palaces of Europe with their murals. There is a large mural depicting the numerous monuments in Bagan. There are 16 statues in the main hall. These are very high quality sandstone statues of Buddha and various kings in the Bagan dynasties. There are several rooms showing Buddhist art, with Buddhas made of metal alloys, lacquer, and wood; arts and crafts of the region; paintings of the monuments; and architectural models of the monuments. These are primarily teaching tools, not art objects.
Bagan is the center for lacquer manufacture. All the raw materials are brought in from other parts of Myanmar but the craftsmen are here. Lacquer is made of a frame and layers of lacquer juice. High quality lacquer consists of a frame of bamboo and horsehair. Successive layers of lacquer juice are put on then dried. The highest quality pieces have 10 to 14 layers and are flexible. Lacquer workshops have extensive cellars where the pieces in process are dried in the dark. Lacquer bought in the temples consists of one layer on cardboard.
The following are disjointed observations:
** Exchange rates and cost:
At Yangon Airport US$1 = 450 kyats At Grand Plaza Parkroyal Hotel US$1 = 740 kyats Around Yangon US$1 = 820 kyats At Myanmar Travel and Tours I got US$1 = 910 kyats
Fee for guides US$20/day Fee for car and driver in Bagan US$20/day Taxi ride in Yangon ~1000 kyats National Museum, Yangon US$5 Bagan Archaeological Museum US$3
Food in Myanmar is a disappointment. Mostly curries are offered but the curries lack the punch of curries in Thailand.
I had a Southeast Asian buffet dinner at the Grand Plaza Parkroyal Hotel and it was fine at US$12 (with unlimited de Bortoli wine). A group of six pretty Japanese women in kimonos sat next to me. The next night I went to a food court next door and had pad Thai for US$1.20 and it was good and hot. The breakfast at the Grand Plaza is fabulous with cooked-to-order omelet's, Chinese, Japanese, Western and Myanmar selections. The national dish is mounhinga which I tried at breakfast one day. It consists of a soup base, rice noodles like those from Yunnan and bits of fried fritters like we eat in Guangzhou.
The food at the Thiripyitsaya Sakura Hotel was awful.
I got my visa online at http://www.visa.gov.mm I printed out the receipt and upon arrival in Yangon paid US$30 and got a visa. Like in Cambodia, it takes about six people to work on the process.
In all Buddhist pagodas and temples, shoes and socks are not allowed. In the major pagodas like Shwezagon and Ananda, the tiles are okay but in the remote temples where it is stone or pebbles it was hell on my tender soles.
English is widely spoken in Myanmar, more widely than in Thailand. All signs are in Myanmar and English and about 30% of them are also in Chinese. I got nowhere speaking Chinese. In the Chinatown section of Yangon I tried about 10 people before I found a Mandarin speaker.
Women in Myanmar are plainly dressed, mostly in longyi. I never saw any revealing or tight clothing. They wear little makeup except for thanka. Their natural beauty shows through. I did not see stunningly beautiful women like I did every minute I was in Russia and Scandinavia.
** Cars and Driving
Cars drive on the right side of the road but most cars have the steering column on the right also. The taxis I rode in were all old and falling apart or have fallen apart.
** Air Transport
I flew Air Mandalay to Bagan from Yangon. It was a propeller plane but pressurized. A hot meal is served in the 75 minute flight.
The domestic arrival in Yangon was a real sight. The passengers arrive and go to a waiting room. We waited 45 minutes for our luggage. When the bags showed up, they were manually hauled into the waiting room and there was mass confusion as people went for their bags. There were no conveyor belts.
And now for some intellectual musings:
1. Myanmar is full of what I call medieval piety. Pagodas, temples and monasteries are everywhere. Pagodas are covered with gold leaves. One has to ask why. After all, this is a poor country. There are two motivations as I see it. Buddhism is a religion of works. The more good deeds you perform in this life, you will get a better re-incarnation in your next life. So piety is the main reason for donating to pagodas and temples. Cash boxes are everywhere for the convenience of the faithful. I think the second reason for donation is to demonstrate your wealth.
2. Angkor is another major league temple collection in Southeast Asia and it is worth comparing it with Bagan.
* The temples at Angkor were constructed from 879 C. E. to the end of the 12th century C. E. The monuments in Bagan were constructed from 1044 to 1287 C. E. They overlap in time.
* While all the monuments in Bagan are Buddhist, Angkor is a mix of Buddhist and Hindu temples. Bagan is much closer to India so why is there no Hindu influence?
* Angkor is constructed of huge stones while the monuments in Bagan are mainly bricks. It is a mystery how the stones were moved to Angkor.
* The civilization at Angkor had no written language. The only written record was reports by a visiting Chinese official. At Bagan there were extensive written records. The Bagan dynasty was finished by Chinese conquerors.
* Today at Angkor one finds scant evidence of active worship while in Bagan the pagodas and temples are actively used.
Bill Southern California