(Fingers crossed that the photos show up; I had some technical issues this time around.)
To mark the halfway point of our Fulbright stay, we decided to make the short trip to neighboring Myanmar (formally known as Burma) – a country that opened its doors to tourists a little less than 10 years ago. Although Myanmar is in the news for actions that we obviously do not condone, we believe that tourism is one way to keep the country from becoming isolated and forgotten by the rest of the world. We also made a point of supporting the local Burmese restaurants and businesses throughout our trip. It was a wonderful and unique journey into parts of Myanmar that don’t make the daily news, and we would definitely return if given the chance.
Because the country was a big unknown to Bill and me, we let someone else make the arrangements. We also opted for a guide to accompany us and ensure we visited as many points of interest as possible without overdoing it. A lovely young Burmese woman named Snow (her grandmother thought it was snowing on the very misty morning that she was born!) provided history, geography, and language lessons throughout our trip. We were able to learn more about Myanmar and its people with her help than we would have on our own.
Snow and Mawmaw (our driver) collected us at the Mandalay airport, stopped by our hotel for a quick check in, and then headed to the Mya Nan San Kyaw Royal Palace. The original palace, built in 1857, was home to the last Burmese king. Destroyed in WWII, the palace buildings (including audience halls, throne halls, royal quarters, and a monastery) were rebuilt in the 1990s, but concrete rather than the original teak was used in construction. Just like the palaces we saw in South Korea, this one was quite large, surrounded on all four sides by mile-long walls as well as a 210-foot wide moat. We enjoyed walking through the buildings and looking at some of the old relics, and Bill climbed the watch tower to get a good view of Mandalay.
We were tickled when some of the locals wanted to pose with us for pictures. Entire families would hand their cameras to Snow so they could record a moment with a couple of strange-looking Westerners. These photo ops occurred throughout our trip, but always surprised me when they happened. I guess the Burmese were just as captivated by and curious about our looks as we were with theirs!
Then we drove to the place where the king had moved the palace monastery, his father’s living quarters, saving it from destruction. Shwenandaw Monastery is the single remaining major building from the original palace. The incredibly ornate teak structure has definitely seen better days, but the workmanship is still quite obvious. About 1800 carved figures of varying sizes can be found in and around the building (a fact that I simply accepted given the limited time we had for counting). The entire building was once covered with gold leaf or paint, inside and out, which would have highlighted the artistic architectural details. Can you even imagine how glorious that must have been?
Our next stop was the Kuthodaw Pagoda, also known as the world’s largest book because it is surrounded by 729 marble slabs, each in its own shrine, inscribed with Buddhist teachings. The white shrines are lined up row after row after row, making a pretty impressive sight, as if the pagoda alone doesn’t dazzle enough.
Set off by the white background, the pink-robed nuns really stood out!
Bill bought a flat bell of some sort (seriously?!) from a friendly local who then offered to “paint” our cheeks with thanaka, a paste made from the bark of a thanaka tree. Some women were grinding the bark on wet sandstone and then applying the paste to their faces. Burmese men and women use it as sunscreen as well as a moisturizer. It really did feel nice and cool on my skin.
We headed for the hills to catch the sunset at Su Taung Pyae Pagoda. There are stairs leading up to the top of Mandalay Hill, but I’m pretty sure we would have missed the sunset (and possibly the sunrise) if we had taken that route. I was happy to be in the van! What a spectacular pagoda at any time of day. Lots of colorful mosaics and glass mirrors, lending itself to being a very reflective place in more ways than one. Lovely, serene-looking Buddha statues overlooked panoramic views of the city and beyond. A nice ending to Day 1…
But wait, there’s still a Myanmar BBQ with entertainment back at the hotel! I will always remember the green tea leaf salad that I was introduced to that evening, the first of many over the next few days. It was addictive!
Myanmar is known for its puppetry, which dates back to the 15th century. Puppet performances were usually for the royal family, but eventually became popular for everyone. We saw three puppet shows in five days, always during dinner. The folks working the 12 to 16 strings per puppet were quite impressive. The first show had a little twist though. At one point, two puppeteers appeared, one using strings to control the movements of a puppet and the other pretending to use strings to ‘control’ a real person. It was hard to decide which “puppet” performed the best!
Believe it or not, on our first true morning of vacation, we received a wake-up call at 3:30! We had to get to the Mahamuni Buddha Temple by 4:30 to witness the face washing and teeth (or lip) brushing of the Buddha. It is believed that Buddha breathed his spirit into the image and therefore it is ‘alive’ and needs the daily caretaking. A monk performs the ritual by spraying the face with water, drying it with a cloth, rubbing it with the aforementioned thanaka paste, wiping it clean, and then brushing the teeth. The whole process takes about an hour and is watched by a lot of worshippers who offer flowers and food to Buddha and also chant during the cleaning. The men are allowed to sit in a small enclosure closer to the Buddha and can even add gold leaf to the body after the ritual. It was quite a special ordeal and definitely worth the early rise and shine.
After a fortifying breakfast, we headed north through town on our way to Bagan. At the outskirts of Mandalay, I noticed beautiful longyis (the skirts that the Burmese women wear) hanging outside of the shops. I asked Snow if we could pull over to take pictures. Instead, she had Mawmaw back up and go down a side street to a weaving warehouse! She explained that we were in an area well known for its longyi patterns. We were able to watch several women working the looms (often in pairs), others spinning the fibers onto spools, and a man dying the silk. And of course there was a shop next to the warehouse – how convenient!
After a quick shopping spree (who could resist?), we continued on our way. We realized that there were no road markings and Mawmaw did not like to be behind anyone. Having been stuck in so many Bangkok traffic jams, we welcomed the wide open road. Mawmaw did slow down for a couple of overloaded 3-wheeled vehicles, but he still made good time to Bagan.
We checked into the Amazing Bagan Resort (gotta love it!) and had a nice rest, and a swim for Bill, before joining Snow for dinner at a local puppet/restaurant. Then it was time for bed because Bill had signed up for a hot air balloon ride, meaning he had to get up at 4:30 to meet the balloon folks at 5:00 (another early morning wake-up call…on vacation!). And what a ride it was!! Each balloon carried 12 people plus the pilot. There were over 25 total balloons, all lifting off from different areas and then landing on the bank of the Irrawaddy River. He took some great photos of pagodas, rice fields, pagodas, other balloons, and, oh yeah, more pagodas! More than 10,000 temples and pagodas were built in this area from the 11th to 13th centuries, and 2000 or so remain.
Although we did not visit all of them, we managed to take in some special ones. The Schwezigon Pagoda is a prototype of Burmese pagodas. Lucky for us, arrival at the pagoda coincided with a Shinbyu, a special ceremony in which several young boys were on their way to become novice monks by entering a monastery for at least a week. Decked out in silk outfits, jewelry, and fancy facial makeup, the boys were either on horseback or riding in ox-pulled carts. Each had an adult holding a parasol over their heads as they made their way down the street. Family members and friends, also well-dressed, followed along carrying food, flowers, and other offerings. The ‘parade,’ which stretched out at least half a mile, was headed to a monastery where the boys’ heads would be shaved and their dazzling clothes would be exchanged for the customary robes of monks. Most likely, there would also be a big feast to celebrate this special occasion. What an unexpected treat!
While we waited for the onlookers to disperse, Bill got it in his head that he wanted a tattoo on his arm. Snow accommodated him (as she did the whole trip) by finding an artist on the outskirts of the pagoda. I posed with some young ladies with tattoos of their own, while Billy got his wish!
Finally, we made our way into the beautiful gold-leaf-gilded pagoda, which was almost too bright to look at directly under the brilliant sun. We joined several barefooted tourists who were circling the pagoda rather quickly due to the hot pavement. Buddha’s collar bone and his tooth are thought to be enshrined in this pagoda, perhaps the rationale for the huge lion-shaped guardians at the entrance. Because of earthquakes and other natural disasters, the spire and dome have been renovated from time to time but the bottom level terraces are mostly original. I am always in awe looking at these immense structures and wondering how in the world they were ever built, this one in particular in just two years’ time.
After a quick trip to Bu Paya, a gourd-shaped pagoda that overlooks the Irrawaddy River, we stopped for a myo-myo lunch. Several small dishes were put on the table, we ate the ones we wanted, and then the owner somehow determined the cost. It was the perfect way to sample lots of different foods. (Unfortunately, I have no idea what happens to the untouched dishes.) The restaurant was noisy, chaotic, and a heck of a lot of fun!
Then, after buying our very own Burmese skirts, a longyi for me and a paseo for Bill (wish I had a video of him learning to wrap it!), we headed to the beautiful Ananda Temple that houses 4 huge standing Buddhas. As we approached one of the statues, its smile seemed to get bigger and bigger. It was the coolest thing! We kept backing up and walking toward it again and again because it made us smile as well. I wish that experience could have been captured on camera, but I will never forget it. There were also hundreds of smaller Buddha images in alcoves throughout the temple. On its 900th anniversary in 1990, the temple spires were gilded for the celebration. I hope I look that good in 900 years!!
Snow then directed Mawmaw to a particular nondescript pagoda where a lone man looked like he was ready to hop on his motorcycle and ride away. Snow asked him if the sand painting artist still worked there. The man smiled and told her that he was the artist! He had just packed up his paintings but was more than willing to unpack for us. Of course, after that, we had to make a purchase! And for good luck, he took our money and used it to slap the paintings that we didn’t buy. Then he rolled them back up and packed them onto his motorcycle. Lucky timing again for us!
Our Bagan adventure ended with an explanation of the handmade lacquerware process, from bamboo to beautiful wares, at a four-generation family business. Our photos were limited to the workshop, so you’ll have to believe me when I tell you that the store was more like an art gallery, with products ranging from bangles to large furniture pieces.
We actually were able to sleep in until 7:30 the next morning before catching a flight to Heho Airport near Inle Lake. We were sad to say good-bye to Bagan and to Mawmaw.
Snow arranged for a longboat driver to spend the next two days with us. No car was needed because everything we wanted to see and do was accessed by the water. Inle Lake is 14 miles long, 7 miles wide, and home to the Shan people. Many of them live in stilt houses right on the water and make their living by fishing and farming.
Young boys use fishing cages more to perform for the tourists than to catch fish, but serious fishermen are known for their skillful leg rowing as they stand on the end of their boats. Basically, they put the top of an oar under their armpit and wrap their ankle around the bottom of the oar, allowing them to paddle while using both hands to toss their nets. They say it’s as easy as walking because they start learning at such a young age. I’m not so sure about that!
As for the floating plantations, the farmers collect sea grass and water hyacinths from the lake to create an island, which they stake into the bottom of the lake with bamboo poles. Then they put more sea grass and lake silt on top before planting seeds. Tomatoes are their biggest crop and they grow practically year round; we also saw flowers, cucumbers, eggplants, and gourds. A very unique form of hydroponics…
We took a 5-mile boat ride down beautiful canals to Indein Village. We passed by lots of boats, bathers, and other Burmese village folks along the way. A half mile semi-hike from the river takes you to the Shwe Inn Thein ancient pagodas – hundreds of them in various shapes, sizes, and stages of preservation. These people really wanted to make Buddha happy! We wandered through the courtyard for awhile before making our way back to the river via a covered walkway lined with vendors selling all sorts of traditional Shan souvenirs.
We also toured a teak monastery in the middle of the lake and another huge pagoda that houses five 800-year-old Buddha images that were distorted due to the excessive amount of gold leaf that had been stuck on them (by men only)! Still, it is the most special pagoda in the area; every year in October/November, an 18-day festival is held here and the Buddha images are taken by a royal barge in the shape of a bird for an overnight stay at 14 local villages. The immense barge is towed by long boats powered by, you guessed it, 100 leg rowers. That event is now on my bucket list!
Although we toured around lots of pagodas during our trip, we also did our part to support the local craft community by docking at a silversmith shop, a cheroot-making shop, and a lotus flower weaving shop! Unique silver jewelry depicting the traditional Shan headgear as well as gongs, fish, and fish cages, were of particular interest! The cigar rolling technique was fun to watch, but the different scents (banana, pineapple, rum) along with the tobacco leaf were too strong for me.
Observing the unique technique of pulling fine threads of fiber from the lotus stem was mind boggling! The fibers are rolled together to form a strong enough thread to be spun and then woven on a loom (which is made out of bamboo poles, I might add). It takes about 4000 stems from a particular lotus flower to make a small scarf!! Who in the world ever came up with this labor-intensive process? I do hope the younger generation continues this fascinating weaving tradition.
One of our other stops was at a local home where they were making delicious dried rice and sesame snacks. They produced some massive crackers by cooking the dough on top of an outdoor stove that was fueled with rice hulls in order to regulate the temperature. Then the “pancakes” were flipped onto bamboo racks to be dried in the sun. Dip them in a bit of hot pepper sauce and you’re good to go!
As the sun set on our last day at Inle Lake, we couldn’t help but smile at all the wonderful adventures we had experienced in such a short time. It felt as if we had stepped back in time to a very simple, but sustainable lifestyle in a truly peaceful area of Myanmar.