Suitcase and World: Land of the Golden Pagodas. Myanmar.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Land of the Golden Pagodas. Myanmar.

Buddhist monks in queue for the meal at the monastery Kha Khat Wain Kyaung in Bago.
(Photo by Hans A. Rosbach.  Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)
I've wanted to travel to Myanmar, nicknamed *Land of the Golden Pagodas*, for more than 30 years.  It was around 1985  that I met the first person I ever knew from Burma - she was my colleague at the IMF and we stayed in good touch until she retired.  We used to have shared a lot of good times and good laughs.  As well, her husband who is also from the same homeland was the architect on my kitchen extension and renovation project.  Over the years, M introduced to her Burmese friends.

I'm sad to say that since my friend retired a few years back, we have not been in contact with each other but there's no reason really no good reason for this since she and her family live not so far from me.  As I write these words, I realize that I should make the effort to reach out to them and so I will.

Back to Myanmar.  When I first met my friend - I'll shall just refer to her as *M*, we all referred to her homeland as Burma and to her as Burmese.  I knew very little about the country then and I barely know more about it now.  It was and still seems to me to be such a foreign and remote land.

I met M in 1985. Back then, Burma was already in a state of economic and political turmoil and people were growing increasing frustrated with the government.  It all boiled over in August 1988.  Triggered by brutal police repression of student led protests, causing the death of over a hundred students and civilians, widespread protests and demonstrations broke out on 8 August throughout the country.  On that same day, the armed forces, under the nominal command of General Saw Maung staged a coup on 8 August to restore order.  During the 8888 Uprising, that one days as it come to be known, the military killed thousands. Violence, chaos ensued and civil administration had ceased to exist; anarchy reigned.  The military swept aside the Constitution of 1974 in favor of martial law under the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) with Saw Maung as chairman and prime minister.

The military government announced a change of name for the country in English from Burma to Myanmar in 1989 and began a program of economic reforms which continue to today.  Unlike Bhutan, I don't think we can yet measure Myanmar on a happiness scale but hopefully, as time and generations move on, things will continue to improve for the people and for the country.

For decades, I have held off on going to Myanmar mainly because I didn't feel it was a safe place to go.  That changed a few years back and I put Myanmar on my list of places to go - it was just a matter of fitting it into the travel schedule.  However, that does not mean there are not safety concerns that tourists need to be mindful of.  In fact, there are words of caution on the US State Department website and the
 official tourism site, for Myanmar, has a page that lists the places where tourists are permitted to enter.  Of course, all the main tourist destinations are okay.  Plenty of tourists travel to Myanmar each year but I don't think the country is overrun with them - I hope we can still find some bits and pieces of *authentic* Myanmar.

My plan is to coincide the trip to Myanmar with a trip to celebrate Chinese New Year some place in Southeast Asia - most likely Singapore.  The itinerary includes a few days to spend a few days in Bangkok and a short side trip to Siem Reap to visit Angkor Wat.

Accompanying me will be a few of my past travel mates.  At the moment, I'm awaiting responses back and so far, I have two confirmed, one tentative and two I've not yet received a reply back from.  They have until October to say yay or nay because after that, mapping out the detailed itinerary will begin.  I have this trip and the one to the Caucasus happening back to back so I will be planning both trips at the same time - I always a challenge planning multiple trips at once but I've done this so many times before, I'm not scared or worried about the monumental task at hand!

Myanmar is a deeply Buddhist nation so it does not come as a surprise that we'll be visiting a lot of Buddhist sites.  Here are some of the places I hope we get to go to - I'm going to try my best to fit them into the itinerary!

Swhedagon Paya
Photo by © Michael Gunther.
Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Commons)
Shwedagon Pagoda.

I don't know what all there is to see in Yangon but one place that is on the must-see list is Shwedagon Pagoda.

According to legend, this stupa was originally built during the lifetime of the Buddha (563-483 BC) to enshrine eight hairs which he had donated to the Burmese.

Starting in the 14th century, royal patrons would intermittently repair and improve the stupa, raising its height and offering multiples of their own weight in gold for gilding it.

By the end of the 15th century, the stupa had reached almost 300 feet, or about 90% of its present height. However, it was subsequently repaired due to earthquake damage.

Its present shape dates to 1769, the year of the last such major repair. Since then the stupa has undergone several minor repairs, and its surface decoration and gilding is renewed every year.

The stupa is solid all the way through, and is constructed of bricks underneath its golden exterior.  In fact, some 53 metric tons of gold leaf were used to decorate the lower parts of the stupa while the upper stem and hti are gold-plated. Above the hti is a flagpole-and-orb which is studded with jewels and diamonds, ending with one 76-carat diamond at the very top.  Wow!

Kyakito Pagoda akaThe Golden Rock at Shwe Pye Daw
Photo by © Ralf-André Lettau
Licensed under under Attribution via Commons

Kyaiktiyo Pagoda. Continuing on the golden thread is another Buddhist site that I hope we get to visit - Kyaiktiyo Pagoda,  a well-known Buddhist pilgrimage site in Mon State, Burma.  Pronounced like  *Chai-tea-O*, this is one very unusual rock pagoda shown in the image that opens up the blog post.  Kyaiktiyo, also known as Golden Rock is a small pagoda - 7.3 meters (24 ft) built on the top of a granite boulder covered with gold leaves pasted on by devotees.  According to legend, Kyaiktiyo is precariously perched on a strand of the Buddha's hair - it looks like it's going to fall down at any moment!

Tuang Kalat.
Taung Kalat, view from the summit of Mount Popa. @Brian Snelson, / CC BY 2.0

Very, very often, all it takes for me to want to go someplace is to see an image of it.  The monastery at Tuang Kalat is just such a case.  Look at it.  Isn't that amazing?  It reminds me very much of the Christian monasteries at Meteora in Greece. 

Tuang Kalat is Buddhist monastery and pilgrimage site.  The complex is situated at the summit of a free standing boulder of the same name.  It takes 777 steps to ascend to the top.  My cursed weak lungs will not enjoy the walk up but as always, I take it one baby step at a time and I will make it up to the top.  From the top of Tuang Kalat, I hope we get to visit the monastery and of course, take in a magnificent view of the surroundings which is arid landscape - quit atypical for Myanmar which is more known for lush forests and rivers.

(Photo from Arcadia Travels)
Bagan formerly Pagan) is an ancient city located in the Mandalay Region.  From the 9th to 13th centuries, the city was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan, the first kingdom to unify the regions that would later constitute modern Myanmar. During the kingdom's height between the 11th and 13th centuries, over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were constructed in the Bagan plains alone, of which the remains of over 2200 temples and pagodas still survive to the present day.   It's a popular to fly over the landscape, in a hot air balloon, to see the temples and pagodas from above.   I've been in a hot air balloon before, flying over fairy chimney dotted landscape of Cappadocia, Turkey but I don't think the others have experienced this so I'm going to figure out a way to work into our itinerary.  It's a very touristy thing to do but I think it will be fun.  No doubt, it would be an early morning ride so you can appreciate the landscape during that magical time when the sun is rising over the horizon.

(Photo from Arcadia Travels)
Inle Lake.  This might be the one spot for us that will be temple/pagoda/monastery free - a good place to relax, unwind and take in some local village life and native wildlife.  Not surprisingly,  every visitor to the lake takes a boat trip.  Most likely, we'll go in a boat, in board motor and all, intended for tourists but hopefully, we'll catch sight of the local fishermen who are known for practicing a distinctive rowing style which involves standing at the stern on one leg and wrapping the other leg around the oar. This unique style evolved for the reason that the lake is covered by reeds and floating plants making it difficult to see above them while sitting. Standing provides the rower with a view beyond the reeds. However, the leg rowing style is only practiced by the men. Women row in the customary style, using the oar with their hands, sitting cross legged at the stern.  Hopefully, we'll have a couple of fishermen in our group.  Perhaps, we can get them to try out this technique :-)

Mandalay Palace
Mandalay is the second-largest city and the last royal capital of Burma. I was very surprised to learn that Mandalay is not an old city, not even a medieval one, but rather a new city that was created by King Mingdon Min of Burma in 1857 as the new capital of the kingdom of Ava. Only two Burmese kings ruled from there, King Mingdon and King Thibaw, before the British conquest of Upper Burma in 1885.

After intensive bombing by Allied troops during WWII, pretty much all of the city was destroyed.  The city that we see today is a wholly British creation and the once magnificent Royal Palace and the great Atumashi (incomparable) pagoda, King Mingdon Min's finest creations, are modern reconstructions.  Nonetheless, we'll visit them to give us an idea of what life was like days gone by.

U-Bein Bridge.
Located nearby Mandalay is a structure that I do hope we can visit - U Bein bridge.  The 1.2-kilometwe (0.75 mile) long bridge was built around 1850 and is believed to be the oldest and longest teakwood bridge in the world.\Construction began when the capital of Ava Kingdom moved to Amarapura and the bridge is named after the mayor who had it built. The bridge serves first and foremost as an important passageway for the local people and has also become a popular tourist attraction.

U Bein Bridge.  Photo by © Stefan Fussan.
Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Commons)

My starting plan had us spending about 10 days in Myanmar but the more I read, the more I think that's too short.  Let's see if I can cut out a day or two from another part of our trip to add to Myanmar.

Time to do more research!