Myanmar: Peaceful Lakes and Ancient Pagodas
By Mike Smith
I boycotted Myanmar (Burma) for years in line with [democracy advocate and Nobel Prize winner] Aung Sun Suu Kyi’s wishes. However, The National League for Democracy has reversed course and opted for a policy to welcome visitors.
Thus my dream of visiting Myanmar became a reality when I joined a photographic tour visiting the key tourist spots of Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake.
What a surprise it turned out to be. Myanmar is a lovely, safe country for tourists with the majority of the people smiling and wanting to get on with their lives. There are wonderful ancient pagodas, monks galore, peaceful lakes with long teak bridges and one leg rowers yet unfortunately a military junta in command.
Yangon – Bustling city and the man made wonder called Shwedagon Pagoda
It’s only a three-hour flight from Singapore to Yangon on Myanmar Air. Clearing immigration was a breeze but the drive to the hotel was uninspiring. Yangon seeming like any congested Asian city with nondescript buildings.
After checking in at the hotel we headed straight back out to Shwedagon Pagoda. My first impressions of Yangon were wrong! Folklore says this gold draped stupa has a history going back 2,500 years.
Whenever it was actually built, it ranks in my opinion on a par with the Taj Mahal, Angkor Wat, Bangkok’s Grand Palace, Indonesia’s Borobudur and the Great Wall of China as one of the most spectacular man made complexes in Asia. Surreally the colors change by the hour as the sun moves.
People meditate, stand in awe or giggle excitedly as they pose for photos in front of Myanmar’s most sacred Buddhist site.
Barefoot, as is the custom, I walked round in a clockwise direction watching the mix of local families, tourists, monks and religious devotees mingle freely and happily. Many of the Burmese were wearing thanaka face paint, made from tree bark, to give protection from the sun and improve their complexion.
The dramatic complex of spires, Buddha statues and intricate details in the numerous structures makes one forget the history of earthquakes, Portuguese and British invasions and political upheaval witnessed in these grounds.
Dinner and a cultural show at the beautiful Karaweik Palace, a concrete shaped royal barge, completed the end of a hectic first day. String puppets, Myanmar dancers, singers and musicians entertained us as we feasted on international dishes and very spicy local cuisine including fish, chicken and prawn washed down with a cold, refreshing Myanmar beer.
Bagan – Pagodas galore
I am not particularly a morning person but was advised that 6.30am would be considered a lie in on this trip!
True to form the wake up call came at 5:30 am. A packed breakfast box was handed out and we were soon on the bus heading for the airport. After a short hop on a twin propeller plane we arrived at Bagan, the hot, dry rural land of 2000 pagodas and temples.
Bagan is very spread out and is best explored by car or in our case private bus but the primitive roads are flat and empty so biking is a much cheaper option for those with time and the energy.
Bagan has too much to see on a two day trip so we had to be very selective and keep our itinerary flexible. We started off at Shwezigon Paya, Bagan’s answer to Shwedagon in Yangon. It’s a wonderful large golden monument built around 1100 AD to enshrine a replica of the Buddha’s tooth in Kandy, Sri Lanka.
There are large bronze standing Buddhas, tablets depicting Buddha’s life and numerous monks and tourists hanging around. Hawkers tout souvenirs from the stalls leading to the pagoda but the low pressure selling and smiling painted faces make spending a pleasure.
Continuing on dusty rural roads observing buffalos, horse and cart taxis and weary cyclists we arrived at Ananda Temple, one of the largest and best preserved in Bagan. Built around 1100 AD in the shape of a cross it contains 4 large teak Buddha statues and high outer walls but for me lacked the grandeur of Shwezigon.
Children playing, birds nesting and young monks arranged by our guide to pose by the Buddhas were more attention-grabbing than the building for me. Surely I wasn’t “templed out” on day two!! I suspect it was the 36 degree Centigrade (97 degrees Fahrenheit) that was getting to me.
Shwe San Daw Pagoda is the place to see a sunset in Bagan. A short, steep and energy sapping climb up the side of the pagoda offers views over the plains.
I feared the sunset would be dull and descended early. I bargained, but not very hard, with the children selling postcards, soft drinks and lacquer ware. I was wrong again. Gradually the colors deepened and the sun rays shone over the silhouetted pagodas making a very pleasant scene.
Bagan goes to bed early which is just as well as we were up by 6:00 am the next morning for sunrise at Myengon Pagoda. We again had a tricky climb, this time by torchlight, up a narrow staircase with an extremely low roof, to our viewing platform. The mist which was clinging to the pagodas surrounding us slowly faded away as the air warmed up when the sun rose above the horizon. The dull blue cast disappeared to give another clear day and gleaming pagodas in the distance.
Rural Bagan – Processions and village life
Driving back to the hotel we were surprised to see a large and quite extravagant procession in this humble countryside. Young children, some less than five years old and extremely elegantly dressed, as if for a prom, were being transported on decorated horses or in carts pulled by buffalos. Women carried offerings of fruit on their heads, bands played along with a portable music system and dancers pranced along the dusty track.
Our plans changed – we wanted to find out what was happening. It turned out to be a monks’ initiation ceremony. We were invited to follow the parade back to the village chief’s house where each potential monk posed on horseback for a formal portrait before entering to eat, drink and be entertained by the dancers.
Food was cooked in enormous pots on charcoal fires behind the house. We enjoyed the friendship and were encouraged to take photos. Unfortunately time was limited so unfortunately had to wave goodbye before the head shaving ceremony and presentation of traditional maroon robes.
Wandering through that village gave a taste of true Burmese rural life. The wooden houses were quite large but simple. Buffalos, goats and chickens wandered or were shepherded and young women transported pails and pails of water from the river to the village on yokes across their shoulders. Clearly there was no running water and no central electricity but on the other hand no obvious signs of malnourishment or poverty.
Just outside our hotel were several horse and cart “taxis”. My young driver explained that he slept outside the hotel to be first in the queue for tourists. He charged what the market would tolerate which was typically $2 an hour which he used to maintain the cart, feed the two horses, help support his family and save a little as he hoped to study at university. Hours worked varied from zero in the hot seasons to typically 4 or 5 a day in the peak season.
A few hundred meters from our luxurious river view hotel was a simple fishing village. Quite a contrast! As we wandered through the village the children erupted with excitement as candy, notebooks and pens were given to the grateful village chief for distribution.
They charged around enthusiastically hoping to get more candy as they followed us down to the bank of the wide Irrawaddy River where local fishermen were seen casting their nets to catch small fish before dusk set in.
Bagan is the center of lacquer making. It still thrives as a cottage industry after many centuries because of strong foreign demand for quality items. The bamboo used as a base for the lacquer ware is readily available and the lacquer itself is based on the sap from the thitsi tree which grows wild.
The work was interesting to study. It is labour intensive and involves using manual lathes for shaping articles, carving and “painting” using sharp knives and natural colours on the many layers of lacquer.
Mandalay – The world’s longest teak bridge and a huge human zoo of a Monastery
And so on to Mandalay. Immortalized in literature by Kipling et al, Mandalay was something of a disappointment, but there were three must-see attractions. The U Bein Bridge, Sagaing Hill and Mahagandayon Temple.
Mahagandayon temple and monastery is a unique “tourist attraction”. Actually it is somewhat of a “human zoo” as hundreds of monks live there and bus loads of tourists turn up to watch them queue with their alms bowl to collect a simple lunch and sit at wooden benches and tables to eat it.
Thereafter you can wander the area chatting to the monks and observing their simple daily rituals of reciting, cleaning, washing etc.
They are devoted to their simple lives, very open with their views on Myanmar and thirsty for knowledge of the outside world. I found it somewhat bizarre but very satisfying after spending time chatting with a former salesman who became a monk.
The Sagaing Hill temple and pagodas are 20 km from Mandaly and reached by a long, steep, winding ride in a small tuk tuk bus where you literally hang onto your seat. The reward is worth it. The main temple has a beautiful curved and colorful façade with many Buddha statues inside.
Children and monks were happy to pose when asked. Exploring the complex further I found the views over the surrounding pagodas lovely but the hot, stoned walkways made walking in the customary barefooted style very uncomfortable.
The U-bein Bridge which crosses the shallow Lake Taungthaman is 1.2 km long. It is the longest teak bridge in the world and definitely the most photographed bridge in Myanmar.
Built in the mid 19th century this narrow pedestrian bridge still plays an important role as locals go about their business. Of course it now generates further income from visiting tourists who buy souvenirs, eat in the restaurants and rent boats to see the sunset. Sitting in a boat on the lake watching the sun go down was relaxing and a privilege.
Lake Inle – A majestic lake with villages built on stilts, floating gardens and one leg rowers
One night was enough in Mandalay and so on to my favorite destination of Lake Inle, Myanmar’s second largest at 45 square miles. Driving towards the lake from Heho airport we stopped first at Shwe Yan Pyay monastery.
This fascinating teak building is over 150 years old and stands on stilts. Young novice monks stand and chat in the oval windows making a picture post card scene. We then photographed the cheerful monks eating, cleaning up and finally relaxing and praying in the cooler inner areas.
At Nyaung Shwe we boarded our narrow long tail boats and roared off down a five-mile river channel to the lake and with water spraying everywhere headed to our superb resort hotel. Inle Lake is a water bird’s haven and we spotted herons, egrets, cormorants and kingfishers on our half hour ride.
The simple outdoor stilted seafood restaurants on the lake were superb and served the freshest fish, prawns and vegetables. The picturesque stilted villages were attractive and the jumping cats at a monastery a quirky diversion but the stars of the lake were the unique “leg rowers”.
Fishermen of the Intha tribe on Inle Lake row their small canoes standing on one leg with the oar wrapped around their other leg. Standing gives them a better view of floating reeds and gardens growing tomatoes and gourds which could entangle the boats. It also allows them to keep both hands free to fish using fishing nets enclosed in large conical baskets. Watching their skilled performance was highly enjoyable.
The tranquility of the lake was only broken by the noise of the long boat engines and the occasional “compulsory” stop at tourist shops along the river channels.
At one, several of the long necked padaung tribe women were weaving and selling souvenirs. Interestingly a young child was having the first brass ring applied to her neck. It looks strange but as our guide explained in an obviously well rehearsed manner – other people wear tattoos and piercings!
All too soon back it was back to HeHo airport to transfer back to Yangon. The trip finished with a photo shoot with a beautiful local lady in traditional clothes and calling at the bustling Bogyoke Aung San market to buy some snacks and sandalwood carvings to take home.
The days had rushed past and all too soon I was on the plane back to Singapore. I have fond memories of the friendly people, robed novice monks, ancient pagodas and Lake Inle. I want to go back!
Mike Smith is a freelance photographer-writer & permanent resident of Singapore. Born in the UK, he left in 1986 on a two-year contract with a chemical company & just never made the move back. You can see more of his photographs at AsiaPhotoStock.com.
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