I had really wanted to write about our trip chronologically but long periods of no WiFi, loss of power, bumpy roads and boat rides have kept elongating the process. It’s been a couple of weeks since we’ve left Vietnam, having had a wonderful time in both Hue and Hoi An before we took off for Mandalay, Myanmar a week ago. We are having such an eye opening experience that I didn’t want to wait any longer to write about it. This is epic.
As true for all the Southeast Asian countries we’ve visited, it seems each has a long history filled with conquests, being conquered, monarchies, political upheaval, civil wars, colonialism, (excluding Thailand) division and unification, tribal hegemony, nationalism, advanced civilizations and their destruction, cultural literacy and rice. For most of the countries there has been severe growing pains to reach a national identity. Myanmar is still engaged in that fray.
We land in Mandalay and it is 35C (96F). We console ourselves that baking in dry heat is better than melting in moist heat. Our guide Sithu immediately teaches us, “Mingalabar” which is hello (actually “auspicious to you all”) in Burmese and “Chey zu ba” for thank you (or kyei zu ba). “We accent the first syllable”, he tells us. Don’t ask. Money is now kyat or “ch-yet”. Bye bye to remnants of Vietnamese rolling around in my brain and to my feeling of accomplishment handling dongs so well ( that’s Vietnamese money not anatomy). No time to lament. We are off to the royal palace but can only see a corner being restored, the rest hidden beyond a huge brick wall and the moat.We are underwhelmed. Mandalay, capital of kings 170 years ago, is a large, sprawling city without an apparent center . Not especially beautiful along the avenues we traveled but a lot less motorbikes and cars than Vietnam. Centuries of treasured history are alive here. We ask Sithu tons of questions, about the Rohingya crisis, the government, Burmese history. We are swimming in facts, dates, numerology, and the 4 Noble Truths of Buddhism within minutes of flight fog and dehydration. We don’t know anything about Myanmar. We are absorbing as much as we can as we drive to Amarapura, the ancient capital before Mandalay. It seems the “penultimate king” moved all the royal buildings from Mandalay to Amarapura, stayed a few years, received a prophecy of his death and moved them back to Mandalay much to the people’s consternation.
The entire country, more or less is Theravada Buddhist, with strong discipline and worship peppered with varying local cosmology, e.g., the formation of Magic Lake in Pindaya was created when celestial beings helped a hunter-prince kill a humongous spider that had sequestered seven princesses in the cave after capturing them bathing in the lake. This is told with integrity and belief as we drive by the lake. Everywhere there are Jatakas, the Buddha life story, manifested in painted murals, bas-relief sculptures in wood, gold, or sandstone in countless pagodas, stupas, monasteries and temples.Shwenandaw Monastery jataka in gilded teak 150 years old
Stupas are solid stone, brick, or stucco structures, basically mimicking the bell like shape of the Buddha with his statue in a niche along with other holy relics. Temples are open inside so people can worship and can be quite large and unbelievably embellished with gold, glass mosaic, jade and gems.
Pagodas can be both open or solid depending upon which part of the country you are in. Monasteries are where abbots, ordained monks and novices live, eat, teach, study and sleep. We visit the Maha Gandayon Monastery, our first, in Amarapura outside of Mandalay. It houses over 1000 monks and novices. Twice a day they queue up and walk this particular street, always barefoot, in their red robes holding alms bowls to receive food, cash and gifts from the multitudes that line the streets. At the final spot, donors spoon out mounds of rice, an honor they sign up for a year in advance. It provides them great “merit” according to Buddhist belief. Building a stupa provides even more merit. Building an enormous temple , even more merit. There are two benefits to acquiring merit; one is in the teaching of the path to nirvana and the other is to offset your non-meritorious behavior in hopes of reaching nirvana. As we get further into the country and deepen our understanding we really start to appreciate the significance of merit. It is a core belief.
Our guide found us a good viewing spot until a group of Chinese tourists inserted themselves into the same space nearly knocking me over. All this tumult on the steps, jockeying for position, shoving and noisy, juxtaposed with monks walking solemnly gathering all the food that will feed them this day.
They come in all sizes
We stay til the end and the crowd disperses quickly and we roam through the monastery. The purple robed novices are perhaps 5 years old. They too collect alms daily and learn the discipline. This monastery is known as the most abiding of the scrolls. The head abbot was known for his generosity, wisdom and protection (he provided shelter for villagers during the many war years). Over time he became renowned and the monastery grew exponentially. The monks are from all over the country and most come as orphans from those wars.
We go from the monastery to arts and crafts. I enjoy these workshops. We’ve seen how it can help keep an artisanal skill alive through tourism though honestly sometimes I feel captive to the demonstration and follow up gift showroom. Here in Myanmar it’s not only about extracting dollars from tourists. These crafts are part of the local economy and trade and is really how they still do things. We visit a gold leaf making workshop where they beat a paper thin piece of gold into an even thinner one with a heavy mallet hitting precisely in the correct spot for a specific time measured by a gourd filling with water. It worked hundreds of years ago and the same family continues the business. This place is the supplier of gold leaf for all the country’s temples, pagodas, Buddha images and palaces. That is a lot of gilt. We had no idea what this meant until we went to Maharmuni Temple. The application of a sheet of gold leaf onto the Buddha image brings merit to the wielder. Additionally, it is hoped that placing it on a specific part of the body may grant your wish for healing that part. In all temples this is a male only honor. Of course the more gold leaf the more merit.
As we are exiting the temple we hear commotion and see an explosion of color. Sithu gets excited and steers us toward the activity. A novitiate procession of 150 children completing the rite of passage ceremony that will bring them into the Buddhist community is in progress. We follow them through the temple and just stare at the beauty of these faces in their regalia in this amazing place.
We make a late afternoon visit to the magnificent wooden Schwenandaw monastery, last standing vestige of Burmese royalty in Mandalay. The building had been moved to Amarapura along with the entire royal city and shortly thereafter it became inauspicious to remain and the entire city was moved back to Mandalay. However, because the prior king had died in this monastery, the son, now king, was fearful of daddy’s spirit so he relocated the monastery to Mandalay hill outside the royal city gates. Interestingly, 2 Anglo-Burmese wars sacked and damaged the entire Royal Palace and bombing by the Japanese in WWII destroyed it completely leaving just this monastery intact 175 years later. Karma.
Amarapura is a pretty area, quieter than Mandalay with narrow streets, the chosen site for the ancient royal capital. It is now most famous for the U Bein bridge built in 1850 to span Tuangthaman Lake. At 1.2 km, it is the longest teak wooden bridge in the world. U Bein was the Mayor at that time and loyal to the king. There is a sordid history filled with suspicion and superstition that explains the execution of U Bein by the very king who asked him to build the bridge. We find over time that there are many similar type stories woven throughout the Burmese royal lineage, the government, the military and in tribal culture.
Happily, Amarapura is also known for a particular kind of silk weaving, wood working and tapestry making. This city is representative of these works that are only made here and circulated through the rest of the country and for export.
I try to find a longyi, a bolt of cloth wrapped and knotted worn by both men and women of Myanmar. Anything that could be cooler than pants in this heat is desirable. It is also a modest country so while bare flesh is tolerated it is not respectful. So if a longyi is climate proven I want to try to find one. Part of the bummer of being on a tour, even a custom one, is that there is no time to “schmy”. I am briefly let loose in a textile warehouse, fabric from floor to ceiling creating bands of color that entice and tease as I view helplessly without language and time.
We head to Kuthodaw Pagoda the site of the world’s largest book. I’m imagining a giant book complete with pages and spine. What we see is 729 marble tablets inscribed both sides with all the teachings of the Buddha written in ancient Pali language, each protected in their own stupa. The King built the Kuthodaw to leave a great work of merit for future generations. It also created an opportunity for a beautiful woman to apply thanaka cream to my face. Wearing thanaka face paint is a 2000 year old practice in Myanmar. The tree is ground to a powder, mixed with water and brushed on daily for health and cosmetic reasons. Children of both sexes wear it as well. An organic sunscreen. It seemed strange at first but every Burmese woman wears it and while I might notice, it is just how it is.
Our guide has arranged for a sunset gondola trip by the U Bein Bridge. In rainy season, the water is up to and sometimes over the bridge but for now it sits high on teak and concrete stilt like posts.
The pier is surrounded by hawkers and food vendors. It is a summer carnival type atmosphere with tacky decoration, kids screeching for treats and foreigners walking over pieces of wood to avoid the muck as we find our boats. I’m loving it and still can’t believe we are in Myanmar.
We are one and 1/2 days in, exhausted and blown away by the intensity of our immersion. I am visually overstimulated and awed. I am sponging up the history and trying to bring it into the present. We question the human rights issues with Aung San Suu Kyi, whom they call “Lady” or “She” and are glued to the explanations of the military regime, British colonization, the effects of the three Anglo-Burma wars, the present fighting, corruption, how the government is set up and the tenets of the national constitution. People openly talk with us about the state of the union and all seem in agreement. All are hopeful that the civilian government will gain power and the military regime will stop attacking and provoking the different ethnic groups. Myanmar has 135 ethnic groups, each protective of their varying customs and territories. There is active fighting going on in various parts of the country now and only certain areas are open to tourists. Aung San Suu Kyi heads the civilian branch administering the economic, agriculture, education and immigration ministries while the ministries of defense, border, and home affairs belong to the military. In essence, she has little to no power but to the people she represents hope and a deterrent to outright military rule. There is hope and fear for their nascent democracy.