Vietnam: Hue – The Imperial City

Dragon boats moored on the Perfume river, Hue

Going to Hue is what most tourists do as they travel south from Hanoi. It is located in the middle of the country, about 8 miles south of the DMZ. We heard that the Imperial City was magnificent and Hue a lot calmer than Hanoi; two really good reasons to visit. I was also just beginning to grasp how Vietnam separated into north and south in the mid 1600’s following millennia of clan conflict and civil war. As a typical American I was only superficially aware of Vietnam until the war demanded the immoral draft of my generation, the killings at Kent State, the bombing of Cambodia and Laos, and the horrific atrocities committed therein. I had little appreciation of the depth of the country’s long history and culture.

Hue, is a city located on the Song Huong or Perfume River. Years ago, the blossoms from the orchards upriver scented the river earning its name but we have been told that industrialization has usurped that bucolic time. It is however, the site that Emperor Gai Long of the Nguyen dynasty chose when he moved the capital from Hanoi in an effort to extend his influence over a unified north and south Vietnam in 1802. He built the Citadel, a walled city surrounded by a 4 sided defensive wall with each side a mile and 1/2 long surrounded by a moat. The Imperial City became the epicenter of culture, learning and worship in the country. The southern end of the city housed the Royal Palace, gated courtyards, pavilions, gardens, library, temples and “The Purple Forbidden City”: the emperor’s personal spaces, lodging for each of the four Queens , his 102 concubines, their 142 children and the eunuchs that served them.

The Imperial City prospered for about 50 years until the Vietnamese attacked the increasingly aggressive French who then retaliated and burned the Imperial library and stole all the valuables within. It continued to be home for the following 13 rulers of the Nguyen dynasty, each becoming more ineffectual as France’s influence grew until 1945 when the last emperor of Vietnam relinquished his throne to the French. A significant part of the Imperial city was bombed by the Japanese. But the most damage occurred when Hue was attacked in 1968 by the North Vietnamese troops during the Tet offensive and the three weeks of fighting reduced much of this historical masterpiece to rubble. Of the 160 buildings only 10 remain. 50 years later, partly restored, ruins covered with grass , the Imperial city still impresses.

One of the four gates of the Palatial grounds

We are subdued by the beauty of what remains. As we exit we notice a small park enclosure with a display of captured tanks, artillery and a jet from the “American War”. It is a chilling reminder of the war, defeat and that I am on foreign soil.

We are biking throughout Hue and while there are less motorbikes than Hanoi, it is still very stressful navigating through traffic, pedaling over narrow metal bridges caught behind rickshaws and cars squeezing through non existent lanes, everyone hurrying. What a relief to get off and wander the outskirts into a grassy area where beer is served on tiny round tables alongside the river. We stretch out and watch the dragon boats traverse the brown river in the afternoon. It is one of the best parts of the day; the rhythm we fall into when touring is done and just being happens.

We bravely decide to get back on the bikes to find the Queen’s residence, An Dinh Palace, back over the bridge inside the city. It isn’t easy but we are rewarded by being the only foreigners viewing this hidden palatial gem, home to the last king who ultimately moved to Paris with his family while his mother, Queen Nam Phuong chose to remain in Hue.

A restored grand dining room
Restored Hand painted wallpaper and tile

Myanmar: Last stop, Yangon

We fly to Yangon, our last destination in Myanmar. Once known as Rangoon, capital of British colonial Burma for 100 years, it was reestablished as Yangon in 1989 when the Myanmar military came into power. The capital has since moved to Naypyidaw though Yangon remains the largest city and commercial center of the country.

We are picked up by Desman, our guide for the next and last 24 hours of our time in Myanmar. He takes us to a local tea house for lunch where I try milk tea, much like a chai beverage and naan with peas while Steve has fried fish wantons. All delicious. We go to tourist attraction #1: Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda that houses a huge reclining Buddha image with exceptional feet; 108 segments representing the 108 auspicious characteristics of the Buddha painted on the soles. I also learn the difference between the reclining and the merely relaxing Buddha. One shows his acceptance of his death while the other is at peace in a leaning pose. Who knew???Desman is orienting us to this both marvelous and crumbling city: its wide tree lined boulevards and narrow cross streets; the beautiful parks with blooming lotus ponds, the tidal Yangon River, with ports to the sea and its riverside markets, the upscale neighborhoods with gates and alarm systems, art galleries, government housing for civil employees, the colonial buildings struggling to survive their age and disrepair and the huge monastery complexes that are intimately connected to the Shwedagon Pagoda, the most sacred of them all.

Egg plant decoration on a city street
Apartment building on electronics row
Classic colonial buildings repurposed and still standing

We are fortunate enough to find the Musmeah Yeshua synagogue open, the one and only in all of Myanmar. The original wooden building was built in 1854 and renovated in 1896 for the 2500 member congregation that enjoyed services until they left during WWII. Only 20 families remain. The temple does Shabbat, the high holy days and holidays. Usually closed on Sunday, they opened for a presentation and tour for an Israeli delegation and it seems for the Feldman’s, too.

Hanna Samuels, of the family that has maintained the temple for generations

I am excited to be finally going to Shwedagon Pagoda, the jewel of Burmese Buddhist shrines. It is believed to be 2500 years old, the oldest in the world, completed in the 6th century by the Mon tribe. We climb the ancient steps, pass the giant mythic leoglyphs, leave our sandals at the East gate, and wander in on the cool marble tiles that cover the entire complex. I feel like skating across the polished surface. The atmosphere is immediately one of peace and timelessness and awe of the beauty, the scale and the spiritual.

I almost float from one stupa to the next, the space is so airy and light. The large pagoda sits on a hill and is visible from many parts of the city. Like most stupas, it is made of brick and covered in gold. This most auspicious pagoda has many relics, including 8 hairs of Gautama Buddha. The spire at 330 feet, is topped by a parasol about one and a half stories tall and contains about half a ton of gold.  It is covered with over 5,500 diamonds, 2,300 rubies, sapphires and other gems, and 4,000 golden bells donated over the centuries by monarchies and the populace. I imagine a gold surface studded with jewels while in reality it is a structure laden with layers of people’s jewelry; earrings, necklaces, baby bracelets, goblets and the like. The very top is studded with a 76 carat diamond; all the gemstones a symbol of devotion and merit. There is a protective mesh covering the pagoda that, with earthquakes and time, required reinforcement and re gilding, the gold coming from the very business in Mandalay we visited 3 weeks ago. We are a week premature for the unveiling.

The Shwedagon pagoda dominates the central area but the numerous stupas and buildings along the perimeter make it cozy like a community park as well as a place of worship. People stroll, relax, honor their ancestors, their birth day, give donations and enjoy the day with family. There are novitiations happening for both Shan and the rarely seen Mon ethnicity.

A Shan novitiation

A Mon novitiation procession in traditional red and white

His novitiation is several years from now

We continue our explore around the city, lingering, taking it all in, knowing these are our last moments in Myanmar. My heart hums with overflowing appreciation and a twinge of awareness of the imminent nostalgia from experiencing something very precious.

Myanmar: The Beach

As it happens, our three month sojourn is coming to a close. We will be back in Vermont’s snow and mud season in 8 days. I wish there was a way to store house the Myanmar tropical beach warmth so we could cocoon ourselves from the cold and damp of home. Alas.

We’ve said goodbye to Soe at the airport in Heho with hugs and exchange of emails. We fly 40 minutes southwest to Thandwe in Rakhine state and the airport is even more low key than Heho. We walk on the tarmac past beautiful bougainvilleas into a big room and wait by the door as the luggage is hand carted and pushed inside. It feels like a small bus terminal. We gather our belongings: the day packs loaded to bursting with our essentials and valuables, the conical hats, umbrella, sand paintings are in one hand tied up with a krama bowline. I heft a large woven bag over a shoulder, itself a souvenir, making itself useful filled to the brim with baskets, shoes and jackets. Lastly we roll and carry our 3 little suitcases gorged with clothes and souvenirs. We greet the hotel shuttle and bounce and sway past several villages, fancy hotel entrances, acres of stinky fish drying in the sun and turn onto an almost imperceptible road, pass a school and finally enter the Yoma Cherry Resort, Ngapali Beach. It is very hot. We respectfully remove our shoes, drop our stuff and endure another 30 minutes of a lengthy check in (they hold our passports hostage for two days) and eventually are shown our room; a second story suite with a balcony overlooking a garden of palms and green lushness all the way to the sand.We leave our stuff and hit the beach so quickly the sweat flies off our skin.

Nice beach. The Yoma Cherry is the only hotel in this cove and the geography provides safe harbor to fishing boats anchored at the shore. We top off our daiquiris, swim in the warm Andaman Sea, cream on the sunscreen, and mellow in the shade of our palm frond palapa.

I’m not much of a beach lingering in the sun person, so I stroll in the early morning up and down our cove that is rimmed with black rocks that stretch like fingers into the sea being careful to avoid the anchors embedded in the sand. I walk before footprints and tides erase the busy sand life. There are tiny formations of sand jewelry, ephemeral necklaces of sand beads strewn around tiny crab holes with pendants of little shiny silver fish left over from last night’s catch.The fisherman go out around 6 pm and return 12 hours later. We see village men emerge from the jungle carrying their dinner pails and gear slowly walking towards the boats around 5.

There is a lot of waiting, milling around and then somehow the timing is right and they roll up their longyis, wade out, climb up the sides like ants over the gunwales and take their places. Preparations are made, engines are engaged and one by one the boats launch out to sea for the night of fishing. The boats are strung with high intensity lights that draw the small silver fish into the nets, night after night. It looks like a little city spread out along the horizon. It is also a lovely time to swim.We walk barefoot to dinner at Coconut Beach Restaurant about 20 meters from the hotel for freshly caught fish. The first night we have white snapper, the second grouper. We are in heaven. Steve is really expert at separating flesh from bone. The fish is tender, succulent, a gift from the sea. It really doesn’t get any better than this.

We are awakened early by a musical ruckus outside our door. We are astounded and thrilled to see another novitiation , this time in Rakhine at the beach, no less. A wonderful way to start the day. We rent bikes today to travel to Thandwe bus station about 10 km away for me to buy some palm leaf fans. It seems this is the only place that sells them. Off we go, traveling back past the same fancy hotel entrances, the acres of stinky fish, the several villages until we reach the junction for Thandwe which begins the long uphill slog. My bike is stuck in one gear so I am straining and sweating so hard I get dizzy and have to stop to rest. It is midday and really humid. Steve’s hands go numb. I concentrate on the road, trucks come close and I stare ahead noticing the Jackson Pollock like splotches of orange betel nut spit on pavement.

I actually tried the betel nut at Indein market in Inle Lake. The ingredients are sold everywhere at the markets and the vendors make a little cube like package for the customer. It has a sweet menthol like taste as it sits in my cheek becoming saturated with saliva. I’m told to chew it and besides being crunchy, not much is happening other than my mouth is filled with beteljuice and I have to spit. I don’t know why I am shocked by the volume of bright orange juice hitting the ground. Like any bad habit, you’d have to work at it to want to continue.

We hang out and watch beach life. Fishing, sleeping, rolling tires, eating, swimming…

Last night’s catch

Our last morning at the beach arrives, breakfast on the veranda, last swim, I buy my fourth and last conical hat across the way. I see a man hike up a coconut palm, and following some serious leaf shaking and rope rigging, he lowers his coconut booty to the sand. We chat with the hotel manager whose mother, Vera Thompson started the English speaking school next door. We watch the fisherman attempt to move their overladen truck out of the rutted sand using palm fronds to gather some grip. We do pet the dogs against all the rules. And we say goodbye to the beach in Burma.

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Myanmar: Laying Back in Kalaw

We spend a great two days in Kalaw before we embark to Ngapali Beach in southern Rakhine state. Kalaw is a town in central Myanmar where not much is happening. It has a pagoda, a cave filled with Buddha images that haven’t achieved relic status according to Soe, a mosque, a market, a meditation center, an Anglican church, an old cinema converted to an event hall and an active railroad. It is another British hill station of the last century and there is not much in this village that makes it tourist famous and we are glad for that. There is a nocturnal howling dog concert that goes on for hours but no other night life we know of. We ask Soe for a non-tour day and decide to bike around the village in the cooler temperatures, slow things down and enjoy that sense of freedom and happenstance when we are on our own. We get a cup of coffee and a sweet and cycle to the market for people watching.

Alms

We ride past the landmark British clock tower and admire the purple jacaranda trees lining the street. We ignore the pagoda and cave and are not even slightly tempted to sight-see. The railroad station however is way cool.

In the warehouse attached to the station house there are people counting and weighing potatoes, onions and beans in readyness for transport throughout the country and beyond. People are waiting on benches for the twice a day train. We can hear the whistle blow and the tracks rumble. The barrier gates are pulled across the road by one man. And we observe our first fully English sign, an event not seen in a long time.

Soe and Me

We are enjoying biking through the small city until we come to a detour for the local construction of a Chinese funded road bridging Chiang Rei, Thailand to Mandalay, Kalaw, Yangon in Myanmar and into India. The presence of Chinese financed infrastructure is powerful. We have seen many Chinese initiatives on our trip from road and casino building in the take over of Sihanoukville in Cambodia, the war zone in Ha Giang, Vietnam and dam building in Laos. We have been told of border areas of northern Myanmar, Thailand and China that harbor prostitution, gambling and narcotics. Border areas of southeastern Myanmar and Thailand are similarly bankrolled by China and our conversations with locals sadly report that area is likened to a cancer that is feared and cannot be treated. It is obvious that the Chinese are meaning to be the dominant world culture and they have a strong anchor hold in Southeast Asia.

It is a distressing reality that is visible here in Myanmar. This section of road is made by Myanmar laborers pounding rock into gravel with sledge hammers. They are melting tar in oil barrels with open fires underneath to spread over the stones. Electric power will be off most of every day for the next two weeks during this phase of construction. We already know that jobs are scarce in Myanmar. High inflation and unemployment often means young people must migrate and families are separated. People with education seek work in Korea, Japan, Australia or Singapore. The more menial work attracts Burmese workers to Thailand and Malaysia.. Soe says that the Buddhist New Year and water festival time reunites families and contributes greatly to the joy of the celebration.

We continue cycling and notice another sign in English, “Seed Sprouts Cafe and Yoga”. I actually have to stop and look again and experience a brain hiccup as I realize I’m reading English. I am drawn in like a moth to a flame and am compelled to check out this Vermont sounding enterprise. We meet the proprietor, an American, who created this place to train locals in cooking and tourism. He has many years experience working with Burmese orphans and wanted to teach them employable skills for when they are on their own. This current NGO hires them at the cafe and at the farm that sources the ingredients while earning a livable wage.The food is excellent, the space charming, funky and organic. The signs readable and atmosphere relatable. What a find. We hang out with a young New Zealand woman for a long while feeling the call of home.

We are staying at the Kalaw Heritage Hotel that has been around for over a hundred years. Initially built by the British in 1887 as an administrative office until occupied by the Japanese army for 3 years during WWII. People remember that time with anger and sadness. After the war the town and building were retaken by the British and has endured turns as a missionary school, girl’s convent for the Shan chief’s family, an army hospital and a hotel. In 1960, foreign hotel guests were restricted to Indian and Chinese nationals. Other foreigners were banned. Over time the hotel was forgotten and neglected and locals called it the “ghost place” until the 1990’s when the Burmese military occupied it. In 1996 the country opened to tourism and the Kalaw Heritage Hotel came back into being through private ownership. It is a lovely, simple place, no frills except for the tennis court, small pretty gardens and killer ginger margaritas.

Myanmar: Inle Lake-Southern Shan

This country draws me in more deeply with each place we visit. It is the people and their stories, their connection to the earth and their beliefs, the rootedness in family, the geography and history of an ancient country. We travel south; flying to Heho from Bagan where we meet our new guide Soe, a sweet faced woman wearing a stunning black longyi with embroidered flowers. Our last guide, Mya Mo took me to a local stall where I bought a longyi for $3 and had it sewn Burmese style the night before our flight and brought it to the airport. He couldn’t quite instruct me on how to fold the fabric and was awkwardly trying to demonstrate but not touch my waist. It was a funny moment until he brought me to the female airport staff where they wrapped me up tight and tucked the end under the waistband. It worked and every hour or so, I’d readjust so it would not fall down. I admire Soe’s longyi and she shows me a secret: hers has been tailored with darts and hooks and can’t come undone. We laugh at the sudden connection and I know then that we will have a great time together.

The countryside is screaming for water, red brown, scrappy with tree lines in the distance planted by the British long ago and the only thing green in the wide landscape.

It is late March and fields are idle with manure piles waiting to be furrowed under in May. Avocado plants have woven bamboo hats to protect them from burning. There are cattle and Brahmin cows roaming and I don’t know how they survive in this waiting time before the rains. Humans have a Water Festival, “Thingyan” in mid April when people celebrate the Buddhist New Year and not a moment too soon. Villages, cities bring in a huge network of pipes, valves and hoses and spray a colossal amount of water on the revelers for days, accompanied by loud Asian music, of course.

On our way to Inle Lake we stop at Shwe U Min Temple built by King Ashoka, the Indian emperor who ruled in 300 B.C. and was well known for spreading Buddhism in Asia. Just beyond the temple is the opening into Pindaya Cave, where 8000 plus Buddha images dwell. Soe likes telling the story of the legendary spider that captured 7 princesses and was killed by a hunter-prince at this very spot.

Thousands of Buddha images go further up into the roof of the cave
Tiny Buddhas inscribed on a gold panel

Steve enters a meditation cave

Mini monk

It is cool in the upper regions of the cave as we do the “Maze”, climbing in among all sizes and shapes of images stuffed into nooks and crannies next to stalagmites and stalactites. Our guide is laughing as we hear people questioning the way out in the semi darkness. She is no stranger to this place. It is her local pagoda, her home is in the next village. We are now in Southern Shan state where several ethnicities like the Danu, Pa-O or Palaung live besides the Shan. There are 33 Shan ethnic groups and each identifies with their specific tribal nomenclature. Soe is of the Pa-O tribe and her husband is Shan. She is multilingual and cooks biculturally. At a market she showed us the 1/2 gallon of oil she goes through to feed 7 people in one week. We have a traditional Shan lunch in a local Danu home ending the meal with a tea salad: fermented tea leaves, crisp roasted peanuts, fried beans, sesame seeds, pickled ginger, chili, shredded cabbage, dried shrimp and lots of fried garlic. Unusual yet tasty. Steve has reservations.

They invite us to see their tea plantation. It is a peaceful and hot walk to the bushes where the women let us borrow their baskets to try picking. I am supposed to only pick the uppermost 3 leaves that have reached the right size. It is evident that tea harvesting requires an experienced eye. I give it a try and gratefully return the basket.

We finally reach Nyaung Shwe, the gateway village to Inle Lake, the destination that brings glazed eyes to those who know it. We leave our extraneous stuff and travel by long tail boat to our hotel. We see the tourist version of Inle Lake fishermen from long ago. Their balance is balletic.

Inle Lake is very large and takes an hour to boat to our hotel. We have never stayed in such a place. We are dropped off at the entrance dock, shown our room and like little kids, explore every space, shrieking with excitement; an outdoor shower, a porch on the lagoon at sunset, a couch, a table, a desk and flowers all over the bed and lots of birds and nature.

Myanmar Treasure Resort

Soe and the boatman pick us up in the morning and we head out to see the unique way of life on the lake. The fishermen of the Intha tribe, are known for their leg rowing technique that allows them to see beyond the floating plants and to fish and move at the same time. It is amazing to watch.

There are several villages strung along the lake. There are the usual markets where folks gather for produce or the big “5 day” market of Indein which has a dentist, a barber, and all kinds of goods and food and rotates one day in each of 5 villages. The parking area is huge though as the waters recede in dry season the boats must park further away to avoid running aground. There are many Pa-O and Intha people at the big market including a friend of Soe’s. The Pa-O women wrap their hair in scarfs or towels and when in Temple adorn the hair cloths with a pointy ornament to represent a dragon horn. They believe they are descendants from a female dragon centuries ago. As our guide is Pa-O she has a set of horns too. She leaves them at home when she is working.

The 5 day market has the biggest draw

Soe’s friend

One side of the lake has extensive floating gardens tended by Intha families. From a distance it looks like tall pikes but these poles stake the “ground” and hold the composted seaweed and other fertile matter in place. The men dredge up the milfoil growing near the shoreline, load their boats and bring it back to their garden for tomatoes, peppers, beans and flowers. We watch them strain and struggle hauling this seaweed onto their boats. Shocking to see a much abhorred invasive at home being a necessity in another’s food chain.

The bounty

We travel through a Venetian network of canals. Everything moves by boat. We go from a silversmithing village to a lotus and silk weaving village to the huge Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda via these waterways. From laundry, bathing, shopping and playing, to working, praying and socializing; it all happens on the water. No cars, no motorbikes, just boats.

In wet season the water rises to the landing
Sending mail

We motor to the other side of the lake along the numerous waterways and slice through openings in the earth and timber dykes that control the flow of water in dry season. For us, it is an exciting ride with great views of daily life.

We have visited a lot of temples and pagodas which surprisingly remain fascinating. In Indein, there is a small temple at the end of a very long covered walkway that hosts a long line of stalls and tables filled with must have souvenirs: daggers, tooth headdresses, clothing, baskets and more friends of Soe’s. The walkway also divides the enormous amount of stupas built around the Temple; tourists generally exit left and view the new ones. We go right and into the ruins. The worship of Buddha is everywhere.

Land of a thousand stupas
Buddha blessing the lake

Myanmar: the 3122 pagodas, temples, mounds, and monasteries of Bagan

With our new guide Mya Mo and driver Mr. Yazoo, we drive to Bagan about 3.5 hours away. Mya Mo sounds like, “me amo” or I love you and we laugh and he gives us his nickname: “Mo-Jee” and we all laugh again. He is a fountain of knowledge having been born and raised in “Ba-gaaahn”, his speech takes an effort to understand. He speaks softly, and drawn out, accents are in different than expected spots and if we interrupt with a question he retells his story from the beginning in the exact same way as by rote. All that aside he is passionate about his birthplace and very personable. He has the telltale red stains between his teeth that belie his betel nut habit and we talk about it. In fact, at every market he points out the ingredients which are sold everywhere: slake lime ( in green plastic containers that litter the roadsides), the nut itself usually sold in chopped pieces, flavored tobacco, some spices according to your taste wrapped in a betel leaf , sucked, chewed and then spat. It leaves a distinct brick color that is splattered on the ground everywhere. He says he still chews occasionally but can’t really indulge as a tour guide. That kind of personable.

Bagan is a very hot, very dry area south of Mandalay. It is so hot the cooler air in my lungs is sucked out of me in seconds. We are here because it is one of the most historic in Myanmar. It was the capital of Burma from the 9th-11th centuries. Of the 10,000 structures built in the 11th to 13th centuries, 3122 remain of which 892 are mounds of brick ruins.

Mya Mo explains that farmers and townspeople used to occupy “Old Bagan” until the government made them move. His grandparents lived there then and had to move to New Bagan which caused a loss of livelihood. It must have been something to be living and working beside all these ancient monuments and a little less than something to be displaced.

Dhammayangyi Temple built by King Narathu 1170 A.D.

This is a huge temple, 250 feet across and never completed due to the death of the King. Rule and power at any cost describes King Narathu’s reign and demise. Narathu became a King of Bagan after murdering his father and brother who was next in line. To assuage bad karma he built this massive temple to gain merit and to compensate for the two murders. He himself was murdered and construction stopped. Nevertheless it is a grand structure that has ancient painted murals inside. We’ve seen countless Buddhas and it is interesting how his image shifts depending on what the locals look like.

A Burmese Buddha gazes down at Steve and our guide Mya Mo

The Buddha, Guatama and future Buddha, Maitreya built 900 years ago

According to Buddhist scripture, there is a long line of previous Buddha’s, Gautama Buddha being the 28th and Maitreya, the 29th who will incarnate on earth and teach the pure Dharma. I am remembering the largest book in the world we saw in Mandalay. Truly, studying these texts can be your whole life. Oh, I just realized what monks do. It amazes me how much knowledge and lore the locals know and believe. The people are immersed in their religion and philosophy from birth. I can only glean the ramifications of being part of an ancient homogeneous culture. My mind spins with all the permutations and how small my experience is in the scope of the world.

Going to these monuments that signify power and religious belief takes on a greater meaning than sight seeing. People are praying at every image we see. I think it interesting and I wonder what they are thinking. When in Laos, we went to the biggest full moon festival at Wat Phou, an ancient temple built on a mountainside that is older than Angkor Wat in Cambodia. We witnessed worshippers praying and then lifting a big rock. If they could lift it over their heads they believed their wishes would come true in the next year. How vulnerable to see the relief, joy or disappointment with their attempts to lift the stones. I could see their devotion and belief. Religion is an interesting concept. Coincidentally, Bagan’s original name was Pagan (Pa-gaahn). Now I’m muddying the waters.

We head to Sulamani temple which means “little ruby” because the King found one at this site and thought it auspicious. One neat thing about Mya Mo is he loves finding picture perfect spots. While Temples and pagodas don’t necessarily look alike they don’t look that much different either. Our guide knows the best face of a temple and when to go because the light will be better. He’s like a fashion photographer, temple cosmetician and stage manager as he urges us into the most advantageous spot.

Sulamani Temple, Minnanthu village

The corners have ogres as guardians
Ancient frescoes line the temple walls

A Buddha image once occupied this niche, my turn

The most spectacular temple in the region is Ananda Temple. Mya Mo wants us to take a picture from a specific angle but there is a group of Chinese tourists hogging the spot and doing a prolonged selfie session. I can tell he is getting annoyed but being a practicing Buddhist he paces instead. Finally our chance comes.

Ananda Temple built in 1105 and is one of four surviving temples in all of Bagan

The last shrine for the day is the brightest: Shwezigon Pagoda in Nyaung-U village. This is one of the oldest started by King Anawrahta, founder of the Pagan dynasty in 1060 and completed by his son in 1102. It is said that a bone and tooth of the Buddha were interred here but were subsequently stolen. It is a huge complex and site of many pilgrimages and festivals. Anawrahta was a venerated ruler and considered the father of Burmese culture. His temple is revered and well preserved despite the serious damage from earthquakes. The upper stupa shape was recently reinforced by 30,000 copper plates and gilded in tons of 18k gold leaf while the bottom terraces are still in their original form 900 years later.

A tiny water filled depression mirrors the pagoda perfectly

It is getting close to sunset, the witching hour for tourists to find the ultimate spot. The night before we went to Nyaung lat Phet Kan a man made hill for the view. Mya Mo was perturbed by the crowd; he prides himself on finding the best view with solitude. Tonight riding in our donkey cart we head to one of his private spots. There are only 4 other people there and it is quiet, meditative. The red orb of the setting sun is not illuminating the sky but makes the surrounding pagodas glow.

While we visit holy ruins, we also stay at amazing hotels, visit villages where families continue their traditional businesses, and see another Novitiation ritual. Mya Mo tells us he knows of a ceremony in Taungbi village, “Do you want to go, it may mean skipping something in the itinerary”. We can’t believe our luck, “How do you know about it?” He answers in his soft drawl, ” I am from Ba-gaaahn, I was born here, this is my village”, and he smiles. I love the joy, family, pomp and ceremony and ecstatic to witness another one.

Procession: grandparents first, sponsoring parents then village parents of novices, then novices
Eldest son of eldest sponsoring family

Oxen carts bring up the rear

The youngest of the sponsoring family with 2 year old twins

Then the feasting. The kid’s table; they’re adjusting their clothing, taking off headdresses, chowing down. The grown up table with beautiful young women in dazzling colorful silk longyi. The social event of the season. When a family sponsors, the rest of the village takes the opportunity to have their sons noviated. It is a lavish affair. This time we got to see and hear the traditional dancing that follows the feast.

Buddha would be pleased

Myanmar: Novitiation

Being in a country that is heterogeneously Buddhist is intriguing. There are shrines everywhere; hotel lobbies, gas stations, inside or in front of people’s homes and stores, on the roadsides, on a street corner. Monks, too are everywhere. Wait a few minutes and one or two or twenty will appear. Out of a forest, on a path, in the market, in an airport, at a monastery. I have heard the Buddha life story multiple times with little variation though sometimes with a bit more embellishment depending on the depth of knowledge of the speaker, interest of the listener and the region. In Myanmar and I imagine elsewhere in countries that practice Buddhism there is a rite of passage ceremony that marks the boy’s entry into the Buddhist community: Novitiation, the honor of becoming a novice monk.

As we were driving back from Hsipaw into Mandalay , I spotted a procession with riotous color and golden carriages pulled by oxen riding alongside a wall of ruins. I asked to stop the car for a photo and Sithu says, “It’s a Novitiation “. I’m thinking, O.K. that’s cool, and then I see an elephant all decorated in gold and red at the head of the procession and Sithu and I jump out of the car and start running to catch up with the elephant. I want to take a picture of the costumed children in the cart but Sithu grabs me and says come on. He stops a motor bike driver, he says something, I jump on and we are off riding down a village road tailing the elephant. The mahout slows the beast and lets me take pictures. Steve and Sithu have corralled another bike and have arrived at the scene. The boy in white in the howdah is the only son of the donor who is sponsoring the whole village’s children’s Novitiation. All the golden carts with oxen, the food and entertainment are paid for by this boy’s parents.

The bike driver motions me back on the bike and we scoot into the center of the village where the music is blaring and the entire village throng is in their best dress walking towards their pagoda. The carts are now empty of their young passengers. The children are made up to be as beautiful as a prince and are transported in carts so their feet do not touch the ground. It is connected to the Buddha life story when Siddhartha Gautama was a prince and as royalty was transported by carriage. He ultimately renounces his kingdom and leaves the palace to pursue his path for truth. That is what tomorrow is about for these young people.

For now, the party is just beginning. The parents lead the adults into the pagoda; the dad carrying the alms bowl and the mother holding the folded red robe of the novice monk. A Novitiation takes a couple of days. We are seeing the beginning of the ceremony with the entourage and village feast. Tonite there will be dancing and a bigger feast. Tomorrow their head is shaved, they are consecrated, and they don the robes and depart for the monastery where they will live with monks and learn the Buddhist doctrine for a week at least. We learn that beginning of summer when school is closed is when these ceremonies usually take place. It is a rare spectacle for an outsider to witness and we were the only foreigners. It does not happen every year. It is so expensive that brothers and sisters (girls have an ear piercing ceremony) and all boys who have not been novices yet no matter their age can participate. The whole village volunteers with food, cleanup and logistics. The children can be five or younger especially if an older brother is going to be a novitiate. Sponsoring one event per family is enough.

The boys wear make up

Not everyone is happy about Novitiation
Steve got her to smile
A mother handed me her baby and was pleased. I loved it
The people are so friendly and generously invited us in

We could not believe our luck. We finally said goodbye with a fullness of spirit and gratitude.