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.

Myanmar: Full Moon Festival at Bawgyo Pagoda

We get to go to the Bawgyo Pagoda festival. I can’t believe how lucky we are to be here. Auspicious. The place is packed with Buddhists from all over the region. The religious aspect centers on the four figures of Buddha being on display, newly gilded with gold leaf inside the pagoda. Outside on this warm, black night, sprawled over acres, are the jewelers, food sellers, home goods merchants and pavilions packed with families chowing down all this good and greasy food. Everyone is dressed up. Hipsters in western clothes with orange and yellow dyed hair. The young and old don their traditional wear. Gambling, usually forbidden is in full swing during festival days. We watch a Mandalay singer performing and can’t quite appreciate the dissonance. Then we hear a Shan singer and wonder who stepped on the cat. The crowd is loving it. Men with blinding headlamps are moving through the audience hawking snacks. It is a great big party. Everything is over the top. Sound, food, smells, colors. Girls are doing hip hop routines and there are carnival rides. In fact the most unbelievable sight is the Ferris wheel. It is not mechanized. Several young, strong, agile men scramble up the internal framework and by balancing and tipping their weight bring the cars into motion. Then they gradually bring the cars to a halt jumping onto the moving cars and countering the centrifugal force. We couldn’t stop watching. What a fun night.

Welcome all who pass through the gate
Mont Lin Ma Yar – this 2 piece top and bottom patty translates to husband and wife snack. Eat hot.
Bawgyo Pagoda

And we go again the next morning to view in daylight. Totally different, equally wonderful. We spend time inside the pagoda. Many people are praying and others are picnicking heartily on the floor. It is a truly a festival of the heart and soul.

The long mirrored entry into the pagoda
A Palaung woman
Palaung and Shan women praying together

The bulging eyes caused by numerous gold leaf wishes for eye healing

Shan women traditional dress
Palaung headdresses
She startled when asked to take her picture and then gladly posed

GOKTEIK VIADUCT

We snake through the crowds to exit the festival. As always, the coordination between our guide and driver is precise; we step away from the festival and into the car in one motion. We will be taking the train that traverses the Gokteik Viaduct on its way into Pyin Oo Lwin, It runs once a day and we have some distance to cover.

This railway system provided one more link for the British to expand its influence in Myanmar connecting Lashio in the north and the British summer capital of Maymo (now Pyin Oo Lwin) in the south. Nowadays it provides foreigners and locals a more pleasant ride than traveling the gorge with its steep switchbacks and hairpin turns. We drove that hellish route from Mandalay a few days go, wedged between caravans of melon filled trucks going to China in the north. Not that long ago, soldiers rode the trains to protect passengers from skirmishes between government and Shan forces.

Sithu got us tickets in “ordinary class” (about 700 kyat or 50 cents) as opposed to an Upper Class compartment where the luxury is soft, no longer reclining seats and a neck cushion instead of our wooden benches. I am good with it. We are waiting at Naung Peng station after leaving Hsipaw, and a train is already on the tracks waiting to depart towards Lashio. Women are selling food and trinkets to passengers through the windows, dogs are hanging out by the steps of the cars.

The Naung Peng stationhouse

There’s no sense of urgency and I’m wondering when our train will arrive and then we notice a second train hidden behind this one and it is ours. We scramble up this train’s steep steps, cut through the car and jump out the other side to board our train as it is readying to pull out. We take our seats, breathe deeply and look out the open window…

The train rocks and rumbles over the worn tracks. Clickity clack, the sound is lulling, the scenery epic and the soup of conversation blankets the train’s steady cadence. Men sell soft drinks and women carry baskets on their heads piled high with snacks swaying with the movement. The whole experience feels dream like and as I look out the open window I see people leaning out, touching branches and waving to each other, laughing with the adventure of it all.

Going through the first tunnel

The viaduct

The viaduct built around 1900 with Pennsylvania steel, is the second longest railway trestle in the world at 689 meters or 2240 feet and 100 meters high. The river is a long way down and we wave to a tiny farmer who waves back. After three hours, we are back in Pyin Oo Lwin, greet our stalwart driver and depart Shan state to head back to Mandalay.

Myanmar: Shan of the North

I am glad we are leaving Mandalay division for a couple of days and heading north to the hill station of Pyin Oo Lwin in Northern Shan state. It is at a higher elevation, 3500 feet, and will be cooler which was why the Brits established a military post there and made it the summer capital of British Burma. They called it Maymyo after Colonel May during the British time and up through the 1970’s. Burmese know it as Pan Myo Taw or City of Flowers. It is the current military regime that renamed it Pyìn Oo Lwin. I mention it as the naming and renaming of villages by royalty, the military, the Brits doesn’t erase the indigenous name. No one forgets which is which.

It is generally accepted that the Brits exploited the country’s resources, interfered with their governance and crippled the native economy while making themselves rich. The British occupied from 1824 to 1948. Steve and I both just finished reading “Burmese Days”, George Orwell’s 1934 novel inspired by his experience being in the Indian Imperial Police for 5 years. It profiled the attitude of British superiority that accompanied colonial rule and allowed terrible things to happen setting in motion a systemic break down of the culture that still reverberates today. Myanmar is not peacefully unified. It is made up of various “states” that reflect majority ethnicities. Bamar (Burmese) the largest, includes Mandalay and Yangon. Shan states, where we are now is more central in the east. The Palaung are in northeast Shan and embattled. Some of these states are stable but many others are fighting. Not all parts of Myanmar are open to tourism.

We’ve been fortunate to have real conversation and interaction with our guides, their friends and locals. It gives me some perspective and makes my experience that much richer. I feel like I am a receiver of a long oral history. It is clear they love their individual cultures and country as a whole. Our guide, Sithu is Bamar married to a Shan woman and shares with us some cultural differences with the cautious laugh of a married man.

In this hill town we see Moslem, Indian, Buddhist, Christian. It feels strange to see city streets, sidewalks, a central clock tower, a mosque, and horse and carriage. Ironically, I’ve gotten used to the Burmese village life, food, climate, dirt, toilets and from the outside Pyin Oo Lwin looks like any medium sized town in the States; civilized, comfortable, nondescript except for that mosque across from the clock tower.

An Indian gent

Horse and carriage tradition from colonial time remains unchanged

Novice nuns collecting alms
We visit a nunnery. The girl novices help in the orphanages and take classes. They have 2 specific days of the week where they go into town, collect alms and buy neccessaries. This is one of those days. We enjoy meeting them and feel sad too. They are mostly of the Palaung ethnic group further north where there is ongoing conflict. Many are orphans themselves and some still have relatives but are sent here to keep them safe.
Sithu talks to her and she is homesick . We all feel the tears well up

Pyin Oo Lwin with its milder climate is also known for its gardens. The Kandawgyi Botanical Garden was established in 1917 by the British and architected by a botanist trained at Kew Gardens. Interestingly, the laborers were Turkish prisoners of war.

The cooler temperatures and being among flowers is a pleasant relief. The floral area is nice but not exceptional. I am drawn to the pine forest and its smell reminiscent of home. A twinge comes and goes. It is wonderful to walk through a giant bamboo grove and observe a nesting swan with her mate primping the nest.

Kandawgyi Botanical Garden

See us?

We head to Hsipaw, an old town in northern Shan state where the last Shan crown prince resided. Other than that I know nothing except I like to say the name: “See-paw”. I cannot decipher our itinerary. That, coupled with not having any prior knowledge has me open to all that unfolds. What a nice surprise to have a private bungalow on the Duthawaddy, a cousin of the Ayeyarwaddy. A peaceful spot with our porch facing the river perfect for enjoying the wine our travel agent gave us. Being on the water makes me happy. So does wine.

across the river- early morning view of Hsipaw

Morning mist
There is nothing on our side so we commute back and forth by long boat like everyone else. We meet our trekking guide, Aung Soe across the river. He says, “Call me, Also”. We are used to guides anglicizing their names to spare the mispronunciation. In Vietnam I thought I was saying thank you but the wrong inflection made it “shut up”. Oops.

We ramble through the village of Hsipaw, just walking among villagers doing their lives and as the houses peter out, we walk farm land, acres of cultivated, irrigated fields to the horizon and hills beyond.

On the way to Festival

Beginning of the irrigation line

We walk through another village…

I can’t get enough of the childrenBanana blossom
Going to Festival having come a long way already

Most everyone we meet is going to the Full Moon Festival at Bawgyo Pagoda several miles away outside of Hsipaw. I think the Buddhists have worked out their religious practice to celebrate as many events as possible. This is the biggest festival in Northern Shan state, an extravaganza that lasts 3 days and happens only once a year. Bawgyo is one of the most well known in the entire country and we are itching to go.

As we walk, Aung Soe keeps filling in history and current events of this Shan province including the rapid change in farm rights vs. land rights and the illegal means that trick local farmers to sell their land for development. We feel fortunate to see this countryside now before the inevitable. It is a great, long walk and it is really hot. We are heading to the river to catch a boat for a trip up the Namtu where it meets the Duthawaddy.

Water buffalo waiting for us at the boat launch

Laundry, bathing, boating, fishing, playing in the Namtu

We finally cool off in deliciously cold, clear water at the confluence

A surprising and initially startling thing here is how often we get pulled into a photo op with the locals. As soon as I climb out of the boat and go up the hill an older woman latches onto me, puts her hand in mine and pulls me aside for a picture. Aung Soe says it is a pride for them to be photographed with a westerner and that often the picture is posted in their home like family. It is a new experience and very sweet.

Our new best friend

Myanmar: The Ayeyarwaddy-river of life

The Ayeyarwaddy or Irrawaddy is a river, the lifeline and liquid thread that stitches the country together. It runs north to south for 1350 miles through the entire country. Villages sprouted along its bank, dynasties were launched and crushed along this river, fishermen net its marine life, tradespeople transport goods, fields are irrigated, people clean and wash everything in it and tourists enjoy the flow of history and local life.

The heat is very strong today and when we say, “it’s really hot” and locals agree then we know it is the start of the Burmese summer. School children are on break for 3 months. April gets so hot that farmers are idle ; harvest is over, fields are furrowed and dotted with manure piles in readiness for May planting. The rains come in June and then crops start growing.

For now people are in high spirits anticipating Water Festival, the celebration of the Buddhist New Year in mid-April. It is 10 days of holiday. Families reunite, eat communally, visit the pagodas and most importantly, enjoy the water rituals. Think of thousands of people publicly splashing and dousing themselves enthusiastically while cleaning their karma, washing away the sins of the year. A brilliant concept: public holiday, great food, staying wet during the hottest time of year and cleaning up one’s act.

We are headed to the Ayeyarwaddy and pass by the ” brown village” home to the black market for opium, gambling, drugs, prostitution in Mandalay district. It is on both sides of the river and is predictably a slum, an entrenched poverty that stains generations. Sadly there are children here. We pass by numerous small shacks that house people who have migrated into the city from their farms, finding work in the city outskirts making bamboo walls, mats, industrial sized baskets.

Two girls
Their homes

Girl scraping bamboo slats smooth

Weaving, hammering slats in place for walls

Everywhere I look, there is something that catches the eye. Sithu and our driver cooperate with my photo inclinations and open the sun roof while I stand up and shoot.

We finally get to the boats, no dock, just down a sandy hill, across a few rotted boards and climb aboard one boat and walk across the bows of two other boats to get to ours.

Shoving off

We get on the Ayeyarwaddy and are blessed by the breeze of boat travel for the hour to Mingun about 10 km north of Mandalay. The river is very shallow and we pass dredgers and the temporary villages that house the workers and their families. The light is clear and sharp and we are drawn to a stunning white shape in the distance.

Hsinbyume Mye Thein Tan Pagoda modeled after Mt. Meru

King Bagyidaw built this pagoda in 1816-1819 to show his love and to memorialize his first wife’s death in childbirth. Her name was Hsinbyume (white elephant queen). The second name of Mye (emerald) Thein Tan (100,000) references the 100,000 emeralds used to complete the pagoda. Not too shabby for the Konbaung dynasty. At the top it is so white and the sun so brilliant people cover up to avoid eye strain. Others choose covering to avoid darkening of their skin, Chinese women are the most committed.I am intrigued and overwhelmed by the foreign names, stories, history and legends that surround what we are physically seeing. I feel I am inside a fairy tale, i.e., like hearing the true story of Cinderella and simultaneously touching the pumpkin coach and her glass slipper. The way I remember places is often by what I’ve bought or eaten. While resting after walking up and down the Pagoda steps and drinking a glass of watery iced coffee I notice the colorful umbrellas nearby. It is so hot I bargain for one and am immediately gratified and shaded by my purchase. I now remember Mingun as where I got my grey flowered umbrella with tassels.

A short walk brings us to the world’s largest unfinished pagoda. The base was finished at 50 meters but the entire structure was meant to be 150. It is colossal. King Bodawpaya had the workers ferry the stone and brick across the river to this location even though the materials were available close by. His insistence exhausted the local resources and laborers. The King lost interest. 50 years later an earthquake damaged and split the structure. I can imagine the populace repeating “what’s comes around, goes around”. Our guide comments that his many “eccentricities ” and demands made him greatly disliked.

Pahtodawgi Pagoda constructed for King Bodawpaya in 1790

We head back on the river and its glorious cooler air. We have a date with a cart and donkey ride around Ava, the ancient imperial capital of 5 centuries of successive Burmese kingdoms also located on the Irrawaddy. Steve and I are a bit squeaky about doing such a tourist thing and it turns out that the roads are also ancient and besides walking, bicycling, and the occasional motor bike it is the local taxi. It is a bucolic setting, our cart is quite charming, our donkey and driver around the same advanced age.

We see remains of an old kingdom in a field of sunflowers, a golden spired stupa in a banana field, a leaning tower and a cute baby. At one point I got out of the cart to photograph a road sign and unbeknownst to me a bullock cart was coming up fast behind me with the driver tsk,tsk-ing me out of the way.

The road sign

I feel I am time traveling, between the information of centuries ago and what remains standing today. As the day draws to a close, we drive past rice paddies til we come to Bagaya Monastery, a 400 year old large wooden structure not far from Ava.

Door carvings of celestial beings

It is 200 feet high and 100 feet wide built with 267 huge teak posts (one is 9 feet in circumference). Loads of ornate carvings recently coated in crude oil for preservation. I didn’t know and touched a carving and I was done for the day.

Myanmar, An Introduction

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.

Jade inlay bordered by gold and lacquer

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.

The crowd awaits the procession of 1000 monks
They wait too

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.

Chubby Budda with a buddhacious headdress covered in gems and gold medallions

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.

The intricate finely carved detail is extraordinary

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.

Called “150 weft weaving”-150 bobbins of fine silk and gold thread make heirloom garments

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.

A boatman near by, reminded me of Alex

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.