Memories of Mysterious Myanmar

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I had to travel half-way around the world to discover through Myanmar Astrology that since I was born on a Wednesday and my husband on a Saturday, we are the perfect match – destined to have a lifetime of happiness – which might explain how we’ve endured for so long!

Thus began a voyage of enlightenment into a country isolated from the world for decades because of military rule and only recently opening its borders as a democracy.

As most visitors do, my adventure begins in Yangon, the largest city of Myanmar.  Traffic is chaotic until we turn down a quiet tree lined street in the Embassy Quarter and pull up to the Belmond Governor’s Residence.  The elegant teak mansion dating from the 1920’s is set in extensive gardens with lotus ponds and an amazing fan-shaped pool blending into the lush surroundings.  Music coming from a party at the Sri Lanka Embassy across the road completes the sense of slipping back into a bygone era when Myanmar was known as Burma.

Yangon is home to many fine buildings and temples that are well worth a visit but the mighty Shwedagon Pagoda cannot be missed!  Gleaming with gold leaf, its Umbrella and Vane studded with jewels topped by a Diamond Orb totaling 1,800 carats, it looms over the city.

I do recommend entry with a guide even though maps of the pagoda are available in many languages.  All material reminds visitors that the dress code for visiting temples and pagodas is no shorts, covered shoulders, plus shoes and socks must be removed on entry.

Our guide, carrying a small black book which turns out to be a 100 year calendar, leads us to our appropriate Buddha’s.  Mine – Wednesday – is represented by an elephant and my husband – Saturday – is a dragon. We bathe our Buddha’s in clear water for a blessing and then strike the large bell, its deep bong echoing through the vast complex, to share our blessings with all there.

Everywhere I wander, in the pagoda and on the streets, I find the Burmese people very friendly and helpful - especially when I enter a local small three story mall seeking a hair salon for a quick fix after dusty days of travel.  The receptionist speaks English and tells me I must wait my turn. Dutifully I join dozens of men, women and children doing the same. In a few minutes I am ushered into the shampoo room which consists of several long massage tables and told to take off my shoes, lie down on my back with my head slightly off the table. For the next 25 minutes I experience utter bliss as my hair is not only shampooed three times but I am given a head and neck massage worthy of the best masseur.  To add to the pleasure, another young woman gives me a hand and arm massage. Highly recommend you treat yourself to this unique pleasure!

Totally relaxed I am ready the next day for my very early flight from Yangon to Bagan, one of the main visitor attractions in Myanmar and one of the greatest historic sites in Southeast Asia.

My first sight of Bagan is the breathtaking vista of over 3,000 temples, most built between the 11th & 13th centuries, dotting the plain beside the Ayeyarwady River.

We stroll through the bustling morning market at Nyaung, with its stalls piled high with exotic fruits and vegetables and typical Myanmar products such as betel leaf ( which the Burmese chew) and thanaka wood that is made into Thanaka Cream.  This is the first time I notice several Burmese women and children wearing a yellowish white paste all over their faces. I am told Thanaka is a unique feature of Myanmar and widely believed to keep skin looking young, supple and elastic plus protect from harmful UV-A rays.  Hoping for the best, I rub some onto my cheeks before proceeding to the jetty to board my ship, Belmond Road to Mandalay, anchored in mid-river.

We are greeted with cold glasses of champagne (a good start) and led to our state room which is larger and better appointed than I had expected (additional points!).  After a brief rest we head back to visit one of the most significant pagodas of Bagan, Ananka Temple. This architectural masterpiece was built in 1090AD and contains four gilded Buddha statues standing 30 ft tall.  I roam through several other temples but am warned away from the many damaged in the 2016 earthquake which rocked this part of Myanmar.

As daylight fades I hurry up a hill to watch a glorious sunset over plains peppered with hundreds of ancient pagodas.  Then, after dark, we stop at a small temple near the jetty to participate in an exclusive candle-lighting ceremony organized by the ship.  Each candle we light is offered for world peace – a wish shared by all in the international group onboard the Road to Mandalay.

The next morning several options are offered for exploration.  Unfortunately, I did not book in advance for the Hot Air Balloon Ride at Sunrise which I discover was essential so miss the opportunity.  Hint: book early! Instead of biking or taking a horse cart ride I choose to visit Taung Be Village near the jetty to participate in one of Belmond’s Social Contribution Projects – a free health clinic established by the ship doctor, Dr Hla Tun.  

Each week when the ship arrives in Bagan hundreds of patients, many coming from as far as the Chinese border, gather to be treated.  The clinic is on the grounds of the Nat-Htaunt Monastery and has volunteer doctors from around the world – the morning I visit I am pleased to report it was a doctor from Wisconsin USA seeing patients.

I am honored to meet the Chief Abbot, Ven Sam-Va-Ra and when the interpreter explains why I am visiting, he smiles and encourages me to write about the clinic and the work they do to help the Burmese people

As we sail along the Ayeyarwady River I see how simply they live.  The shore is dotted with farms and often farmers can be seen in their ox drawn carts moving from field to field.  At the water’s edge, families wash their clothes and bathe their children. There are no loud noises, no chaotic traffic here in the countryside.  When the ship anchors mid-river for the night the silence is serene and the sky blazes with stars in the utter blackness.

At dawn we sail on to Myin Mu, the northern most point for cruising this trip.  During the early months of the year the water levels of the Ayeyarwody drop creating a narrower channel for navigation near Mandalay necessitating the ship mooring at this riverside town 30 miles south of the city.

Always on my travels I find seeing the natural life of a country and contact with the local people the highlights of my visits.  This is true in my tri-shaw ride around the town visiting markets and families of bamboo weavers. And again in the afternoon walking through the picturesque farming village of Alacapa, experiencing the warm friendliness of the people and glimpsing a life-style unchanged for centuries.

Because of the river level we must drive into Mandalay.  On the way we are rewarded by being stopped by a parade which consists of a wedding party, a group attending an ear piercing ceremony and families celebrating their sons being inducted into monkhood.  It seems a fitting prologue to arriving at Kuthodaw Pagoda, a UNESCO listed site with 729 stone tablets inscribed with Buddhist scriptures.

The sights of Mandalay are many and varied: streets of the marble quarter where artisans sculpt Buddha’s of all sizes; outdoor workshops of bronze casters creating statuesque Buddha images and ceremonial gongs; the famous UBein Bridge, one of Myanmar’s most photographed sites and too irresistible not to walk across; Sagaing Hills, the spiritual center and home to hundreds of pagodas, monasteries, nunneries and Buddhist learning centers; and finally Soon U Ponya Shin Pagoda, its high vantage point offering a spectacular panoramic view of the city.

It is fitting to leave my ship in beautiful Mandalay to fly to Inle Lake which proves to be the most unexpectedly fascinating sites of all my travels.

My plane has no assigned seats – everyone is on their own!  The flight is short and my transit through the tiny airport at Heho is swift.

It is an hour’s drive to the edge of the lake and the Inle Princess Resort – offering 46 guest chalets crafted by Intha carpenters from bamboo and reclaimed hardwood.

Almost immediately we board our private open air long tail boat to explore this UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, ASEAN Heritage Site, National Wildlife Sanctuary and a national Wetland Sanctuary.

The Intha people row standing up with one leg wrapped around an oar.  Our “leg rower” takes us away from the resort jetty and we drop him at his home on stilts before our driver fires up the engine for our first day on this vast water world.

Birds soar overhead, the Elephant Head Mountain Range surround us in this photographers dream of calm waters dotted with floating vegetation, fishing canoes, and entire villages built on stilts.

For three glorious days we explore by boat to visit silk weavers, admire endless floating gardens where fruits and vegetables are grown.  We stop at the small market of Indein to visit the Sagar Pagoda complex with dozens of small stupas, which are in very bad condition but I can still see fascinating Buddha images.  There is a traffic jam of local boats as a farmer bathes his two water buffalo in the channel leading into this floating village.

The day we visit the big five day market in Nanpan is a true insight into the life style of the ethnic Pa-O, Danu and Intha people who come to sell their goods.  The market contains everything! Endless stalls are piled high with fish, meat, vegetables, fruit, sweets, pottery, fabric, electronics, iPhones from Korea, plus barbers, a dentist, tailors with treadle Singer sewing machines, and a pharmacy where no prescriptions are needed to purchase drugs from China and India.

This beautiful, unique and fragile world truly enlightens me into the Myanmar culture and touches my heart.  I leave you with a few truths and tips for your journey to mysterious magical Myanmar.

  • The Myanmar people are friendly, helpful and polite

  • Respect the Myanmar people and their unique traditions.

  • Don’t take any photos that may make people feel embarrassed.

  • Do smile

  • Don’t point with your foot (In Myanmar the feet convey messages.  Pointing with your feet means disrespect)

  • Wear appropriate clothes when visiting religious sites

  • Do tuck away your feet (When you sit, your legs should not be stretched out and your feet should never face the Buddha)

  • Don’t touch anyone on the head (The head is the most esteemed part of the body.  To be touched on the head is considered aggressive)

  • Don’t kiss in public

  • Don’t disturb people praying or meditating

  • Calling with your finger up means calling for a challenge

  • Visitors may experience electricity outages – please understand about the electricity situation in Myanmar

  • Don’t touch the robe of a monk

  • Do not go where you are advised not to go (Myanmar is slowly opening up and more destinations will be accessible in the future)

  • Relax and enjoy your holiday! We did!

travelKelsey Kreiling