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Myanmar: Myanmar in my bucket list

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As I went over my list of desired Southeast Asian destinations, I found myself realizing that I have in fact already seen some key places, like Angkor Wat, Borobudur and Ayutthaya. But one spot has not figured prominently in my list – Myanmar. I wasn’t even sure what was in Myanmar. So, while doing my pre-departure research, I came up with another list, which was my short list of sites that I thought will dovetail with my love for archeology, history, art and culture. I wasn’t prepared for the incredible sites that were to greet me.

Let’s start with its capital, Yangon. Very much the heart of Myanmar, Yangon is its entry point. It is its cultural, historical and artistic center. The beautiful thing about Yangon is that it has carried on to the 21st century all of Myanmar’s traditional art, culture and history. And the highlight is its majestic temple, the Shwedagon Temple. Situated right at the center of Yangon, its commanding presence cannot be missed. Towering 105 meters, its golden stupa is a glimmering beacon that can be seen from most parts of the city, much like the Eiffel Tower, but in gold. Entering the Shwedagon, one has to take off one’s shoes (it’s pretty much this way in the whole of Myanmar), take an elevator ride, cross a bridgeway while looking at the whole of Yangon, and start one’s journey into this massive golden stupa. There are pre-arranged prayer areas, where pilgrims can actually stay overnight, hopefully in deep meditation and contemplation. After a few introductory zones, I and my companions turned a corner and there it was, a heap of gold with smaller gold stupas, surrounding it like sentinels standing guard, ready to protect its king.

As dawn descended on the night sky, and lights are turned on, the shimmer of all these gold can be blinding. There were devotees all seated on the floor, hands clasped in prayerful meditation. In one section, there was a photo exhibit of what was inside the very top portion of the stupa. Incredibly, every single inch under the umbrella of the stupa was covered with precious and semiprecious stones, gold bands, even gold wrist watches. These were the offerings of the citizens to their Buddha.

After retiring for the night from all that gold, we had to wake up early the following morning, for more gold! Taking a four-hour car ride (that included a breakfast stop), we waited for our guide to secure a place in what I think was a ten-wheeler truck fitted with benches. It was another two hours of open truck ride through a winding road of valleys and hills to get to Kyaiktiyo. And what did we see in Kyaiktiyo? A boulder perched on its side, covered in gold with a small stupa on, as its crown! But before we could see the golden rock, we had to remove our shoes at the foot of the mountain, walk barefoot (maybe 15-20 minutes, one way) and make sure that we don’t lose sight of each other (even though it was only one way, one can get swallowed by the volume of pilgrims). To see this rock just on the verge of rolling down the cliff was a spectacle in itself. Of course our naughty guide was game with us on fooling around with the kind of photos we can shoot with the rock, such as me under the rock like it was on my head, finger underneath the rock, etcetera. But we cannot take any crazy shots like swallowing the rock or some extreme tourist antics because, just like in Shwedagon, everyone was in prayerful acquiescence. Notwithstanding the six-hour ride back to Yangon, to see the magic-like setting of this boulder, was well worth it.

The following day, we had to be up as early as 4 am to catch our flight to Mandalay where Kuthodaw Pagoda is. A World Heritage Site, it has the world’s biggest book. Spread out in an area of 5.26 hectares, it has 730 kyauksa gu, a small white structure that houses one page from the teachings of the Buddha. To see 730 white structures neatly arranged in rows and columns was quite surreal. There were individual marble “pages” about 5’x3’x5”, while intricately incised from top to bottom is the text, which is 80 to 100 lines front and back. Unfortunately, the letters are all in black at this point. According to research, they used to be in gold. I appreciated the labor, the love, the devotion of the people who worked on this marvel. I can only compare it to the hieroglyphs of Egypt in terms of the amount of labor and devotion needed for its completion.

Just when we thought we’ve seen the best of Myanmar, we were brought to Bagan. This deserves an OMG. I have always heard of Bagan. All travel brochures and even friends have told me about it. And indeed Bagan was a dream beyond anything that I imagined. The stupas scattered around the whole of Bagan were made entirely of red bricks. The stupas were not as cold and majestic like Shwedagon or Shwezindaw. There was a more homey feel to these stupas. Spread in an area of 40.15 2mi, the unending stupas were a sight to behold. The number of stupas is stated in varying figures, with some online sources putting it at over 2000. Our guide said it’s over 3000, while some say 4000. Angkor Wat was impressive for its size, but Bagan was like a kaleidoscope that changed its image from every angle or a koi pond that made different movements on its own. Because of its sheer size, we had to hire a horse-drawn carriage and weave our way around town. It was so amusing because with every single brick stupa we saw, we would ask the carriage driver to stop. After a while, we just told him to keep going as we became more discerning as to which stupa to photograph. Incredible? Yes! But what we didn’t know, Indein was still waiting in the wings.

The following morning, we took another early flight for Inle Lake. It’s a big marsh area where the traditional fisher men show their very interesting skills. Known as the Intha people, they would use one leg to paddle their way through the lake while catching fish. The surprising thing about Inle Lake is its climate. Who knew that Southeast Asia had very cold temperatures, like here? We were all caught off guard and by night our bathrobes did their job. But that’s getting ahead of my story. As we meandered around Inle Lake, we were able to take photographs of their ring-necked women from the Kayan tribe. Apparently it has never been established why this practice ever started. They are nevertheless fascinating to any visitor.

But the real highlight of Inle Lake tour is Indein. It was a phenomenon! The minute we stepped in Indein, it was just magic. Unlike Bagan where the stupas were spread throughout the town, Indein was the total opposite. They had very tall slim ones practically side by side. It was unbelievable! Imagine walking the busy streets of New York, or our very own Avenida, and you literally have to weave your way around the crowd, but this time, instead of a crowd, it’s one stupa after another. Most of the stupas were like the ones in Bagan, made of bricks, but there were some that were restored and they used white paint and gold accents. The volume of these stupas was beyond comprehension that left all of us with the best pictures and the best memories at the very last day.

I still have to see Laos and India, but after seeing Myanmar, it has shot it’s way on the top of my Southeast Asian list. Now Siam Reap (Angkor or Cambodia) comes second, and Borobodur of Indonesia comes third. There was just so much variety and flavor to Myanmar that it will make you wonder, “Why did I ever put it last on my list?”

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