Mingalaba! Hello and Welcome to Myanmar-Our local guide greeted us when we landed at the airport.at Mandalay on November 24, 2017. We were a group of 12 women travelling with Wonderful World, led by Shibani Vig, looking forward to a week-long trip to this off beat, not so touristy destination. As we drove to our hotel, we got a good glimpse into the last capital of Burmese royalty, which is now the second largest city in the country. As if to give us a sneak preview of what the trip had in store for us, we were taken to the top of Mandalay Hill, to the Su Taung Pyi (wish granting) Pagoda for a panoramic view of the city and the Irrawaddy river, against the setting sun.
The next day was a visit to Sagaing, an important centre for Buddhist meditation, known for a number of monasteries. It was a unique experience at Myat Setkyar monastery, to watch the hundreds of monks in their maroon robes, silently line up as a daily ritual for their last meal of the day at 10:30 am. We imagined how it would be for young boys to learn about ascetic life as novice monks. We got to chat with a monk who had come from Arunachal Pradesh to learn more about Theravada Buddhism. After that it was a visual treat to reach the U Min Thone Sae Pagoda, where we saw 45 Buddha statues through 30 caves (doorways), all carved out of hill rock, a great place to take photographs in the niches! Other important religious places we visited were the Shwenandaw Monastery with intricate wood carving on Teak, the Kuthodaw Pagoda which is like the largest book in the world consisting of 729 shrines with stone tablets engraved with Buddhist scriptures, and the Mahamuni Buddha statue, which according to the legend was made by the Buddha himself when he was alive. The gilded pagodas were glittering in the sunlight and we really appreciated the word Shwe in Burmese, meaning Gold. The use of Gold leaf on the Buddha statues in the various Pagodas, and as an offering by devotees seems an important part of the Burmese religious tradition, so our planned visit to the Gold leaf workshop proved to be very useful and informative.
From Mandalay we moved on to Bagan- what a landscape. We climbed up the narrow winding stairway at the Shwe Gu Dyi temple, built on an elevated brick structure, and we arrived at the terrace to a breath taking view of the Bagan plains- green trees and vegetation interspersed with thousands of brown religious monuments dating back to the 11th-13th century, against a blue sky, made a perfect picture. Old Bagan especially where we were staying, near the Tharabar gate, was the right place to be and just walk around on one’s own discovering old monuments at every corner. It felt lucky to be bang in the middle of an archaeological site! Our itinerary also included visits to other temples such as the Ananda Phaya, built with some Indian architectural influence by 8 monks who came from the Nandamula cave in India. The unique feature of this temple was the huge Buddha statue that appears to be smiling when viewed from a distance, but appears serious up close. That was amazing. Our shopping later at the local market in Bagan was largely to buy the popular lacquerware handicrafts- the selection was very tempting.
Our next stop was at Inle Lake in the Shan state- the mountain region of Myanmar. As we entered the Inle Lake Biosphere in our canoe styled motor boats, the expanse of the clear blue water, the azure sky, and the green mountains seemed to move along with us. The flock of sea gulls flying low, diving in and out, appeared to be teasing us to play with them- I just didn’t want the ride to end! It was interesting to see the Intha fishermen and their unique style of paddling with one leg around one oar. We also got a chance to visit different villages around the lake and see the cottage industries there- from lotus fibre and silk weaving, to a silversmith village and then a cheroot (cigar) making workshop. We met the Kayan ethnic group (Padaung tribe), where the women wear bronze rings around their necks to make them slender and more beautiful. The more the rings you wear the more prosperous you are. We also tried to imagine farming for the lake inhabitants- we saw floating farms that were about 10 metre long and 1 meter wide, anchored by long bamboo sticks, growing cucumbers, tomatoes and green beans- all climbing plants with small roots. The village Inn Dein was a great experience, walking through the Stupa ruins and passing by a variety of shops/stalls along the way selling souvenirs, handicrafts and art (paintings) straight from the artists!
We experienced Burmese hospitality, and cuisine- sumptuous salads like the Tea Leaf Salad, meat and vegetable dishes beyond the familiar Khao Suey. Our hotels were extremely well located, so carefully selected. Our guides were helpful and knowledgeable. Our group was fun with an interesting mix of fitness enthusiasts, travel and history buffs, nature lovers and art connoisseurs. There was much chatting, sharing, dancing, laughing, eating and partying!
We got to see nature in its glory- the myriad of colours at sunset from a variety of locations- from the top of Mandalay hill, from the old teak U Bein bridge at Amarapura, and from our hotel at the serene Inle Lake. And the much talked about sunrise from the elevated Shwe Gu Dyi temple, against the plains of Bagan, watching the hot air balloons as dots disappearing into the sky.
Our trip ended at Yangon- the largest city in Myanmar, but no longer the capital, where we were reminded of Delhi or Mumbai with its British style colonial buildings. We spent a nice evening at the iconic Strand Hotel. Amidst the chanting of monks, we got to see the jewel of Yangon- the Shwedagon Pagoda- considered the most sacred as it has genuine relics of Buddha. The locals visit the “birthday corners” at the Pagoda for naming their children, based on astrology and the Burmese Zodiac signs. For example, the Tuesday corner is represented by the Lion and is influenced by the planet Mars. The Pagoda also has a Bodhi tree transplanted from India in 1926, so is special for us! A quick visit to the tomb of the Last Mughal- Bahadur Shah Zafar- reminded us of the linkages between the history of India and Burma. As I learnt more about the country opening up over the last 7 years, with over a hundred embassies now in Myanmar, I couldn’t help think that this country is a must visit!
As each of us settles back in our daily routine back home, our thoughts sometimes wander to those trip moments, getting us to scroll through the collection of photographs shared so promptly across our whatsapp group. And definitely results in a sigh and a smile…memories to be cherished for a long time!
Jayzuba! Thank you Shibani and Wonderful World, for such a memorable holiday in Myanmar, with such a cohesive fun group, and a well curated itinerary. Signing off till the next trip!