How we explored trails of Burma; came to understand its culture and people; got hypnotised by its beauty and parted friends till the next time.

Day 1 & 2 – Bagan

Our plane landed in Yangon late in the evening and we were rushed to the bus station to start our journey. The first stop was Bagan, where we arrived before 5 am next morning. We knew our rooms won’t be ready for another couple of hours, so we went straight to Shwesandaw Pagoda to see the sunrise. ‘Shwesandaw’ means sunset, so it is a grand view in the morning as well as in the evening I assume.

It is an amazing way to start a journey – with a beautiful landscape that extends before you. I cannot say that you can see everything for miles and miles, but it is breathtaking nonetheless – yellow sky, smoky outlines of temples and pagodas and a bit further – a storm of hot air balloons rising into the sky and slowly floating across the ocean of gold & grey.

Maybe we were not visiting in the best of seasons: it was somewhat dry and thus a bit dusty, but the scenery looked like a watercolour painting with layers and layers of shades, so I didn’t mind.

After about 40 minutes on the pagoda we went for breakfast in a local tea shop. Although we became  huge fans of Myanmar food, breakfast did not become our routine – it was rather heavy and oily. I would recommend to try it and decide for yourself though – it was something interesting and new. One of the dishes was a cold salad with crystal noodles, runny egg, bread crumbs & some greenery. Doesn’t sound very unusual, I know,  but the taste is nice & unique. We also had Chinese hot steamed buns with red bean paste, something that reminded me of meat samosas and we washed it all down with local milk tea.

After that, we went back to the hotel to get changed, freshen up and continued on our journey by visiting Shwezigon Paya & Manuha Pagoda.

Shwezigon Paya is a magnificent golden stupa that was shining brightly in the morning Bagan sun & shimmered gold at night. It was an interesting walk within the walls of the Shwezigon with lots of details on bas-reliefs, like winged elephants, peacocks, fish-tailed wolfs, all kinds of birds and human shapes. Manuha Pagoda is not the most impressive in Bagan, but it has an interesting story behind it. The king who built it wanted to show younger generation lack of comfort he himself endured despite of being the king, thus he built a temple where Buddha statue is squeezed into a narrow confined space. When you approach it you only see the legs in an arch & you have to come inside to see the rest with Buddha’s head touching the ceiling.

 

Our afternoon consisted of 2 more temples: Htilominlo Pagoda & Anada Temple built 1000 years ago. Htilominlo was very enjoyable as I prefer older looking architecture that speaks history. It is a shame though that it is not looked after – all the frescoes are mostly ruined and there is not much left now to observe and admire. That was an interesting comparison with Ananda. They were both built around the same period but due to maintenance works, Anada looks as good as new  (we were there exactly during the renovation).

In the evening we watched sunset from Pyathadar Temple, which is less crowded than Shwesandaw but is as nice. After enjoying the warm serenity of the moment we decided to wrap evening up early and went straight to the hotel. We did stay for a couple of drinks on our terrace – paper lanterns, lighted umbrellas & life music, an exquisite set up to a beautiful finish of a day of wonder.

The second day started at the same terrace – breakfast and the river view after a good night sleep on a proper bed was what we all needed.

After breakfast we had a chance for a nap in our minivan as we made our way to Mount Popa and a temple located on top of it. Mount Popa, as was mentioned by our guide, is an extinct volcano and is an important cultural, religious and historic place since the earliest of times. It has a nice view from the top, a lot of monkeys and a number of steps. Not too much though, so no worries.

Monkey on Popa mountain, Bagan, Myanmar

View from the top of Mount Popa

After lunch at the foot of the hill, we returned to the heart of Bagan and went for a horse-cart ride along the pagodas. We made a stop in one of the smaller villages to see the local ways of living, followed by a visit to a lacquerware workshop to learn about local crafting techniques, which were impressive & quite entertaining. Pieces there were a bit expensive, but I think I would have bought something if I was not renting my place – not much motivation in decorating it properly and then move from country to country with all that bulk.

In the late afternoon we were transferred to the jetty to watch the sunset from the boat while having tea & local sweets. I think those were dry sugar plum, not sure, but delicious anyway – I bought a whole pack before leaving Bagan.

After sunset we proceeded to dinner & to the second bus that would take us to Inle Lake.

Side story on Bagan & UNESCO struggles

While observing all that beauty I constantly had a thought – why isn’t that place under UNESCO protection and supervision, so I asked our guide and it turned out that Bagan is actually on the Tentative List. But why wasn’t it approved? As I wasn’t able to find my answer while in Myanmar, I did some research after I came back. I’ve read a couple of articles on the matter and if you’re interested to learn more – I found these two to be substantial enough for the brief summary below:

The Battle of Bagan: Burma’s struggle for UNESCO World Heritage Sites & The Ancient Burmese City of Bagan Struggles for International Recognition.

Due to the Buddhist belief that there is a great religious value in building temples, Burmese authorities have constructed numerous temples and pagodas & the military have built on top of old structures, as well as sometimes reconstructed the existing once completely.

Though many people in Burma, see the restoration works not as a damage but as practical necessity to accommodate Bagan’s function as a pilgrimage site, French academic who made regular visits to Bagan in the 1980s and ’90s to catalogue its structures, says that most “repaired” temples were not rebuilt according to their original form but were modelled after one of a few temples that remained intact.

Sun Oo, vice president of the Association of Myanmar Architects, says that such refurbishments resulted in many sites having “no historical, architectural or artistic value.” Thus, UNESCO, referring to the prevalence of inauthentic restorations, declined Burma’s 1996 application for Bagan to join the World Heritage list.

Day 3 & 4 – Inle Lake

We were lucky with Inle Lake in terms of the hotel – rooms were available straight away so we were able to get some sleep that night. Considering that Bagan – Inle Lake bus was the most uncomfortable on this whole trip and the fact that they woke us (at least those who were sleeping) in the middle of the night to pay an environmental fee of 100$ for entering Inle Lake region, sleep was much needed and appreciated.

Inle-Lake-boat-terminal

Nyaung Shwe boat terminal

We started the day around 9 am by walking along the streets of Nyaung Shwe to the boat terminal (for the lack of a better word) where boats were lined up along one side of the river. Both days we spent on board of one of those tiny vessels cruising around the Inle Lake. The boat itself was comfortable, with spacious chairs and warm woollen blankets provided for all the passengers, which came in handy since it was chilly in the mornings, especially when you’re moving with high speed & there are no obstructions to save you from the wind.

It takes about one hour to get from the jetty to the centre of the lake where all the “attractions” are. That’s why the boat gains as much speed as possible to get to the destination faster. When you’re already there, you will be just cruising around and being directly underneath the sun, so the temperature will be pleasant to take off some items of your wardrobe – I took off my leggings & sweater and just stayed in the skirt & t-shirt.  Don’t underestimate the importance of layering clothes; you will thank yourself for the thought. And we were not carrying all that with us later on – the boat & the boatman were the same for the length of our tour, so we left everything on our seats while visiting temples, workshops, walking around & lunching.

Inle Lake fishermen

Inle Lake fishermen

One of the main features of Inle Lake is local fishermen. Fishing in Inle lake is still extremely common, but those that are using original methods – cage-shaped nets made of cane, are making money on tourists like us rather than on actual fishing trade. It is no longer efficient I assume… I need to point out that even those who are no longer using traditional nets, still do this awesome one-legged rowing. The technique is fascinating – the oar goes from the armpit and around a leg. It allows men to see the weeds, depth & fish while moving the boat, plus keeps both hands free. While you can meet fishermen in traditional outfits posing for you only in the place where the main canal drains into the lake,  you will be able to observe plenty of locals fishing around you at any point of time.

Inle Lake filature, Myanmar

Lotus filature

Inle Lake is a perfect alternative for those who want to visit Myanmar but are not fans of temples & pagodas. It is a beautiful & picturesque place – houses above water, gardens spreading right in the middle of all that and fishermen in traditional or modern outfits with local fishing gear. It’s entertaining and unusual to observe. There’s a lot of greenery, mountains for a backdrop, a feel of rural life in the air, local markets where I bought majority of souvenirs and quite a bit of workshops. We visited silversmith, blacksmith, lotus & silk weaving factory, local cigar workshop and woodworking shop where we got a lesson on how they make those boats that drive us around.

There are plenty of temples on the way, so feel free to make pictures from the boat when passing by or make brief (or not so brief) stops on the way.

Inle Lake Hotel

Inle Lake Hotel

Advice for someone who would have preferred to stay in one of the hotels that are located on the lake itself – there’re plenty of those, but they seem to be noisy spots. All the hotels are in between the main routes, and the boats can be loud, so I do not suggest that as a quiet romantic getaway. Plus, if you would want to go to the restaurant in the evening it might be a bit of an adventure to get back – tricky, pricey and extremely cold…

On the second day we went to Indein village in the morning & The Lei Oo trekking in the afternoon.

The village of Indein was an amazing experience starting from the way to the place and up to its complex of ancient shrines & stupas, as well as a walk though exotic colonnades of crumbling, jungle-clad ruin.

Let me start from the way to Indein Ruins – a small canal that connects it to the lake. Our small boat was moving swiftly against the current taking over dams that were aplenty along the way. The dams are basically a neatly arranged pile of branches, clay and some metal with a tiny break in the middle for the boat to go through. The breaks are big enough for only one boat to pass at a time and the gap itself is precisely the size of the boat with no more than 4-5 cm for manoeuvres, so when there was traffic in the opposite direction we had to wait our turn. Plus, as all the dams are constructed to hold the current – the level of water on both sides of it was a bit different & we had to go “up the dam” or “down the dam”. I’ve never seen anything like that. It was a fascinating ride – each time we were about to do the trick I was following movements of the boat with wonder – I understand that our boatman did that a thousand times over, but it is impressive nonetheless!

 

A walk among the ruined temples vaguely reminded me of Siem Reap, but maybe less well maintained & kinda looking like everything was about to fall down any second. I especially noted the trees that grew right through the pagodas, breaking roofs and creating this post-apocalyptic look.

In the afternoon after a journey back through the same canal we went tracking in the Lei Oo village, situated on the eastern shore of Inle Lake. It is the main farming area of the region, though being winter time I didn’t quite grasp what is the primary culture harvested there. We saw what I assume were rice fields, plantations of sugar cane, potatoes, tomatoes, and a variety of beans, as well as cabbages. Their sugar cane, by the way, is the raw material for Mandalay Rum & local sweets that somewhat resemble toffee candies. We tried them in Bagan with coconut flakes, sesame and pure. Too sweet for my taste (which makes sense since it is sugar after all), but if you like drinking non-sweetened tea, they can be an excellent addition.

The village itself was not very big – no more than 150 households. It was surrounded by greenery and burst with life – children reciting lessons in school, adults walking home from work or working in the fields, a group of teens playing football, women busying themselves in the kitchen or in the garden next to the house. Along the way, farms were standing on the thin pilings.

 

Before we headed back home we stopped to see floating gardens – natural seaweed captured together and secured to stay in one place with bamboo poles (you can see them on the picture above next to waterway to Indein Ruins). By sticking more and more seaweed to the same place, a thick layer occurs that can be used for farming. They are surprisingly stable – we saw a man from another boat stepping on it (he did not look very safe though).  Due to the water surface reduction from those gardens, villagers are not allowed to create new or expand their existing gardens anymore.

Day 5& 6 – Mandalay

One more bus & one more sleepless night later we arrived in Mandalay – former royal capital & second largest city of Myanmar. That was the most pleasant bus ride for me personally due to the most comfortable seats. I still didn’t get any sleep mind you, but regardless.

As it was the first real city since we left Singapore we decided to go to a proper coffee shop to have European breakfast and enjoy good coffee – we went to “Cafe City” with a view on the moat & ancient palace city wall.

After breakfast we moved on with our sightseeing. We started from the Golden Palace (Shwenandaw) – monastery with intricate woodcarvings. Though it isn’t exactly golden (unless I missed something), it was still a marvellous place that I would definitely recommend visiting to enjoy the detailed craftsmanship.

 

After that we continued to the Kuthodaw Pagoda, known as the world’s largest book – a Buddhist scripture carved on 729 marble plates put each into a separate shrine. That was a splendid look. I pondered on how this idea occurred to the architect of the pagoda and came up with a thought that it could actually be quite handy – if you do not precisely agree with the whole book, you can come here and give your regards to one particular page that resonates with your soul or current moment.

Before lunch we also visited U Bein bridge made of teak wood. It is supposed to be one of the most picturesque places in Mandalay with water underneath & sunset as a background. When we were there, however, it was midday, dry season and not much of a view, but not bad anyway – we appreciated the walk.

We were very tired afterwards, plus two people from our group were heading back to Singapore the same day, so we decided to skip the second half of the day and went back to the hotel – some of us to pack & the rest of the group to enjoy spa & just relax…

For the second day, all refreshed & ready for adventures, we went for a boat ride up the Irrawaddy River to Mingun town.

What one notices first even before reaching the shore is an unfinished Mingun Paya, built with the intention of being the world’s biggest pagoda which became pretty obvious as it emerged right in front of us. The construction included only the base but was indeed a stunning one. There were broken statues of lions in front of it. They are typically smaller than or equal to the human height, but these were 3 times the size, even without the heads & bodies (only legs were left intact).  You could see a picture of a shape below resembling one of an elephant – that’s legs (seating position). The eye was lying nearby – reaching to my knee in diameter… just to get your imagination going. We went to the top of this structure despite the instruction on the ground not to make attempts to climb it for the risk of falling. On the top we understood why – all the surface was cracked and dangerous for anyone trying to walk across. There were a lot of locals following us and helping by showing where to step, giving a hand while moving from one side of a break to another and, of course, expecting tips at the end. The view was delightful so we savoured some quiet time on the top.

 

The whole structure looks more like part of nature now, with a perfect cube on top that still puzzles me. If you’re aware of what’s the purpose of it in the Buddhist temple, I would be grateful if you share.

After pagoda we passed by Mingun Bell – the world’s largest working bell (the largest one is in Moscow, but it is cracked so not ringing anymore). Followed by another highlight – the Hsinbyume Pagoda, a white temple built to resemble seven mountains with a lot of little creatures’ statues in the niches of the shrines from the Buddhist mythology.

After lunch we started from the palace that was destroyed in fires in the 1980s. There was actually not much to see, but for an aura of mystery that surrounded the place probably due to the massive walls & a moat that reminded me so much of the Forbidden City in Beijing. I was excited to see what lay beyond & was not disappointed. Although I did not regret that we went there, I cannot recommend it as a particularly entertaining attraction in Mandalay.

In the evening we visited the city of Ava, the capital from 14th to 18th centuries that laid a short ferry ride across the river. There were plenty of carriages to move around and see all the places (yes, all are temples & monasteries). We only stopped at two due to the limited time: the old wooden Bagaya Monastery & Maha Aung Mye Bonzan Monastery, both of which I found entertaining & beautiful. I would be happy to come back to explore the ruins that leave you with a feeling as if you’re in the middle of Indiana Jones movie.

 Day 8 & 9 – Yangon

The only good thing about our Mandalay – Yangon bus ride was that it was the last bus ride, hopefully for a long long time (I cannot tell you how tired we all were of all the nights spent on those buses). We had a good nap before heading to the city and after breakfast drove through downtown to explore its architecture and sites.

We started from visiting Chauk Htat Gyi, home to a 70-meter long reclining Buddha with too much makeup for my taste. The interesting part was Buddha’s feet carved with traditional symbols. The temple itself was undergoing renovation, so I walked around making pictures of the wall paintings that resemble frescoes in Christian churches.

 

Shwedagon Pagoda, with its glittering gold stupa, was the main highlight of the day. At the entrance our guide set down on the floor in front of the stupa and we followed his lead. We listened on how to distinguish the temples and Buddha statues. Among the rest, we learned how to understand whether the statue was built with the money donated by common people, governmental officials or the head of state. We also learnt the meanings of Buddha’s postures – seating, lying or standing positions mean different state of mind and even whether Buddha is shown alive or dead.

We were also told a lot about Myanmar tradition of name giving & marriage. In both cases a lot depends on the day you were born. For example, as I was born on Wednesday (I had to Google it) – I am quick-tempered and the best marriage for me would be with the person born on Saturday (“wealthy match” as our guide had put it). Oh, and if I were born in Myanmar my name should have started with the letter “Y”. So when introduced, depending on your name’s first letter, people know on which day you were born & can decide immediately whether the two of you can be happily married 😉

Day of your birth is also crucial for attending temples and praying, as every corner of Stupa has its own devotee and thus, meaning.

N.B. For the curious ones:

  • Monday Born (Myanmar name starts with K, G)

Patient, Steady and Reliable, Ambitious

  • Tuesday Born (S, Z)

    Small Friday Corner

    Small Friday Corner

Idealistic, Courageous, Action-oriented and Honourable

  • Wednesday Born (L, Y)

Quick-tempered & Independent, Travel-oriented with a taste for danger and action

  • Thursday Born (P, B, M)

Patient & Soft spoken, Serious & Ambitious

  • Friday Born (Th, H)

Artistic, Talkative, Restless & Sympathetic

  • Saturday Born (Ht, T, N)

Intelligent and Quick-minded, Disciplined, prefers to work alone

  • Sunday Born (A, E, O)

Stubborn, Energetic, Focused, loves a challenge.

At the end of the trip we found out why there are two names for Myanmar & Yangon. Apparently, there are certain minorities, who pronounce Myanmar & Yangon as Burma and Rangoon, so foreigners used this pronunciation as names for places, whereas Myanmar & Yangon is the correct spelling.

In the evening we walked along the lines of street food stalls watching fresh ripe fruits bought and sold. I observed how jackfruit was, for the lack of a better word, – disassembled into small tasty pieces that I like so much; noticed wrinkly tomatoes (not those perfect round shaped ones that can be found in our grocery stores) and inhaled the smells of strawberries & cut melons.

Next morning we visited a local market with all kinds of fish, meat, fruit and vegetables on display. People buzzing around, bargaining for a better price & checking the quality of products on offer; busyness of the morning and smells of breakfast & fresh fruit fill you with energy and thirst for more.

In the late morning (between 11 & 12) we went to a Buddhist temple where monks have their meal. They only have two meals a day – a light snack when they wake up before sunrise and the second & last meal – before noon. The later was the one we observed.

From what I understood, monks are not supposed to make their own meal due to cooking being forbidden as an act of violence, but they can eat anything that was donated, including meat. For the same reason, as was pointed out by our guide, monks cannot eat whole fruits as such is seen as an act of killing towards nature. Hence, in the mornings monks walk in a single line as a group to the city where they accept (but not request) food that is placed in the individual bowls they carry with them.

 

Local people, being familiar with this tradition and the routine, already have something prepared for them. Some people can buy, for example, steamed dumplings in a local tea shop and ask for it to be given to the monks. I also noticed that in the case of tea shops, the girl working there took off her shoes before she placed the food into monk’s bowl. Monks themselves are not allowed to touch food or receive it by hand.

After all the food is collected, monks get back to the monastery where women of mundane population mix and prepare the offerings – cut fruits & vegetables, remove all the seeds (seeds can grow into a new life, so cannot be eaten). Then the food is distributed equally between the monks in the monastery to share in the canteen. All the food has to be consumed during this one meal and cannot be saved for the next day. While all that is being prepared, monks gather a little further back and wait for the gong, after which they proceed to the place of consumption in an orderly line by age, starting with a senior man, to nuns & finally to non-monk faithful people that temporarily stay at the monastery.

The whole procedure was a new experience for me and as such – enchanting. We didn’t stay to watch the meal though as my friend & I were both feeling a bit cautious of being the viewers of such an intimate process as eating.

After lunch we roamed the streets and got ourselves familiar with the local architecture. We had a couple of quick photo stops during the day at the Karaweik Hall royal floating barge, Strand Hotel & Independence Monument, Secretariat Building in the downtown where Aung San (Aung San Suu Kyi’s father) was killed, and walked along the Indian & Chinese quarters. We also drove by Aung San Suu Kyi’s former residence where she has been held a prisoner for over 20 years. Not much to see there – just the gates, but you can glimpse into the Inya lake that is to the North from the estate if you move a bit further along from the main entrance.

 

In the end, I would like to thank our friends in TripBuilder for their wonderfully organised tour once again. That was a marvellous adventure that will stay with us forever – all the trails we took, all the people we met & all the stories we heard.

You made it all happen by being attentive to our needs, wishes and whims. You got excited by the same things we did & worried about the same things we were, maybe that’s why it turned out to be such a beautiful trip.

Don’t ever loose this passion & sparkle or, as I like to say, – Explore, Travel, Inspire!

For more of my photos from Myanmar trip, please check out my Myanmar Album.

And for the general tips and advises for those who is already planning a visit to Myanmar, please have a look at my previous article – 10 tips for conquering Myanmar like a pro.