January 2015: Myanmar, formerly Burma, is a country slowly but surely emerging from decades of isolation and authoritarian rule. Considered the 4th most isolated country in the world, behind Iran, S. Korea and Cuba, Myanmar is poised to explode onto the modern world. So, why go now, before it becomes a full-fledged democracy? Before the place loses it’s old Asian charm preserved by its harsh self-imposed isolation! Before religious zealots strips it of its mystical Buddhist purity! Before the people in the remote villages grow accustomed to tourists and lose their curiosity about us! Before menus and signs are in English! Before it becomes wealthy and ugly from it’s new found wealth of trade! For us it was to go BEFORE EVERYONE ELSE GOES! Because Myanmar still boasts a fierce, proud and kind population who will go to almost any lengths to make you feel welcome. Life there seems to have gone unchanged for the past 2,500 years; peasants, oxcarts, the same kinds of food and cloths. But this is a nation on the cusp of great changes, and globalization will almost certainly change everything.
What we found now, is a life that moves along different lines, underpinned by a Buddhist philosophy that remains resistant to western values. Myanmar has long been closed to the outside world, a political choice made by its military leaders as they attempted to transform the country into a socialist state. While that never really happened, it did shelter the authentic atmosphere of this ancient culture from gross modern globalization.
A LITTLE HISTORY: Myanmar–still often called by its former official English name Burma– is nestled between its gigantic neighbors, India and China, and is almost twice the size of Germany. With high mountain peaks, vast plateaus and thickly forested ranges, the bulk of the populations lives in the more accessible central lowlands. Dissecting the entire length of this enchanting land is the “Father River”, the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River.
Today, the Myanmar’s 54 million inhabitants are Burmans, Indians, and Chinese, with a sprinkle of various Hill tribes. All adding to a rich cultural diversity, but all brought together in one major respect–90 percent of the population are Buddhist. This peaceful religion/philosophy is the driving force behind the people and their daily lives. They do not separate themselves from it, and it completely dominates their culture and finances.
THE RELIGION / PHILOSOPHY: Early each morning, barefoot monks and novices can be seen going silently throughout the countryside and towns with bowls in which to receive alms. There are 500,000 monks and 150,000 nuns in Myanmar–approximately 1 1/2 percent of the country’s population. Men carry out at least two monastic retreats in their lifetime. Women, also may enter a nunnery for whatever amount of time they choose. Buddha believed that men and women should attempt to liberate themselves from human suffering through renouncing their passions. The great movement that has sprung from Buddha’s teachings is as much a philosophy as a religion, and trying to understand its complexities can sometimes be very difficult for Westerners. The core Buddhist belief in reincarnation after death teaches that one must seek to free himself from the cycles of lie and rebirth in order to attain Nirvana, a state of total enlightenment. In other words, everyone must “work out his own salvation” to achieve Nirvana.
Our personal journey began in Yangon (formerly Rangoon), in the heart of the country and Myanmar’s largest city.
After two days of visiting temples and governmental buildings, we took a 7-hour bus ride to the small town of Pyay, where we embarked on our Viking ship, R.J. Orient, on the beautiful Irrawaddy River. Over the next 10 days, we gently floated up this magnificent river stopping at various ports-o-call to visit small villages and beautiful sights.
THE RIVER: Flowing down from the northern glaciers, the Irrawaddy River is 1,350 miles in length and is contained entirely within the borders of Myanmar. It is navigable by ship throughout the year along most of its length and has always been an important trade route. The life of the country seems to unfold on the Irrawaddy, and it makes for a smoother journey as the roads are badly paved. Everyday scenes appear as a picturesque photo, the breeze is delightful, and there is ALWAYS another pagoda ahead. This is how we traveled our way across Myanmar.
Each day on the ship we were treated to exceptional educational and cultural presentations, that depicted life, culture, religion, dress and customs in Myanmar.
Over the 10-day river cruise, we would dock and see small villages where we were treated to children singing and the hospitality of local people who have so little, but are so abundant in joy and kindness. They are as inquisitive about us as we are about them, and it was not unusual to see them taking our photos while we were taking theirs.
THE PAGODAS (Stupas): Golden stupas (or pagodas) glitter in the sun everywhere in Myanmar. In their shadows, peasants labor in rough conditions. (The locals will tell you the country is rich, but the people are poor.) Probably the richest and most beautiful of these stupas is the Shwedagon Pagoda near Yangon, one of Myanmar’s holiest sites. People come from near and far to worship it. The central stupa is covered in gold–not gold leaf, but thick plates of solid gold–and there are receptacles full of jewels near its apex. The Burmese claim the pagoda is worth more than the Bank of England. Here, as with all stupas, you are required to remove shoes and socks as a mark of respect.
Other beautiful pagodas we visited.
BAGAN: Jewel of Myanmar: A vast deserted city of ruined temples, stupas, zedis, pagodas, monasteries and palaces on the banks of the Irrawaddy River. This ancient archaeological site was the overwhelming highlight of our visit to Myanmar–this is my “moment” I seek on each adventure. The capital of the Burmese kingdom for centuries, it was devastated by Kublai Khan’s Mongol army in 1287 and never rebuilt. The sight spreads out over 26 sq miles (larger than Manhattan) and is festooned with 4,446 religious monuments–out of a reputed 13,000 when Bagan was at its zenith. It’s impossible to understand through photographs, because its power lies in its sweep. We walked among the pagodas; we drove among some; we climbed one of the temples to watch the sun set and surveyed the whole gloriously littered landscape of Began’s Plain of Temples.
U BEIN BRIDGE: Over Lake Taungthaman is a bridge made from teakwood salvaged from the Ava Palace around 1850 and is the oldest and longest teakwood bridge in the world. We walked out onto this ancient bridge and wondered of its age and strength. A sunset boat ride on the lake gave us some of the most beautiful photos of our trip.
MANDALAY: We conclude our trip with several days in Mandalay. the last royal capital of the former Burma. This city is more beautiful as a romantic notion than an actual place. After visiting more pagodas, royal palaces and quaint villages, (and to all the ladys’ delight, some much-wanted shopping) we departed for home from the airport — an airport that could be an entire blog unto itself.
FACES OF MYAMAR: As always, I leave you with the wonderful faces of the people…faces that are open and yet-unspoiled. Their future is just beginning.