Myanmar (Burma): Land of the Golden Pagodas

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Shwedagon Pagoda at night: Yangon

Our most recent family trip was to Myanmar (Burma). Or, as I have come to think of it, the land of the golden pagodas.

Arriving in Yangon, what I first noticed was the heat, as it surrounded us. While it was not unbearable for the month of February, it was hot and humid enough to make me appreciate that I had packed our summer clothes and a light cover for the evenings when the temperature would cool down and the mosquitoes would inevitably come out. The taxi drive from the airport to the city took a while not because of the distance, but rather because the streets were packed with cars weaving in and out of the lanes in front of us, steadily growing more congested the closer we got to the center of town.

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Women sweeping the floors at the Sule Paya Pagoda: Yangon

Our hotel was just a couple blocks away from the first of many golden pagodas we would see throughout our week trip. I was quite taken by the golden pagoda we first saw at Sule Paya. What impressed me was that it was like a golden beacon surrounded by busy roads. The pagoda sat brightly in the middle of an otherwise seemingly grey expanse of city structures. I liked that it stood out so much from the rest of the scene, as it made it seem even more of a peaceful haven despite being surrounded by busy city life.

You might wonder, as I add more articles later on of other travels, why we visit so many sites like churches, cathedrals, temples, mosques, pagodas and other sacred spaces. We love to see these buildings because they always speak about the heart of a culture. People take pride in their construction and conservation, even when those sites have become ruins and may no longer be in use as they used to be in their heyday. Aside from this, these sights are always a wonder to see because of all the attention to detail in construction and decoration, as well as whatever holy objects, statues or relics they may house. Many times, stories of the religion native to their land are literally carved into or painted onto its walls, ceilings, floors, and windows. Often, as in the case of cathedrals, important people may be buried under its floors, in crypts or in special rooms where people can pray or see their remains. Services can also say much in the traditions they honor and the music they play. I personally see religious sites as almost becoming a living entity thanks to the people who worship there. With so many people flocking to these sacred spaces as they pray, worship, burn incense, sing, or meditate, they bring those spaces to life and we are certainly never disappointed when we visit these sites.

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Shwedagon Pagoda: Yangon

While there are many sights in Yangon, the biggest and most majestic one to see is the Shwedagon Pagoda, also known as the Golden Pagoda. This Buddhist sacred site, which sits atop a hill, is a permanent fixture of the Yangon skyline. Though the Golden Pagoda is the biggest on the site, it is by no means the only one. Surrounding the main pagoda are many more pagodas of various sizes, colors and decoration. Some are painted gold, on others you can see the incredible craftsmanship of wooden carving on the pagodas. Some are covered in reflective mirrors while yet others are painted on with murals, many of which depict scenes of

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Reclining Buddha at Chaukhtatgyi Buddha Temple: Yangon

Buddha’s life. Aside from this, every structure holds many Buddha statues in various poses within. It was quite impossible to see everything, as your attention would be grabbed by the beauty of every building, not to mention the myriad of people packed within as they meandered from one pagoda to the next. If nothing  else, seeing the Shwedagon Pagoda alone was worth the trip to Yangon. One last impressive sight we saw before leaving Yangon was the giant reclining Buddha at the Chaukhtatgyi Buddha Temple. Lying in a peaceful repose as the Buddha’s face would look at me as I gazed at him, his expression was quite arresting. And, as I walked around behind him, there were many smaller statues of Buddha sitting behind him as well in various meditative poses. Also, not to be missed, were the many intricate golden designs carved into his feet.

After a few days in the busy city of Yangon, we flew on to Mandalay. There we saw some more beautiful sights, such as the Golden Palace Monastery (which is no longer golden

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White-washed pagodas holding the world’s biggest book at Kuthadow Pagoda: Mandalay

on outside, but is certainly an intricately carved wooden palace). Yet another impressive site we saw was Kuthodaw Pagoda which houses the world’s biggest book housed in many small white-washed pagodas; each pagoda holding a stone slab carved on both sides, essentially making two pages of the book.

We enjoyed seeing the lovely views of the city from the top of Mandalay Hill. Later, we also visited the Mahamuni Buddha Temple, which houses a big Buddha that is venerated and perpetually being covered in gold leaf. Finally, we also visited the Shwenandaw Monastery (which, according to our guide, was the

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Mahamuni Buddha Temple: Mandalay
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Shwenandaw Monastery: Mandalay

only monastery standing in the area that had never burned down, thus making it the oldest building standing and for this reason, its style and decoration was considered the most authentic).

As it was my birthday while we were in Mandalay, my husband arranged for a nice surprise. After enjoying a lovely meal of local food at our hotel’s restaurant, I was startled when the restaurant’s waiters made the effort to sing happy birthday to me in English. Then, I was shocked when they presented me with not a single slice but an entire birthday cake! I couldn’t believe they had made me an entire cake! I was quite stuffed by the end of the night and asked the staff to share what was left of the cake, as there was no way we could take it with us since we’d be leaving the next morning to our last destination in Myanmar: Bagan.

As we approached our final destination, I could already see from looking out of the airplane window that Bagan was going to be quite interesting as I could see the entire countryside dotted by pagodas of various sizes and colors. Some were golden while others were earth-tone colors. The wondrous thing, however, was not what they looked like, but rather how many there were! It seemed that everywhere my eyes scanned, I could make out the shape of yet another pagoda!

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View of Bagan’s temples

Once on the ground, we zipped through the tiny airport, found our ride and were on our way to our hotel. It was a very hot day and we were glad to rest and enjoy our hotel for the day before we planned to set out the next morning for our tour of various pagodas.

There are many times when one travels when it is nice to have a guide who knows the area and the local sights not to be missed. It is also great to have someone with you who knows the history about the places and things you are about to see. So, when planning a trip, you should consider if your travel experience would benefit from having a guide for certain sights or excursions. But, of course, there are also times when it is just nice to simply go out exploring on your own and see where you might end up. However, considering how much there is to see in Bagan as well as how hot it was, I was quite happy we had a guide drive us in his nice air-conditioned van to the sights that otherwise would have been quite far to get to.

The dense concentration of Buddhist temples in the area are quite a sight to see. Our guide explained that the look of the temple and their stupas or spires as well as the look of the Buddhas inside those temples can give a good indication of when those structures were built.  According to our guide, there are well over 2,000 temples scattered around the countryside. The structures, dating back to the 11th and 12th centuries, are either in use or in disrepair as many succumb to erosion. Though the numerous temples are quite impressive and you would think that UNESCO would include it as a world heritage site, our guide mentioned that it unfortunately doesn’t because the native people are rebuilding and repairing temples for their use in inauthentic ways that does not stay true to its historical style.

I greatly enjoyed seeing Bagan since I like seeing religious structures as well as ruins of any kind. And, at the end of our trip, as I gazed at the skyline before me atop one of the temples, I saw the beauty of the landscape and enjoyed a quiet moment just taking it all in. Sometimes, it is good to simply

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Birds flying above temples in Bagan

take a moment to fully take in where you are and truly enjoy what you are experiencing and seeing. As I saw birds swooping down and around one of the golden domes of a temple in the distance, I once again felt how blessed I am to be able to travel and see so much of the beauty that the world has to offer. I can only say, that we enjoyed our trip and would encourage others to see the beauty that Myanmar has to offer. Though our trip was only a week long, we took advantage of every day and certainly didn’t let an opportunity to enjoy the sights of Myanmar pass us by!

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