On December 18th, I left my Nashville condo at 6 a.m. to return to South East Asia for the Christmas and New Year holidays. A few days earlier my business-class upgrade came through, so the 17-hour American Airlines flight to Hong Kong from Dallas was far more comfortable than otherwise would have been the case with the economy fare ticket that I had purchased. Just before midnight on the 19th, my Cathay Pacific flight from Hong Kong touched down at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport, and after clearing immigration I grabbed a taxi to my Bangkok hotel where I arrived in the wee hours of the 20th.
I spent two days in Bangkok visiting with some friends, ordering some new clothes from my tailor, and taking care of some other errands. On the 22nd, I went to Don Mueang, Bangkok’s second and older international airport, to start my nine-day journey to Myanmar (Burma). My travels took me to Yangon for two days, to Bagan for three days, to Inle Lake for two days, and finally to Mandalay for two days. I returned to Don Mueang on New Year’s Eve in time to celebrate the arrival of 2015 with friends in Krung Thep.
Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon, was the political and commercial center of Burma after the lower portion of Burma was colonized by the British at the end of the Second Anglo-Burmese War in 1852. Rangoon remained the capital after the nation achieved its independence in 1948, but in 2005 the military government built a new capital city, Nay Pyi Taw, 200 miles north of Yangon.
Yangon is far less developed than other capital cities in S.E. Asia because of both internal and external factors. In the early 1960s, the military government implemented a policy of autarky that effectively cut off trade with most of the world through the late 1980s. In the 1990s, the U.S. and other western nations imposed economic sanctions on Burma in an effort to force the military government to improve its human rights, move toward democracy, and take more aggressive measures to stop opium traffic. While sanctions were eased in 2012, the impact of 50 years of isolation shows in the city’s relatively poor infrastructure and public transportation, the absence of almost all multi-national hotels, retailers and banks, and the overall lack of direct foreign investment.
The lack of large-scale development, however, means that the city still has some beautiful, albeit not necessarily well-maintained, colonial structures including Myanmar’s Supreme Court Building, Yangon’s City Hall, and the Customs House. More important to the locals, however, are the Buddhist shrines and pagodas found throughout the city.
During my day and a half in Yangon, I visited the Sule Pagoda, the nearby Maha Bandoola Garden (home to an obelisk surrounded by five columns and five brass lions that was built to commemorate Burma’s independence from the British Empire), the Bogyoke Aung San Market, the Chauk Htat Gyi (six story) Pagoda (home to a huge Reclining Buddha), the Nga Htat Gyi (five story) Pagoda (home to a large Sitting Buddha), Kandawgyi (Royal) Lake (home to Karaweik, a re-creation of a traditional royal barge), and the stunning Shwedagon Pagoda.
The Shwedagon Pagoda was the highlight of my trip to Yangon. Built atop Sanguttara Hill, the golden pagoda dominates the city’s skyline, particularly after sundown. According to legend, the pagoda dates back to around 600 B.C.E., when the King of Okkalapa (now Yangon) had a 66 foot-tall pagoda built to enshrine eight hairs from the Gautama Buddha that he was given by two brothers who brought them back from India. Shwedagon means “Reliquary (container of relics) of the Four” since it houses not only the hairs from the Gautama Buddha but also relics from the three other Buddhas of the present era who attained Enlightenment — the staff from Kakusandha Buddha, a water filter from Koṇāgamana Buddha, and a robe from Kassapa Buddha. Over the centuries the pagoda has been rebuilt and regilded to its present height of 326 feet. The pagoda complex contains not only the large Shwedagon pagoda but also hundreds and hundreds of smaller stupas, temples, statues, and bells. The terrace upon which these structures reside covers 14 acres and there are another 100 acres around it.
The Shwedagon pagoda has ten unique sections — the edged terraces at the base, a set of circular bands, the bell, the ovolo moldings, the inverted alms bowl, the ornamental lotus flower, the banana bud, the golden umbrella, the golden weather vane, and the Diamond bud on the very top. Hundreds of gold plates cover the pagoda starting at the bell section; the broader terraces and circular bands at the bottom are covered in gold leaf. Unfortunately, the pagoda was undergoing maintenance when I visited so the upper portion was covered with bamboo scaffolding for the workers. However, under the night’s lights, the gold shone brilliantly. The actual amount of gold is not known, but estimates that I have seen range from 10 to 60 tons! The umbrella on top of the pagoda is 43 feet tall and over 15 feet in diameter, and weighs five tons; it alone contains 84,000 pieces of jewelry donated by the public, 4,000 gold bells, and over 1,000 pounds of gold. The four-foot long and two-foot tall gold weather vane above the umbrella is encrusted in jewels and precious stones. The two-foot tall diamond orb contains 4,351 diamonds totaling 1,800 carats with a 76 carat diamond at the apex.
On Christmas Eve morning, I flew from Yangon’s Mingaladon international airport north to Nyaung-U, the airport that serves Bagan. Although Myanmar is relatively poor, there are typically four or five local carriers competing for business on each route, more than we now have on almost all routes here in the states. Myanmar’s airports are small and almost everything is done manually, e.g., no printers to print boarding passes and luggage tags, no conveyor belts to move luggage from the check-in counter, and no tractors to pull luggage carts on the tarmac to and from the planes.
The taxi ride from Nyaung-U to my hotel in Bagan took about 30 minutes and cost US$12. Along the way, I had to stop to pay for my Christmas morning hot air balloon ride since the off-shore, third-party vendor that was supposed to process my credit card months earlier was unable to provide this service. While the balloon company informed me that I should stop by on my way in from the airport so that we could settle up, the office was unable to get the internet connection it needed to process a credit card. So a couple of employees came with me to my hotel to see if they could use the hotel’s wi-fi. This did not work, so they then took me to a nearby ATM machine where I was able to withdraw 300,000 kyat (about US$300) all in 1,000 kyat notes — the stack of money had to be at least 1.5 inches thick!
After settling my bill and checking in to my hotel, I went out for a walk. There are not many cars in this area, so I quickly realized that my options for getting around were (a) walking, (b) biking, (c) riding an electric bike, or (d) hiring a horse cart and driver. Neither of the first two seemed very appealing and on the way in from the airport I had seen several people pushing their electric bicycles (battery range issues, I would imagine), so I opted for the horse cart and driver. The driver and I negotiated a rate of $5 per hour and off we went.
From 1044 to 1287 C.E., Bagan was the capital of the Pagan Empire that ruled most of what is now northern and central Myanmar, primarily along the Aye Yar Wady (or Irrawaddy) River valley that runs north and south throughout most of the country. During this period, the rulers and wealthy citizens built over 10,000 temples, pagodas, and monasteries over 40 square miles in Bagan. Invasions by Kublai Khan’s Mongol army in the last quarter of the 13th century ultimately brought down the Pagan Empire. Historians and archaeologists, however, conclude that the invaders did little damage to these religious buildings but many did fall into disrepair over the ensuing years. Bagan is in an active earthquake zone with over 400 quakes in the 20th century alone, and the last major one in 1975 damaged or destroyed many of the temples. Approximately 2,500 or so remain today.
During the afternoon my guide drove me by many of the temples and we ultimately ended up at a less crowded one that we could climb to watch the sunset. After the sun went down, he dropped me back at my hotel where I got ready for the Christmas Eve gala dinner party. Despite being in a country that is about 80% Buddhist and under 10% Christian, Christmas is widely celebrated, although mainly as a secular holiday, e.g., Christmas trees, Santa Claus, etc. Indeed, after some caroling by the hotel staff, Santa arrived on a palanquin carried by four men dressed in what looked like speedos and carrying torches — a unique Asian twist on reindeer and elves.
The highlight of my trip was the Christmas morning hot air balloon ride over many of the temples. I woke before dawn for the scheduled 5:30 a.m. pickup by one of the Oriental Ballooning’s vans. After a couple stops, we arrived in the field where three companies — Balloons Over Bagan, Golden Eagle, and Oriental Ballooning — were preparing at least twenty balloons for flight. The companies offered their customers a light breakfast of tea, coffee and pastries, and then assigned everyone to a pilot. The pilot indicated the balloon in which we would fly and she provided some pretty basic instructions, e.g., sit down when I tell you to and don’t climb onto the outer edge of the basket, as we waited for the balloons to inflate.
Upon a signal from our pilot, we climbed into our basket, and at a few minutes after 6 a.m. we were off the ground just as the sun was coming up. As the sun rose, the air warmed and the low mist, which covered some of the ground and temples, dissipated. During the course of the flight, the pilots spoke over the radio informing each other of their positions and their intentions to either go higher or lower. The flight lasted just over an hour and covered about six miles.
My balloon had a small basket that held our pilot, the sole female aviator, and eight passengers. My pilot had arrived in Myanmar a month earlier from Perth where she also flew hot air balloons but where it was now the low season. She knew the names of the large temples that we flew over or could see, and she maneuvered the balloon expertly so that everyone had a chance to be in the front for a portion of the flight.
About half a dozen balloons, including mine, were blown on a slightly different course than the others. The pilot communicated with the chase team below, and they arrived at the field a bit before we landed. After our touch down, she broke out the champagne and we celebrated our successful flight while the support team disassembled the balloon and basket and put them away for the next day’s flight. When we were ready, the staff drove us back to our respective hotels.
On Christmas afternoon, my horse cart driver took me to the Golden Cuckoo, a small, family run shop that produces and sells high-quality lacquerware. The process begins with the preparation of raw bamboo into strips that can be woven to form the basic objects, e.g., bowls, plates, boxes, trays, cups, etc. Larger objects are also made from teak while smaller ones can use woven horse hair as the base. The lacquer — a resin from the Melanorrhea usitata tree — is applied over the raw base. The coated piece is then placed in a humid cellar to dry for one week after which it is washed and smoothed. A paste made from lacquer and ox bone ash is then applied, and the piece is returned to the cellar to again dry. The dried object is polished with a rough stone and this process is repeated several times until it is smooth. Next, up to twenty coats of lacquer are applied with one week in the cellar to dry after each coat. Once the last coat has dried, the object is polished with a teak wood charcoal to reduce the high gloss.
An artist next uses a sharp knife or needle to etch designs into the polished object. After the design is complete, the piece is coated with a mixture of colored powder and lacquer. After drying for several days, the piece is washed with a water containing rice husks that remove the surface color but leave the color within the etchings. The process is repeated for the other colors. The natural colors are red from cinnabar, yellow from orpiment, green from orpiment mixed with indigo, and orange from orpiment mixed with cinnabar. The final step in what can clearly be a six month to year-long process is polishing the finished object with a petrified wood powder. You can see a highly informative (but kind of long — 35 minutes) YouTube video of the Golden Cuckoo’s process at this link.
I spent the rest of Christmas Day and most of the following day visiting many of the major temples and landmarks in Bagan.
Built around 1020 C.E., the Tharabar Gate is the lone surviving gate into the old walled city of Bagan. On the inner side of the gate are shrines of two guardian Nats (Spirits), Min Mahagiri and Hnamadawgyi. The legend is that the Nats were once a brother and sister, Maung Tint De and Myat Hla, who were killed by the king and then became evil spirits in a tree. The tree was ultimately cut down and thrown into the Aye Yar Wady River where it floated down to Bagan. The Nats offered to guard the city if they were given a place to live. The Bagan king took them up on their offer and they were enshrined on the sides of the Tharabar Gate.
Built in 1105 C.E. by King Kyanzittha, Ananda is the first of Bagan’s great temples and it provided the inspiration for subsequent kings and wealthy citizens to build the other temples. Ananda is arguably the prettiest and most inspirational temple in Bagan. Like many temples, the layout of Ananda is in a cruciform design along the North-South and the East-West axes. On top of the temple are four receding terraces that lead to a golden pagoda that is topped by a gold umbrella.
There are four entryway and each contains a large standing statue of one of the first four Buddhas of the present kalpa (the fifth and final one has yet to arrive.) My driver explained that the statues in the North and South entries were originals while those in the East and West were replacements for the originals that were lost to fire or vandalism. Each statue is about 30 feet tall, carved from solid teak, and covered with gold leaf.
That Byin Nyu Temple
Built around 1150 C.E. by King Sithu I, That Byin Nyu is the tallest temple in Bagan at 201 feet from the base to the finial. My horse cart driver took me by, but we did not stop to visit this temple.
Dhammayan Gyi Temple
Built between 1167 and 1170 C.E. by King Narathu, Dhammayan Gyi is the largest temple in Bagan, with each side measuring about 250 feet in length. When the Bagan temples were built, the bricks were held together not by mortar but rather by a natural resin compound. Narathu was reputedly a stickler for perfect brickwork — if he could slip a pin between the bricks that a mason had laid, he is said to have cut off that mason’s hand.
Narathu took power by killing his father, King Alaungsithu, and his older half-brother who was heir to the throne. He also murdered his wife and his son; some speculate that he built this temple to atone for these murders. Narathu was assassinated in 1170 C.E. by relatives of the wife he had killed, and the temple was never finished. While the floor plan for Dhammayan Gyi is similar to Ananda, the innermost passages were filled with construction debris and bricked over so only the outer corridor is accessible.
As is typical of temples built in a cruciform design, Dhammayan Gyi has entrances on the East-West and the North-South axes with a Buddha image in each of the four. The West facing entrance is unique in that it contains side-by-side statues of Gautama, the fourth Buddha, and Maitreya, the fifth or future Buddha.
Sulamani, which means ‘Crowning Jewel’, was built in 1183 C.E. by King Sithu II. Sulamani marries the height of That Byin Nyu with the mass of Dhammayan Gyi. A vaulted interior corridor runs around the temple with sitting Buddha images placed on all four sides. Sulamani is renowned for its archway entrance, for the high quality of its brick work, and for the frescoes on the interior walls and vaults. Some original glazed tile and carved stucco can be seen on the temple’s exterior walls.
Maha Bodhi Temple
The Maha Bodhi Temple was built circa 1218 C.E. by King Htilominlo, the last of the great temple builders. He also built the Htilominlo temple (there is a picture above that I took from the hot air balloon) and he finished Gawdawpalin, the second tallest temple in Bagan at 180 feet, that his father, King Sithu II, had begun.
This temple has a distinctive design for Bagan since it was modeled after the Mahabodhi temple in Bodh Gaya, India, where Gautama Buddha attained enlightenment. The pyramidal tower is highly ornamented with over 450 niches each containing an image of Buddha.
Nat Taung Kyaung
Constructed in the 18th century, Nat Taung Kyaung (also known as Myoe Daung) is a Buddhist monastery that is still in use today. The monastery was constructed out of teak on a raised platform that provides ventilation as well as protection from snakes and animals. Intricate woodcarvings decorate both the interior and exterior of the monastery.
On the 27th, I took a short flight to He Ho from Nyaung-U followed by a 45 minute, 20 mile taxi ride to Nyaung Shwe, a small city just north of Inle Lake. The lake is located on the Shan plateau at an elevation of about 3,000 feet; it is about fifteen miles long and about five miles across at its widest point. Inle is Myanmar’s second largest lake; Indawgyi Lake, located about 300 miles further north, is the largest.
I arrived at my hotel about 2 p.m., and when I registered, I asked the hotel to arrange for a boat and guide to take me out on the lake in the morning. Nyaung Shwe is small — about 1.5 miles from East to West and three-quarters of a mile from North to South — and it clearly caters to tourists, primarily Europeans. The streets are built on a grid pattern, so it was easy to walk around without getting lost despite the fact that the signage is mostly in Burmese. There are very few private cars on the local roads, but the large trucks that went by kicked up a lot of dust and dirt. As I went through the town, I saw some workers putting up what I believe is the first traffic light in the area.
At 8 a.m. on the 28th, my guide picked me up at my hotel and we walked about one-half mile to a nearby canal where he kept his boat. We motored through the Nyaung Shwe Canal for about five miles (about 20 minutes) before we reached Inle Lake. About 70,00 people live in the cities and villages along the lake and in houses built on stilts directly over the lake.
Not surprisingly, the locals primarily uses boats to get around. The Intha men stand on one leg on the very back of their boats while wrapping their other leg around the oar that they then use to propel and steer the boat. With this leg rowing technique, they are able to see over the reeds in the lake as well as use both of their hands for fishing or working. I had read about this in guide books and it was the main reason why I wanted to visit Inle Lake.
Inle Lake is also known for its hydroponic fruit and vegetable gardens. The farmers use weeds harvested from the lake to make beds and they anchor these beds to the lake bottom with bamboo poles. As in many parts of Asia, seasonal rains can cause huge fluctuations — five feet or more — in the lake’s water level. Since the gardens float on top of the water, they do not flood but rather rise and fall as the water level changes. According to my guide, over 80% of the tomatoes sold in Myanmar are grown in these fertile floating gardens.
During my day on the lake, we stopped at several craft shops where we saw local weavers, silversmiths, jewelry makers, metal workers, carvers, and cheroot rollers. A cheroot is a hand rolled cigar made from a combination of tobacco, honey, rice flour, tamarind, banana, and anise. The weavers produce not just silk but also a cloth from lotus plants that is primarily used for robes that are placed on Buddha images throughout the country.
After reaching the southern tip of the lake, we entered a small river that we took west for about six miles to the village of Indein. Along the river are small bamboo dams with a narrow spillway in the middle that allows the longboat to continue up-river.
There are two ancient pagoda complexes, Nyaung Ohak and Shwe Inn Thein, at Indein. Upon disembarking from the longboat, we first arrived at Nyaung Ohak where it appears that none of the pagodas has been restored. While many are crumbling and others have trees growing out of their tops, ornate stucco carvings of elephants, peacocks, nagas, chinthe, and devas abound, some of which are in remarkably good shape. Nyaung Ohak was reminiscent of the temples reclaimed from the jungle at Siem Reap, Cambodia.
From Nyaung Ohak, the second group of pagodas is a one-half mile uphill walk under a covered walkway. Shwe Inn Thein has over 1,000 pagodas, the oldest dating back to the 13th century, but most from the 17th and 18th centuries. Some appear to be either fully restored or else recently constructed. At the very top of the hill is a pagoda that contains a small stupa donated by King Thiri Dhammasoka, who lived from 273 to 232 B.C.E.
On the 29th, I took a taxi back to He Ho Airport for my 30 minute flight to Mandalay on Air Bagan. A second taxi whisked me from the airport to the city center and I was checked-in to my hotel by 2:30 p.m. While Mandalay is not as big as Yangon, it is also not as small as Nyaung Shwe, so to make the most of my time here, I hired a car and driver to show me the sights.
During the afternoon, we visited the Mandalay Royal Palace and the Kuthodaw Pagoda. The day ended on Mandalay Hill watching the sunset over the city. On the 30th, we traveled to the Maha Myat Muni Pagoda, the U Pein Bridge in Amarapura, and the U Min Thonze and Soon U Ponya Shin pagodas in Sagaing.
The Mandalay Palace was built between 1857 and 1859 by King Mindon Min following the Burmese defeat in the Second Anglo-Burmese War. Mindon Min and his son, King Thebaw Min, were the only two rulers to live in this palace since Great Britain made all of Burma a province of India at the end of the Third Anglo-Burmese War in 1885.
Mandalay palace sits in the center of a four-square kilometer (1.5 square mile) citadel that is surrounded by a 22 feet tall brick wall with 48 bastions or turrets. Sixty feet outside the wall is a moat — 210 feet wide and 15 feet deep — that was originally crossed by three bridges on each side. Tourists enter the palace grounds today by the center bridge on the east side. The facility is an active military base and visitor access is restricted outside of the restored palace.
The palace grounds were used by the occupying Japanese army as a supply depot during WWII and, with the exception of the watch tower and Royal mint, all the palace buildings were destroyed by Allied bombs. In the 1990s, the palace was rebuilt using both traditional and modern techniques and materials.
The Kuthodaw Pagoda was built at the southeastern foot of Mandalay Hill when Mindon Min relocated the royal capital to Mandalay. Kuthodaw, which means “Royal Merit”, is referred to as “the world’s largest book” since it contains 729 marble slabs on which the entire 15 books of the Buddhists scriptures are inscribed in Pali. The tablets are each five feet tall and three and one-half feet wide and the scriptures are carved into both the front and back sides. The carving began in October 1860 and it took until May 1868 for the carvers to finish. Each tablet or page is housed in its own white stupa.
After the British annexed Mandalay in 1885 and sent Thebaw Min into exile, British troops were billeted at this pagoda. Queen Victoria ordered them to leave the religious sites in 1890, but the troops had already looted the complex stealing the gold and silver as well as the diamonds, rubies and other precious stones. The troops vandalized the statues, images, and stupas and they even scrapped out the gold ink from the 729 marble slabs.
Mandalay Hill is northeast of the city and rises 800 feet above the plain on which the city sits. Several temples are located on the hill and there are four covered stairways that lead up. Fortunately, there is also a road that my driver could use to get close to the Su Taung Pyai Pagoda. At the end of the road are an escalator and an elevator to get visitors up to the temple. The temple provides panoramic views of the city below and it is a very popular location for locals and tourists alike to witness the sunrise and the sunset.
Maha Myat Muni Pagoda
The Maha Myat Muni Pagoda was built in 1784 and it is the holiest pilgrimage site for Buddhists in Mandalay. The pagoda houses the Maha Muni (“The Great Sage”) Buddha image that weighs 6.5 tons and that is adorned with diamonds, rubies and sapphires. The story is that the statue was cast in 554 B.C.E. when Gautama Buddha visited Dhanyawadi, the capital city of Arakan, an area in northwestern Myanmar near the border with India. The king and affluent noblemen donated gold and silver for the image, and seven drops of sweat from Buddha were added to the molten metal before casting.
Male (not female) worshipers can apply gold leaf to the nearly 13 foot tall image to gain merit. Over the years, however, so much leaf — up to 6 inches by some estimates — has been added that the original shape is very distorted.
U Bein Bridge at Amarapura
Amarapura, which means “City of Immortality”, was the capital of Myanmar from 1783 to 1821 and again from 1842 to 1857. At the end of the Second Anglo-Burmese War, the new king, Mindon Min, moved the royal capital about 8 miles north to Mandalay. Short of funds after the war, the king had little choice but to dismantle the palace at Amarapura and transport the materials to Mandalay where they were used in the construction of the Mandalay Palace. Even the city walls were taken down for re-use.
The primary reason to visit Amarapura is to see the U Bein Bridge. The bridge was built between 1849 and 1851 by U Bein, the mayor of Amarapura, with wood that had once been part of the Royal Palace at Inwa. Inwa, the capital of the Ava Kingdom, was destroyed by earthquakes in 1839 and this lead to the relocation of the royal capital back to Amarapura. The three-quarter mile long bridge spans Taung Tha Man Lake in an east-west direction, and it is reputedly the oldest and longest teak bridge in the world.
The bridge was designed with a curved shape to be more resistant to pressure from both wind and water. 1089 teak posts support the 482 bridge spans, two wooden approach bridges, and four wooden pavilions along the bridge. To insure stability, these posts were hammered seven feet deep into the lake bed. In order to accommodate large boats and barges, the floor can be lifted at nine places along the bridge to allow them to pass.
When I visited, the bridge was about 15 to 20 feet above the lake water. In the rainy season, the water will rise markedly but will not submerge the bridge.
For 165 years, locals have used this bridge since it is such a huge short cut for them (see map below). There is some concern, however, about the strength and structural integrity of some of the aging teak support posts. Various governmental agencies are coordinating plans to repair and stabilize the bridge; for the sake of the local citizens, I sure hope that their government is more responsive (and responsible) than ours!
Sagaing is located about 15 miles southwest of Mandalay on the opposite bank of the Aye Yar Wady River. Sagaing was the royal capital from 1760 to 1763 but it known more for the large number of pagodas and monasteries in the nearby hills. We visited the U Min Thonze “Thirty Caves” Pagoda and the Soon U Ponya Shin Pagoda.
The main hall at U Min Thonze is located in a cave on the side of Sagaing Hill, and a crescent-shaped colonnade contains 45 Buddha statues. While the initial impression is that the Buddha images are identical, a more careful examination shows that each statue is unique. The easy ones to spot are those whose size is different but even the similar-sized ones have some differences, e.g., facial expressions.
The Soon U Ponya Shin Pagoda is a short drive from U Min Thonze. The views from the top of the hill are spectacular. As with Mandalay Hill, there are covered walkways for those who travel on foot. Very few locals have cars and while motorcycles are slightly more common, most people appear to get around by bus, by bicycle, or on foot.
I flew back to Don Mueang from Mandalay around noon on the 31st. I was able to meet up with friends for a New Year’s celebration that evening and I stayed in Thailand until I flew back to the U.S. on January 6th.
A very belated Happy New Year to all!
Chei-zu tin-bar-te and Kop Khun Krab
© 2015 Kurt Brown. All rights reserved.