I am normally the kind of person who enjoys exploring a foreign land on my own or with the company of a friend. I’m not the type who joins group tours or who sticks with a planned itinerary. Yet in the case of mysterious Myanmar, I wanted a little helping hand. So I decided to compromise by setting up a personalized tour where the guide would take us to see the highlights, but I arranged our hotels. I wanted to see Yangon, Bagan and Mandalay by way of plane, boat and ox-drawn carriage.
Our adventure began in the lively former capital of Yangon. Yangon had been Myanmar’s capital city up until recently when, in November of 2005, all government offices were mysteriously moved to the remote region of Pyinmana, 600km north of Yangon. Upon arrival at the Yangon airport, we were met by a tour representative, and in less than 30 minutes we arrived at the charming Savoy Hotel.
We were greeted by friendly faces and ethereal tunes being played on an antique xylophone in the lobby. Our elegant room, graced with teakwood floors and large windows had a splendid view of the grand Sule Pagoda. With just 30 elegant guest rooms, the Savoy’s atmosphere is that of a colonial residence, complete with antiquities, landscaped gardens and a swimming pool.
Formerly known as Rangoon, Yangon’s downtown area radiates out from the golden stupa of Sule Pagoda, the proud centrepiece of the city. After breakfast the next morning, our guide met us in the lobby for our tour of Sule Pagoda. The 2000 year old Sule Pagoda is Yangon’s center of worship, bustling with humanity and merchants. Its 48 metre high golden do me contains a hair given by the Buddha to two Burmese brothers.
This was a perfect prelude to our next stop – the magnificent Shwedagon Pagoda, the spiritual heart of Yangon. While Sule is a single pagoda, Shwedagon is an impressive temple compound, best described in the words of Rudyard Kipling in Letters from the East (1889): “Then, a golden mystery upheaved itself on the horizon – a beautiful, winking wonder that blazed in the sun, of a shape that was neither Muslim dome nor Hindu Temple spire. It stood upon a green knoll…” It was the Schwedagon Pagoda. In Kipling’s words, the pagoda said: “This is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any land that one knows about.”
Dating back to the time of Buddha, over 2500 years ago, the golden dome of the Shwedagon Pagoda rises 98 meters above its base and is covered with 60 tons of pure gold. As one of the world’s most spectacular religious monuments, the sacred pagoda enshrines eight hairs from the Buddha’s head that were given to the same Burmese brothers by Buddha on his 49th day of enlightenment.
Our first day of sightseeing took in a lot. In addition to these two pagodas, we also visited several more pagodas and two museums, stopping at the Bogyoke Aung San Market (or Scott Market) to do some shopping. The next morning we hopped on a plane to Bagan, land of temples.
Bagan (now named Nyaung-U) is set on a spectacular plateau along the Irrawaddy River, and is an unsung archeological treasure of the world. On this plateau, there are literally thousands of temple ruins, stretching as far as the eye can see. A daunting task to explore on foot, we were taken around by a menagerie of horse and ox-drawn carriages.
Delighting in our discoveries, we found that some temples were cleared of vines and somewhat restored, while others were seemingly forgotten, enshrouded in jungle and bird song.
The Ananda Pahto is one of the largest, best preserved and most revered of the Bagan temples. Thought to have been built around 1105, this perfectly proportioned temple features four enormous standing Buddha images and numerous seated figures inside the main chamber. Our last stop of the day was Shwesandaw Paya, Bagan’s first monument and an excellent sunset vista. As the day came to an end, we sat in silence watching the setting sun bathe the temples in an enchanting rose-coloured light.
The next morning, we arose before dawn and boarded horse-drawn carriages which took us to Dhamayazika Pagoda, the biggest pentagonal pagoda in Bagan, to see the sunrise. My sleepy eyes slowly awakened as the orange sun emerged from the horizon, reflecting on the mighty Irrawaddy River and warming my skin.
We enjoyed breakfast back at the Bagan Thiripysaya Sanctuary Resort, a spacious place of teak bungalows along the river. Then it was time to board the RV Pandaw river boat for a two day cruise up Myanmar’s longest river, from Bagan to legendary Mandalay.
The Irrawaddy River flows 2000 kilometres and begins and ends within Myanmar, giving it life and witnessing its history. The name of the Irrawaddy is believed to derive from the Sanskrit word airavati, meaning “Elephant River“. With 1600 navigable kilometres, the Irrawaddy offers one of the greatest inland water navigation areas on the planet. The lives of the river people remain relatively unchanged for centuries gone by.
As we settled into our wooden cabin on the RV Pandaw, I felt like I was stepping back in time. The historic craft was built in 1947 on the Cylde River in Scotland. Five other similar vessels were also built and made their journey to Myanmar around 1950. Rustically elegant, the RV Pandaw and her charming crew served as gracious hosts with comfortable cabins and plenty of deck space to marvel at the many sights passing by.
The waters of the Irrawaddy range from calm, clear and blue to raging muddy torrents during the monsoons. In the upper reaches of the river, dolphins help fishermen by driving schools of fish into their nets. Men and dolphin have enjoyed an affectionate relationship through generations.
The riverbanks really came alive in the evening. Women carry water in huge ceramic jugs balanced upon their heads, bathing beauties stood up to watch us, boys washing their sarongs waved them in salute, naked children slid down the banks, shouting “Hello!” Everywhere we went, we were greeted with friendly curiosity. One of our stops was at a fertile farming village. The farmers here grow many things such as guavas, corn and onions. They say that no onion is sweeter then that grown in the silt of the Irrawaddy.
We visited the remote little village of Yandabo. Yandabo has no road access, therefore is completely dependant on the river for its economy. Their main livelihood is the production of terracotta pottery made from riverbank mud. We were invited to watch the pottery making process within the village. Adorable children followed us everywhere, even to the local Buddhist monastery.
Back on board, river life gradually became busier as boats of various sizes carried goods and people; teak and bamboo rafts flowed with the current, while smiling, sometimes skeptical faces peered up at us. Huge glazed pots lashed together formed an entirely different type of river craft – they had a hut fashioned on top for the rafters to sleep and cook. Sometimes their pet dogs joined them for the journey. It was a colourful aquatic highway, though still quiet and peaceful after nightfall.
The next morning, we bid farewell to our craft and crew, disembarking at Mandalay and driving 15km to Amarapura, “City of Immortality”. In order to reach Amarapura we had to cross Lake Taungthaman over the 224 year old U-Bein Bridge. Built of teak in 1782, the 1.2 kilometre-long bridge is the longest teak bridge in the world. At Amarapura we visited Mahagandayon Monastery, where one thousand monks take their last meal of the day at 10am in total silence.
We returned to Mandalay to visit the old palace grounds, the Kuthodaw Pagoda, known as the world’s largest book for its 729 marble slabs inscribed with the Buddha’s Doctrine, before watching sunset from the breathtaking view atop Mandalay Hill.
Though Mandalay today is a modern city, its character comes from many ancient sites and places where the best craftsmen in the country continue to make things in the way their great grandparents did. The images and feelings of Myanmar will be with me forever; an exotic land of history and heartbreak, happiness and hope, life and death. The Irrawaddy River flows past all these wonders. It has seen it all. It rushes past towns and temples, pouring its endless streams of water into the Andaman Sea.