Myanmar: Finding Love in Shwedagon Paya
Myanmar is a vast exotic country with old heritage, unique culture, a variety of golden and white pagodas, a very friendly local population, and even sports fine white sand beaches. Highlights include the amazing temples that dot the extensive plains of Bagan, the cool climate and floating villages of serene Inle Lake, watching monks line up in cue to receive alms, and Shwedagon Paya, perhaps the pinnacle of Buddhist architectural achievement. With the U.S. trade sanctions recently lifted by President Obama and major corporations such as Coca-Cola and MasterCard providing direct foreign investment, now is the time to see a place still somewhat lost in time.
After attaining our Myanmar Visas and required crisp, unfolded US currency, we flew from Bangkok to Yangon with Air Asia, our preferred airline in the region based on cost, safety, and high quality service. While in Yangon, we visited the impressive 2,500-year old hundred meter high golden Shwedagon Paya, easily the most visited Buddhist temple in the city. This site has a special significance to my wife and I as it brought us together years ago. We met online and had separately visited this pagoda on different occasions. The rarity of having seen such a removed and unique spot helped arise curiosity that brought us together. In Yangon, simply roaming the streets led to adventure where we dabbled with nameless fried foods, chatted with local people, and visited a Jewish Synagogue surprisingly still in existence considering that only seven Jews still reside in the country of Myanmar. We also exchanged money (half of my bills were rejected) and shopped the varied stalls at the famous Scott Market.
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We then traveled by bus up to Mandalay where we traversed up Mandalay Hill and visited monasteries where monks and devotees placed golden leaf upon the Buddha images. We then literally walked through the world’s largest book and enjoyed food and drink with locals at the Rainbow Restaurant. Our next stop was Hsi Pa, a Shan town located six hours northeast of Mandalay where we hiked through beautiful villages to a waterfall and comingled with the amiable local people in restaurants and beer stations. The region famous Shan noodles were prepared from scratch and dried by hanging from house roofs. Nearby hot springs can also be enjoyed.
Our next stop was Monywa, a town with curious people and an engaging night market. The local people took time to smile and greet us while we walked around town. Monywa’s main draw is it’s convenient location adjacent to the massive forty-story standing Buddha statue. In front of the building-like standing statue lays a lying Buddha that can be entered via Buddha’s left rear posterior. The sheer size of the standing Buddha is truly an unforgettable experience. From Monywa, we traveled to Bagan, a spectacular place where we spent a week biking among the amazing temples, climbing pagodas to view the vast stupa dotted plain, especially enjoyable during sunset. This archaeological zone that began in 1047 and abuts the Ayeyarwady River occupies over 25 square miles.
It is not yet a UNESCO World Heritage Site but as soon as the Myanmar government meets the requisites, it will most certainly be among other renowned heritage sites. Tourists typically visit the thousands of temples with a bicycle but minivans, horse carts, and even hot air balloons are all options. We opted to stay in Nyaung U, the budget area about 2km from Old Bagan at the recommended New Park hotel for $25/night including breakfast. The small town houses the world’s only Thanakha Museum, thanakha being the paste that Burmese women place on their faces and bodies as a sunblock. By the way, even if you are not a vegetarian, The Moon “Be Kind to Animals” restaurant was superb and conveniently located just outside the Old Bagan walls. Our favorite temples included Shwesandaw Paya and Buledi at sunset. Based on unique design and size we enjoyed Ananda Pahto, Dhammayangyi Pahto, and Thatbyinnyu. The bas-relief figures in Nan Paya were also impressive.
An eight-hour journey placed us in Nuang Schwe, a relaxed town close to Inle Lake. There we biked around a portion of the lake and took a long-tail boat to witness floating markets, tomato fields, silversmiths, weavers, monasteries and a welcoming people that still live a unique way of life; the lake houses their schools, and markets, and boat rowers still use their foot as leverage to transport people and goods among the various lake villages. When the Buddha images and relic arrived in town during the annual festival, a procession began by transporting the images to the local monastery where devotees placed gold leaf upon the images day and night. A three-day festival ensued where crowds from varied ethnic groups around the country arrived to eat, drink, shop, and celebrate. With the majority of our 28 day Visa used up, we conveniently returned to Mandalay rather than having to head far south to Yangon, and caught an Air Asia flight back to Bangkok.
About the Author: George Rajna, MBA, MS Communications Disorders, is a bilingual speech therapist who has traveled to 100 countries across six continents. He composes music on the guitar and ukulele, and spent two years working in rural education for Peace Corps Paraguay. He is a Huffington Post Blogger and is currently editing the tales of their first sabbatical while in Asia on sabbatical #2. His favorite region is South East Asia and he recommends Bagan (Burma/Myanmar), Koh Lipe (Thailand/engagement), Angkor Temples (Cambodia), Langzong (China), diving in Sipandan (Malaysia), and trekking in Nepal. Learn more about George at Wikipedia. Follow his year in South East Asia at: WeSaidGoTravel , Facebook, or Twitter.