Burma, renamed Myanmar, was finally reopening to the world and I wanted to be there as a witness.
I had visited the country in 2000 and had experienced a land still uncertain about its place in the world and reluctant to open its doors to tourists. Suspicion and secrecy hung in the air and I had to rent a guidebook from a local bookstore, a transaction that was carried out in a van in back of the store, like a buyer conducting an illicit transaction for contraband goods. I paid the bookseller a fee sealed with a promise to return the book before I left the country; a promise I kept.
Arriving in 2017, I realized I was entering a different land.
International travelers were now welcome, and many of the country’s districts that had previously been off limits were now marketed destinations. I stopped into a small bookstore and scanned the traveler’s section, ripe with books describing the country, its customs, and its proverbs. I bought a small paperback crammed with Burmese proverbs which seemed profoundly metaphysical and nonsensical to the foreign reader.
My first stop was the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, mostly out of curiosity rather than devotion.
Everything seemed to have changed in the country and I wanted to see if the most sacred Buddhist pagoda in the land had transformed as well. It still glimmered on the horizon with its golden stupas and pairs of giant leogryphs, lion-like creatures, guarding the entrances. As I circumnavigated the stupas in a clockwise direction it seemed as if the clock had not moved at all. The place was busy as usual with devotees, swarms of tourists, vendors selling books, good luck charms, images of the Buddha, gold leaf, incense sticks, prayer flags, miniature umbrellas, and flowers.
I didn’t stay long in Yangon, conscious of my schedule and my plan to explore new destinations. My first target was Mandalay. So, I bought a bus ticket, believing it to be the most honest way to see and experience Burma.
Surprisingly, the long-distance bus services had advanced beyond my imagination. Customers could now choose air-conditioned express hauls with movies and water bottles thrown in as extras.
As I relaxed on my reclining seat, I remembered my first trip to Mandalay, traveling on a rickety local bus with no frills and a lot of spills. I had tumbled around in the back seat for hours as the bus diverted and halted for tire and engine repair and at one point the driver had pulled over for an evening snooze. I looked into the proverb book and came across an entry that captured my previous experience: You will face a hundred problems in your lifetime though you may not live that long.
Photo by Maria Bolgiani on Unsplash
Mandalay’s unique, chaotic character was still intact. It is the home of several monasteries, the royal palace, and Mandalay Hill, which offers a panoramic view of the surrounding plain.
I revisited a place that had captured my imagination on my first trip – the Mandalay Marionettes Theatre.
Burmese puppetry is unique, not only because of the size of the large stringed wooden dolls, but also due to the way the puppeteers integrate choreography, art, music, sculpture, and painting into a performance of Burmese storytelling. It is rumored that modern digital film artists visited the marionette masters to hone their art in creating lifelike movements for cartoons and animation. I was so taken by the dynamic performances during my first visit that I went backstage and ordered six wooden puppets to be shipped back to the US. This time, I bought the horse and instruments to complete the set.
The driver looked at my purchase and shook his head as he drove me back to the hotel. I opened my proverb book and searched for a ready explanation: Those who are unaware pass over it; those who are aware unearth it and eat it. He read the proverb and looked at me, puzzled, then smiled. Maybe he thought I was crazy or unusually wise, I’ll never know which.
My next destination was Bagan.
I took the seven-hour boat ride down the Irawaddy River, which is one of the most meditative water rides in Asia. The boat glides by riverside temples and villages and you mingle with locals who ply their trade on the riverfront as they have done for hundreds of years. The calm passage soothes the mind and encourages boaters to take in the beauty of doing absolutely nothing.
Years before, I had ended this boat ride with trepidation. As we were pulling into the dock, an announcement had called for foreigners to line up at the front of the boat. Europeans and other nationalities were to line up on the left side and Americans on the right. My passport was checked and I was interrogated about my travel plans. Today, there was no such roundup of travelers. Thankfully, international harmony had been restored.
Since last I’d visited Bagan, there had been major disruptions. In 2016, Bagan’s 400 buildings were damaged in a 6.8-magnitude earthquake. Many of the structures were in a state of reconstruction while others had withstood the tremors. I rented a horse cart and set out to check the state of reconstruction.
The Dhammayangyi Temple, the largest temple in Bagan, is shaped like an Egyptian pyramid.
It is steeped in history and intrigue, built for atonement by King Narathu, who murdered his father to ascend the throne. Much of the interior is inaccessible because of construction debris and the sides allow access to Buddha images on pedestals. The state of disrepair is not due to the earthquake. King Narathu oversaw construction and because he would execute masons if each brick was not laid perfectly, completion was invariably delayed. Eventually, the King was assassinated in the temple. In a land where restoration of temples is a constant, this one stands out as a temple where construction was abandoned.
I continued to the Gubyaukgyi Temple, located south of Bagan.
Gubyaukgyi is a Buddhist temple built in 1113 AD in the Pagan Dynasty. It has over 500 well-preserved frescoes on its interior walls chronicling Sri Lanka’s history. Nearby is the Myazedi pagoda, with two stone pillars featuring inscriptions written in four ancient Southeast Asian languages: Pali, Old Mon, Old Burmese, and Pyu. The pillars are often referred to as the Burmese Rosetta Stone. I enjoyed walking through the temple, mesmerized by the mix of Mon and Indian styles and Bengali influence on the textiles in the temple paintings.
At sunset, I headed for the Shwesandaw Pagoda, a billowy structure with 5 terraces and a whitewashed bejeweled umbrella.
Its height makes it a perfect place to view the surrounding Bagan plains and watch the sunset morph from yellow to crimson and the color slowly descend upon the temples and rolling hills. On some evenings you can watch the scattering of hot air balloons with their colorful envelopes levitating over the rusty, red horizon.
The state of destruction I had expected in Bagan was not evident.
The Burmese are perpetual restorers and feel passionate about their religious duties. Some considered the natural disaster of 2016 a tragedy, but others considered it a blessing in disguise, as they could expand efforts to rebuild and therefore accumulate merit for performing good deeds. Ironically, the temples that had suffered the most damage were the newest renovations as the old architecture was able to withstand the seismic activity, as it had over the centuries.
I detoured from the tourist-heavy Inle Lake and headed back to the south, taking advantage of the modernized bus system.
On the way to the Mon State, I stopped by the Kyaiktiyo Pagoda, a pilgrimage site featuring a golden pagoda that sits precariously on a mountain precipice. It is one of the most photographed sites in Myanmar and is not easily accessible. After traveling to the base, I jumped on a shuttle bus that wound haphazardly up the mountain. After disembarking, I left footwear behind and continued to the Pagoda platform. Depending on the flow of humanity and weather conditions, the journey takes a little over an hour.
Because Buddhist beliefs discourage females from physically touching male monks, women are not allowed into the inner sanctuary but can enter the lower courtyard of the Pagoda. Despite this drawback, it was worth the journey just to watch the parade of devotees and monks perform elaborate rituals of reverence as they reached the hilltop sanctuary.
Photo credit – the author
I lingered at the top, sipping a cool drink and contemplated how the balancing rock found its way to the mountain edge. Legend has it a Buddhist priest used his supernatural powers to carry it to its current place. A Burmese proverb offers another approach: Answering the riddle is like water falling into sand.
I opted for bus travel to the southern city of Moulemein and then continued on to Hpa An, the capital of Kayin State.
Hpa An boasts the highest population of ethnic Karen in the country and as a newly opened tourist destination, projects a backpacker vibe. I joined a DIY tour that offered an open bed truck which stopped at local sightseeing spots long enough for visitors to jump out, explore the site, and hop back on.
We stopped at Kyauk Kalap, a pagoda located on a limestone peak and surrounded by a manmade lake. I crossed to the island using a wooden footbridge and then walked up the circular steps to the base. It is a quirky place, with narrow winding stairs that lead to a bigger chamber at the apex.
There was a monastery nearby and I sat down to watch the novice monks going to prayer sessions, setting out on the traditional alms round.
According to Buddhist teachings, devout Buddhists are educated to make merit through meditation of the mind, as well as through charitable and honorable actions. This humble act of carrying the alms bowl is mutually beneficial, providing the monks with sustenance and donors the opportunity to gain merit.
With their shaved heads, wine-colored robes, and calm demeanor, I was reminded of Zaw, my Burmese teacher. He had immense patience, laughed a lot, and taught me the Burmese language through a series of melodic chants. Although he had lived in California for years, he often asked me why I drove a car. I could easily spot him on the street or in the park, in his bare feet, flowing robe, wire-framed glasses, and his snug, wine- colored knit hat.
The next site was Sadan Cave, a large cavern with dozens of Buddha statues, pagodas, and clay wall carvings.
After a half hour walk the immense cave opened up into a secret lake and local fisherman were waiting there to take us on their narrow fishing boats through the water-filled paddies to an adjoining lake. After 15 minutes of paddling through small waterways, we ended up at the cave entrance. In other parts of the world, visitors would feel anxious about going into primitive caves, riding on creaky boats and heading for the unknown. But in Burma, there is an overriding feeling of karmic destiny. If you are meant to be there, you will arrive.
At sunset, we went to the Bat Cave, where we climbed a hill, pausing at a small opening. The locals pounded drums, enticing thousands of bats to fly out and create irregular flight patterns in the air. The sound was deafening and it was startling to see so many bats take to the air at once.
“Where do all the bats go?” I asked the guide.
“No one knows but they will surely be back by morning,” the guide replied.
On the way back to the hotel, the car stopped at a gas stand. Times had indeed changed.
I remembered my first time renting a car to visit the northern territories. The roads were dangerous and travel was a mixture of repair stops, gas fill-ups, and occasional stopovers at the car temple, where both vehicle and driver were blessed and forward passage sanctioned.
Tonight we stopped just for a few gallons of gas.
It was time to move on and I purchased a train ticket for Bago, the last leg of my journey.
Unlike the buses, trains are spacious and seem to run on their own schedule. While you don’t face unpredictable road conditions, you do have to be prepared for unexpected time lapses, sometimes a number of hours in length.
I arrived at Bago in the late afternoon and asked a driver to take me to the nearest hotel.
“How about San Francisco?” he asked.
“Yes, that’s where I’m from,” I answered.
“Not expensive, and good location,” he added.
“Yes, it is beautiful and right by the ocean,” I replied.
“No ocean,” he said, looking at me sternly.
I started to object but noticed he was busy at the wheel, so decided to wait. As he pulled up to the San Francisco Motel, I understood the confusion. The proprietor, Thuzar, was gracious and welcoming and she spoke very good English. She informed me she had named the place after her visit to the City by the Bay.
As I had never been to Bago, Thuzar decided to be my guide.
We went on a motorbike adventure to Shwemawdaw Pagoda, the Hill of the Hamsa, Kyaik Pun Paya (four-sided Myanmar Buddhas), and the Snake Monastery. After a few hours, the sites began to merge in my mind until we visited the Snake Monastery. This small monastery is devoted to a Buddhist abbot who was reborn in the form of a giant Burmese python. Pilgrims and tourists file through the monastery where a massive python lays on a blanket and eats whatever it wants.
The python did not move when I passed by, probably because it was estimated to be over 100 years old. I wondered if the temple was popular with the public since the snake bite mortality rate in Burma is twice as high as the world average.
The next day we ventured out to the countryside and Thuzar stopped by a small village, motioning me to follow her into the fields. As we walked over a clearing, I realized why she was leading me to the spot.
There were three women wearing brass neck coils, a custom of the Padaung (long neck) group.
I walked up to the two young girls and older woman and smiled. They smiled back. The older woman continued to wash and comb her long, shiny hair as the girls plowed the field. A local woman translated the conversation. The women were from the Kayan tribes and had worn the brass rings around their necks, wrists, and ankles for years. There wasn’t any discomfort and they believed the elongated necks were a part of their cultural identity and a symbol of beauty.
Photo by Julien de Salaberry on Unsplash
Before I departed, I took out one of my ivory combs and gave it to the older woman, stating that it should belong to someone with beautiful, long hair. She smiled warmly and touched my hand.
Thuzar mentioned the government of Myanmar was discouraging neck rings and younger women were breaking the tradition, opting for more modern conventions. I said that cosmetic surgery was often used in the West to modify appearance and mask the aging process. She paused and then shook her head in bewilderment.
I was sad to leave Bago and Thuzar’s company as she was a rich resource on Burma’s changing cultural traditions. I waved goodbye and boarded the train for Yangon.
Photo credit – the author
I arrived at the Yangon Train station after three weeks of Burma travel.
It was comforting to be back in a metropolitan city that had internet connectivity and familiar landmarks. On my final day, I ventured to Kandawgyi Lake (Great Royal Lake) which is surrounded by the Nature Park and Yangon Zoological Gardens. I meandered over the wooden planks that encircle the lake and visited the zoo and aquarium, where throngs of children, families, and young monks all converge to escape the humidity and traffic congestion. Burmese youth were quickly absorbing new media and technology and even novice monks could be spotted taking selfies with their mobile phones at the local monasteries.
I was invigorated by my travel experience in Burma. After being closed to the world for over seven decades, the country was finally embracing modernity. There were going to be hiccups along the way before it could securely dock itself into the orbit of the global economy. But change was well underway.