Our trip to Burma was meant to be just a prelude to a longer itinerary in Cambodia, but the magnificence of the sights and the simplicity of the hospitality, deserve a special place on the mantelpiece.
The star attraction in Rangoon is the Swedagon Pagoda. Built on a sacred spot, believed to be the burial site of older incarnations of the Buddha, and 8 strands of hair belonging to the Buddha himself, the Swedagon Pagoda towers protectively over the city, a massive 99 m high structure, plated in gleaming gold with the tip of its spire decked with many precious gems and jewels. It’s four entrances are flanked by Chinthes, the white and gold lions from Burmese Mythology that stand guard over the pagoda.
The temple complex is also host to hundreds of pagodas, stupas and statues each with its own historic significance, and lavishly decorated in a unique style. A place of worship, as well as a popular tourist attraction, the temple complex kept us enthralled for a good part of the day. It is advisable to be dressed appropriately – which means keeping the knees covered and no bare shoulders. While tourists are not penalized for dressing less conservatively, respecting the host country goes a long way.
Yangon’s bus depot is quite remarkable – a sprawling site crammed with thousands of buses, hawkers and food joints. Finding your ride in this chaos can be a challenge – make sure to tell your taxi driver to drop you off near your operator’s bay.
Our bus pulled into Bagan in the early hours of the following morning.
Bagan’s history dates back to the 9th century, to the reign of King Anawrahta – for the following 200 years, Bagan rose to become the world’s densest city of Buddhist temples and Pagodas. More than 10,000 glorious structures were built, by different dynasties, different families, slowing sketching the now famous Bagan skyline of a thousand spires of all shapes and sizes.
Centuries later, a ghost town remains, having withstood Mongol invasions , earthquakes, landslides and cyclones. The windswept, dusty plains now host a scattering of more than 2000 stupas amidst shrubbery & the occasional farmland.
We rented electric bikes and set off into the cobweb of mud roads that lead into the Bagan archaeological zone. Many of the pagodas are tended to by local families, who have dedicated their lives to the upkeep of the pagodas. Numerous architectural styles can be spotted across various large stupas. You are free to not only explore the stupas, but also take an irreverent climb them to a view point atop the pagoda and experience a sunset like no other. A quiet observer will take in the image of an unassuming village – the sound of distant cow bells, a lonely tractor and farmers powered by betel juice. And a more imaginative one, will hear the whisper of the prayer bells of Bagan in its heyday.
The vantage point also makes for a breathtaking sunrise, as we discovered the next morning, where you will witness the Burmese sun rising over the fields, punctuated by scores of hot air balloons. You can also choose to take a ride and treat yourself to an expansive (and expensive, about 100 – 120 USD per person) aerial view of Bagan.
Day 2 in Bagan carried on with a visit to Mt. Popa. Born out of a violent eruption of the Volcano that goes by the same name, Mt Popa is a most uniquely shaped hill, nearly like a parabola. Perched on top of this hill, is an ancient Buddhist Monastery. A centipede like covered walkway, with about 700 steps leads to the entrance and doubles up as a tourist flea market. Swarming with people, and aggressive macaque monkeys, while this spot ranks rather high on the must do things in Bagan, can honestly be given a miss, if you’re short of time, and replace with a visit to the Ananda Pagoda or the Dhammayangyi Temples – both 12th century Buddhist temples.
That evening, we made our way down to the Irrawaddy river. The Irrawaddy was Myanmar artery back in the 10th-12th century, supporting a flourishing trade for rice, cotton, teak logs and to this day it ferries considerable cargo including petroleum.
It cuts through the country in geometric delight almost north to south, and in its wake, pays obeisance to Bagan. Responsible for having corroded away much of Old Bagan through years of erosion, today the banks of the river provide another vantage point for the temples. Much like Varanasi’s boatmen who will take you along the mighty Ganga, accompanied by stories of each of the nearly 100 ghats.
Bagan’s beauty lies in exploring the forgotten pagodas and taking in the deafening silence. If you’re travelling to Cambodia (here’s our piece!) or any of the other neighboring countries, it is definitely worth your while to carve out a couple of days for Bagan