The name Myanmar conjures up images of a vast and romantic landscape, misty hills and myriads of stupas rising from the earth, vivid patch work hues of farmland, the mighty Irrawady river floating rafts of teak wood logs from the forests of the North. The ubiquitous maroon clad monks holding translucent rice paper and bamboo umbrellas. Strings of temple flowers, lemon grass leaves and delicately fragrant white ginger flowers everywhere. A gentle, ever smiling people, as eager to hear about our world as we are to explore theirs, the Myanmarese sense of hospitality is legendary.
DAY1 : Our plane from Singapore to Yangon held a fair mix of locals returning home, business people and tourists,now recognizing Myanmar as an emerging Asian economy as well as the latest popular tourist destination…. I was lucky to share a dream holiday with my daughter.
We landed at the modern Minglaba airport at Yangon on a fine August morning.The easy and efficient passage out of the airport was a relief .The tour programme was planned with great attention to detail -longyes as gifts,cold water, a good driver and the services of a very pleasant tour guide . Having exchanged a couple of crisp new 100 dollar notes for kyats,the local currency,we were on our way to the Kandawgji Palace Hotel on Kandawgyi lake ,an impressive wooden structure with beautiful traditional wood carving and set in fine landscape. Our city tour started with the magnificent Shwedegon Pagoda.with its 99mt high golden dome. 7 tons of gold covering was used to decorate this most holy of pagodas,The different influences of style from India ,China and Thailand used in the architecture was complimented by the fine detailing of the interiors.Tall statues of gold plated Buddhas ,surrounded by intricately worked glass decorated walls and colourful wood filigree ,were worshipped in quiet dignity by thousands of devotees.The ambience ,prayerful and holy inspite of the crowds of tourists.The noisy marble clad walk way,busy with worshippers at various points in the complex contrasted with the peaceful quiet worship at the shrines of Buddha.
Our next visit was to the tomb of Bahadur Shah Zafar,the last of the Moghuls,exiled by the British to Myanmar.(.It was interesting to hear that the last Burmese King died in Ooty in South India.)The sorry state of the tomb was in sharp contrast to the grandeur of the Shwedegon Pagoda.The sight was even more depressing in the grey afternoon drizzle. Sweet syrupy Cha (tea) mixed with condensed milk,along with some greasy crisp samosas and spring rolls, at the Lucky 7 Tea House was a welcome mood elevater .We visited the Elegant Jewellery Workshop to see the famous Myanmarese Rubies being set in exquisite jewellery. Then it was time to visit the Sule Pagoda ,
with its octagonal pagoda right in the city centre, though not as grand as the Shwedegon Pagoda it had some beautiful shrines with good wood giving.At dinner at a restaurant near lake Inya we were served Burmese food .A delicious mixture of Indian Thai and Chinese cuisine but with its own distinctive flavor of coconut,lemongrass and tender torch ginger flowers.
DAY 2 : Next morning we set off for the airport at 5.15 am with packed breakfasts.Our flight to Bagan was in an ATR and surprisingly pleasant. Bagan airport and landscape reminded me of Udaipur.The flat landscape ,thorny scrub and the heat…the difference being the hundreds of amazing brick stupas rising from the fields and shimmering in the dusty haze.
This ancient city is now an archeological heritage site on the lines of Hampi .The Irrawady river was recently flooded and we could still see areas where it had escaped the confines of its embankment.In the Northern areas ,the dolphins in the Irrawady are said to help the fishermen to catch fish by herding them to the nets! We started the tour at the local market where the friendly ladies allowed us to try palmsugar sweets and Tanaka on our cheeks.Palm leaf balls,smelly fish paste,soveniers ,vegetables and colourful longyes,the market was familiar but at the same time very exotic.
The stupas of Bagan are truly fantastic sculptural monuments, each one so unique that in spite of the blistering heat we did not want to miss even one on the itenerary .The Shwezigon stupa, the largest in bagan,, the Htilominlo Pagoda with the finest example of dry brickwork,The Ananda temple with its fine architectural proportions,The Gubyaukgyi temple with exquisite mural paintings and the Manuha Temple with the gigantic Buddha.
The Bagan House Lacquerware workshop was fascinating and a welcome green oasis with shady trees and translucent cloth and bamboo umbrellas.
Lacquer work ,starting from the initial bamboo base to colouring with natural colours and finally gilding with gold foil is done with great detail and skill. The sunset ,viewed from the top of the Dhamayangyi temple ,casting long shadows over the dusty landscape bordered bythe Irrawady river ,with horse carts in the distance was reminiscent of a scene out of ‘APassage to India’.
Day 3 : Next morning we took an early morning flight to Mandalay. Mandalay from the skies looks green and flat with colourful fields leading upto misty mountains in the distance. We drove straight to the ancient town of Amarapura and crossed the U Bien teakwood bridge, the longest wooden bridge in the world. Having seen it on the cover of The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh I was really excited to be there.The bridge was populated by locals, monks,bicycles,motor bikes goats and tourists and food stalls with prawns and various local fish fried in a red batter.It was also a place for everyone to chill.
We had to make it to the Mahagandayon Monastry in time to see the 1000 monks waiting for their noon meal.The road leading to the food distribution area was covered with monks in scarlet,white and yellow waiting patiently in line ,and tourists.
The silk workshop with the longyes in wonderful weaves and fabric in vibrant colours was interesting. But the pagodas at Sagaing were something else. Being on top of a wooded hill the view of the valley and the river was breathtaking.
We saw huge rafts of teak logs being sent to the mills down river to be used for construction along the Irrawady.We were told that in the last 30 years 50% of the forest cover was destroyed. Then we took a boat ride across the river to Ava,a small village, to see the Bargayar Monastry with its huge teak wood pillars ,60ft high and 6 ft diameter!
The horse cart ride through the villages was really beautiful and so was the interaction with the villagers. The day ended at the fancy Mandalay Hill resort.
Day 4:Next day we could get up at a decent hour for a change and then we took a boat ride to across the mighty Irrawady to see the huge brick pile of the Pahtodawgyi pagoda.
The walk to the top of this unfinished pagoda was in blistering heat on sun baked stonesteps ,250 of them!.The Pagoda was left unfinished as an astrologer predicted the Kings death if the pagoda was finished.In the meanwhile the King had ordered the largest bell,the Mingun Bell,weighing 900Tons,
which had to be moulded on the river bed because of its size.The Mya Thein Dan pagoda ,a beautiful white structure, depicting the ideal model of a Buddhist Universe in Architecture was the last visit on Mingun before we took the boat back to Mandalay. Gold ,blinding,glittering …The Mahamuni temple ,with the gold covered Buddha was dazzling !The Buddha has been covered with gold foil so much so that he has ioncreased in girth by 1ft.!
The Golden monastery with the remains of the original rooms of the glass palace and the Kuthodaw pagoda with the largest book in the world wrapped up the sights .Finally a city view from the top of the Mandalay hill where one could enjoy the panoramic view of the gardens,river and fields in the distance.
Day 5 : Yangon .a quick visit to Bogyoke market and finally the return to Singapore after the magical 5 days at Myanmar.