On a month long trip through four Southeast Asia countries, Myanmar stood out as the most beautiful and culturally rich country. Certainly, the lack of established tourist infrastructure meant it was not easy to explore. However, it is a fascinating country with friendly people and rich history. Hopefully, the tourist infrastructure will catch up soon to the growing tourist numbers.
Like most tourists, we started our trip in Yangon (Rangoon), no longer the capital city, but remains the commercial as well as spiritual heart of Myanmar. Our flight to Yangon originated from Bali with a layover in Kuala Lumpur. We arrived at the fair size and modern Yangon International Airport just before 5 pm. After a quick evening meal at the Hotel, we went to an official/unofficial office at the hotel to change some money. We had read the official rate is one USD to 7 Burmese Kyat but the unofficial rate is from 700 to 1300 for one USD. We received 160 $1,000 Burmese Kyat bills for our $200 USD which worked out to 800 Kyat to one USD. There was really no way to ascertain whether this is a fair rate or not.
The next morning is the much anticipated visit to Shwedagon Pagoda, one of Buddhism’s most sacred sites. The 325 ft zedi (stupa) is adorned with 27 metric tons of gold leaf, along with thousands of diamonds and other gems, and is believed to enshrine strands of the Gautama Buddha’s hair as well as relics of three former Buddhas. When we arrived early in the morning, the compound was tranquil with only a few monks, nuns and tourists wandering around. By the time we finished our tour of the compound, it was buzzing with activities from local worshipers.
Other highlights of our day in Yangon were:
The Karawik Palace, resembling a Royal Barge, built in 1972.
The Yangon River, a critical role in the economy of Myanmar.
Traditional boats shuffle residents between the river banks. Tourists were not allowed as the current was too strong and unpredictable.
Buddhism being the center of life in this country, it was a must to visit a monastery to observe the ritual and activities.
After the whirlwind tour of Yangon, the next morning we boarded an early morning flight from Yangon to Bagan.
Again, we started our visit with the ubiquitous Buddhist temples. The Shwezigon Pagoda is a Buddhist temple in Nyaung-U, a town near Bagan. It was built in 1102, and is believed to enshrine a bone and tooth of Gautama Buddha. Then we visited Htilominto Temple, known as the last Myanmar styled temple built in Bagan.
As we drove to another temple before lunch, we passed by villagers driving ox drawn and horse drawn wagons. The town felt like the wild west in the early 19th century USA.
We also noted that Burmese clothing is a combination of Indian and Chinese cultures. They wore longyi-like long dresses and had shawls on top of their pieces of cloth.
We were ready for lunch at this point but had to see one more temple. The Ananda temple is considered to be one of the surviving masterpiece of the Mon architecture.
While we enjoyed learning about Buddhism and the historical significance of each major temple, we were ready for freedom to explore on our own. After lunch, we used the bicycles from our hotel to explore the Bagan country side.
Bagan is home to the largest area of Buddhist temples, pagodas, stupas and ruins in the world dating from the 11th and 12th centuries.
Early evening, it was back to visiting more temples before the highlight of the day, which will be sunset over Bagan.